Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Test of Man and Machine: Ford Focus Endurance Challenge

Photos by Mikko David
It just piques your interest when you receive an invitation from Ford labeled ‘Top Secret’; after all, it always implies something exciting. So with the giddiness of a 10-year old kid, I clicked ‘open’ and lo and behold: it’s an invitation to race—to race for 12 non-stop hours behind the wheel of a Ford Focus TDCi. With thoughts of the glitz and glamour of the 24 Heures du Mans (‘24 Hours of Le Mans’ for the non-French speakers out there), I immediately did my best impression of Steve McQueen, replied yes and encircled my June 4-5 with a big, bright red circle.

Of course, this isn’t your ordinary endurance race. If this were, it would be a walk in the park since I was teamed with veteran drivers extraordinaire: Eggay Quesada (Stoplight TV), Brian Afuang (The Manila Times) and Ira Panganiban (Business Mirror). The rules for the Ford Focus TDCi Challenge are simple: do the most number of laps while sipping the least amount of fuel. There are some fine prints in the rules such as mandatory pit stops, driver changes and designated overtaking spots, but I won’t bore you with those details. What’s important is that there are four teams in identical Ford Focuses. And speaking about the Focus, we’re running bone-stock TDCi cars with 30 PSI loaded on all four corners. In other words, this is exactly what you’ll get at any Ford showroom. And if you’ve got the money for a brand-new Focus (it’s a steal at just P 1,099,000) and to rent the Clark International Speedway for 12 hours, more or less, you can replicate these results on your own.

The objective of this exercise is simple: to highlight the different capabilities and attributes of the Focus TDCi. Everyone knows it’s got world-class driving dynamics, after all it’s won the Philippine Touring Car Championship (PTCC) a couple of times already). Everyone also knows it’s 30 percent more fuel efficient than other compact cars by achieving 21 km/L in the Department of Energy Economy Run and doing 1,423 kilometers on a single tank in the Coast-to-Coast challenge. But what if you try putting the handling and fuel economy tests together? Now, there’s a challenge as the dynamics completely change. Remarkably, no one has attempted this before so all 16 participants will be guinea pigs of some sort.

Thankfully, the weather cooperated at the Clark International Speedway on the day of the endurance challenge. It was the first week of June, but it didn’t feel like rainy season at all as it was blistering hot on the race track. The two sedans and two hatchbacks were prepared the night before to let all the fluids and tire pressure settle properly. After a quick inspection of the vehicles and a final topping off, the race was off. And it’s going to go on for the next 12 hours.

Our team’s approach to this race was fairly simple: knowing quite well that each one of us had his own strength; we decided to capitalize on that by doing a sprint, conserve, balance, sprint combination.

With Eggay probably having the most circuit driving experience among us, we elected for him to start off by putting in some competitive lap times and putting fuel economy on the backburner. Thanks to his ultra-smooth style of driving, our team was in the lead by the end of the first hour. Putting in around 23 laps, Eggay eked out 15.38 km/L. Being not so familiar with circuit racing, I decided to concentrate on producing fuel-efficient laps. Going at a steady 45-80 km/h around the circuit, there was little need to press down on the middle pedal. Simply using the mechanical grip provided by the Focus’s all-around independent suspension, the fuel economy meter read 17.54 km/L an hour later. Though we dropped two laps over the leaders on the third hour, we were doing extremely well. Come Brian’s turn, he was able to bring down the consumption further to 18.18 km/L when problems struck our Focus TDCi. Brian suddenly lost drive at the corkscrew section of the speedway and had to call in for assistance. Apparently, something came loose in the transmission. After a couple of twisty ties we were ready to go, but we lost 26 minutes and were now 11 laps down. We could have quit the race and elected to check into the hotel early, but we decided to fight on. After all, we didn’t care about the prize—our prides were at stake here. The first round of drivers ended with Ira behind the wheel. With something still not quite right with the transmission (according to Ira, it was revving uncontrollably through some corners), our consumption dropped to 11.76 km/L.

As the day wore on, some of the other teams were clearly losing their patience and composure. Some were doing pretty manic lap times at the complete expense of fuel economy. There were already some ‘dirty’ overtaking moves on the far side of the traffic. Some corners were cut, some cones were hit and some tempers flared. Despite losing both the lead in terms of laps completed and fuel consumed, we didn’t waiver from our strategy at all. We were determined to finish the entire 12 hours, in the same sprint, conserve, balanced, sprint strategy. Concentrating simply on the job at hand, Eggay once again provided some sprinting laps and as a result, recovered 2 laps by two in the afternoon. His average fuel consumption of 14.92 km/L was bettered by me to 16.94 km/L by the end of my stint. By the end of our second stints behind the wheel, it was clear: we were still in the running. As long as we raced against ourselves and to our strategy, we can still be in the hunt. However, with three hours to go, we opted to make up for lost laps. Figuring that the setting sun may hamper the other teams, we pushed our Focus. At the end of the 12 hours, most, if not all the teams had tanks running almost dry and completed more than 600 kilometers or about 175 laps.

So did our strategy work? At the end of the 12 hours, our team completed 728.2 kilometers, that’s compared to the leading team’s 758.3 or 7 laps down. We actually made up 4 laps, no bad at all. As for fuel consumption, because of we pushed towards the latter part of the day, our overall mileage was a relatively good 14.61 km/L. Compared to eventual winners, Team 1, they did 17.31 km/L. Suffice to say, we didn’t fare too well; ending up fourth in a grid of four cars. Still, the battle was closer than anyone thought. The reason? Thanks to our smoother driving, we knocked down just one traffic cone in the entire 12 hours, compared to Team 3’s 13 cones!

Though we didn’t win the first Ford Focus TDCi, what’s more important is the team camaraderie that our team showed. After the long day’s racing, flowing food and drink followed. Despite not lifting the trophy, what’s more important is we all had a blast and a good time driving Ford’s often overlooked compact car offering.

No comments:

Post a Comment