Leading by Example

Unleaded petrol is still a dirty word to many in this country, its tarnished image imported from the States, from California in particular, where the Americans have been living with it for many years now.

Europeans have always tended to look down their noses at American cars, whose lazy power-units are in some people’s minds good for nothing but heaving a mass of chrome and metal down long, straight highways. When these large engines were strangled by catalytic convertors, resulting in the loss of some horsepower, to enable them to accept unleaded fuel, the sniggering could be heard all the way across the Atlantic. This turned to guffaws, though, when high-performance European cars became shadows of their former selves when imported into the States.

Wearing blinkers, there were many who felt unleaded fuel would never catch on here. Why should it, we didn’t have a smog problem? The drift towards greater regard for the environment, however, has continued unabated (although whether the lead in the atmosphere can be attributed entirely to the internal combustion engine is still open to debate).

Following the lead from the Americans, the governing party in Germany, looking over their shoulder at the increasingly strong and environmentally-aware Green Party, was one of the first European governments to push through legislation encouraging the use of lead-free fuel. With that country’s long tradition of producing high-performance cars which had to be capable of taking an unremitting daily pounding on the unrestricted autobahns, it was obvious that the boffins there would be working away to overcome the power-loss which occurred when running on lead-free fuel.

Now that Britain, along with the rest of Europe, is having to face up to the prospect of universal unleaded fuel within ten years, one of the tasks for the oil companies is to shed the motorist’s fear of being forced to drive impotent cars, especially in an era when 130 mph machines are the norm (even if not openly acknowledged by a government which stubbornly resists increasing the motorway speed-limit to reflect today’s technology).

Stealing a march on the larger oil companies, the “Seven Sisters” as they are known in the business, and despite not having had the budget to participate in motor racing since a sticker was seen on a Frank Williams-run car in Formula One in the early Seventies, the British arm of Fina has returned this year specifically to publicise its unleaded fuel.

Without a budget large enough to compete in the British Touring Car Championship with modified saloons, Fina opted to back a couple of cars in the Uniroyal Production Saloon Car Championship, which is run to Group N regulations. Here, the competing cars are more comparable to everyday roadgoing cars, since there are considerable restrictions on the modifications permitted.

JQF Engineering of Towcester prepares and runs the cars, a couple of BMW M3s, which are raced by Robin Brundle and Gerrit van Kouwen (the latter took over the number two car from Steve McHale midway through the season). To prove the point that unleaded fuel cannot be regarded any longer as a power-loser, Robin Brundle won his class in each of the first nine races of the season, although not without bitter controversy.

Having successfully finiished second overall and first in class in the Willhire 24-Hour race, the team was excluded from the results following a major rule infringement: one of the JQF mechanics unwittingly broke the engine’s seal after the race before it had been checked by the RAC. While there cannot be any argument over this decision, what has angered the team is the fact that, while accepting that the seal was broken in ignorance and without any underhand intent, the RAC has punished it by taking away the results of two other races.

Politics aside, the engine runs on 95.8-octane fuel and develops 196-198 bhp, approximately 5% down on the standard engine’s 205 bhp. The power loss would be greater were it not for the work of David Wood, engine development consultant at JQF. Because the octane rating margins in Britain are notoriously wide, it is imperative for Wood to test the petrol before any is put in the car so that he can push the ignition and fuel curves as close to the ignition limit as possible without doing untold damage.

With the wide range of fuel available throughout the world, the engine management system has been programmed by BMW engineers to accept one of four levels of fuel. These are European premium, European low-grade, European unleaded and US unleaded. When it comes to the fine-tuning to extract the maximum possible power, it is necessary to change a switch on the back of the ECU and the appropriate external wiring connection.

Even in “unleaded” fuel lead is present, but at 0.013gms/litre maximum, it is legally accepted as being lead-free although the norm for it is to beat low as 0.004 grms/litre in typical unleaded fuel now sold on the garage forecourt. To make up this deficiency, synthetic additives are used to inhibit the punishment the exhaust valves would otherwise receive.

Having driven Robin Brundle’s M3 and a roadgoing version of the same car for a few laps around Thruxton circuit, I can honestly say that I could not feel any power deficit at all in the racing version. The difference between the two cars came down to handling: Brundle’s M3, particularly when being driven by him, was noticeably more capable of rounding corners than the normal M3, if there is such a thing.

The philosophy of David Wood, and that of any engineer for that matter, is that the setting up of any car to go quickly, whether it be a production saloon, a clubman’s everyday car or a Grand Prix car, is an exercise in loss-limitation. The engine is blue-printed, not in search of extra horsepower, but rather to ensure that the energy is channelled as efficiently as possible into propelling the car along the road, while the chassis and suspension are fine-tuned to accept the power as well as to corner as effectively as possible.

Brundle’s car, therefore, is harsh on ride but magnificently quick through the corners. At the limit, it wants to understeer, but the tail can be brought round and the car straightened by the merest deflection of the right foot. The same steering characteristics can be found on the road car, but it wants to take over from the driver much earlier.

Having run the first half of the season on Bridgestones, the team, along with many others in the championship, was required to switch to Michelins. Because the ZRs they were running on, which are of a higher specification than the VRs listed in the RAC “Blue Book”, had inadvertently been omitted from the publication, and because they did not carry the EEC stamp, they were declared illegal by the RAC in mid-season.

Running the Michelins for the first time at the July meeting, Robin’s practice times were declared null and void when it was found that his car was 1lb underweight. What the team had failed to take into account when using the new tyres was that each was 2kg lighter than its Japanese counterpart, thus bringing the total weight of the car the wrong side of the limit.

Next year’s plans for Fina’s continued involvement in motor sport are as yet uncertain. There is talk of sponsoring a car in the British Touring Car Championship, but such is the increased cost that the company would undoubtedly need to share the expense with another sponsor. Ideally it would like to be involved with a car manufacturer, much as it is in Belgium with Toyota, but for the moment all thoughts are on completing this year successfully. WPK