When the 1.25 Zetec Fiesta class was introduced back in 2013, the intention, even back then, was to subsequently introduce a newer more powerful Fiesta class. As we know, the standard 80bhp car gave us great racing and introduced a host of newbies to Irish Motorsport.
One make racing has always been popular here in Ireland, since the Fiat 128 3P drivers broke away from the “Up to 1300cc Production Saloon” class to form the Fiat Challenge back in the day. As the 3P and Coupe models eventually became thin on the ground, they were replaced by the Ritmo and eventually, with manufacturer backing and start money for drivers, the Uno model. All used the venerable Lampredi 1290cc single ohc engine, which rarely gave trouble and happily revved to 8,000rpm all season long. Eventually, in the late 90s, the Punto 1400 class arrived and in 2002, the Abarth Cup was introduced. When they eventually bashed themselves into extinction, there was a gap for a few years and then, as I have already mentioned, the Zetec Fiesta class was successfully introduced.
Veteran tin top exponent Barry Barrable did a lot of research and discovered that 150bhp Fiesta ST models were available in the UK for circa £2,000 and he put the wheels in motion to start a class. Mondello Park were happy to take it over in terms of running it and Brian Matthews came on board to support it with his Patch Tyre Equipment Business. Despite claims of grids being filled on the off season, just 17 cars turned up for the opening rounds of the series at Mondello in April. There are more in build however and the cars were superbly presented. Even better, the racing was fantastic and thankfully, most of them stayed apart. During a wander round the paddock, I had a look at a few of the cars and they look really good. Ulick Burke and Coilin Clinton were both horrified at my suggestion that the cars cost over €10,000. Both of those guys are very much hands on though, and would have done all of the work themselves. Regardless, these cars are a lot less expensive than the Abarth Cup cars were some 14 years ago. (Doesn’t time fly?!)
So, when Hugh McEvoy suggested I help him a little and drive his car, I jumped at the opportunity. On the Friday of the Bank Holiday weekend, Hugh had booked into one of the superbly run Octane Track Days at Mondello Park. More and more saloon race car drivers are nowadays using track days instead of designated test days, purely because of the open pitlane element. 15 minute sessions on a test day do not really let you adjust your car and get back out on track. As a result the paddock was peppered with race cars when I arrived at lunchtime. During the break, we took the opportunity to walk the track and even though I think it is something all racers should do, it had been a while. Once I got signed on, and refused all the amazing cake and food that Octane Track Day attendees receive, it was time to jump aboard and see what all the fuss was about. The car, like most of them, is superbly finished and has a modern day cage that makes entry and exit less dignified than I remembered. It was also running my favourite number, 27, so I was smiling before I climbed onboard. Having made it in, the seat was a pretty good fit, belts fitted ok, so I snapped on the detachable wheel and fired the 2.0 Fiesta up. On my way down the pitlane I noticed that lights, indicators, fan, heater and even electric windows all worked, as did the original Ford guages for speed, revs temp and fuel. The power steering also remains, happily, making it as easy to drive as its road equivalent.
I drove slowly out the pitlane but as I pulled second and accelerated, the front tyres lit up. This surprised me as I had expected these cars, not having a lsd, to spin an inside front on the exit of corners- but not under acceleration in a straightline. Compared to a 1.25 Zetec Fiesta, these cars are far quicker, and far louder. They sound like a race car and even have a satisfying pop sound on the overrun- something a few 1.25s had before the scrutineers finally traced the issue! The engines and boxes are standard and the cars run a control ECU, which the series organisers say they can read at any time to check mapping etc. The cars run a control Yokohama tyre, soft but road legal so a separate set of rims and tyres is not required for wet conditions.
On cold tyres, I threw the car around a little bit, and the balance seemed great. A few laps later though, with some heat in the rears and it was a little bit different. I had spoke to some of the drivers at the last meeting and they said that the cars turn in well and don’t really understeer but suffer from wheelspin more than most on the exit of corners. The car drove well and was good fun, but enter a corner 3 or 4 mph quicker than the car likes and it gets the dreaded FWD hops- do this in the wrong part of the circuit, (the entrance to Birrane’s Bends on the International for one) and is severe enough to make a reasonable effort at firing you off the track. We played around with the setup during the day, having had a chat with Hugh, along with Raymond and Kevin, who were running the car, and although we definitely made improvements, we hadn’t fully eliminated it by the end of the day. Another interesting aspect of this was, it being a track day, I was able to take the team out for a couple of laps and let them see and feel what the car was doing. Some track days can be a bit ropey in terms of driving standards and in a racecar you would be wary of someone spinning into your path etc. With an Octane Track day, this is highly unlikely as they run it almost like a community, most people know each other and newbies are strictly vetted.
So was I impressed? In short yeah, I was. I have some reservations, both having spoken to the drivers and having driven the car, that the control suspension (both springs and shocks) is either not up to the job or set up incorrectly. I might be wrong on that one, but I did notice even the frontrunners at the opening meeting were getting the dreaded hops too. Without that though, they are a nice looking car, they are reasonably quick and look more modern than their lower powered siblings. They are all well turned out, reasonably well matched and there was very little damage first time out. What more could we want from a one make series?
Here is the biggie- if the officials concentrate less on the size of stickers and more on making sure the cars are as per the rule book, this class could have a big chance. Similarly, If the damage kicks off, people may not be inclined to stay racing. Cregor Elliott came down to take a few pictures and Hugh suggested I bring him for a few laps. As it happened, this conincided with what seemed like a world ending hailstorm. The resultant broadsided slides over a few laps had us both grinning from ear to ear- as you can see from the subsequent selfie!
Cregor, as ever, got some great pictures and as I went through them again and again, it reminded me of how I used to do the same back when I raced. Below is probably one of my favourite pictures, a four wheel drift coming into the Esses with no lock on. Cheers Cregor……