Race One – Donington, Part 1

Nerves not shown!

March 2017: The first race of the season was set for Donington Park’s Grand Prix circuit on Saturday 18th March. The run-up to the weekend was frantic with last-minute work on the car, making kit lists, and checking timings. As ever, all the little jobs ended up right at the end, culminating in applying race numbers in the dark on the Thursday night and devising a means of disabling the door locks (to guarantee marshals can get in from outside the car in case of an accident) with some self-tapping screws and a block of wood. One thing came out in my favour, which is that Donington’s a home circuit, being only an hour from home and fifteen minutes from my mum’s house, so I had a handy base.

The first hurdle is technical checks on the car. Called scrutineering, this process is required at every race meeting before the car is allowed on circuit, and all the safety equipment is checked thoroughly as well as selection of other items to make sure the car is in line with regulations. Your racewear is also checked for certification and condition. 750 Motor Club take some of the stress out of a race meeting by making scrutineers available the night before, so I got the car to Donington on the Friday afternoon to sign on for the meeting and get through the checks in advance – hoping to ease my blood pressure and give myself a chance of some sleep that night! The very friendly and helpful scrutineer found a few minor issues which I could resolve for the next meeting, but passed the car and my kit and issued the all-important slip:


Once thus professionally mounted in your side window, the slip is your ticket past the assembly area marshals onto the circuit when your time comes. Another major advantage for the competitors in Roadsports was being assigned garages. Unlike British Touring Cars or Formula 1, a garage is a rare privilege indeed for a club racer, as there are typically several hundred entrants at every meeting only 30-40 garages in the pitlane. Roadsports have the good fortune owing to the longer races – doing 45 minutes with a pitstop means we’re given garages in which to base our second drivers and any equipment we need in the stop, and give a consistent place to aim to stop the car.

So it was that Friday evening saw the car prepped, scrutineered and ready to race with all the club and series sponsor decals applied. I locked it up and left it until morning, getting a ride home with ever-generous friend Kevin who’d volunteered his weekend to provide his Mondeo estate and his spannering skills whenever required.

Amazingly enough, I slept well the night before the race. The comforting knowledge that the car was through scrutineering and safe in the garage helped immeasurably – the biggest fear is never having the chance to turn a wheel for whatever reason! But I knew that no matter what happened, I was going to be able to get out on the circuit at my first-ever race meeting.

The morning started early, as ever in motorsport, and damp as well! While in some ways I was pleased to see rain, as it’s a great leveller of car performance and leaves the laptime far more in the hands of the driver, mostly it just made me nervous as a wet circuit is deeply unpredictable and I didn’t have much experience on the wet. First up was the special briefing for those who had never raced at this circuit before, covering essential information such as the assembly area location, procedures for getting on and off the circuit (which are often totally different to track days), and special notes for areas of caution. The key feature was that there’s gravel everywhere here – and in the wet, it’ll trap you good and proper!

Next up was the practice session. Roadsports runs a 25-minute practice in the morning, which doubles as qualifying. It’s the only chance you get on the circuit before the race, there’s no other free practice or warmup beforehand because of the sheer volume of series and championships at each meeting, so you need to make it count. You have two jobs: complete three timed laps safely, which is the minimum requirement to qualify you to start the race; and try and set the fastest time possible, as the cars are put on the grid in order of laptime from this session. It’s usually best to treat these tasks separately – get your three laps done while taking it relatively easy, feeling your way around the circuit, making sure you stay on the black stuff and then once you’re qualified, start to build the pace to a laptime.

Before going out on circuit, you’re called to the assembly area. Here all the cars in your session wait until the previous championship have finished and freed up the circuit for you, and the wait feels agonising. You have all the time in the world to worry about temperatures, torques, tyre pressures, suspension settings.. all while already strapped into the car and too late to do anything about any of it!

Going out into my first live session at a race meeting, in the wet, with 38 other cars sharing the circuit – 35 of them with significantly more power! – was an eye-opener in the extreme. Unlike a track day, there are no courtesy rules for overtaking or proximity to other cars, and in appalling visibility everyone was immediately right on top of me. The only way was to carve myself some space, try and feel where the grip might be, and get some safe laps done. Quite a few cars fell off the circuit, highlighting the treacherous conditions, and caused a long yellow flag period. I came in the pits once so Kevin could check tyre pressures and I could have a quick word with the rest of Team McKee – fiancée Emily and mum Joy! – before heading back out. Here’s how it looked:

After that run, I was astonished to find that I’d qualified 22nd overall of 39 cars, despite being one of only five cars in the bottom Class D. I was also the fastest of four 328is in attendance, with all the others being in the class above. This was such an encouraging result – not only had I survived my first live session and qualified to enter the race, I’d set a solid laptime and put myself mid-pack on the grid. The worry was that the rain was still falling, and I had a huge number of much faster cars starting behind me and wanting to get through… 2:05pm would bring the race start.


Testing, testing…

March 2017: With the car race-prepped and my licence in place, I registered for the 2017 750MC Roadsports series. The first round was to be held at Donington Park on 17th March, so I needed to get myself on a track day there – to test the car, make sure it was set up right and robust enough for a race distance, and to learn the circuit properly!

It might sound silly now, but I had a lot of worries going into this track day. I’d taken the big leap of almost tripling my investment in the car, plus buying all my race kit and getting my licence, and it wouldn’t count for much if I had a major failure and couldn’t race. I had no idea how the car would feel on track with its newly fitted rollcage and racing seat, nor whether it could stand 45 minutes’ running at race pace. Three seasons of track days without any mechanical failures was a great boost to my confidence at this point, but the reality is that you don’t push the car anywhere near as hard in that setting. On track days you run shorter sessions, 15-20 minutes at most, have a warm-up lap before pushing and a cool-down lap before coming in, and you’re often having to back off or make space for other cars. All of this gives the car a much easier life than being driven at full pace, relentlessly for more than twice as long. My biggest worries were temperatures, specifically the brakes and the engine oil. The brakes would talk to me through the pedal just fine, but for the oil I needed a reading.

Rather than spending over a hundred pounds on a lovely Stack gauge and temperature sender and all the accompanying fittings and wiring, I spent £13 on eBay and got this four-channel thermocouple reader. Another fiver for two K-type thermocouples with 5m cables and I was all set – one was cable-tied to the dipstick to give me the oil temperature in the sump, and the other went to the radiator top hose for coolant temperature. Satisfying, effective and very cheap!

My worries weren’t eased all that much when I arrived in the paddock. Being the weekend before the race meeting, the pits were full of professional race teams testing cars and generally looking extremely serious about their business. Driving my race car full of tyres and kit into the paddock and parking it between forty-foot race trucks brought home just how budget my approach was!

But true to form, this ever-faithful car did me proud. I built up pace and session length through the day, with breaks to finally replace those Mintex M1155 front brake pads with Performance Friction Z-rated, which brought a real improvement in durability over a long run. I also wound in some more front camber using the adjustable suspension top mounts, taking out the deliberate understeer tendancy I’d built in to suit novice drivers. The balance then felt good and the car was ready for a simulated race run.

I’d resolved to do a full race distance as part of this day, for my confidence in the car and also to see how I stood up to the demands myself – it’s very hot, very loud and driving at ten tenths calls for a really high mental and physical work rate. So with a four-quid pasta timer on the dashboard counting the minutes up, I had a big drink of water, settled myself into the seat and went out onto the circuit. I drove as quickly as I could consistently manage for 22 minutes, then came into the pits to simulate the one-minute stop. This was an important factor in itself, as stopping a car with brake and coolant temperatures through the roof is a tough test – apart from smoke curling from the front pads, no issues arose and after sixty seconds I got back on the power and carried on until the timer hit 45:00.

We’d survived! The car had made it through a full race distance without anything overheating or falling off, and the driver had managed to keep it on the tarmac and put in consistent lap times to the end. This is how you look after such a session – shattered, red hot, slightly disoriented but euphoric. I had a good long sit down after that, but knowing the car was capable and that I might just be able to finish the race was a huge boost. Here’s a lap from the afternoon:

The final task for the day was acclimatising another driver. James Lewis-Barned, the car’s previous owner and track day veteran in it and various other cars, would be racing with me from the second round onwards. I’d wanted to tackle the first race at Donington on my own, as there were a lot of unknowns and I didn’t want the responsibility of someone else’s financial and emotional investment in competing if something went wrong, but once I’d proven the concept, sharing the driving was always the aim. As well as a brilliant shared experience, cutting costs in half is always welcome! So James came along to this track day to see how the car suited him in race spec, and came away equal parts pleased with how it felt, and astonished that it used to be his daily driver.

Job list done, and a successful testing day chalked up. Next stop, race day…


How to become a racing driver

The work on the car was started early to make sure everything got finished in time, but the real first step to becoming a racing driver is getting your licence. The process is quite straightforward, but needs approaching carefully:

1. Order the “Go Racing” pack from the MSA – £104, including the cost of your first licence.

2. Read, watch and digest everything in it!

3. Arrange a medical, either with your GP or through a race school. If you’re under 45 you only need to do this for your first licence, not at renewal.

4. Book a test with a race school, and pass the written and driven tests.

The minimum age for circuit racing licences (ARDS National B Race) is 16, but there are formulae running under Junior licences, with a minimum age of 14. You don’t need to hold a road licence for any competition licence.

The Go Racing pack comes with a booklet outlining most things you need to know for the written test, and the rest is covered in the revamped but still wonderfully 90s DVD. It’s worth going through this a few times, because the pass rate for the written test is 100% on knowledge of marshal flags and still high for everything else. A lifetime spent watching motorsport certainly helps but won’t cover it on its own, so don’t skimp even if you already feel knowledgeable.

Your approach to the medical depends how friendly your GP is. The content is quite similar to a Class 1 HGV licence so it should be familiar to them, but how much they charge varies, and I found it cheaper and easier to get my medical done on the day of my exams. Most race schools will have a doctor present on their ARDS (Association of Racing Driver Schools) courses for this very purpose, but check when booking. If you do have any conditions which you think could be a concern, it’s worth getting your medical well in advance and contacting the MSA to discuss with them ahead of booking a test and committing the money.

There are schools running ARDS tests at most circuits around the country, and picking one you’re already familiar with would be a big benefit. The cost varies but is typically £250-350. There are companies who run ARDS tests on track days, but I don’t recommend this – you want to be driving smoothly and consistently without distraction, and being hassled by thirty other cars sharing the circuit with you isn’t ideal. A much better approach is a dedicated ARDS day, where a race school has hired the circuit exclusively for licence testing.

The process on the day is usually an early arrival, and then a briefing for the day which takes the form of – you guessed it – the throwback DVD again. Tempting as it would be to glaze over as you’ve already seen it enough times, bear in mind the examiners will be around and might notice who’s taking things seriously. With that out of the way, you’ll do your written and driven exams, with the order down to chance. Your homework will decide how you do with the multiple-choice written questions, but the part out on track is decided mostly by your mindset.

You’ll go out on track with an examiner sitting beside you, usually in a fairly ordinary car. I did my test in a Renaultsport Clio 197. The one thing I can’t underline strongly enough is that you aren’t out there to set a lap record. You aren’t trying to prove you’re the next Ayrton Senna, nor to overtake everyone else on the circuit. What the examiner is looking for is a smooth and consistent driver who’ll be safe and predictable to race alongside. That means mechanical sympathy in your inputs, a proper application of the racing line, and repeatable performance lap to lap.

If you don’t already have a good working knowledge of the circuit you’ll do your test on, the modern era is very much your friend. YouTube is full of circuit guides and advice to find your way around, and a good onboard video can make the scene feel familiar before you even turn a wheel. Ultimately, if you approach the day with good preparation and a calm mind, you’ll be absolutely fine – and most likely pick up some tips from the very knowledgeable examiners as well. On my test day I met not one, but two drivers who would be entering Roadsports with me that year!

After a successful day, through the post comes the coolest card you’ll hold all year… Best get testing that car, because it seems we’re going racing!


Into 2017, and making a race car

Spot the differences…

Now we know we’re going racing with 750 Motor Club in the Roadsports series, the first thing to do is read the technical regulations and the MSA’s “Blue Book” to understand everything the car and driver need to be eligible. There’s a huge jump between what safety equipment seems appropriate on a track day, and what you need for a race car. So we’d need a certified rollcage professionally installed. It’s best to start with the car as bare as possible, so another day of lightweighting was in order!

As before, everything that came out was weighed, and I do mean everything…

The Chomp bar was only a year out of date and seemed fine! The tally now stood at an amazing 152kg removed, with more to go when the 26kg leather driver’s seat gave way to a 10kg racing bucket seat. That gets the car down to 1145kg without fuel or driver, or once you put in 56kg of safey equipment, 1201kg. The factory power output is 190bhp, giving a power-to-weight ratio of 158bhp/ton – pretty much perfect against the limit for Roadsports Class D at 160bhp/ton.

There are myriad choices when it comes to preparing a race car, and the most fundamental is the rollcage. These can range from a “bolt-in” cage that can be assembled in the car and only needs mounting feet and plates welding in, to a full “weld-in” solution which is a series of steel tubes all welded in situ. This needs the car completely stripped back, often with all the powertrain, wiring and glass removed, and the cost of installation work alone can be in the thousands. Whichever route you take, you are committing to the bodyshell, because while everything else can be easily transferred to a different donor car, a cage is usually a one-way trip. This was the real leap to commit to racing this car and no other.

I chose a Safety Devices six-point bolt-in item, which was supplied and fitted by Neil McDonald of Automac. I also gave Neil a Lifeline 4L FIA-spec fire extinguisher to install and plumb in, OMP 802 six-point harnesses for the driver’s seat (a Cobra Monaco Pro which he also supplied), and a job list including an electric cut-off switch and bonnet pins to replace the normal latch mechanism. The last is required to make sure the bonnet can be opened from outside the car if necessary. So I handed over a stripped-out track day car, and a week later received a racing car…

The final tally for this lot came to £2,519 including Neil’s work installing it all. With that, I had a car that needed only a few small tweaks to become a fully eligible racer. It could be done a little cheaper – I upgraded the fire extinguisher from the minimum 2.25L capacity, because I wanted to be able to feed nozzles on both sides of the cabin and engine bay. That lets me protect myself on the driver’s side as well as covering the electrical distribution behind the ex-glovebox, and in the engine bay cover the two main sources of fire – the exhaust on one side, and the intake and fuel rail on the other. I also upgraded the cage with cross diagonal door bars on both sides for improved side-impact protection, and a cross rear bar to aid stiffness and protect better in a rollover. I was more than happy spending an extra £250 for the improved safety these gave me.

Now it finally started to feel real – in one step change, the car became massively committed, with everything from the view of rollbars in the mirrors to the act of getting into it feeling special. Now it seemed like we had really taken a big jump. I was nervous about taking the car out on track again, as time would be very limited to fix any issues before the first race and so much had been changed, but the excitement kept the momentum going. Anyone who sat in it felt like a racing driver!

Speaking of that, if you’re to go racing, you need a licence. So that’s next on the list…


Decisions, decisions…

The winter of 2016 held a lot of deep thought. The time felt ripe and if I was to go racing, it seemed it’d be now or many years off, but I needed to know I could do it properly. Could I get the car ready in time? Could it be competitive? Could I? Would the money run out before I even got to a grid? Would racing give me more than continuing with track days – enough more to justify the investment?

In the end, I think I knew it was something I had to do. A major factor in the decision was visiting a BRSCC meeting, supporting the very talented Callum Hawkins-Row in the Fiesta Junior Championship. I always love being in the pitlane and paddock of a club-level race meeting, the atmosphere, people and cars around are fantastic, but this struck a chord. Here was a group of teenagers in their branded race suits laughing and joshing each other after they got out of their cars, talking to media, watching their onboard footage and data traces with their engineers… Doing everything I’d always wanted to do, and ten years ahead of me too. It was within reach – why wasn’t I there already?!

With that in mind, I had to decide how to go about it. Any club racer will tell you that the cost-effective way to do it – by far – is buying a ready-built car that’s already got a proven record in the series you want to race in. I spent a lot of time looking at the Production BMW championship, a one-make series for the E30 320i and 318i which always pulls big grids and has a reputation as a good community. You can buy a car capable of running mid-pack for £3000-4000, spares are cheap and plentiful, and they can be road legal too.

I got as far as talking to E30 racer Miles Cook about trying out his car to see how I got on with them, but then the idea of actually selling my car and running something else really sunk in. It’s a bad idea in so many ways but I was already far too attached and couldn’t really contemplate getting rid of it – so that was the decision made. We’re racing, and we’re racing in the E36!

But where? There’s a plethora of race series for production-based saloon cars, but the 328i is quite a difficult fit. Its 2793cc straight-six is a lovely unit and produces bags of torque to make a quick and effortless road car, but it was never designed for lots of peak power, and only getting 190bhp from such a big engine is a problem in a racing car. Most series have rules and classes based around engine capacity, which would put this car alongside the likes of 3.0 M3s with a 100bhp advantage – not a recipe for a successful season!

The other way to balance performance in a class is by power-to-weight ratio. This is more like it, because no matter how big or lazy one’s engine, you should end up alongside cars of comparable performance. This is how the Kumho BMW Championship is run, and it would be a good fit with plenty of quick E36s out there already. The trouble was that in 2016, most of the action was at the really pointy end of the grid, and the class my car would end up in had only two regular competitors.

750 Motor Club had a solution. Known as a cost-effective and welcoming race club, their Roadsports and Club Enduro series are designed to let a wide variety of cars compete in affordable endurance racing. I’d always preferred the idea of longer races to sprints, and rather than the typical model of two 15 or 20-minute races per meeting, Roadsports does a single 45-minute race with a mandatory one-minute pit stop. That means you can share the car with a second driver, and share the costs as well. And yes, they’re run to power-to-weight classes, with one that my car already fit perfectly into at 160bhp/ton. After talking to some past and present 750MC racers, it seemed ideal, and if I wanted to graduate to proper endurance races then Club Enduro regulations were almost identical for their two- and three-hour races.

Now all I had to do was turn this track-day plaything into a proper racing car. The work wouldn’t centre around performance, but safety – the regulations for all forms of circuit racing are very comprehensive, mandating full rollcages, racing seats, fire extinguishers plumbed in to the cabin and the engine compartment, and electrical killswitches to name just a few key items we’d need. Time to get researching and get the calculator out…


Mallory Park – Year 3 Done

How else should we spent a cold November morning?

The sprint season might be over, but 2016 had two more hidden gems in store – a lovely circuit, and a very talented new driver!

November 19th found us tiptoeing through mist along frosty lanes to Mallory Park in Leicestershire, my home circuit just eleven miles down the road, but one that I’d never driven. Friend and colleague Naim had a supercar driving experience booked here for early in the new year, but had never been on a circuit before, so it seemed only right that we take a look and learn our way around.

We found a really enjoyable little circuit. “Little” is the operative word, particularly in width, and it’s no surprise that it’s more favoured as a bike circuit, but the feeling is almost like a flowing B-road than a racetrack. It’s very satisfying to get into a groove and string the laps together, as there are some good commitment corners – Gerard’s needs real balance, and tipping into the Devil’s Elbow flat-out for the first time with the pit wall looming on the outside is an eye-opener!

Not such an eye-opener, though, as Naim’s ability behind the wheel. He was the eighth person I’ve sat beside in this car, and all have acquitted themselves well, but this was an absolute pleasure. When you’re giving tuition on track, you want your driver to listen & apply, give feedback, and be able to record what they’re doing to learn from mistakes. Most people are a little overwhelmed by the mental and physical work rate needed to drive quickly on a busy circuit, but here I had a fast, methodical and consistent driver who never made the same mistake twice. My highlight of the day was instinctively catching snap oversteer on some dropped coolant at about 85mph, then getting straight back on the power. Brilliant. Footage to follow!

As ever, the car was bulletproof reliable and we got 150 miles racked up – which is well over 100 laps. We also broke into double figures for bums in the hot-seat, with Nicol driving for a beautifully sympathetic session to become the tenth driver this car had seen on a circuit.

Now 2016 was safely wrapped up, it was time to consider what 2017 should hold. It was no secret that my real aim was to go racing, and in fact – don’t tell her – the E36 was only bought at all because plans to share a race car fell through and I couldn’t raise the budget on my own. Now it seemed I had three choices:

1.  Turn this into a proper racing car, and run it in the Kumho BMW Championship or 750MC Roadsports

2. Sell up, and buy a ready-to-race BMW E30 320i for the Production BMW Championship

3. Accept that I can’t really afford to go racing and commit to just making a specialised track day car

It seems easier when we all know which decision I came to! But at the time, it took a month to come to the answer, with mountains of research, budgeting, calculation and consulting racers, track-dayers and friends and family alike. But by the end of the year, I had ordered a Safety Devices rollcage from the supremely knowledgeable Neil McDonald at Automac, and had my ARDS test booked to get my racing licence. Watch this space..!


Before & After.. & Thruxton

Oh, how far we’ve come already…

The 2016 sprint season closed with a return to Blyton Park’s Outer circuit. This was a great opportunity to see how the car and its driver had really developed over the three seasons since that first tentative, wobbly outing… Apart from the sprint virgin behind the wheel now being on his fifteenth outing with this car, what else had changed?

Totally shot original suspension vs HSD Dualtech adjustable coilovers
Hopeless no-name brake pads vs Performance Friction Z-rated pads
2.93 open diff vs 3.15 LSD
1340kg kerbweight vs 1260kg
Heavily worn Kumho KU31 tyres vs very heavily worn and flatspotted Kumho KU31 tyres

The result? A 3.83-second improvement, getting the 1:20.21 that was the best time of 2014 down to 1:16.38. I was really pleased with that, and while I know that my own experience with the car and circuit will have contributed, it goes to show how much time can be found with a few choice modifications. It might finally be time to retire those tyres, though!

Buoyed by this success, it was time to try a new circuit – Thruxton. What a place. I’d only ever spectated here before, and that was very long ago, so I hadn’t appreciated just how fast it is. Commitment levels are off the charts – four corners around the lap were taken at over 100mph even in this old girl, two of them flat-out! It has a lovely flow to it and it’s really satisfying to get the long, long sweepers right, but the overriding impression is that it’s just so damn fast. It’s addictive in the extreme.

The car stood up very well – I was actually a little worried, since she’d never spent as much time wide open as was required here, but she performed perfectly throughout and another 180 miles were racked up. Here’s how a session in the afternoon looked from onboard, this time with a pedal camera to add to the involvement!

Fast with a capital F… A wonderful experience

Another circuit I resolved to come back to. As this made the sixth one I’d driven this car on, I made a rather polarising addition to the bootlid – one that’s grown significantly since this photo was taken! It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I still quite like it.

It wouldn’t be long until another sticker was needed, as we ventured to Mallory Park a couple of months later. After that, it would be time for some deep thought on the next steps for this car…


Lightweighted and LSDed

A little over two years in, we start to get more serious about developing this car. Since the start there have been two key problems – it’s too heavy, and it keeps spinning up a rear wheel. Time to solve both of those!

I had never weighed this car, but it did come with a handy photo showing it on a weighbridge at 1360kg. It had an extra spare wheel and half a tank of fuel on board then, which means it should be 1318kg on its own. This seems about right as kerbweight for a standard E36 328i SE, and it’s not too bad against the 190bhp and 280Nm offered by the 2.8-litre straight-six.

Weight, though, is the enemy of performance and reducing it delivers you a compound benefit – a lighter car not only accelerates faster and corners better, it’s easier on its tyres and brakes. Better yet, a lighter car doesn’t need so big a cooling system, can get away with smaller brakes, needs less structural stiffness, can have smaller anti-roll bars and suspension springs… So it gets lighter still and the advantage grows and grows. Best of all, when you’re starting with a standard road car, a significant degree of lightness is free or even profitable to attain!

A full list of what’s been removed and what it all weighed will be added soon, for those of a similarly anal attention to detail. But between this “before and after” on the rear bench alone, we’ve lost 10.3kg of rear seat base, 4.9kg of rear seat squab, 6.0kg of insulation beneath it, 4.6kg of parcel shelf trim and insulation, and 2.5kg from each rear door card. The rear floor mats – just the rear ones! – weigh 1.3kg. So in this area alone, that’s 30kg gone.

Once I’d carved through the rest of the car, we had 70.0kg removed, all in an entirely reversible way. Even the stubborn bits like the headlining! I didn’t get too serious at this point – the carpet stayed, as did the audio system, the front door cards and all of the dashboard trim except the glovebox. This first pass at lightweighting the car only took me four hours or so – if you weren’t weighing everything that came out, three hours, and if you didn’t care at the condition of what you removed, probably 90 minutes flat to save the weight of an entire passenger! I can’t overstate how worthwhile that is for a car that’s used exclusively on track.

Here, then, is the solution to the other problem:

This is the LSD from an early 3.0 E36 M3. The only changed needed to fit this to a 328i is the output flanges, as the bolt pattern is different – but happily, this diff had been briefly run in a 328i rally car, so not only has that been done already, but we also know it works properly. I handed over £400 for it, which in mid-2016 was fairly cheap for an increasingly rare item, but they can still be found for this money on occasion.

Fitting this took the final drive ratio from 2.93 to 3.15 (7.5% shorter) and gives 25% drive locking. The effect is, as you’d expect, profound. On a dry road it became almost impossible to unstick the car on its NS-2Rs, it just powers on out and awaits your next question! It was very impressive, and the gearing change was welcome – where before third and even sometimes second could feel laboriously long, they’re now dealt with much more quickly and it feels “right”.

It also means you can leave number elevens, rather than just number ones…

All this sounds wonderful written down, but what does it translate to on a circuit? Curborough and the stopwatch had the answer. The car felt fantastic, noticeably quicker in a straight line and so much happier being hustled through the twisties. The ability to put the power down on corner exit was in a different league, and when you’d finished trying to be quick and tidy, it made lairy slides much more accessible too – hence the photo at the top, complete with Emily in the passenger seat! That day was the first time I’d hit the lockstops trying to hang onto a slide, and a whole new dimension to the car had been found.

But how much laptime did we gain?

Last time we visiting Curborough, I managed a 1:10.52, which felt pretty good at the time. This time? 1:08.18. A massive 2.34 seconds faster around a pretty short lap, thanks to these two relatively simple changes, and a car that felt so much better for it as well. Next up would a return to the very first circuit we ever drove, to find out what three seasons of practice, tweaks and development are worth…


Keep pushing..

After that successful day at Oulton Park, I’d formed a shopping list for myself again. It seemed only sensible to change the other front wheel bearing, as it couldn’t be far behind failing in a similar way to the first, and new brakes were needed. I’d had good performance from the Mintex M1155, but always want to keep moving the car forward, so after consulting plenty of owners I settled on Performance Friction. A US-based company who have been making professional race pads for decades, PFC also do a more accessible compound called Z-rated. These cost me £80 for the front and £60 for the rear from the excellent part-box.com.

With new Brembo high-carbon rear brake discs to replace the old scored ones, the total came to a pretty reasonable £250. The front pads didn’t go on straight away as there was still some mileage left in the Mintex, but there was no argument against changing the rears at this point!

This new brake combination was run in at Bedford, and after 140 hard miles on the track the new PFC pads had barely worn past their edge chamfers – a far cry from the EBC Redstuff that were wiped out in a similar timeframe last year!

Then we were on to Blyton Park for another crack at the Eastern circuit. I always enjoy the atmosphere of any paddock, especially when we’re competing, but doubly so when my car is completely shown up by a gorgeous period race car!

Yes, this E30 M3 – a factory-built race car – was competing alongside us and was simply wonderful to watch and listen to. Thankfully I didn’t disgrace myself, and my first run was a strong one  at 1:20.87 – as compared to the class record I set previously at 1:20.63. With a few scrappy runs in between, I then managed to set not one but two 1:20.21s in a row, both feeling like they’d left time on the table in different parts of the circuit.. this was a decent chunk off my previous best, but so close to getting under the 1:20 barrier that I couldn’t let it lie. Happily, at 5:02pm, I was let out for a “last chance plus one” run that looked like this:

Finally under the 1:20 barrier with a 1:19.86!

This was very satisfying, stringing together what felt like a fast and tidy lap on my third visit to the circuit. It just goes to show how much practice it takes to even start to get the most out of any given car/track combination, even a relatively short one such as this.

Oh, and if the car sounds a bit louder in that video, it was! I took advantage of a spare day to start some lightweighting, removing unnecessary interior, trim and many other parts. More on how 73kg were lost, and the effects, soon…


Into 2016 – New year, new circuits!

After a short winter laid up, it was time for the car to meet its new stablemate – gone is the red E46 328i, and in its place a much bigger and much more V8-powered 645Ci. Apparently shocked by this development, the E36 wouldn’t start, but it was purely a battery issue and a quick jump from the big Six was plenty to get it running.

I dropped the oil out, for no real reason other than I felt it deserved it after 18 months and just over a thousand track miles.. Came out still golden and feeling as smooth as new, which impressed me and justified the choice of Mobil 1 0W/40 quite nicely. Then it was time to sample a new circuit, and a new car at the same time:

Oulton Park, with Adam’s RX-8. I like this photo, because we have two ubiqitous bargain track-day cars next to each other, with very 90s German styling next to very 00s manga. We also have 228,000 miles in the shot – four-fifths of them on my car!

Oulton is a glorious circuit, and if you’ve never been I really recommend it. The elevation and camber changes, the bumps and dips in inopportune places, and the views out of the side window all add so much to the experience. It demands respect and I’ve seen many a well-driven race car end up in the wall here, but it’s fabulous.

We split the day, driving the Mazda in the morning and the E36 in the afternoon. For a standard road car, I was very impressed with the RX-8. It felt nicely balanced, the pedal layout and weighting was decent, the gearshift good and the engine constantly begging to be revved out. It needed more serious brake pads in it and the chassis felt a touch too soft when you started pushing really hard, but a very pleasant thing to drive on track and certainly a good starting point. It did feel a little gutless, mind – despite an alleged 40bhp advantage and very similar weight and gearing, the E36 outpaced it down the straights. It was only later I found out that even a very strong “231bhp” engine in one of these is lucky to produce 200.

Getting back into the E36 felt strange, by comparison it’s actually a bit of a nightmare ergonomically, but it all made sense again once I started to drive it properly. The car felt great and ran without fault for 45 laps in the afternoon. This was the first chance I’d had to do sustained sessions in the dry with my Mintex 1155 front and 1144 rear pads, and I was impressed to find no fade whatsoever. The rears were shot by the end, but the total of 740 track miles they managed is pretty good for £58!

The last run of the day brought me one of the best driving experiences I’d had so far.  I went out behind acquaintances in a K-series Elise, a Toyota-engined Elise and an N/A VX220 and chased them down – the car felt brilliant, and being able to drive it right to the limits of performance on a beautiful circuit was a real pleasure.

I’d happily relive this run every day!

My fastest lap around Oulton’s Island layout was a 1’49.3. For reference, the best we could get out of the RX-8 was a 2’01.6, but with a passenger and a couple of seconds lost behind an Elise at the end of the lap. A clean solo run might have seen a 1’57 or so. That’s a far bigger performance gap than it feels from the driver’s seat, and speaks volumes about the E36’s potential.

A fantastic start to the year. Next up would be yet more brakes, Bedford again, and another sprint…