The Ram's Eye - A Driver's Blog: 2017



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Monday, 22 May 2017

Rocket Racing's 97 BMW M3 GT3 - The Prologue




If you've followed this blog, you'd know I started racing last year. I was fortunate enough to be involved with one of the best race team in the region - Vantage Motorsports (link: The Ram's Eye Goes Racing!). This year, my good friend John Drysdale, also fulfilled his dream of wheel to wheel to racing. That said, his start was much more dramatic than mine in the (excellent) IT-B '95 GTI race car. In his words:

"How does one become a race car driver? Maybe more importantly, what makes someone a good race car driver? Maybe I have the odds stacked against me in this game called racing. I started on track with true tarmac and rubber when I was 32.

To my benefit, I was imprinted, like a duckling, with cars from a very young age. My dads stacks of Road and Track, and Car and Driver, made an early impression. When I was seven years old I was drawing air cooled Porsche 911's (and in 2014, I got one). In the early 90's I was playing "Need for Speed" in a Dodge Viper. I didn't really start driving to any degree until I graduated University in 2003. And I was pretty bad at it. My girlfriend (now wife) at the time was terrified (of note, I still terrify her now, but for different reasons). I grew up in the country and did not know what to do at an intersection in the big city. The lights were green but I would always slow as I was quite sure someone would come out in-front of me.





In 2006 or so, my wife made the mistake of getting a Play Station 2 to play "Rock band." The next thing she knew I picked up a copy of Gran Turismo 3, and a logitech wheel with two pedals and force feedback. Between the PS2, Xbox 360, PS3, and later PC, I logged on countless hours and laps on tracks all over the world. I quickly upgraded my rig to a respectable one with three pedals and a six speed shifter. I always drove with all assists off.

In August of 2012 I went to my first high performance driving school (HPDS) with the BMW Club Atlantic Canada. I had a new to me 2009 BMW 328xi (AWD). After the initial fear and shock, I was the fastest in my beginner class. Real life driving was much different, but in many ways easier as you had more feedback. The digital lessons I leaned about smoothness and the cornering line carried over into real life. In that first school, only a black Ferrari 430 spyder did not wave me by... and I was catching him steadily before he pulled into the pits. I was hooked.

After that first school I became a member of just about every local car club that ran schools at our local track, Atlantic Motorsport Park (AMP). I was keen to learn, and did every school I could. Over the next four years, I brought out my restored 1973 BMW 2002Tii, a used 2010 Mazda Speed 3 that I bought from a buddy, a 1984 911 3.2 Carrera, My dads 2006 BMW Z4 M coupe, and finally a 2016 Ford Focus RS. Lap times went from 1:31 in the 2002Tii, to 1:27 in the 911, to 1:25 in the M coupe, to 1:24 in the speed3 (with sport cup tires). The 911 then came back hotrodded and did a 1:21. Finally, in it's maiden voyage to the track ,the Focus RS did a rather effortless 1:20 (in comparison to my assist free, snarling air cooled 911).

In the Spring of 2016 I did my first and second away visits to other tracks. In visiting family in England I opted to rent a lightweight, guttless 2002 Peugeot 106 GTI race car, and a Caterham Academy race car, for use at Brands Hatch and Donnington Park GP Circuit respectively.

To me racing was not a matter of if, but rather when. I had planned to start in 2018. I was going to buy something fun, but sensible like a Spec Miata, or Spec e30. All plans went south when "the Rocket" came on the market.




The Rocket is a bit of a dream build in these parts. It was a lowly, but rust free, 1997 BMW M3 coupe that had seen plenty of HPDE track time locally. It had bad engine knock. Steve Phillips of ISI Automotive, with a partner, purchased this car, and Steve began to turn it into a full out race car. No corners were cut: Top to bottom this was a professional build. S54 engine swap, MCS suspension, full fire suppression and roll cage, full telemetry. In our neck of the woods it was considered to be quite the "Hollywood" build. And it was Quick!

In it's maiden year of local competition, it dominated it's class and won the class championship. On Hoosiers it did under a 1:11.6 lap, which was the fourth fastest lap AMP had ever seen in a GT car. In 2016 it ran 2-3 races only. In the winter of 2016, with only 20 hours on the car, it was put up for sale. It was a chance of a lifetime, and I bought it.

All I can say is that the winter of 2016/17 was one of the longest ever. I was quite excited, but starting out in a race car with this kind of prowess seemed like a bad idea waiting to happen, even in my books..."

Make sure to head over to Rocket Racing Motorsport to read Part 2: Four Seconds and find out how he did for lap times his first time out!


Sunday, 5 February 2017

2018 Ford Mustang Upgrades!




Ever since I bought my Mustang, I have been gradually growing loyal to the brand. I’m not sure why. I like a lot of different cars and never felt like picking a camp, but I guess when you buy a car, you start to have to defend its honour (and your decision) whenever someone takes a stab at it. For someone who is so into cars, I think only one of two things can happen: you are either convinced of what “foes” claim and start to regret your decision, or you find more conviction as you defend your decision and love the car even more. Count me among the latter and, needless to say, I was properly excited when I found out about the updates Ford is bringing to the 2018 Mustang.

For starters, the Mustang finally (probably.. hopefully) will get its horsepower mojo back. When Ford unleashed its 5.0 litre Coyotes to prey on the competition circa 2010, it was basically undisputed. The Camaro SS was usually slower in tests. You couldn’t say Challenger R/T in the same breath; you had to go up to the mighty SRT8 to compete, and even that couldn’t stand its ground until Mopar minions bestowed the 392 (6.4 litre) V8 upon the Challenger that it was really competitive and it wasn’t until you got into serious lose-your-license speeds that the Challenger hp advantage started to show. Otherwise, its weight disadvantage let it down. GT500 vs ZL1? Well, we all know how that went.. Chevy debuted the 570 hp Camaro ZL1, but before it had any chance to be proud, Ford unleaded the 663 hp GT500. But all that changed with the new S550 Mustang..




The GT500 went the way of its S197 platform.. The 5.0 litre V8 made a little more hp but not enough to make up for the weight gain, making the new one a little slower than the old S197. To make matter worse, the new Camaro came out with more hp AND less weight. The GT wasn't the only issue. Ford neutered its V6, which used to be easily quicker than the Camaro and Challenger V6’s. The EcoBoost barely kept up with a last generation S197 V6. If hp and speed were the reason you wanted a new pony car but you weren’t loyal to a brand and you didn’t care too much for modifying, the Camaro was calling your number (assuming you could put up with the sight lines, which aren't as bad as people make them out to be, but still seriously compromised). You can read my comparison of a 2016 Camaro SS vs 2016 Mustang GT here. Of course, there's a lot more to buying a car than horsepower and acceleration numbers, but they are very important to a lot of buyers.

You might say: BUT you are forgetting the Shelby GT350, you idiot! Why aren’t you talking about that?? Sure, it’s a fantastic thing. I love the GT350. There is a local dealer that has a few (yes, a few) new ones and every time we drive by, I just want to drive in and stare at them. Trouble is: it’s quite a few grand more than a Camaro SS, and A LOT more if you factor in Camaro discounts and GT350 markups. The gap is even bigger compared to a Mustang GT because that is cheaper than a Camaro SS to start with, which is much cheaper than a GT350. So if you were Mustang loyal, you had a very sizeable gap between the Mustang GT and the Shelby GT350. You could tap into the Ford Performance parts catalogue, but those reduce powertrain warranty from 5 years to 3 years, and make the car basically as expensive as a Camaro SS, which handles better and has a better warranty. It wasn’t the best solution, but it may have been the only one. However, it looks like Ford is looking to light some fire under the class again..




Fire, let’s take a moment to mourn the death of the 3.7 litre V6.. Ok, moment is over. Don’t get me wrong, I was a big fan of it and I always thought it punched above its weight but it was long overdue for an update. An update that Ford didn’t want to provide because of its EcoBoost-infested vision of the future. Might as well let it die in peace. Speaking of the EcoBoost, it's getting more torque with an overboost function, although Ford isn't saying how much. People have been tuning them with great results so we all know it has more potential. It'll be interesting to see how much difference it makes, but Ford says it was substantial enough to warrant a transmission upgrade. Sound good? You bet! Hopefully, it's not just marketing talk.

But the real treat is the V8, which will finally get direct injection but will retain port injection, overcoming fueling issues at high rpm and valve fouling associated with direct injection-only engines. Direct  Injection allows for better atomization resulting in better combustion, and better power as a result. Moreover, that results in a cooling effect which, when combined with better control on fuel delivery, allows for higher compression ratio, again resulting in more power. The end result? Ford won’t say yet, but I think it will come real close to the Camaro’s hp (at least). I’m hoping for 470 hp, but that may be too optimistic. And better yet, Ford didn’t just focus on power.




The handling is addressed too, with a retuned suspension and stiffened chassis, plus the option of magnetic shocks across the board, including the EcoBoost! Ford says the base suspension now is as good as the Performance Pack. But the highlight of all is, IMO, is the tires. The Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires are the successor to the excellent Pilot Super Sport. One of the best street/track tires available in the last few years IMO. There were plenty of tires that were much stickier, better in the wet, longer lasting, or forgiving but none could match the balance the PSS provided between of all these criteria and more. The new one can only be better. This is the area I care about the most, as I pointed out in the review I posted above, the Mustang became more grown up than the last generation while the Camaro became more playful. As a car guy inflicted with the track bug, I couldn't be happier that Ford is improving the handling and overall capability.

And if you thought that was all, you’re wrong! Things just keep getting better. It may be trivial, but I wasn’t a fan of the front end at all since it debuted. It wasn’t ugly by any means, but it was too much corporate Ford and not nearly enough Mustang. The headlights were the worst offenders and I’m VERY happy to see them GONE. The new headlights are more of an evolution of the S197 headlights that are made “squintier” and pulled into the fender. They are still not as good as the S197 IMO, but they look much more modern and sinister, yet far more muscular the very-nearly-identical Fusion headlights that are available now. Better still, the upgrades to the front fascia make the car more aerodynamic, reducing drag and lift at higher speeds. Hard to complain. Out back, the GT switches to quad exhausts and Ford will offer electronically controlled exhaust valves to vary tone, something I liked a lot about the Camaro SS in my comparison posted above.




The end result is a Mustang that looks better, handles better, goes faster, and still packs a V8. What is there to complain about? If I had to complain about something, it would be that Ford made the new Mustang so much better that I really want one now..


Wednesday, 25 January 2017

AMG GT R First Drive - A Closer Look




Motor Trend basically started the first drive review (2nd paragraph) by saying that the folks at AMG have a sense of humour for naming this car "the Beast from the Green Hell." Maybe I don't get German sense of humour, but the joke is completely lost on me. Of course, that's assuming there is a joke there to begin with.. You see, I highly doubt the response AMG hoped for is a chuckle. And if I'm right, I think they can rest easy, because beasts aren't funny, and those that come from hell are probably less so, whatever colour that hell may be. Now, fierce, brutal, menacing, loud.. those are the things you might expect a beast to be. And if that name alone doesn't conjure any of those beastly characteristics, play the video below and skip to 0:28.
 



What a NOISE! This will be one of those cars that, should it roll up next to you at a traffic light, you quiet everyone down and roll down the windows to hear it pull away. If you're tired of hearing about how AMG knows how to make a V8 sound great, I don't blame you, but the only reason why everyone sings poetic about it is that they ARE very good at it. And remember, this isn't a deep breathing big V8 like what you used to find in all V8-powered AMG's. It's a relatively small 4.0 litre that was designed to be able to rev to 7,900 rpm (source: C&D Deep Dive). It's even got a pair of noise-muffling turbos strapped to it. The end result has no business sounding this good. Yet, it does. So it has the noise to match the name, an angry face, and a gaping maw that even looks like it has fangs. The big question then is this: does it drive like a beast?




At first glance, I'm afraid not. For one, compared to the sort-of predecessor - the SLS - this always sounds like a much more manageable car in reviews. Beasts aren't manageable. Then you have rear wheel steering helping you keep the back end more obedient and cooperative. And, reading the review, you find that AMG put Bernd Schneider, a five-time DTM champion, at the wheel to give Car and Driver a ride along. Instead of demonstrating the car's traction and tactility at the limit by switching all assists off, he pinned the throttle to the floor in corner exits and relied on traction control to sort it out, with "no subtlety." It has a stability control system that can't be completely turned off and allows you to pay no mind to "separating braking and steering inputs. Rather, this is a full-commitment reliance on technology." It all sounds very wrong. But there's more to it than the above would suggest.

For starters, the upgraded coil-over suspension is adjustable. The front track has been widened by almost one inch. On each side! The rear track has been widened by MORE than an inch on each side. And despite all the suspension upgrades, the downforce, the big sticky tires, and the rear weight bias, it still effortlessly turns the rear tires into smoke if you aren't careful, a sign of a true AMG. But above all, the one thing that really made me think the car is serious is chassis tuning. In Motor Trend's words, "The GT R’s chassis, like nature, abhors a vacuum: If you’re not on the brakes, it wants you to be on the throttle—even lightly—to feel absolutely balanced." This is a car that doesn't like coasting; a sign of a proper thoroughbred. You know what other type of car doesn't like coasting and asks you to always push? Race cars.




And this is where I was stuck with this car. I didn't know what to make of it. Is it a triumph of technology or a proper driver's car? Then I figured it out. You know what AMG has done? It has in, fact, built a beast. But most of us aren't The Stig so, while a few people can perfectly handle a beast, the rest can't. Instead of taming said beastie, AMG decided to saddle it, so that you can more easily ride it. Make no mistake, a bucking bronco is a bucking bronco, saddled or not. Saddling it just makes it easier for you to get a handle on things, but doesn't change the nature of the beast itself. What AMG has done is use all the electronic aids to build a really good saddle for a very capable beast. That makes it a very cool car IMO, but there are a couple of issues with it, although they have more to do with other cars than the AMG GT R itself.




The first is its sort-of predecessor; the SLS AMG. This car can't quite match its elegance or charisma. And it looks a lot more "corporate Mercedes" as opposed to a one-of. Don't get me wrong, the AMG GT R is better in every way, as a car. But the SLS had something the AMG GT doesn’t – some flair, perhaps, and stunning looks. And while this AMG GT sounds glorious, it can't quite match the snarl of the naturally aspirated M159 6.2 litre V8. On the other hand, you have the 911 (991) GT3 RS. Yes, I know, it's technically out of production, but if the AMG GT was meant to compete with the 911, what is this GT R version meant to compete with? It may be out of production but the target market and performance is the GT3 RS and here, again, the GT R falls a little short. It's a lot more of a brute and a bruiser. It isn't quite as pure a driver's car as far as I can tell and I can't imagine it being as rewarding to toss around and push at 10/10th.




That's where I am at with this car. It's not quite as mad as traditional AMG's, yet it can't match the excellence of the GT3 RS. For some people, I'm sure it strikes an absolutely perfect balance between the two ends of the spectrum but, for me, it just comes off as being less special than either. For a car that basically costs $200,000, it needs to feel a lot more special than that. I may never have that problem, but if I had that kind of money and I was looking at a German track car, it would have to be the 911 GT3 RS, even if it meant getting a slightly used one. The only thing I would be missing is that AMG V8 noise..


Wednesday, 4 January 2017

2017 Ford GT - A Closer Look




"The new GT is so purposeful, so exactingly and innovatively designed, that it reaches beyond the genre of European two-seat screamers built for maximum envy induction at felony speed. Ford hasn't built a supercar. It's created a weapon." How could you not desperately want to drive this car? Of course, what we already know about it from Ford, the way it looks, and the name should be more than enough reasons to start dreaming. But if they aren't to you, the above - what Road & Track had to say about the new Ford GT in the first ride review - should easily push you in the right direction. For me, though, I've wanted to drive it since I first saw it after its debut at the 2015 North American International Auto Show. This car is very, very special.

The story of the original GT, the GT40, is all too familiar. Ford wanted to buy Ferrari but Ferrari backed out. Ford wanted to show Ferrari who is boss so it built the GT40 and took it to Le Mans. After fiddling with it for a couple of years, the GT40 won for four consecutive years; from 1966 to 1969. Very impressive, but more importantly, it established the name GT40 and demonstrated that Ford is capable of building a car that not only can go head to head with the best in the world, but beat them at their own game. Now, the second generation, which came out in 2004 - the first Ford GT, sans 40 - was not a true successor to the GT40 in my opinion. Don't get me wrong - it was a fantastic thing. It is on my must-drive bucket list of cars and think it should be on everyone's list. But it was a tribute. It was an excellent tribute, but a tribute nonetheless. It couldn't trace its own roots in racing. It didn't come out with the purpose and focus of the original; track dominance. This new one, though, has all the right ingredients.




Back in the day, it was much more common for production cars to be homologated cars to allow competition in racing. Such was the case for the original BMW M3, for example. The original Mustang Boss 302 and Camaro Z/28, original (C2) Corvette Grand Sport, a myriad of Porsches, etc. That isn't the case anymore, though, as you can see by the rarity of modern homologation cars (as of 2010) listed on FIA's website (link: FIA - List of Previously Homologated Cars). Porsche, for example, has 59 cars listed and non of them (that's zero) are from the year 2000 or newer and only 4 are 90's cars. That could be for one of two reasons, I suspect. First is that even base versions of production cars now are very good and can serve as great starting points for race cars (mechanically, not electrically) as opposed to back then, where base engines, suspension, and chassis would have required many more modifications so you had to create a special edition that's a road-legal version of the race car. The second is race cars now being more heavily modified and further removed from the production cars they're based on. Either way, the result is the same. Cars on the road are more loosely tied to their distant racing prepped cousins. The GT, though, is a breath of fresh air of true racing-based development.




I don't know if the guys at Ford first decided they want to race a factory mid engine car or they first wanted to produce another Ford GT and wanted it to be a thoroughbred. But that matters little at this point, because this one has already had one season of racing under its belt, even before Ford rolled a single road going version off the line. Oh, and it already has secured a Le Mans (class) win. How can you argue with that? This car has heritage and pedigree in spades. To an average car guy or gal who likes it, the GT is just a cool mid-engine car that may be special because it pays homage to the original GT40. For a motorsport-stricken, slightly crazed car guy, this is very special. The kind of car that you get all giddy just reading about. Count me with the latter. Of course, if you count yourself with us in the latter group, you may have some explaining to do every time you hear something along the lines of, say.. I don't know.. IT'S GOT A V6!

In an era of downsizing and turbocharging, you may have a leg to stand on. But, this isn't actually the era of downsizing and turbocharging.. you're led to believe it is, but it isn't, not yet anyway. Not unless you look at mainstream cars. The Mustang GT350 has a 5.2 litre V8, for example, to replace the 5.0 litre that was in the car it replaced, the Boss 302. The Corvette lives on with a 6.2 litre V8 that can be naturally aspirated or supercharged. Dodge is stuffing a 700+ hp supercharged 6.4 litre V8 in anything it can get its hands on. Lamborghini will only sell you two cars, one that can only be had with a V10 and the other a V12. Aside from one generation of M3 and M5 preceding the current iterations, the current ones maintain cylinder counts - straight six and V8 - as the previous couple of generations and actually beat the originals. They may have lost a little displacement, but they gained a couple of turbos, each. The 991 GT3 RS has the largest displacement yet, tied with he last gen; a 4.0 litre flat 6. Sure, a few joined the downsizing trend like Porsche with the rest of the lineup but it's hardly the age yet. So what is Ford doing sticking a V6 in the GT?




As far as car news, learning that the GT won't have another supercharged V8 or the 5.2 V8 in the GT350 was very sad. Learning it won't even have the 5.0 litre V8 from the Mustang GT was devastating. But then, I am almost ashamed to admit, I started to warm up to the idea.. For starters, it has been racing in a Daytona Prototype with Michael Shank Racing since the 2014 season. That gives it pedigree. If that's not enough, it has set the fastest lap (ever) on the Daytona oval of 40.364 seconds. And it set a new record top speed of 222.971 mph, blowing the previous record of 210.364 mph out of the water. And it set a new record for the first 10 kms and the first 10 miles from standing starts. If the only problem you have with the engine is the smaller number of cylinders vs a competitor with eight or more cylinders, then fight fire with fire. The numbers above should not only make up for the smaller cylinder count, but provide enough ammunition to defend the engine till we're blue in the face. But for me, and many car guys, numbers aren't the only thing that matters. And here, too, the little 3.5 V6 makes a very strong case for itself.

For starters, it has the same soul and good, humble nature that the previous engine had. It's based on a truck engine, just like the 5.4 supercharged V8 in the last GT was. It's a working class hero, as Jeremy Clarkson put it multiple times. Then you get to packaging, where the smaller engine means a smaller engine bay that allows for the stunning teardrop shape with the flying buttresses where air-to-air intercoolers live. That, in turn, also allows for excellent aerodynamics. The only thing that could hurt it is lag, tactility, and linearity of throttle response but, assuming (reasonably) that they'll all be excellent, the only problem, really, is noise. But the first drive indicates that Ford got that covered too.




To quote Road & Track again, they said: "Fear not: The street-legal GT sounds excellent. Turbo whoosh is subtle, an undertone of boost beneath the engine note. The sound is somewhere between a silken straight-six and an exotic small-bore V8, a subdued but purposeful growl. Imagine a McLaren 570S with a higher redline and a little less rasp, and you'll be on the right track. It's worlds away from the woeful moan of the Le Mans racer." Nice. I'm genuinely looking forward to hearing it now, and that's far more than I can say for any downsized engine that replaces a previously bigger, naturally aspirated engine with a higher cylinder count. And better still, all of the above, when combined, draws a much better overall picture. Don't get me wrong, I still would have preferred to see a V8 in there, but I cannot reasonably defend the preference in any way. I can only say I just prefer a V8 and leave it at that.

So what do you have? A stunning mid engine supercar with legendary heritage, forged in the fire of motorsport, powered by a record-breaking engine, that goes, drives, and sounds like nothing else. I truly can't fault the car for anything. But I could fault Ford for one thing.. the price. I can't get over the price - estimated to be north of $400k. I can kind of understand the selection process, if Ford really is picking people so that it can make sure that whoever buys it will use it and showcase Ford's efforts instead of locking them up in a pristine garage. But with production numbers being so low and price so high, it really isn't a working class hero. Not even close. It's as blue blooded as the most exotic Euro supercars and it doesn't even come with an exotic brand name. It's a more rare and expensive car than most Ferraris, and you can actually buy a Ferrari if you can afford one, but not this. If this car walked into a big Cars & Coffee, it would stick its nose up at Lamborghinis and McLarens. But here, once again, I can kind of reason myself out of it..

It may be confirmation bias, but that kind of requires that I already believe something, not be against it and then change my mind. I hated the price of this car when I found out and the selection process. But when you think about cost a little, it seems more reasonable. Alright, maybe reasonable isn't the right word for a car that costs more than a nice house. Let's say it's somewhat justified.

The first car that comes to mind when you start thinking about the price is the C7 Corvette Z06 with the Z07 package - the best bang for the buck track performance you can get. It starts at just under $100k. If you want to go another step up, you can't do better than the Viper ACR, unless you wait for the Corvette that's been spotted testing with a big wing - presumably the ZR1. The Viper ACR is basically $140k and I suspect that upcoming Vette won't be a whole lot different. No one confuses the Viper or the Z06 with fancy cars - they're expensive because they have expensive hardware. Now, factor in added costs for a more expensive chassis layout, more exotic materials, more complicated transmission, active aero, etc. and it seems very reasonable to go much higher from $140k.




At that point, it really doesn't matter a whole lot if it's $200k or $400k, for the purpose of being a humble car. The price isn't humble either way. The car will have to be far out of reach for most. But think of it this way: it's the big brother that stands up for you against bullies. Sure, you can't actually buy this car and stand up for yourself against the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini, but you can call on your big brother, who is still part of the humble family, to go give them a bloody nose. Ferrari would never sell a $20k car. Neither would Lamborghini or McLaren, or Aston Martin. That would tarnish the image and dilute the brand. The GT, though, has no problem sharing the family name with its little sisters. That is why it is still the people's supercar, even if it can't be bought by "the people."

I doubt there is a lucky owner in our region so I have no idea when I could be seeing and hearing one in person, but I sure hope it'll be soon. Finding out how it performs and just how capable the production version is? That can't come soon enough!