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