We've recently given away a number of track days as competition prizes and there seems to be a common misconception that you need a high performance, fire breathing monster of a car to bring it out on track, but that's not the case, however there are some important track day modifications that can help with reliability. In theory, just about anything with an engine and 4 wheels can be driven on a race track. From the car in your driveway, to the truck that delivers every day goods to stores around the world, chances are that someone, somewhere has tried to race it. We've seen Top Gear put that theory to test over the years, from MPV's and Buses, to Campervans
In this article we're going to take a look at what important track day modifications are required to make a car not only complete a lap of a race track, but complete it reliably, over and over again. It's not always just as simple as turning up on the day unfortunately, after only a short time the main components of most standard road cars would start getting tired pretty quickly, so let's delve into the basics of what's required in our guide to converting your road car into a track car.
On a road car the suspension is a compromise between comfort and performance. It has to soak up all the lumps, bumps and potholes we encounter on a daily basis while keeping the car stable and the occupants as comfortable as possible. On track, comfort goes out of the window and the role of your suspension is to keep all four tyres in contact with the tarmac.
Track suspension can vary depending on the car being used, but the most common option used these days is the Coilover. The coilover essentially combines the gas strut (shock absorber) and coil
spring, but can offer more adjust-ability and control helping to keep the car stable at speed, and flat through the twisty bits. Getting your suspension right can help massively in bringing your lap times down, so it's not to be sniffed at. A full set of coilovers can cost as little as a few hundred euro or as much as a few thousand all depending on how committed your wallet is, but can often improve your track performance more than extra power can.
Suspension set up goes much further than just shocks and springs. There are a number of other elements you can adjust to help improve performance – from camber and castor, to toe in and toe out. All of these relate to how the wheel is positioned, so as the car leans in a corner so does the tyre. As an example, add some negative camber and now as the car leans the tyre contact patch sits much flatter thus offering more grip. A word of warning though, adding too much negative camber can result in your car being slower in a straight line so make sure to get the combination correct! Take a look at our suspension set up guide for a more detailed explanation. If you don't feel confident tackling any of this yourself, there are plenty of professional outfits that can do it for you.
The image of the Camaro above illustrates the impact of cornering forces on suspension geometry quite nicely (specifically camber). This car is set up with negative camber on the front wheels. You can see the negative camber on the unweighted front right wheel and part of the tyre is lifting off the ground. The front left wheel has the same amount of camber applied to it but as the suspension loads up round the corner and the body rolls, the front left tyre (which is providing most of the grip) is completely vertical, meaning the tyres contact patch is flat to the tarmac, providing maximum grip where it's needed most.
Tyres are often overlooked by many motorists but if you think about it, they are the only contact between your car and the road surface so it makes sense that they also play an important part on the track. Your standard road tyre can last up to 30,000km during every day use, however show it a track and it will be a different story. Road tyres have deep treads, designed to disperse large volumes of water and are generally made from quite a hard rubber compound which helps them last a long time.
Track focused tyres differ from standard road tyres in a number of ways, one is the contact patch – basically the amount of tyre that touches the road. When you think of it that way, it makes a lot of sense that when more of the tyre is touching the road, it produces more grip. If you follow any type of motorsport, you'll notice that most competition cars use a full slick tyre, there is no tread on the tyre, maximising the amount of tyre touching the road. So a track focused tyre will have minimal grooves/treads so that the maximum amount of rubber touches the tarmac while still retaining some usability in the rain.
Track tyres will also be made from a softer rubber compound, again to provide more grip. The trade off is that they will wear out more quickly. Track tyres also tend to have stiffer sidewalls which flex less under heavy cornering.
Choosing the right tyres for your car can be a confusing process and if you scour through the forums you'll see countless people telling you one brand is better than another. Our advice - do your research, decide your budget and be honest about the type of use your car will get. The type of tyre you go for will vary depending on the weight and power output of your car, the size of your wheels, the size of your wallet and how and where you intend to use your car. For example, if you have a big, heavy, powerful car like an Audi RS4 and 99% of the time you drive on the road and do
a couple of track days a year, buying a cut slick like a Yokohama advan a048 is probably not the best choice. It won't perform very well in the wet and will wear out extremely quickly, something
like Pirelli P zero's might be more suitable. On the other hand if you have a small light weight car that spends most of it's life on track with the occasional trip on the road, something like the Yoko a048 or Toyo R888 might be ideal. Tyre pressure are also very important regardless of tyre type and the 'best' pressure will vary hugely from car to car and tyre to tyre. A lightweight Caterham on Avon ACB10 track tyres might only need to run 18psi, whereas the Mondello Park Mazda 3's run 38psi front and 36psi rear on their Dunlop sportmaxx road tyres - the high pressure helps minimize lateral movement in the sidewall and limits the wear to the outside edge of the tyre.
We recently upgraded the tyres on our Project GTi to Nankang NS2R's which are a nice compromise for use on road and track and are extremely well priced. You can have a quick look at them in this short video
Brakes can often be overlooked on a track car and are often a weak link. The heat generated by your brakes during normal road use can be immense – just hold your hand next to the front wheels the next time you park up and feel the heat radiating from them. As you can imagine the heat generated from repeated hard braking, corner after corner, lap after lap on a race track is even more extreme. More often than not on track the standard brake system will overheat and when that happens you'll lose a significant amount of braking power. Our Project GTi suffered badly from this when we brought it on track the first time and it only lasted half a lap before the brakes had overheated. What we actually experienced was a combination of brake fade and brake fluid vapour lock, but we'll come back to that in a second.
Some people to go to extremes and change the entire caliper and rotor for something bigger, but for a lot of track cars that may be an unnecessary expense. In some cases simply upgrading the brake pads
and brake fluid
can dramatically increase your car's braking performance. While writing this article we had a chat with Ken Elliott, chief instructor at Mondello Park
to find out what
modifications they carried out on their fleet of Mazda 3 training cars which get constant use and abuse all year round as part of their Race Experience
. We were quite surprised to learn they simply have upgraded Mintex 'track day spec' pads. The cars do have other modifications as well, outside the brake system such as a full roll cage, bucket seats, 4 point harnesses, fire extinguishers and LPG conversions but the brakes are basically standard. Their fleet of Porsches also use a fairly standard setup with the same spec of Mintex pad but in conjunction with racing brake fluid.
Upgrading your brake fluid is a must for serious track use on high performance cars – It's worth bearing in mind that brake fluid does have a lifespan and is supposed to be changed every couple of years. The reason for this is that brake fluid is a hydroscopic substance (it absorbs water) Over a 2 year period the brake fluid, exposed to the air can absorb as much as 13% of its weight in water! When water gets hot it boils and creates steam, steam cant be compressed to the same level as the brake fluid and that is what can give you a 'soft' brake pedal or increased pedal travel (this is what happened to our Golf) On older cars there's a very good chance the brake fluid is long overdue a change, it could have been in there for 10 years or more! It may also be worth opting for a higher spec fluid with a higher boiling point like this racing stuff from Carbon Lorraine if you're going to do a lot of track work.
There are many different types of brake pad available, and where they all are different is in the compound used in the pad itself i.e. what the friction material is made from. Similar to tyres, the harder the compound, the longer they will last but the less they will 'grip' and the softer the compound the less time they will last but the more they will 'grip'. High performance brake pads can use some really trick materials and can be very expensive so it's important to get the combination of performance and longevity right for the type of driving you'll be doing. A word of warning: If you're using the car on the road and for a few track days, be wary of opting for a full 'race' pad because you think it will offer the ultimate performance. Yes on track it may outperform a 'trackday' pad but on the road they may be completely unsuitable. The effective operating temperature of some race pads may be significantly higher than you're likely to reach during day to day driving. The backing plates on some race pads are also slightly smaller than original pads because they are designed to expand to the correct size under sustained, extreme high temperatures. The knock-on effect of this is that they can rattle and be extremely noisy on the road. It's also worth noting that a lot of race pads are not actually legal for use on the public roads. We recently upgraded the front discs and pads on our Project GTi with some High performance versions from EBC, you can read about the upgrade here
EBC Brake Temperature Chart illustrating the effective operating window of the 'race only' pads
The effectiveness of the standard braking system can vary quite a lot between cars. Some are pretty poor, some are awesome. I had an Audi S2 that would warp a brand new set of front discs, on the road within a fortnight whereas the standard brakes on a Porsche Boxster can withstand lap after lap of abuse on a race track. So it's difficult to say whether you will or won't need to upgrade your discs and if you do, to what extremes you'll need to go to. That S2 would've needed a full caliper, disc and pad conversion to be effective, in-fact the common upgrade at the time was to fit a Porsche Boxster conversion! To keep costs down, initially we'd stick with the standard size but go with a good quality brand that are are cross-drilled/vented. The purpose of the holes/grooves is to clean the surface of the pad and allow gases produced to escape which helps cooling and reduces the risk of brake fade
While not essential, some people do opt to replace the standard rubber brake hoses with braided steel lines. This helps to prevent the hose from bulging under pressure, and also allows a little more pedal feel under hard braking giving you an opportunity to get a feel for what exactly your brakes are doing and just how close you are to the limit. You might also want to consider some cold air ducting to help cool down the brakes, it's a nice simple upgrade that won't brake the bank.
Stainless braided brakes hoses improve pedal feel and resist damage wear better than standard rubber ones. They also look a lot better!
On the road, driving in traffic or even on the motorway your average engine speed (rpm) is likely to be very low. On the track you will be revving the engine a lot harder and with more rev’s comes more heat. If your car is running a standard engine setup, the standard cooling system should be up to the job as long as it’s in good condition, topped up with coolant and with no leaks. You will need to keep a close eye on the temperature gauge though as it may start to get hot after a number of laps and a cool down lap or two may be required to get things back in check. If you’re engine is modified to produce more power then it’s going to generate more heat – it’s as simple as that, so you may need to look into a more efficient radiator or high flow fan.
Once you have the basics right, you can start the search for more power, and less weight. Most people tend to do this back to front and start looking for big power and sticky tyres first but our advice is sort the suspension brakes and handling first as a load of power and grip can completely mask underlying issues with the cars handling. Power and weight do of course play an important role in your car's track performance, ultimately all the elements above work together to produce a quicker lap time.
Our Project GTi on the Dyno at Blackchurch Motors
Depending on your car, there may be some quick and easy ways to gain power, one of which could be a simple, routine service. Replacing air, oil and fuel filters and changing the engine oil could restore a considerable amount of lost horsepower. Some tried and tested fuel system treatments such as Redex can produce real results in older cars and can be an extremely cost effective way of restoring a few lost bhp. New spark plugs and ignition leads/coils can also help.
check out the video below, 5th Gear took a 1997 VW Corrado and put it on the dyno to see how much power it had lost, they then tried the methods listed above in an attempt to restore the bhp back to the factory figures. You might be surprised by the results!
Upgrading your air filter, intake and exhaust will help the engine 'breathe' more easily. If more air can get in and more exhaust gasses can get out, the engine will produce more power. A simple upgrade such as these two combined could add as much as 20 to 30 bhp to your car, depending on whether it's normally aspirated or uses forced induction. Fitting a larger, upgraded intercooler on turbocharged/supercharged engines is another relatively simple and cost effective 'bolt-on' modification that can increase power. After carrying out any engine mods a trip to the dyno can be worth its weight in gold to get the most out of the work you've just done. More modern cars can of course be 'mapped' while you're there and some big bhp gains can be had (as much as 40% extra in some cases!) We'll be handing our Project GTi back to the lads at Blackchurch Motors in the future to try and do just that.
It's probably a good idea to carry out the upgrades above in steps which will allow you see how each change effects the performance of the car on track, and to allow you to see what works and what doesn't. Getting your car to move quickly around a track can be a very simple case of trial and error, and it can take time to get right, so make your decisions wisely!
The last thing worth mentioning is something the vast majority of us will overlook. We'll spend thousands and thousands on our cars, chasing tenths of seconds and the last few bhp but will probably neglect safety equipment. Many track day cars are seriously high performance bits of kit capable of lapping a circuit a lot faster than many classes of racing cars but yet most don't have even the most basic of safety gear. Our recommendation is to factor in the cost (at a minimum) of an FIA approved seat and harness and a fire extinguisher. If you're getting a bit more serious about track days it's worth considering fitting a roll cage. As well as protecting you, a roll cage will also stiffen up the whole chassis and improve overall performance.
If you liked this article you might also be interested in our beginners guide to track days or one of our guides to buying a track day car on a budget