The GT86 goes to Assen TT track

So, an odd weekend, and the chance presented itself to try out the new braking system on the GT86 before the cold winter. Or rather, during. After a long but satisfying drive from Calais all the way to the north of the Netherlands, I made it to Assen, the home of the Dutch motor grand prix. Cold, gloomy weather awaits.

That, and chavs. Lots of Dutch chavs, or 'sjonnies' as the Dutch prefer to call them. Lots of 90's and 00's BMWs, Golfs and the like. In the UK you had your fair share of chavs, but also a reasonable number of 'car enthusiasts'. It's hard to write down the difference between the casual chav and the car enthusiast, but when you see it, you'll know without fail.

The organization, done by vrijrijden.nl, was casual and free. Signup was easy and there was no hassle with sound checks at all, but you do get a transponder to carry around in your car. Before each session the cars do a pre-line-up at the entrance to the pit lane, and then line up at the pit exit to leave in single file. There is no safety briefing and there are no rules about overtaking, using the kerbstones or drifting. A huge difference compared to the strictly-managed UK tracks.

All this freedom sounds nice in theory, but is definitely not when you're racing around with a bunch of chavs in beat-up cars with a death wish. I've seen many people spin out, run off track, blow up their engines or have some other mechanical failure. There were loads of individual driver errors, way more than I've seen on Snetterton or Bedford. Nearing the end of one session, about three cars spun off or broke down in a single lap and the session was suspended. Lastly, because there were no rules about where not to to overtake, some cars drove needlessly competitive and took risks that really weren't justified given the situation. A particular orange 350Z springs to mind: every time that guy overtook someone it came to a near-crash. A total disregard for other drivers. He was a fast driver, but an idiot who had no regard for the situation.

Ok, that's all the bad stuff out of the way. Now for the good stuff! The track was amazingly fun to drive after the cars had dispersed a little. Loads of fast, technical corners with some good hard braking points as well. I had some great battles with various cars, including a pimped-up Mini Cooper that I just barely could not catch before the session ended. Another highlight for me was holding off a deceptively beat-up 90's Honda CRX with a very skilled driver who kept catching up with me in the corners. I really had to drive all out to keep in front of him.

Things didn't go super-smoothly for me either. In the double right handers before the final straight I nearly lost my car twice. The first time I just overshot the corner like an idiot because I judged my speed wrong, but I somehow managed to hold it onto the runoff area and get back on track. The second time I pushed myself a little too hard and swung the rear out a bit, but again managed to hold it.

The worst incident I had was in the very first corner, on cold-ish tires, right after the second session had begun. I'd done a lap already so assumed the tires were ready, and then tried to push a little to pass a car in front of me, but carried way too much speed into the corner. Because I had so much speed and the angle was so very wrong, I tried to bleed the speed rather than try to drift my way through it, but I overdid it with the steering and caused the rear to break out (which is quite an easy thing to do in that corner). To make matters worse, just when I thought I had caught it with a nice correction, I slid off track over a bump into the runoff area, causing an even worse angle. In the end I did manage to catch that as well, but it certainly wasn't graceful.

The GT86 is ridiculously controllable, but also quick to hit its limits. It seems to have two modes: either you're stable turning into a corner, meaning you'll end up in understeer if you push it. But if you use the brakes right, or if the track induces the right kind of bumps, then the rear gets light and jumpy, which is exactly what you'll want it to do. Then you can choose to straighten out a bit to accelerate smoothly and quick, or dab the throttle or steering just a little more to induce a lovely little slide. It's just so entertaining to drive. I hardly ever found myself frustrated at how it handled, right up until the end of the third session when the tires started to feel a bit worn out, causing a lot more understeer.

The brakes are an interesting story. I've had the stock discs and pads replaced for a set of DBA 4000 slotted discs and Hawk brake pads. I also had the brake fluid changed for something that can handle higher temperatures. I was expecting the brake performance to be at least as good as before, and hopefully without as much fade, jittering or wear as I experienced on the original ones. To be honest, I can't say that I'm flabbergasted by their performance. The braking force was perhaps equal to the original brakes at the start, but it definitely got worse during the second session. It did remain stable after that and did not deteriorate at all any more, so they're definitely longer-lasting than the originals. Braking at full force was only barely able to trigger the ABS to kick in on a straight line, which I think means that the tires can hold their grip at the maximum amount of force the brakes are able to exert on them.

I dunno. They just feel weaker. In the end I felt more confident that I wouldn't have shitty side effects from hard braking, but I also knew that I'd have to pick my braking point early, and that I wouldn't be able to brake just that extra bit harder if I really needed to. Opinion inconclusive. I'll have to try them again at the next track day.

The brake pedal travel did increase during the session, again up until a point where it remained stable. It now catches at a fairly lower point. At first I thought that it was because the fluid had boiled causing the gas in the lines to compress whenever I brake, but now I'm wondering if brake pad wear isn't a more simple explanation. If the pads are just that much thinner I just have to push that much more in order for them to reach the discs. That would mean that I've severely underestimated the lifetime of brake pads, though, and would probably need a new set after another 1 or 2 track days. Not good..

Assen was an awesome track and very memorable. I'd rank it just above Snetterton and easily above Bedford in terms of excitement and technical challenge level. But I would not want to drive it again with vrijrijden.nl, simply because there's too many unskilled drivers in dangerous cars. There really should be a 'non-chav' class at these kind of events..

Right. Time for winter.

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The GT86 goes to Bedford

(skip if you don't like cars!)

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My second track day. The morning started out foggy, moist and meh, but the clouds soon disappeared and made way for a somewhat blue sky. For once in my life I had been hoping that the day would be full of rain, since that would greatly decrease the wear on the tires and brakes, but it was not to be. I met up with an old friend and his RX7 and soon we were off doing our first laps at Bedford Autodrome, SEN circuit.

Since the track was still wet, it proved quite an interesting start. Unfortunately I had pressed the wrong button in my car, and instead of disabling all the driving aids I just managed to set it into sport mode, meaning odd correctional behaviour at the slightest twitch of the rear. Very confusing to me because I actually thought I had turned everything off, so the car's handling didn't make much sense to me. But eventually I figured out I was pushing the wrong button and managed to sort it out. By then the track had dried up and I managed to get into my groove.

Since I was driving with my friend's much more powerful RX7, he proved a great benchmark to pit myself against. I managed to keep up with him quite well in the morning by braking late and driving right on the limit, but my buddy soon found out that one of his air intake hoses was slightly loose and was wasting precious air. He then proceeded to get into his own groove and blasted me away. The lack of power of the GT86 is absolutely noticeable during track days, especially when trying to overtake cars that are weaker in theory, but are in practice just fast enough to make it near-impossible to overtake on a straight, which, according to track day rules, is the only place you're allowed to overtake. In some cases I managed to get a good enough corner exit to speed past a car before it picks up speed, which usually makes people realize that I'm faster and they should let me pass, but on other times there's some annoying driver who never looks in his rear-view mirror and I'm stuck behind him for 2 whole laps. Oddly enough I didn't see a single blue flag for the entire day, so I assume that the officials don't mind a bit more aggressive overtaking.

In the afternoon my friend and I did a passenger session in each other's cars, which was very enlightening. It's quite amazing how different the RX7 handles compared to the GT86. It rolled a lot more, but at the same time felt more grippy and secure, and there's no comparing the 86's naturally aspirated engine to the twin-turbo powerhouse of the RX7. While my friend was sitting next to me I had a lucky streak and managed to overtake a pesky car in glorious fashion on the back straight purely by coming out of the corner better than him. Then a few laps later I managed to do my first power(ish) slide! I'm getting better at this driving thing :D.

The fun didn't last too long, though, once again due to the brakes. The brakes started needing a bit more pumping not long after the day began, but this issue didn't get much worse over the course of the day and was quite manageable. During the afternoon I started experiencing a lot of jittering and shuddering while braking hard, which was the same thing I experienced near the end of the previous track day. The problem gradually got worse over time and although it didn't affect the braking power too much, it did seem like an obvious issue with some part of the brake system. I suspect it's the discs, but don't know enough about brake mechanics to be sure. I pushed the brakes a bit more but didn't manage to cause them to fail horribly, so I assume they're not a total write-off just yet. That said, I really need to get some proper track day brakes installed because this is just no fun.

The tires were surprisingly fine. The brakes heated up a lot, which heated up the tires a lot, which expanded the air inside them, which decreased the grippyness, but it was all quite manageable. I let a bit of air out once and the pressures did not increase significantly during the rest of the day, although the tires did start losing grip near the end. It was very noticeable in some corners where I just couldn't help but squealingly drift outwards towards the side even though I was doing the same speed, gear and line I was doing earlier in the day.

Cars really aren't a cheap hobby. A track day will cost you at least 100GBP+ just to book it, and then you'll spend at least 2 full tanks of gas to get there and back, and to rev your engine on the track. In my case it seems that I don't have to worry about replacing the tires just yet, but brake pads are going to be a recurring purchase, it would seem. Oh well, I can't say I mind. Driving on track days is really good fun and an absolute must if you're into cars. My next one probably won't be any time soon. Many months will pass until the weather and my car are suitable again. I can't wait.

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My first track day at Snetterton with the GT86

Two days ago I cheekily booked in a track day for myself at Snetterton. I had been planning to delay my first track encounter until October so I could go with a friend who could introduce me, but I had some free time this week and decided to just go for it. My first time driving a proper road car for performance.

A two-hour drive later and I arrive at Snetterton. I'm fairly early but some other people are already done with the signup. It doesn't take too long, and I'm soon waved away to get my car measured for noise. With that done I just wander around the pit area walking around. There's not many people yet, and those that are there already are of the young, chavvy kind. Not exactly my kind of scene, nor will it ever be. After a long wait the safety briefing begins, which is not particularly exciting or surprising, except for the fact that you're only allowed to overtake on the left (since it's a right-hand track) for safety reasons. Me being the ultimate novice worrier, this puts me at ease a bit. I've been waiting 2 hours now, I just want to get going.

After the safety briefing I manage to get one of the instructors to go with me on my first session. Well, second session, because the entire first session consists of introduction laps behind a pace car. I hardly know where to go but soon I manage to get myself and my car in the pit lane, ready for the first laps. I was expecting a reasonably slow parade lap kind of show, since it was just meant to familiarize ourselves with the track, but the group of cars I'm in speed up to near race pace. It caught me unawares but I manage to keep up, unlike a car about 5 cars ahead of me, which soon gives up trying to follow the pace car and starts driving at its own pace. Since we're not allowed to overtake during the first session, we all drive neatly behind the slower car until the session finishes.

After a short break all the novices head back into the pit lane for the second session, and I pick up my instructor. There's not much time for chitchat as we immediately head out and I tackle the first corner like a shitty amateur. The instructor reiterates what was said in the briefing about when to brake and makes a comment about the heal-toe downshift I just fucked up. Although the guy, whose name I don't even know, was rather blunt  in his comments, it did help me out. A bit, at least. Most of the stuff he said was stuff that I should (and do) know already, but in the excitement of actually being out on a real track in a real car, sort of forgot about. So it's good to have someone next to you to keep hammering it in to you that you should stick to the racing line, brake at the right moments, don't shift too much and so on. That said, I can't say that it was the perfect learning environment. There's just way too many cars on the track, despite the organization claiming that they limit the number of cars for novice sessions.

At some point near the end of the second session my instructor commented: "do you smell that? that's brakes". I asked him if it was the brakes of the beaten-down 90s Peugeot driving in front of me, but no, the smell was indeed emanating from my own brakes. At the end of the second session, as I parked up, a Ford Fiesta pulled up next to me and I could see the smoke coming off its brakes. Mine were not quite as bad, but the entire pit lane smelled of burnt-up brakes.

The final two sessions I did all on my own, but I didn't quite get up to peak performance again because I wanted to spare my brakes. The third session was a very good intro to all kinds of lovely things: locking the wheels while braking and turning, inducing oversteer in a slow corner by powering up too much, and some proper battles with similarly-matched cars. The GT86 really showed its strengths and weaknesses here: I managed to catch up with cars that were faster than me in the corners, but on the straights they would start to outrun me. In the fourth session I had a great time chasing after a Porsche 911 Turbo, which I let pass on the straight and then managed to hold on to for 2 whole laps before my brakes started fading again and I had to slow my pace.

I guess the thing that surprised me the most is how serious things were on-track. It doesn't matter what kind of person you are off-track, once you're on the track, it's just you and the car. You immediately have to be ultra-aware of everything and be in full racing mindset. Another thing that surprised me is how much and how quickly tire wear and brake wear affect the driving experience. I honestly didn't think that you could fade your brakes in a single 20-minute session. The tires took a bit longer to warm up, but at the end of the third and fourth sessions I could definitely sense that they were more eager to lose grip than they were in the beginning. It could just be that they heated up and were a bit too high on pressure.

At the end of the evening I let my brakes cool down a bit and had a break before heading back home. The brakes had been a bit squeaky before the track day, and they used to be covered with some kind of yellow blotchiness. After the track day they were squeaky clean and without the squeak. There wasn't much socializing going on between the racers, they were all in their own groups and mostly headed home immediately.

As I drove back doing the speed limit on a dark highway, I felt more in control of my car than before. I know its limits now; when the grip of the tires starts to fade, how much stopping power the brakes can deliver, and what happens if you can't clear a corner cleanly. All of these are things that you should never need on the public road, but knowing them still makes me feel more confident.

By the way, GT86 torque dip: completely irrelevant on-track. The only reason you'd want this fixed is if you're only using it on the highway; on track you'd constantly be at higher revs anyway, and then all you'll want is some serious power rather than a tiny torque fix. Seriously, a lot of the cars I saw on track today were very evenly matched, despite differing BHP levels and different weights. Mostly it came down to driver skill and familiarity with the track. If you're racing a GT86, first get better brakes, then better tires, then a supercharger (which incidentally should fix the torque dip as well).

Part of me is dying to spend lots of money on my car, to get better brakes, tires, exhaust and maybe a supercharger. But that would be silly. It would be better to get a dedicated track-day car instead, and a racing license, which would offer a more proper racing experience. But that's not the reason I got this car. GT stands for Grand Touring: for taking your car out on a long trip and enjoying the way it drives. I'm finding out that, to me, perhaps, track days will be a means to improve my skill with the car so I can enjoy it more on public roads. Maybe. That's how I feel about it right now, perhaps that will change over time. We'll find out after the next track day :) .

 

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GT86: first impressions

(written on 2014/07/19) So, I bought a car! And not just any car. I thought about saving money and going for an economic model, or an old second hand one, but I couldn't help myself. I went to a used car lot to have a look at a BMW 1 Coupe, but as soon as the diesel engine started and the smell of it reached my nose I realized I did not want a diesel. With that incident my resolve to get an impractical fun level reached the threshold, and I bought a second hand GT86. Woohoo!

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The meh:

  • Fuel consumption is not exactly great, but on the bright side, it doesn't seem to consume that much more fuel if you drive it like you stole it, so no need to hold back :)
  • After a week of driving I've gotten used to the power and the sound rather quickly. It's all very civilized. That's probably a good thing considering it's my first rear-wheel-drive car.

The awesome:

  • Dashboard is excellent. Very focused, a joy to use.
  • Lovely short gears. Wow. Such shifting.
  • Handling is ridiculously sharp and does nothing unexpected whatsoever. It feels perfect.
  • Suspension is firm but not too firm. Excellent feel for the road.
  • Very good steering wheel and feedback.

I've taken it out almost every day this week, to get a feel for the car and to get to know the roads in my area better. Going northwest of Watford there's a lot of nice B-roads, where this car seems to feel the most at home. Although you can tell that there's a lot more potential and power in there that would not be legal to unleash on public roads. Most importantly, the car feels comfortable and confident during longer drives. It's a great place to be in, and that's what I wanted. More, much more, to come :D


Update, a few weeks later. I'm doing pretty much exactly 35mpg, which is the manufacturer-reported mpg. My driving style is a mix of extremely conservative while in city traffic and mildly enthusiastic when getting onto a nice road. I guess everything is as expected. There have been no odd surprises, no unexpected behavior, no strange quirks. The car is as predictable and tame as you'd expect it to be during normal road usage. I can only imagine what it'll be like on a track, and perhaps I'll have a chance to take it out on a track day this year. I did have a chance to see a near-identical GT86 perform a parade lap on a track. Oddly enough it was the quietest car there. Literally every other car was louder than the GT86! I couldn't believe it really. It's such a tame car when not pushed to its limits. That's my pervading image of it as I'm driving it. It doesn't have as strong a presence (personality?) as an RX7 or even a Subaru Impreza would have. All other sportscars seem to be more.. unique than the GT86. Or perhaps I'm just thinking that because I own one now. Still, this is my first (real) sports car. Our personality will grow as we grow.


Update, another few weeks later. The car is fun! I'm becoming more confident in driving my new friend, but I have a lot to learn. I'm really enjoying it though, and I feel excited every time I take it out. My attitude while driving is still mostly 'get good fuel economy', although sometimes I have moments of "drive it like you stole it". The car accommodates either. I've been reading about it online to see if it has any quirks, and the only thing I could find was the so-called torque gap in the mid revs, which I do find I actually notice, since the high revs tend to be a bit off-limits on most public roads, so the mid revs are where you want it to start pulling to get up to speed with things. An ECU + exhaust kit apparently fixes this quite nicely, but I'm not quite ready to think about that just yet.

Side note: I also got my first damage.. Just after I parked the car at a supermarket, a middle-aged lady decided to reverse-park into it as I was just walking away from the car. As soon as I heard the scraping I turned around and saw the woman performing the worst ever reverse-park that I ever saw in my life. Fortunately it was only bodywork damage, but it will need to get fixed. What a fucking hassle..


Update, today. The power and rear-wheel-drive-y-ness does let itself known when you're parking on slopes, especially combined with grass or gravel. It's entirely possible to either spin the wheels too much or do something naughty to your clutch if you're not careful. Makes for good training though.

People have been reporting that the GT86 has a torque dip right in the mid range of the revs where it's slow to pick up compared to the rest of the rev range. I've actually noticed this a lot myself lately, because I'm usually too much of a pussy to use the higher revs on public roads, so the highest I go tends to be the mid range. Mild annoyance, easily dealt with by changing driving style a bit, getting an aftermarket ecu and optional exhaust fix, or just putting up with it.

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