F1200 Tryout Report
A Sports Car Racer Gives F1200 A Try!
Part 1 – The Test
A question for motorsports enthusiasts. What car sporting a german made, air cooled, horizontally opposed engine in a rear mounted configuration, has a distinguished competition history of over 30 years, and has provided a stepping stone for some of the world’s greatest drivers as they move to the top of their profession? If you answered Porsche 356, 914 or 911, you would be absolutely right! If you answered Formula Vee (aka FV or in Canada, F1200), you would be equally correct.
The Formula Vee concept was initiated over 35 years ago with the aim of providing close, inexpensive, open wheel racing for enthusiasts. In order to keep costs in line, the rules specified the use of certain readily available VW beetle parts and mandated that the chassis and bodywork would be constructed in a durable manner that would render the racers as safe as possible.. for an open wheel car that is! In 2003, the class is contested world wide in countries including Canada, the US, Britain, Germany, and Australia. In Canada, the Isseco/Kumho F1200 series is, along with the F1600 championship, one of only two open wheel championship series currently running in Eastern Canada. Our series is contested at six rounds and boasts fields of up to 24 cars, pretty significant for these economically challenged times. The Pro Vee, and SCCA FV series in the US feature huge fields. Just tune in to the SCCA run offs on Speed TV and you’ll see what I mean. Fields of over 40 cars running in a long drafting conga line are not uncommon and the racing is close! Last year at Mosport, none other than Ludwig Heimrath was heard to say to a group of PCA Club Racers that F1200 was the place to go for very competitive and close racing.
The F1200 series was particularly interesting to me as I was interested in trying a new type of racing that would keep me closer to home, would be cost effective, and would involve open wheel racing.
Having competed reasonably successfully in PCA Club Racing for five years I had become painfully aware of a number of realities of Porsche Club Racing including, in no particular order;
If you want to run near the front, you need to be prepared to spend lots of money on tires. Tires are open, or unrestricted (other than size) in PCA racing and the nature of the competition is that, in a competitive class, even the very best car and driver will have a hard time overcoming an average set of tires. Also, I was on the verge of repetitive strain injuries from hefting the four sets of wheels and tires that I took to each race (last weekend’s race tires, next weekend’s race tires, wet tires and dry practice tires). In the case of F1200, the series runs a Kumho spec (or specified) tire which means that everyone runs the same tire, wet or dry conditions. A set of tires costs $600 and generally lasts the whole season. An added bonus is that the spec steel wheels cost $88 each so you can get a complete set of competition wheels and tires for less than $1,000.
There is only one PCA race on Canadian soil (UCR’s event at Mosport) and the closest US venues are a 4 to 6 hour haul from Southern Ontario. However if you want to do more than 2 or 3 races in a year, you will be travelling at least 10 hours more often than not. When you get to your destination, you then pay for accommodation and food in costly US dollars. The F1200 series, on the other hand, runs four events at Mosport and one each at Shannonville and Mt. Tremblant so the complexities and costs of travelling are reduced.
The final reality is that, while Porsche makes sports cars of unparalleled excellence, they are still street based cars, equipped and designed for everyday use. Racing an aging street based car is always a compromise and requires extra special attention to maintenance and between race inspection. I had learned from my days of racing Grand Prix motorcycles that nothing compares to the simplicity of maintaining a purpose built racing machine. Such machines include only the basic systems required for their simple intended function and are ruggedly designed. They allow for ready access to parts requiring maintenance and inspection and are easy to work on at the track. Major structural repairs, unthinkable on a uni-body type road car, can often be performed on purpose built race cars, especially steel framed cars like the F1200’s.
With all of these considerations in mind, I found myself at a CASC Mosport test day in early August (2003), behind the tiny wheel of a Vallis Motorsport F1200 BRD. I could see upon arriving at the track that, while the modern day F1200 car conforms to the time honoured FV rules, it does so by combining the required, rugged, VW components with some dashes of modern technology. The most obvious VW components are the twin beam torsion bar front end and the 1200 cc H4 motor. In the interest of safety, the rules specify that the front axle must be located ahead of the driver’s feet and that the frame must provide significant structural support to the axle as well as intrusion protection for the driver (more on the wisdom of this later!). While the front suspension of the car seemed dated, the remote, double adjustable, push rod activated Penske shock mounted transversly at the rear seemed very high tech as did the tiny fuel cell mounted right behind the seat. While the typical FV motor puts out a measly 60 HP, the weight (under Canadian rules) of the car including the driver is a minimum 1050 lbs at a very low center of gravity. This provides for excellent handling and a reasonable power to weight ratio. The FV lap record at Mosport is in the 1:38 range (with slicks mind you) as compared to the 1:42.9 lap record for PCA I class (944/924S cars) in which I was used to competing. In current F1200 form, the fastest cars run in the low 1:40’s with the spec Kumho tires.
The test day started in a dicey fashion as, during the first session I was stranded in turn three with a loose connection in the ignition however things picked up after that. Being out with Fran Am cars (Andrew Ranger, Mark Wilkins etc) and F1600 (Asley Taws , Dan Burchill) was a bit scary because the mirrors are small and those guys are fast. It is quite something to watch a full ground effects Fran-Am car (with the driver who won at the Toronto Indy and Canadian GP at the wheel) going through turn 8 without lifting!! This being said, the F1200 cornering speeds are similar to those of the other open wheel variations although the straight line speeds are another story. This reminded me that one of the reasons I am attracted to F1200 is that at the 6 National F1200 Kumho series races, they run in their own group so you don’t have to worry about faster cars. The F1200’s are definitely slow up the back straight and it readily becomes apparent why the draft is so important in F1200 racing. I was looking for the cup holder!
One thing for sure, the pavement looks a lot closer from lower down and the sense of speed is heightened. It reminded me of bike racing, and that strange sense of security you get when you are hanging off, and very close to the track with your knee dragging. You feel very connected to the pavement. At the beginning I found the car very “darty” and quite loose as well as very susceptible to cross winds. The 1200 cars run minimal toe-in in front to preserve straight line speed and use tons of rear camber. The handling is usually adjusted by playing with the rear Penske shock however I resisted the urge to make changes as I felt the car would feel better when I picked up the pace. This was the case and, at faster speeds the car was well balanced with a tendency towards a little oversteer (very progressive and easily corrected) in the faster corners. I found that once you get used to it, it was a lot of fun finding out where the car wanted to slide.
After three sessions I was doing turns 8 and 1 flat, no breathing, no braking nothing. In turn two, you lift but don’t brake. In fact the only places you do brake are 3, 5a and 9. Turn 4 is also obviously flat and turn 5a is where the one obvious shortcoming shows up….the brakes do not live up to Porsche standard! You really have to lean on the suckers while at the same time heel toeing on the tiny pedals into into third gear! However, the car is like a go-cart and the speed which you can take 5a and b with is amazing. One big drift all the way around right in the power band in third gear. If you are used to momentum cars, it is not a big change to F1200.
I was impressed with how the spec Kumhos worked. The g forces are pretty large, I had bruises all over my legs and shoulders after two hours in the car. I would say that the average cornering speed would be 10 or 15% faster than a well driven I class car. It is a rush going through four flat, hammering the brakes and reaming the down shift while trail braking on the turn in as the car gets a little loose. The bottom of the car is only 3/4″ off the ground so it bottoms out under braking on the way up the hill into turn 5A. For the rest of the circuit, I definitely felt I was going to have to learn left foot braking.
My test was deemed successful in that I managed to survive the day without taking out one of the Fran Am cars and in fact was able to maintain a pace fairly close to that of some of the series regulars. It was then subsequently arranged that I would join the Vallis Motorsports team for the CASC “Celebration” Race weekend at the end of September. This weekend included the final round of the F1200 National Series and a big field was expected, including a number of cars from Winnipeg where there is an active F1200 group. Next..the Celebration Race weekend (or Noah’s Ark takes the pole)!!!
Part 2 – The Celebration Race Weekend
The CASC Celebration Race Weekend at Mosport marks the conclusion of the Ontario Regional Road Racing season and includes the final round of the F1200 championship series. This year’s event was held over the September 26 � 28 weekend which delivered a mind-boggling array of weather conditions, even when considering the Mosport location.
I arrived bright and early for the Friday open test day and found Bill Vallis and his assistants busy at work unloading a number of F1200’s from two trailers and setting up the Vallis Motorsports paddock area. As various F1200 drivers and crew dropped by to socialize or glean nuggets of technical advice, it quickly became apparent that the Vallis pit is the centrum of the F1200 world and that Bill is the Kingpin, Don, Godfather (pick one) of the clan.
Bill has been at the centre of the F1200 scene for many years and, while there is a diverse array of F1200 cars available on the market, the Vallis Motorsports BRD chassis is by far the most popular on the Canadian scene. Of the 18 cars entered for the Celebration weekend, 13 were BRD’s. Bill has been building the BRD since the early 1990’s and production to date is about 40 cars. While the car has enjoyed constant development from year to year, the chassis design has remained fairly consistent and so parts from the latest cars will fit all cars back to 1996. This is good news for all BRD owners as Bill carries a stock of the various consumable parts to all F1200 races negating the need for the average BRD owner to accumulate and transport the usual array of spare parts. Bill provides support to a number of F1200 drivers and teams on a variety of plans. He has “rental” cars which are available on a full season “arrive and drive” package basis or from race to race. He can also prepare and transport driver owned cars on the same “arrive and drive” basis as well as performing the more traditional maintenance, engine building and parts supply from his shop in the Welland area.
On observing the friendly nature of the interactions between the various racers and crew it quickly became apparent that the Formula Twelve Hundred Driver’s Association (FTDA) is a club in the true sense of the word. The FTDA was founded a number of years ago in order to foster the growth and good health of the series and to provide a competitive but fun environment for the racers and teams. From my perspective, it is always healthy to know, and respect, those with whom who you are sharing the track and the FTDA folks seemed to be a sensible crew. The President of the FTDA is veteran (retired) racer Guy Raekelboom whose son Mike was the championship leader coming into the Celebration weekend. Guy provides many services to the FTDA not the least of which is the bulk purchasing of the spec wheels and tires which he stores in his warehouse and makes available at rock bottom prices.
Among my Vallis Motorsports team mates for the weekend were young karting star Brad Leliever (2nd in points), old motorcycle racing acquaintance and 40 something real estate agent Frank Steinhausen (3rd in points) and Mississauga Toyota Dealer Paul Gabusta (5th in points). You would recognize Paul from the Ontario Toyota Dealer ads currently running on TV. Also receiving support from Vallis was UCR member Mike Mori, running a car similar to mine. UCR members entered in other classes for the Celebration weekend included Karl Thomson and Ken Kadwell in their Rothman’s 944’s, Joel Reiser in his 911 RSR, Rob Pacione in his GT class Heimrath’s sponsored 944 Turbo, and former DE participant Hans Wolter who was entered in the Nissan Sentra spec racer class. I dropped by Karl’s trailer early on to wish him luck in his quest for the GTC championship (which he won!!). I was also very fortunate to have moral support provided for the weekend by UCR members, and good friends, Mark Russell and Dave Morrison.
The Friday test day provided perfect sunny fall weather for practice. I ran four out of the five sessions and spent the last one circulating in close proximity to Paul and gaining experience in how to work the F1200 draft. The effect of the draft is really quite remarkable. If you are in the trailing car on a portion of the track normally taken with full throttle, you can keep right on the tail of the car ahead with your foot well off the floor. It is also quite apparent that the whole car, and especially the tires, seems to take much less abuse when in the draft. This is why F1200 races most often require implementation of a chess match type of strategy where leading the pack is often not the best bet. The eventual winner often will prefer to stay in the draft, saving the car and tires while assessing the weaknesses of the car(s) in front. A carefully planned move is then saved for the last lap, usually in the last few corners. At other times, the lead group, containing as many as five cars, will shuffle positions many times per lap as individual drivers attempt to break the draft.
The car that I had purchased following my August test was the 2000 BRD driven by 2003 series Champ Louey Jabouri. Following the test day, I was happy with my purchase as the car handled very well and clearly had a strong motor.
Friday’s perfect weather was followed by a Saturday morning deluge which was among the worst that I have experienced in many years of motorsports competition. The rain had started during the evening and increased in intensity by mid-morning to something approaching monsoon conditions. However as the F1200 cars sat on the mock grid awaiting our first session, the rain had eased up to more of a drizzle.
The typical F1200 race weekend starts with a 20 minute combined practice/qualifying session on Saturday morning and includes three 12 lap points races, one on Saturday afternoon and two on Sunday. The grid for the first race is determined by the qualifying session while the grids for the two successive races are based on the results on the previous race. Given the conditions, and the fact that I had never driven a 1200, or any open wheel car for that matter, in the rain, my goal for qualifying was a simple oneto keep the car on the track and pointing in the right direction.
Once we were waved on the track, I left some distance between myself and the car in front and concentrated on driving the modified Mosport wet line (which has evolved since the repaving some years ago) with all the smoothness I could muster. The time honoured strategy of imagining an unbroken egg between one’s foot and the throttle came in handy in this instance but the car was nonetheless quite a handful in the slippery conditions. After a couple of laps, I noticed the rain drops appearing with increasing frequency on my visor and thenwham, the heavens let loose with a renewed vengeance and the rain began to pelt down in a torrent. Driving alone in these conditions provided reasonable visibility however, as a faster car drafted by on the back straight and I pulled in behind, I learned a fundamental open wheel rule..the spray off the tires of the car in front was blinding! Think about what it would be like to stand in your shower wearing your full-face helmet and with the shower head pointing directly at the visor. This would give you a good simulation of the visibility as the tires of the car in front suck the water off the track and project it into the air. In the ensuing laps I was required to turn into a corner more than once based largely on intuition as I couldn’t see a darned thing through my rain splattered visor. After a couple more laps, the session was halted early due to the difficult conditions and I managed to bring the car, complete with sodden driver, back to the pits. To my surprise I had managed to qualify 7th in the 18 car field based on one of the early laps I got in before the torrent started.
By the time the first F1200 race of the weekend was flagged off on Saturday afternoon, the rain had abated somewhat and the track conditions varied between wet and drying, depending on the location. Most racers will tell you that if they can’t have a dry track, they prefer full wet conditions as opposed to a drying, or variable situation. As I am not Jos Verstappen or Jean Alesi, I am no fan of such conditions however I did take some comfort in the fact that, since my car was shod with the spec, treaded, Kumho tires, I was spared the usual anxiety which goes with making an appropriate tire choice for the conditions.
I have always had reasonable success with rolling starts and, from the inside of the 4th row, had planned a strategy which has worked for me before. This was to go right over to the pit wall on the green flag and stay as far as possible to the inside through turn one. On this day the plan proved a good one as I exited turn one in 4th place, having gained three spots! The drivers in front were youngsters Brad Leleiver and Chris Freeland (putting in an outstanding performance in a dated Lynx chassis) and veteran Simon Elliot. We held positions for most of the first lap however in turn eight Simon slid off backwards towards the tire wall and I found myself in third place! This situation held for the next few laps however it became clear that the more experienced F1200 drivers were adapting more quickly to the conditions as Paul Gabusta and Frank Steinhausen took advantage of my cautious approach to turn nine and went by me on the outside of turn ten with great authority! Still, I was quite pleased with fifth place and proceeded for the next few laps until I missed the downshift for Moss corner and found myself in neutral. “No problem says I..I’ll just blip the throttle, put it in gear, ease the clutch out and whoops”. That little car swapped ends so fast I didn’t even have time to counter steer! All of a sudden I found myself perched backwards on the outside curbing of Moss corner looking wide eyed at a train of 13 buzzing Vee cars hurtling down corner four right towards me. A quick punch on the starter button lit the stalled engine and I was back underway having dropped back to 10th place however a full course yellow, caused by another incident, soon bunched the field up again.
On the restart, I managed to take advantage of some jostling between the cars in front and was able to move up a few positions by the time we exited Moss corner whereupon I found myself hard on the tail of the car in front as we proceeded up the back straight. With what seemed like gobs of momentum in hand and with lots of the back straight remaining, I pulled out of the draft to complete what I though would be a simple pass and learned a valuable F1200 lesson. As soon as I got out of the draft of the car in front, my car felt like it had run into a wall and my momentum disappeared. We motored up the back straight, side by side, sneaking the occasional glance at each other, and crested the hill before turn eight, which is normally taken foot to the floor in a 1200 car. In these damp conditions however, some caution was required, and my competitor wisely backed off allowing me (a little less wise!) into the corner first. With a sinking feeling, I started to feel the back end slide. As opposed to my first spin, which was very quick, this one was slow and graceful but ended up with the same result. Davies sitting backwards on the curbing staring wide eyed at the approaching horde!
I managed to quickly rejoin the race and finished in 10th place (out of 18). Given the fact that I had spun twice, I wasn’t too unhappy with the result although I was disappointed with myself for allowing the spins to happen. I attributed the mistakes, especially the second one, to lapses in concentration and vowed to improve in that department.
The race was won by Brad Leleiver after a close battle with Chris Freeland. I slept that night with a rather sore posterior, a consequence of the car bottoming out on the curbing during my first spin.
While the weather improved markedly for Sunday’s races, my luck did not. Having been off the track twice on Saturday due to my own mistakes, I ended up getting punted off from behind in turn nine by a car which I had just passed and, after rejoining the race, had contact with a car which spun in front of me just as I was lapping him, leaving me nowhere to go. However I was assured by the F1200 crowd that such incidents are relatively infrequent and was also pleased that the car stood up so well to the two impacts, suffering a few bent VW suspension pieces which were quickly replaced by Vallis Motorsports with the kind help of Louey Jabouri, the car’s former owner. A Formula Ford or other open wheel car would have had it’s front corner torn right off in a similar impact but the sturdy BRD suffered only a bent front beam axle, steering arm and shock. More importantly, my feet and legs were protected from injury by the rugged front end and chassis design. As always positive Mark Russell said, “you are really lucky Geoff, think how much it would have cost if you had done that in your Porsche!
The final race of the year was won by young Mike Raekelboom with a wily last lap pass of Frank Steinhausen. The F1200 championship points battle had gone down to the last race and the win clinched the F1200 championship for Mike.
While eventful, my first foray into open wheel, and F1200 racing, was fun, challenging and rewarding. It was also very pleasant to be welcomed, open armed, into the friendly F1200 family and to experience their camaderie and support. My F1200 car is now wintering in the garage between the Boxster and the 924S and has already been prepared by Vallis Motorsports in anticipation of the upcoming 2004 race season, a season which I am eagerly awaiting.
Perhaps you are looking at stepping into racing but don’t want to race prepare your Porsche. Or maybe you want to race open wheel. If you want to find an affordable racing venue, you may want to consider F1200. The cars are inexpensive to acquire and maintain, the people are friendly, and the racing is very close (as I can attest). For further info, check out the FTDA website at www.formula1200.com, or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
See you trackside!