Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Race Driver 101: Driving the TRS-Ford Focus PTCC Race Car

Photos by Ulysses Ang

It’s not everyday you get the opportunity to jump from a virtual race car to a real one without the hard work and perseverance. Ask any racing driver and he or she can tell you that those years of training pays off at 0.1 of a second at a time. So what happens when you place me—a totally “green” racer but hardcore Playstation driving champion behind the wheel of a Philippine Touring Car-spec Tuason Racing-Ford Focus race car? Not the utter disaster that you’d expect, but not the fairy tale ending either. Let’s just say, I won’t be climbing aboard a race car any time soon.

The Early Bird Gets the Warning

With local racing guru J.P. Tuason scheduling this special racing clinic at the Clark International Speedway, I had to leave extra early to make sure I get there by the 9 am call time. After all, Friday traffic can be tremendous given it’s getting mighty close to the holiday season. To my surprise, I arrived at the venue first. Shaking hands with J.P., he opened our chat, “Have you driven this circuit before?”

“Once or twice, but I guess I’ve never been taught on how to drive it properly.” I quickly replied, implying that if I sucked big time today, I’m washing my hands clean this early.

“Well, you’re in for a treat. The long version of the circuit’s just been completed and you guys are one of the first to try it,” J.P. said while gesturing at the almost kilometer-long back straight. “I sure James, Vince, Inigo and the rest of the gang’s going to enjoy it,” he added.

James Deakin? Vince Pornelos? Inigo Roces? Though they could be easily mistaken for the motoring beat’s ‘The Three Stooges’, they’re absolutely great on the race track having won media racing cups and challenges in the past. Great. This comes as added pressure on my part; as long as I don’t finish last, I should be fine.

The Car’s the Star

As the rest of the participants arrived and settled down quite comfortably in our own Tuason Racing-issued racing overalls and helmets, J.P. gave a rundown on the car we’re about to drive: the Philippine Touring Car Championship (PTCC) Ford Focus 1.8.

Based off a run-of-the-mill Focus 1.8 four-door, the PTCC Focus has been beefed up and strengthened while remaining very true to its road car origins. Under the hood, I was quite surprised to see an almost stock drivetrain including the original air filter and header. The only work done was on a free-flowing exhaust system and on the ECU where it’s piggybacked onto a racing unit freeing up 125 wheel horsepower in the process. Naturally, the rest of the components such as the steering, brakes and suspension have been tweaked with racing bits while the body work’s been lightened with fiber glass and polycarbonate pieces. In fact, with the exception of the Goodyear road tires (the real PTCC cars run on slicks), these are the actual racers used in the PTCC.

For J.P., this is a first: allowing members of the media to handle his racing cars and not just the racing school/training cars like before and a week before a race no less! As such, J.P. emphasized safety as well as the importance of bringing each and every of these cars home without a scratch. “Guys, whatever happens you cannot overhaul an engine in four days. Be careful and drive within your limit,” were J.P.’s last words before we hit the track. And for the rest of the day, ‘driving within my limit’ became my mantra.

Unlearn What You Have Learned

“Unlearn what you have learned.” This is probably one of the less quoted lines from Star Wars, but Jedi Master Yoda actually nailed it when it came to describing my first race car experience. If you’re used to driving smoothly and gently on public roads, you’ll have to erase all that and rewire yourself when it comes to track driving.

Seeing flashes of Yoda in J.P. (must be from the heat), he mentions that the key to a fast track time lies in doing two things properly: braking and cornering. Anyone can mash the throttle and change gears at peak rpm, but the secret to the extra pace lies in the masterful control of the brake pedal. The initial braking force must be as late and as strong as possible but without locking the brake discs up. And contrary to popular belief, you don’t just slam on the brakes—you’d just end up activating the ABS, extending the braking distance in the process. A great driver must be able to find the 99 percent and keep on hitting it, corner after corner, lap after lap.

Next, on the open road, you’re taught not to swerve and occupy two or three lanes at the same time. Again, this doesn’t work on the race track. Here, you have to use the entire width of the track; taking what’s called the ‘apex’—which is usually the geometric center of a corner. Hitting this sweet spot enables you to minimize the time spent in the corner while maintaining the maximum speed possible.

Not Born for Racing

After the lectures and the demos, it was time for me to hit the Clark track. Buckling down into the safety harness, I adjusted my Oakley shades one last time as I barreled down the long straight. I tried doing everything down to the last letter and punctuation mark from J.P.’s instructions, but it’s just hard not to drive the PTCC Focus like a road car. Even with a full roll cage, I found myself sometimes gingerly pressing on the gas instead of flooring it; or shifting too early when I should have hit the red line.

Though I continuously improved at a pace of up to four seconds a lap, with only two practice laps and one officially timed lap, I still ended up dead last and almost 20 seconds off eventual winner, James Deakin’s pace. If this were Formula One, I would have been lapped in just four to five laps time! Even if I didn’t end up anywhere near the podium for this exercise, the experience of driving the Tuason racing-Ford Focus PTCC race car was more than exhilarating enough. After those couple of hours on the track, the drive back home felt somewhat mundane and ordinary. Still, with the surprisingly light traffic, I got home just in time to do a couple of rounds on my Playstation. Score another win for me on the virtual Yas Marina circuit. I may not be a born racer (well, at least in the real world), but I sure got a deeper appreciation of what these guys go through and the wonderful machinery they get to drive at work.

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