BAR­GAIN BASE­MENT

The Ford Puma Cup aims to pro­vide com­pet­i­tive rac­ing and big thrills on a bud­get... How data in­spired bet­ter lap times

Motor Sport News - - Track Test: Puma Cup -

How much did he say? £175? Se­ri­ously? How can that be a rac­ing car? And how can it be this good?” There was more than a lit­tle sur­prise in my co-driver Hamish Bran­don’s voice when we were told about the ori­gins of our ma­chine for the week­end. Bran­don is more used to tur­bocharged mod­ern Mi­nis in re­cent years, but he’d just had a blast around Don­ing­ton Park.

“This is ac­tu­ally one of the most fun things I’ve raced in years,” he con­tin­ues. “But did he re­ally say £175?”

He did. This par­tic­u­lar Ford Puma was an im­pulse pur­chase. Well, with a price tag so low you don’t have to re­sist too much. As a 15-year-old 80,000-mile road car, the Puma had done its fair share of com­mut­ing. Time to give it a new lease of life – in the Puma Cup.

Started in 2014, the se­ries runs as part of the Clas­sic Sports Car Club pack­age, usu­ally tagged on to its New Mil­len­nium grid. A sin­gle-make se­ries for af­ford­able tin-tops isn’t any­thing new, but what is re­fresh­ing about the Puma Cup is the sheer ac­ces­si­bil­ity of the pack­age.

“I think you’d be hard-pushed to find an­other rac­ing se­ries that can match the value for money we pro­vide,” says Puma Cup pro­moter and car owner Kevin Shor­tis, who knows a thing or two about rac­ing Fords. Head of Ford Rac­ing UK, Shor­tis is the man who mas­ter­minded the ul­tra-suc­cess­ful Ford Fi­esta Cham­pi­onship in re­cent years, and was the driv­ing force be­hind the Fi­esta Ju­nior Cham­pi­onship too.

The Puma Cup is his lat­est project. But it’s rac­ing with a twist. “The con­cept be­hind the se­ries was bud­get en­durance rac­ing,” says Shor­tis. “There’s been a clear shift to­ward team-ori­en­tated rac­ing in re­cent years. Driv­ers like the chal­lenges of shar­ing a car and the longer races, and then there’s the added bonus of be­ing able to share the costs. We run a mix­ture of race for­mats, but it’s mainly mini-en­durance events and some dou­ble-header sprint rounds.

“An en­durance round is a 30-minute qual­i­fy­ing ses­sion and a 40-minute race, and the reg­u­la­tions al­low up to four driv­ers per car. That’s 70 min­utes of track time and en­try fees are around £385 per round, if you split that be­tween two driv­ers it’s not too much more than ar­rive-and-drive kart­ing.”

The Puma was the per­fect can­di­date. Ford pro­duced around 46,000 of them in the UK, and a fur­ther 160,000 in Europe be­tween 1997 and 2001. So spares are read­ily avail­able just about any­where. As are donor cars. Our chas­sis re­ally did cost just £175 in base form, and has been made race­wor­thy thanks to a kit of parts from se­ries founder EMC Mo­tor­sport. The kit in­cludes a Cus­tom Cages rollcage, Gaz sus­pen­sion, a Su­per­chips ECU up­grade, and the stan­dard MSA­man­dated safety kit. But that’s the lot.

To­tal build cost? About £4,000 all in.

For that you get a race-ready ver­sion of Ford’s mini-coupe, fit­ted with a 140bhp 1.7-litre Zetec en­gine and sticky Dun­lop Direzza semi-slick tyres.

The pack­age is also a proven prod­uct in rac­ing, although you may not have no­ticed it. The chas­sis is straight from the Class B Mk4 Fi­esta Zetec, and much of the run­ning gear comes from the Sport KA. The 1.8-litre form of the Zetec en­gine had a home pre­vi­ously in For­mula Ford, and this Yama­hade­signed 1.7-litre Sigma vari­ant has pow­ered a mul­ti­tude of dif­fer­ent rac­ing for­mu­lae from Cater­hams to spe­cial saloons. The en­gine must be en­tirely stan­dard, with only a gen­eral re­build al­lowed. The ex­haust and man­i­fold are free, but still gov­erned by a di­am­e­ter re­stric­tion. The gear­box must re­main en­tirely stan­dard.

“The Puma might not have been the most com­mon car to see rac­ing, but un­der the skin it’s a very well known quan­tity,” says mul­ti­ple Fi­esta cham­pion Ian Scru­ton, who built this par­tic­u­lar chas­sis through his Foun­da­tion Rac­ing team.

“The key to this car is that ev­ery­thing has been kept sim­ple. The chas­sis is proven, as is the en­gine and run­ning gear and the mod­i­fi­ca­tions made to it for rac­ing are also very ba­sic.

“The sus­pen­sion for ex­am­ple has two ad­just­ments – height and stiff­ness – that’s it. We didn’t want peo­ple mess­ing around with sus­pen­sion ge­om­e­try end­lessly. That’s not what club rac­ing is about. This is a sim­ple and fun car to get to grips with.”

find­ing the per­fect bal­ance front-rear can be tricky as you have to get the weight to the rear to get the best from the han­dling.”

On fully warmed-up tyres the rear is trust­wor­thy too, with good grip at speed. Through the faster sec­tions of Don­ing­ton Park, such as the Craner Curves, as long as you keep your foot in to steady the front end and don’t get ruth­less on the steer­ing the rear will hap­pily play along.

Af­ter some coach­ing from Bran­don ( see side­bar) I’m turn­ing into the Old Hair­pin in fourth gear and car­ry­ing the best part of 80mph across the apex. All the time the front end re­mains planted on the throt­tle and ev­ery­thing is largely happy and set­tled.

That’s be­yond mo­tor­way speed, through a tricky right-han­der, in a bar­gain-base­ment chas­sis…

While the Puma is a happy and con­trol­lable thing, that makes it all the more tricky to find those last few tenths that make the dif­fer­ence on a hot lap. It’s all about mo­men­tum, as the en­gine alone is noth­ing spe­cial on the straights, but is very ea­ger in the lower gears, with a good torque curve. The key is con­cen­trat­ing on cor­ner ex­its, and be­ing brave enough to carry the most apex speed pos­si­ble.

The chas­sis gives great feed­back, of­ten hop­ping around un­der­neath me as I turn through Cop­pice to let me know there’s prob­a­bly not a huge amount more to lean on.

It in­spires con­fi­dence, but can also bite you if you lose con­cen­tra­tion. The ten­dency to over­steer caught me out once when I lifted off the throt­tle into Cop­pice to let a quicker car past, and didn’t get back on it fast enough to trans­fer the weight. Cue a big wig­gle when the front did bite again and a grav­elly mo­ment.

Warm­ing the rear tyres also takes longer than ex­pected. As the ma­jor­ity of the weight is at the front, the rears sim­ply trail along be­hind, with­out get­ting much tem­per­a­ture. A fact not helped by the Puma’s low kerb weight. The car barely tips the scales at 1000kg in race spec.

“The Puma is also in­cred­i­bly good on its con­sum­ables,” says Shor­tis. “The set of brake discs and pads run here are the same ones raced all sea­son [this was round seven of nine] and pro­vided you’re not too ag­gres­sive you can get two meet­ings and some test­ing out of a set of tyres.”

The brakes them­selves are very solid. You can brake hard and late and the chas­sis is sta­ble enough to let you know when the tyres are skip­ping for grip. Cur­rently there are two brake set-ups – one for older cars us­ing the be­spoke 240mm Puma brake discs, and one for the newer cars, which used 260mm brakes com­mon with the Fi­esta. Both types of car are equalised by weight, with the larger-braked cars run­ning 40kg heav­ier.

Scru­ton built this chas­sis in around four weeks, but reck­ons he could shave three of those off if needed.

“Putting the cars to­gether is so sim­ple as it’s all nuts and bolts stuff,” he says. “Pro­vided you have a pro­fes­sional fit the cage, any­body with a set of span­ners can do the rest as it’s all bolt-on com­po­nents and ev­ery­thing is tightly con­trolled so that the rac­ing comes down to driver skill.”

This year the av­er­age en­try has hov­ered at around eight-10 cars, dou­bling that of the first pi­lot sea­son in 2014. How­ever, EMC has al­ready sold 27 build kits to cus­tomers plan­ning to get cars out for next sea­son.

“In­ter­est is build­ing nicely and we know there will be more cars for 2017,” adds Shor­tis. “The deal with the CSCC is great as it gives us flex­i­bil­ity, and for now the plan is to con­tinue shar­ing grids [with the New Mil­len­nium se­ries or sim­i­lar]. But if the de­mand and en­tries are there of course we’d love to run stand­alone grids from next year, but we have to be re­al­is­tic and work with what num­bers we have.”

In terms of cheap rac­ing, it doesn’t come too much cheaper than the Puma Cup. In terms of sheer en­joy­ment, the Puma is a lit­tle star in the mak­ing. ■ Key to get­ting the best out of the Ford Puma was prac­tice and good data.

Be­fore the CSCC meet­ing at Don­ing­ton Park it had been five years since my last com­pet­i­tive car race. I needed to sharpen up, and thanks to my team-mate, Mini Chal­lenge reg­u­lar Hamish Bran­don, we had the per­fect tool – the Race­l­ogic VBOX HD2 sys­tem.

Bran­don’s Scot­tish-based Pan­da­mo­nium Rac­ing firm is an of­fi­cial dis­trib­u­tor for Race­l­ogic, and the sys­tem made a big dif­fer­ence for a driver chas­ing lap time im­prove­ment.

Bran­don went out and set a bench­mark lap time for me, be­fore I went out and tried to get as close as I could to it. Af­ter each run, the Race­l­ogic soft­ware al­lows you to run both Bran­don’s fastest lap along­side my own, in frame-by-frame HD video, with ac­cu­rate live data.

Race­l­ogic’s GPS sys­tem is ac­cu­rate to a few cen­time­tres, so by sim­ply look­ing at the speed the car is car­ry­ing at each apex shows the most ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ence. Bran­don is faster than me by 5mph about ev­ery­where ini­tially. From the video Bran­don can also work out I’m brak­ing 50 me­tres too early into the fi­nal chi­cane. “When you get to where you usu­ally brake, don’t. In­stead count to one, then brake hard,” he tells me. I found a sec­ond the first time I did that.

Us­ing the live pre­dic­tive lap timer is also a joy. We had it mounted in the cen­tre of the dash, and it gives you live up­dates each sec­tor as to whether you are plus or mi­nus on times. I was con­sis­tently 1.5s off Bran­don’s bench­mark through sec­tor one, and would drop fur­ther away in the last sec­tor.

Once into the groove you end up chas­ing the timer. It urges you to trust the car and push your own bound­aries by tak­ing cor­ners faster and faster and ex­per­i­ment­ing as to which lines let you carry more speed and where the ideal gear change points are. Com­bine it all and I beat my tar­get time of a 1m33s lap, dip­ping into 1m32.6s.

By the end of the day I’d found over 20sec­onds with the help of Bran­don and Race­l­ogic. It’s amaz­ing what hav­ing the right in­for­ma­tion and en­cour­age­ment can do.

Don­ing­ton Park race was 40-min­utes long the car, and costs So two driv­ers could share The Puma’s han­dling im­pressed our man Lit­tle Puma made a great rac­ing ma­chine

Lad­brook and Bran­don (right), with the con­verted £175 road chas­sis

Puma runs as part of a CSCC shared grid Puma in­te­rior was solid, and Race­l­ogic timer was use­ful

Bran­don of­fered coach­ing

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