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

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…

Year 2 done

Now we draw 2015 to a close – with another sprint at Blyton, some time on the tools to solve a new issue found there, and a return to Bedford just for fun.

We returned to Blyton Park’s Eastern layout, with an opportunity to test the road-going Kumho tyres back-to-back with the track-biased Nankang NS-2Rs again. It revealed something I didn’t expect – on the semi-slicks, I felt like I was having to overwork the car. The balance wasn’t satisfying, the brakes were getting too hot and it generally felt like it wasn’t enjoying itself. Putting the Kumhos back on, it immediately felt more approachable and better balanced. I’d put most of this down to the lesser grip making it much easier to adjust the rear end with the throttle, but when you’re driving at ten tenths these tyres seem to have a much wider and more progressive slip range than the Nankangs, which either grip or don’t.

The body roll shown in the photo underlines part of the cause, that the car likely isn’t stiff enough (or properly set up) to make the best of stickier tyres. Options to improve this were geometry changes to add more front camber; spring perch adjustments to lower the front end, currently 20mm higher than the rear; or stiffer anti-roll bars such as Eibach adjustables.

Most of my timed runs were a bit scrappy, and while I did manage to improve my personal best by a few tenths, I also managed to throw the car at the gravel for the first and so far only time!

There is a limit to this “last of the late brakers” tactic…

Alongside the need for setup changes, a front wheel bearing finally tipped over the edge from “slightly irritating on the motorway” to “clearly not controlling the wheel properly any more”, with heavy vibration when loaded up. This isn’t actually a hard one to tackle yourself, since the front bearings come integrated into a whole new hub, but all the same I’ll include it in the list of mechanical DIYs I plan to add here in the future.

Off with the old…

And on with the new. This job gave good opportunity to spanner check everything on the front upright, which is a worthwhile routine after every event anyway – a fact underlined by discovering a loose coilover locking ring.

To round out the year, it was back to Bedford, with a friend along as (count ’em) the seventh person to drive the car on a circuit during my still-short tenure. 191 miles later, the tyres had rubbered in rather nicely.

As a final little giggle towards the end of the day, since Tom had never been on track in a RWD car, I fitted a pair of wonderfully named Accelera Alphas to the rear axle only. These Chinese ditchfinders are so hard that they could be plastic rather than rubber, so to say the car is rear-limited with those on the back and NS-2Rs on the front is an understatement. Then it rained… A video tells a thousand words about how slippy that combination is!

How to hone one’s reflexes in one easy lesson…

Having survived that without mishap, another season came to an end. 2016 would promise more circuits, more competition, and one big decision…



Bedford III – did it all help?

Watching this three years later still brings back very clear memories!

With brakes, tyres and setup improved, it was time to go back to the benchmark circuit. We all know that another track day means another new driver, and this time it was future brother-in-law Calum who got a chance to catch the track day bug – an early conversion at the grand old age of 18!

The video really does take me straight back to how the car felt that day. This was the first time it started to feel like it might be making sense on a circuit. My notes from the time:

‘The car felt superb. I was extremely impressed with the NS-2Rs, there is a huge amount of grip, much more than I was expecting – turns out they respond far better to a longer run on a “proper” circuit, as opposed to my brief tests at Curborough, and of course the surface is probably grippier at Bedford. Whatever the reason, it was mega, and I would recommend these tyres for anyone’s track car. I was glad I had the harder 180 treadwear compound, as some TT drivers using the softer type reported the fronts overheating a bit.. but then that’s a TT, might be fine on a properly balanced car wink. What can’t be denied is their durability – they’ve rubbered up nicely, but the tread has worn not a jot. Excellent.

‘I had three drivers [me, Emily and Calum] for the first time, and that was probably too much, she never had more than 15-20 minutes’ rest between sessions and I’d rather do longer runs with more breaks. We got a little over three hours out on track, 185 miles chalked up, and inter-family rivalries were continued as Emily beat the time my mum had set on her visit to Bedford!

‘As for the car, no complaints all day which is always nice. We just managed the day on a tank of fuel, having filled up 20 miles before arriving and crawling out on fumes, always nice to avoid paying Palmer’s prices or leaving the venue halfway through. Tyres as mentioned, no real wear at all, and the brakes felt good too – no fade at any point and the Redstuff front pads still aren’t quite done yet. Mintex 1144 in the rear seemed good and much more durable at the high temperatures seen on the rear axle.

‘I was suffering a bit of a loss of power due to heat soak (you can measure half a second lost down the first part of the back straight alone, despite a much faster exit from the hairpin) – I’ll need to rethink my intake design, I think I’ve got away with it up to now because of cooler ambient temperatures and longer breaks between sessions.

It all rings true today. If the car looks a little neater in the photos, that would be down to the cheapest modification yet – the removal of the one remaining foglight (450 grams out of the front end, thank you very much) and fitment of two cut-down Chinese takeaway lids, sprayed with a remarkably well-matched Audi Blau Perleffekt left over from my old A4!

Amazingly enough, the double-sided tape holding these in survived the track day. I count that as a win. Soon it would be time to see how the new tyres handled Blyton…


So are they any faster?

Before and after, McKee style…

So just how much time do you gain, going from knackered old road tyres to new semi-slicks? Quite a bit, actually! Despite a messy lap, I was over half a second faster in a back-to-back test, and absolute potential felt more like a full second over the 70-second lap.

Given that these Nankang NS-2Rs were very cheap, a hard-wearing compound and a bit narrower than the Kumho KU31s that came off, I was impressed with that. I can’t think of many other £240 changes you could make that would gain you a second per minute, not unless you were correcting really fundamental issues with the car. It’s not all about the outright pace, either – a track-oriented semi-slick will generate less heat because the tread blocks move around less, allowing you to do longer sessions and giving a far longer lifespan. In almost all cases, the investment pays you back in durability as well as performance.

In untimed practice in the morning the car felt far better, with sharper turn-in and considerably more overall grip. These tyres do need a little heat, and I had some understeer and a bit of a slippy feeling until they warmed up. What was most telling was bolting the Kumhos back on having been running the NS-2Rs all morning – I immediately found myself sliding around on exit and slightly outbraking myself. The Kumhos have been a very good tyre, but the NS-2Rs showed them up good and proper, and they only seemed to get better the more I drove them.

In reality, I probably didn’t have them properly scrubbed in, nor did I have the correct pressures or the right setup to take advantage of them. All part of the learning experience.

There’s always a bit of time to play silly buggers, too. Though one thing that felt sorely lacking by the end of this event was a limited-slip diff.. It had been evident in low-speed corners before, but Curborough is made exclusively of low-speed corners and the increased lateral load transfer on the NS-2Rs made the problem much more noticeable. It was well captured from trackside!

This kind of “one tyre fire” is deeply undesirable, so I set about searching for a solution. There are many ways to go about this, as the E36 was fitted with LSDs from the factory in various forms. My car, and most 328is, was built with a 2.93 ratio open differential in the 188mm “medium” case. An early 328i Sport (one without traction control, or ASC) has a 2.93 LSD in the same casing, and this is a direct swap. They’re also quite rare, and original Sports are getting very sought after now, so it’s not that common to find these diffs for sale. The next best option is a diff from a 3.0 M3 (not an Evo), which is a 3.15 LSD in a medium case. The driveshaft output flanges are different, but you can swap these for the ones on your original diff easily enough. The 8% shorter ratio is a useful performance boost for a track car, too. You can fit the 3.23 large-case diff from a 3.2 M3 if you really want to, but you’ll need the entire subframe, propshaft and halfshafts to suit, and unless you’re producing an awful lot of power it’s not really necessary.

As ever, there were a few more events to get through before any money would be spent…


Bedford II – More brakes needed..

One clean, clear lap of Bedford GT – April 2015

I know I said I wanted to get some semi-slick tyres fitted before taking the car out again, but it felt so nice driving it on the road after a winter of absence that I found myself back at Bedford Autodrome on the Kumhos again.

Keeping in the spirit of family involvement, this time it was my mum who came along with me, and drove really rather tidily as well! It seems a lifetime of watching motorsport teaches you to find the right line instinctively, it was a pleasure sitting in the passenger seat. Naturally I wanted to find out a benchmark lap time as well, so I went out for a solo run towards the end of the day and managed the 3:04 lap in the video. There’s plenty of time left to find out there!

Once again, the car covered just over 150 miles on the circuit, which is apparently the lifespan of a set of EBC Redstuff rear pads once you start using them hard. I wasn’t sure at the time whether it was the pads, or the grooves on the Brembo MAX discs being too aggressive and chewing the pads up, but experience has since told me those discs are just fine with proper materials clamping them. No more Redstuff for me, and wiping out an entire set of pads in one track day was irritating enough that I haven’t bought EBC since.

Admittedly, the rear brakes do get very hot on an E36. There’s quite good airflow through the fronts, but the rears have a double problem – no cooling ducts leading to the wheel well, and the handbrake shoes and mechanism are housed inside the disc, so you can’t route air to the centre as you usually would. The result, measured on a laser pyrometer after a cooldown lap, was front discs coming in around 170°C but the rears a whopping 280°C. It’s difficult to extrapolate operating temperatures from this, but suffice to say it’s pretty bloody hot. So, onto the next step up the friction material ladder:

These are Mintex, the M1155 compound for the front, and M1144 for the rear as that’s the only one they make in that size. These are aimed at fast road/track day use, but I’d read good reviews and considered them well worth trying for £120.

And, at long last…

Some semi-slicks. In the typical budget style, spending £600 on a set of Toyo R888s or Yokohama AD08Rs wasn’t on the cards, and I went for Nankang’s now-ubiquitous NS-2R in the more durable (if less grippy) 180 compound. Even before they’re mounted, it was obvious that they were much stiffer and softer than any typical road tyre I’d seen. They also come with only 5.5mm tread, which means they won’t heat up and wear too quickly if used on track from new. £60 a corner in 205/55R16.

It’d only be a month until a sprint to try them out…




Into 2015

Welcome back…

Happy New Year.. 2015!

After four months laid up over the winter, it was with some trepidation that I came back to the car to start it up again ahead of the new season. I’ve had all sorts of problems with cars left standing in the past, but I needn’t have worried… After making sure the battery was topped up, simply get in and fire. Colour me impressed.

It’s always lovely coming back to this car, especially in contrast to the daily E46 lurking in the corner of the shot. It feels so nimble and responsive in comparison, and sounds fantastic. It also felt like it had an extremely long brake pedal, which I’d been living with for too long now, so I went back to the rusted-up rear bleed nipples with renewed determination.

Not much danger of undoing that with a spanner, or even molegrips as it turned out. Short of replacing the entire caliper, which was unappealing with them in otherwise good condition, the only alternative I could come up with was to weld a nut onto the end and undo them with that.

Cue the enlistment of Mr Tyrrell’s welder and kind assistance.

We weren’t aiming for style points! This was plenty to get them undone and replaced with new ones. This let us flush and bleed the brakes properly, using ATE Super Blue fluid – especially handy because the bright colour makes it easy to see when all the old fluid is out and you’re feeding new through.

The novelty of having so little droop travel in the new suspension still hadn’t worn off!

The pedal felt much better after this, but still softer than I’d like. It wasn’t clear whether this came down to the old rubber flexi hoses or the brake pad compound, but there were still a few other things left on the to-do list first – suspension bushes.

A vagueness in steering feel about the straightahead gave me a clue to what might be causing the judder I had in high-speed braking and hard left cornering, as it felt very similar to my E46 when it had worn out its front control arm bushes. Happily, I already had a set of Meyle ones for it, kindly thrown in when James sold me the car! I figured while I was working on the front end, I may as well put some polybushes in the front anti-roll bar mounts, since that had been on the to-do list and they shouldn’t take all that long to fit.

These Powerflex Black bushes were so stiff they were actually difficult to fit over the anti-roll bar, which at least boded well for performance. They gave a more direct feel to initial turn-in, as there’s now much less compliance before the bar can generate anti-roll moment.

(Six-cylinder E36s were available with two different anti-roll bar setups. The standard car came with a 24mm front bar and a 15mm rear, but cars with the M-Tech suspension option got 25.5mm front and 18mm rear. Surprisingly, my comfy-spec SE saloon actually had that option ticked, so a common OEM upgrade was already done!)

Another use for a gear puller – persuading the rear lower control arm bushes off an E36. They didn’t come off looking too happy, as you might expect for 20 years, 178,000 miles and this removal technique.

It’s easier fitting new polybushes than rubber ones, as they slide into place with far less effort, but believe it or not Fairy liquid makes a pretty good lubricant between rubber and aluminium. It helps if all the years of road grime and bits of old rubber have been polished off first though.

Judicious use of Adam’s Dremel put one high up on my shopping list – there are just endless uses for that thing.

The outcome was a much improved drive – the steering response was more precise and direct, and the vagueness in initial turn-in was gone. Ride control over sharp bumps felt better, and I couldn’t replicate the judder under braking either. A satisfying day’s work, and all finished in time for another track day…


First of Many

What’s mine is yours, and all that…

As 2014’s three informal sprint events were finished, I wanted to get a lot more seat time and try a much bigger circuit to stretch the car a little. So on 1st November I arrived at Bedford Autodrome with my fiancée Emily for what would be the first public track day for both of us. In fact, it was Em’s first time at a road circuit at all!

Blyton and Curborough had been lovely learning experiences as I found my feet with this car, and the competitive edge of a timed run against the clock was a real rush. To really develop myself and the car, I’d need to be able to drive more consistently and for much longer, which also meant the knackered rear brakes needed attention first. Luckily, I had just the thing:

These Brembo “MAX” rear discs were quite attractive at £80 for a pair. I’ve never felt the need to spend a fortune on discs, firmly believing that they need to survive the temperatures and be round in one plane and flat in the other two. Nothing fancy required, it’s the pads that do the real work. For those, I matched the EBC Redstuff I had on the front, for only around £50.

With that done, I felt more confident in the car standing up to a full day of hard use on the circuit. So here it is, in its first ever pit lane:

The morning started off cold and a little damp, but soon dried to give us a lovely clear day of great conditions. The event (by Javelin Trackdays) ran really smoothly, with no red flags and a a few suspect drivers dealt with swiftly. I was quite happy with the balance of the car – it had perhaps a little too much understeer off-power, but as soon as you started opening the throttle it became neutral and transitioned really nicely to playing funny buggers if you so chose. That gentle understeer proved useful for tuition, and Emily acquitted herself very well for her first time on track, as you can see in the video!

It felt great to have a real open space to play. Bedford’s GT circuit links up all of the best bits of the smaller individual circuits that can be run for the (highly recommended) Palmersport event, and at four miles with plenty of runoff and no gravel traps to suck you in, it’s a lovely learning environment. Braking into a fast chicane from 120mph feels altogether more committed than second-gear Curborough.

We both came away very pleased, and the car seemed none the worse for its efforts. A more focused set of tyres was at the top of my to-do list – on the road-biased Kumhos, the car felt good and was very entertaining, but it barely rolled at all before the grip limit was exceeded much earlier than you’d expect. It felt like a good chassis being held back by its tyres, so some semi-slicks were on the shopping list.

That would be it for 2014 though, with the car resting up for the winter and the beckoning of another season.


Blyton again – only faster

If in doubt, drive it even harder?

Two months later, September 2014, we’re back to Blyton Park – but on the far more technical Eastern layout. I enjoyed this much more – it took a few sessions to really get my head round it and the great big long right-hander “Curva Grande” doesn’t seem to have any correct answer in terms of line, so there’s plenty of challenge there for an airfield track.

I didn’t make any major hardware changes after Curborough, as I’d been quite pleased with how the car felt, with the exception of some quite heavy understeer after turn-in. This turned out to be due to some very wayward geometry, and I went for these settings:

Front: -2.00° camber, -12′ (1.6mm) total toe (out).
Rear: -1.50° camber, +10′ (1.2mm) total toe (in).

Quick guide to track day or racing geometry settings for an E36: It’s important to have more front camber than rear, as the rear end has quite a bit of camber gain as it rolls, and the years hence have told me that actually you need a bigger difference than this – an extra 1 – 1.5° on road or track day tyres, a full 2° more at the front on race tyres. The front toe I would set to zero now, having a bit of toe out makes it feel like it turns in more eagerly, but it gives you understeer mid-corner. Some toe in at the rear is crucial because of the way the Z-axle moves, if you put any less than this it’ll start to feel weird or downright dangerous.

You might have noticed a very different soundtrack in the video above. Remember that cone filter I had from my E46? This finally made its way onto the car, with a complement of about £25 worth of silicon hose, aluminium pipe and a wraparound heatshield from eBay. I don’t expect it gives any power whatsoever, I couldn’t even feel much different in throttle response, but it sounds awesome so it stays!

There’s still a little mid-corner understeer, which I’m overcoming in the video with judicious trailbraking without any ABS and what felt like a bit too much rear bias. Oh how we grow with experience – it seems quite shocking how much I’m manhandling the car, looking back at it now, and I certainly wouldn’t be doing that on race tyres! I don’t fluff downchanges like that any more either, though in the last corner in particular it did make for an entertaining “moment”.

And don’t let anyone tell you I only show the good bits!

Apart from numerous attempts to throw the car at the scenery, the only issue I encountered was cooking the rear brakes. These were still standard discs and pads, just cheap stuff, so it was no surprise and I got some replacements on order. Next up I wanted to take the car somewhere much bigger to stretch its legs a little, so I booked a track day at Bedford Autodrome for a few weeks’ time…


Figure 8

A little less roll now, but second gear feels loooonng..


With the new suspension fitted and a rough alignment done, I was really keen to see a significant improvement. The car didn’t disappoint! Curborough is a pretty tiny double-8 sprint course, narrow and winding, and the standard gearing let me do almost all of the lap in second, but it actually served as a pretty good test ground. Lots of sharp transitions and a particularly unkind braking zone mid-corner were ideal to feel how the car handled.

I didn’t realise how much I’d been instinctively correcting for body roll and giving the car time to settle until I didn’t need to any more! It was instantly more adjustable and responsive, and let me feel like I could leave a lot less margin. Watching the video back today, it still looks plenty restrained to me, but for a car that still has a full interior in its second outing, I suppose it’s not too bad. There was some understeer after a sharp initial turn-in, so the geometry would need some attention*, but overall I came away very happy.

Curborough has one braking zone in particular that ABS really dislikes, as you enter a fairly open curve just as you need to start braking hard – off-camber and downhill! – for a very tight hairpin. So while I haven’t done it much since, I disabled the ABS and felt the car was quicker overall. This is pretty straightforward on an E36: you can do it by taking out the fuse, but that puts the car into a mild protection mode that won’t let it rev past 5500rpm. Better is removing the relay, which takes out the traction control you weren’t using anyway and doesn’t cause the lower rev limiter. BMW made this pretty easy to find!

The video at the top was my fastest run of the day, a 1:11.46 on the new “figure 8” layout. Reliability was perfect – once again, I came with a car full of tools and spare wheels and parts, and needed none of them throughout. The only time I encountered a problem was a couple of miles into the drive home – I had to pull over to wind the dampers back to soft, having left the circuit with them set far too hard for a comfortable drive home!

As the car felt pretty good and I didn’t uncover any new issues, so I only planned to get the geometry adjusted and otherwise leave things unchanged before going back to Blyton Park a couple of months later.



*Turns out I had a total of 40 minutes front toe out, which certainly explains the darty turn-in followed by heavy understeer!