Classic Features

The dark art of setting up a car

Perfecting a car’s set-up is a key part of maximising performance in all motorsport, and it is no different in FF1600, with competitors often meticulous in chasing every tenth of a second.

Earlier in the season we spoke to Historic racer Ted Pearson about the importance of setting up a car.

Pearson had the unusual opportunity of driving two different Merlyn FF1600 cars during the same meeting at Croft, at the start of August. Pearson’s Merlyn Mk11A/17 was damaged during a first-race coming-together with Pierre Livingston’s Merlyn Mk20. Pearson’s Nigel Grant Engineering team-mate Callum Grant had elected not to contest the second race, so gave his car to Pearson.

All FF1600 cars of the same period have many similarities, there are very few technical differences between the Mk11A/17 and Grant’s Mk20A and both cars are prepared by the same people, so Pearson was surprised at how much difference setup can make.

“I honestly thought it would be just getting out of one and getting into another and that they’d feel the same,” he said. 

“But they are unbelievably different, but for really minor reasons.”

As well as driving very similar cars, Pearson and Grant are the same height and weight, which would suggest that the car’s cockpit layout would not be a problem, but even this can be adjusted to suit an individual’s precise needs.

“The pedals and the steering wheel position, the gear lever position, everything is for Callum. Things like the gear lever position were slightly different,” explained Pearson 

“I just didn’t find it very easy. He changes gear in a completely different way to me. He cups his hand outwards on the gear lever, whereas I cup my hand inwards, so his bodywork’s in the way for me, whereas it’s perfect for him.

“I’m not making excuses for why I didn’t drive as fast but it just didn’t feel comfortable, and anyone who drives these little single-seaters knows, you’ve got to be comfortable in them. When you are, then you seem to be able to go faster. 

“That’s where I’ve found a little bit of speed just recently (at Anglesey and Croft before the incident), because the car is absolutely as I like it, so all I’m doing now is driving the it rather than adapting to make up for any idiosyncrasies.”

Correct suspension settings can make a difference between winning and spinning off at the first corner, so it was less surprising to find variance here. 

“Callum likes it absolutely stiff as a board, and he seems to just gather it all up, chuck it from corner to corner, whereas I think I’m slightly less aggressive with it.

“Softening some of the settings on my suspension, particularly at the back, has made the car so much more driveable for me, and I’m not being sort of fighting it.”

Making changes to his own car has proved a positive step for Pearson.

“The results were much better at Croft as a result of that. I got far closer to the front in the first few laps of the race before the incident. I was running with Cameron (Jackson) and Callum and Pierre (Livingston), and we were pulling away from Ed Thurston and Ben (Tusting) and all the rest of them.

“It was easy. I thought “I could do this all afternoon, I can do this until the car runs out of petrol”. Whereas at Brands Hatch and wherever it was at the beginning of July, it was really hard work. I just couldn’t get the traction.”

Engine settings are more tightly controlled in FF1600, but even when blocks are built and prepared by the same people – as is the case with Pearson’s and Grant’s – they still have individual characteristics that suit some drivers more than others.

“That was a real eye-opener with Callum’s car, how different the engine seems from mine. My engine in my Merlyn, I have to admit, is a real peach. It’s very, very free-revving, very smooth. It seems to have as much power and as much torque as anyone else’s. 

“Callum’s engine seemed much harsher. When I was revving it, I didn’t want to rev it so high. Now I know Callum really does rev it very high, but I never revved his as high as I’ve revved mine, because it just felt more strained. So he obviously has the knack with it, because he gets the times out of it. But it’s strange, two engines that are from the same builder, same specification, but they felt very different.”

Pearson has continued to work on his own car since the Croft incident, securing a second place in a one-off Classic FF1600 outing at Croft just after two fifth places at Brands Hatch. He is in with a strong chance of the HSCC Radio Caroline Over 50s title if he can hold off Rob Smith at the Silverstone Finals.

“Callum’s honed his car over six or seven years to exactly how he wants it,” he says.

“This last year, I’ve been getting mine absolutely spot-on.”

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