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What’s it like to drive the Toyota 86 racing car?

The Toyota 86 is a proper motorsports car, but that’s not the same as a racecar…until now. We drive the new 86 racing car ahead of its 86 race series debut.

TOYOTA HAVE invested a lot of money in the forthcoming 86 race series, and that includes developing the 86 into a true racecar. Ever wondered what the two are like to drive? Read on, because we got the chance to drive the stock 86 back-to-back with the racecar at the Sutton driver training centre.

To set the scene, the Sutton track isn’t a racetrack, it’s more like a tarmac rally course. In fact, the track was designed to train police drivers in the art of high-speed on-road driving, so it’s really just a road that’s two lanes wide, exactly like a rural road, and pretty much every corner is at least one of blind, on a hill or off camber. There’s no runoff either, and I don’t count gum trees as ‘runoff’.

That sort of tight’n’twisty track suits the 86, but at 2.5km long it’s hard to learn in two laps which is all we had in the stock car, so you spend most of your time getting used to the track, not the car. Still, I’ve already covered the 86’s handling in the long-term test series, so let’s talk about the differences with the racecar. And that starts as soon as you get in, or rather try to get in.

Toyota 86 Racing Series

Because the racecars have a full rollcage it’s not simple to slot in and out, mostly thanks to the side impact protection bars, but also the winged seat. Once you’re in, you find the full race seat is not adjustable, and neither is the steering wheel. Each car’s driving position is set up specific to its driver, and that’s that. The steering wheel itself is changed to a motorsports version, but otherwise the major controls are the same as the stock car, and all the cars are manuals. The car I drove had a TFT display for the revs, but others had the standard gauges. The dash, and most of the trim is intact (as per regulations to ensure it looks as close to a roadcar as possible), except where it has had to be pulled off or cut to accommodate the rollcage, or is allowed to be taken out for weight saving.

Then you start the engine. Even at idle the engine note is different, thanks to the aftermarket exhaust. Technical director and chief car development engineer, rally champ Neal Bates reckons it’ll run at around 77dB, well under the usual 95dB limit for racetracks but it’s a lot noisier than the standard 86 which is whisper-quiet at all but cold-start.

Pulling away and the gearshift is the same as stock so it feels the same, quick and precise as usual, except the raceseat makes it a little harder to get to the lever. Although louder and more powerful, the car doesn’t feel significantly quicker. I think that’s because the extra noise and the fact it’s a racecar creates an expectation that isn’t quite met. Yet the car is about 18% more powerful than standard to make 173kW at the flywheel.

Our run began with a long straight and the racecar did just get into 5th gear whereas the stock car was topping out in 4th, but with inconsistent starting points and a few laps it was hard to say. You certainly wouldn’t get into the racecar and be blown away by the extra straight-line grunt – it’s not like a stock car modified with forced-induction (turbo or supercharged). The noise isn’t too bad inside the car with a decent helmet, loud enough so you feel kind of racey, but your eardrums will remain intact.

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Where the differences are significant is in the corners. The racecars run 225/40/18 Dunlop Direzza DZII*86 tyres, which is a street/race tyre design that offers a lot of grip and sharp handling to match, helped in no small part by the MCA suspension tune.

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The end result is a noticeably sharper, more focused 86 that feels appreciably more direct, and given how good the base car is, that’s saying something. The racecar turns in better, has more overall grip, and feels that touch more communicative through the wheel and the aural feedback.

Where the stock 86 can be made to understeer, the racecar stays more neutral yet will understeer if provoked or asked, and while the racecar will certainly oversteer under power or brakes, it’s more progressive than the stock car and operates at a higher limit. The brakes are certainly better, but given the nature of the track and the limited time it wasn’t possible to thoroughly test them.

In keeping with the concept of the race series, the modifications to the base car aren’t particularly extensive – brakes, suspension, exhaust, engine tune and safety gear – all items which you can buy for your own road-going 86, with some exceptions such as the rollcage. That the modifications are so minor says a lot about the base car’s inherent ability and robustness.

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Anyone that is used to driving an 86 will feel at home in the racecar, and will just need to learn to adjust to its greater abilities. It’s not like getting into a more powerful racecar where it’s such a leap in capability you wonder how you’d ever begin to master it. Yet it’s clear that to get the best out of the 86 racecar will require finesse and skill. For that you need someone like Neal Bates, who took me for a couple of hotlaps which demonstrated how much grip was available…and the braking power. The user-friendliness was apparent when the back end stepped out a fraction (all aids off for his runs) I could easily feel it happening from the left seat, and when he drifted the last corner it took quite deliberate actions to get the thing sideways.

You’ll see just how quick the cars can go on May 20th to 22nd, when Round 1 of the 86 Series will be held at Winton Raceway in Victoria. There’s a full grid of 38 drivers, ranging in age from 16 (with four aged 17), all the way to 58. The median age is 25, and the three pro drivers are Steve Johnson, Leanne Tander and Glenn Seton.

So we have equal cars, lots of desperate young guns, pro drivers and a huge age range. Could this could be the most exciting racing since the advent of Stadium Supertrucks? 

V8 SUPERCAR CHAMPIONSHIP SYDNEY

To find out, we talked to Glenn Seton, a man with over thirty years racing experience, two national touring car titles to his name, and veteran of running his own race team. Glenn told us that the 86 is “a lot of fun to drive, the direction changes are very good. Braking is awesome. Not over-gripped. It’s forgiving, doesn’t bite.” And compared to a V8 Supercar? “A V8 is point and shoot, these cars are more about carrying momentum through the corners”.

Given the pro racers are, well, professional, would that mean they would finish first, second, third? Glenn had a quick answer. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we weren’t in the top ten.” So why’s that? “There’s a lot of talent, and the pros won’t have a chance to practice”. It seems like the pros will pretty much have the practice sessions on the day, whereas the others will be, and have been, practicing for a long time at circuits like Winton and Wakefield, where the actual races will be held.

So it seems races will be competitive, as all the young guns will be vying for attention on TV, trying to impress the Supercar bosses, and some are dreaming of Formula 1. Glenn says “I reckon there will be a lot of panel damage as the red mist comes down”, and that “the main way to get ahead is going to be when blokes ahead take each other out”. There will be a lot of eyes watching the first few corners at Winton later this month.

To get an 86 racecar built costs around $70,000 including a new donor car. That seems expensive, but Glenn says it’s “very cost-effective compared to Formula Ford and especially Formula 4”. Even the entry fee for an event like this would “usually be around $4500, for this series it’s $1500”, and that’s thanks to the Toyota subsidy.

The 86 Series technical director Neal Bates agrees. We asked the same question – does he think the pros will blow everyone away? “No I don’t. There’s many guys who have done a lot of laps, a lot of testing…it’s a big ask for the pros to jump in and go quicker.” And as for unearthing the next big talent – “I reckon this series will produce some very good drivers we haven’t heard of before.”

In 2016 the Toyota 86 Racing Series will run over five events: May 20–22 (Winton SuperSprint), August 26–28 (Sydney Motorsport Park SuperSprint), September 16–18 (Sandown 500), October 6–9 (Bathurst 1000) and November 25–27 (Sydney 500). The series is designed and funded to run for a total three years at this stage.

How does a Toyota 86 become a racecar?

The objectives were to create a robust racecar that had minimal modifications, yet required driver skill to get the best from it. Some racecars are so grippy the driving is more “science than art” according to Neal, so his focus was to “keep the handling from the roadcar, you can oversteer it, understeer it. Some racecars are so grippy there’s no enjoyment”. Here’s what’s been changed or added:

  • MCA suspension
  • AP Racing brakes
  • Motec ECU (control unit across all vehicles)
  • Extractors
  • Aftermarket exhaust
  • Ozwheel 18″ wheels
  • Dunlop Direzza DZII*86 225/40/18
  • Rear spoiler
  • Rollcage
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Engine oil cooler
  • Baffled sump

Neal says the engine and exhaust mods are good for about 18% more power. The stock car makes 147kW, so 18% more is around 173kW at the flywheel. The weight is 1200kg, but the car must be 1285kg with driver, and ballast added if required to make up the weight.

There is no requirement to run a passenger seat. The air-conditioning unit can be removed, as can most of the interior floor trim, although the door trim and dash must stay as stock as possible. The gearbox, differential and gear ratios are all standard.

The car was developed over about two years. Toyota initially seed-funded one car, and then when the decision was made to go ahead, funded the remainder of the development programme.

Neal’s team started with the suspension, then the engine modifications (extractors, exhaust, ECU), then onto the brakes. The tyres were the last component to be finalised. Neal “didn’t want the grippiest tyre, wanted a tyre that moved around a bit, didn’t make the car a slot car. So you had to drive it”. Endurance tests were carried out, up to 70 laps at some circuits. The tyres work in wet conditions too, so there’s no need for specialist wet-weather tyres. And you can even buy them from Dunlop to run on your own car as a daily driver.

The car is now finished, and from this point onwards specification changes will be minimal to avoid passing costs onto competitors.

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A quick chat with Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson is one of the three professional drivers on the grid, and he was at the Festival of 86 to sign autographs, give the public hotlaps, generally promote the 86 Racing Series…and part of that involved the really fun bit, talking to journalists like me. So the first question was the same as the others – do you expect the pros to come first, second, third? “No. There’s going to be some quick young kids like Aaron Seton, who has been racing in GT. And us pros don’t really test, we roll up on the weekend and get in!”

Steve is a highly experienced driver, having raced a variety of vehicles, won V8 Supercar races and currently racing Porsches in the Carrera Cup. He’s also general manager of Dick Johnson Racing. All that background gives him context to explain what these 86 racecars are like.

“Out of all my experience in control series, I would say that these cars are about the easiest and most forgiving of the lot. They are a proper racecar, well balanced. There is ample, ample horsepower for young guns and gentleman racers.”

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The series is about the drivers, not the cars. Steve has provided input to the car’s development as well as the series rules, and he says one of his concerns was weight. “Even 20kg can give you an advantage. We did some demonstration laps at Homebush [ himself, Leanne Tander, Aaron Seton ] and Aaron who is 20kg lighter was three car lengths quicker down the straight, and it wasn’t a long straight”. We clarified – same exit speed? “Yes, same. The difference was the weight”.

So a little weight difference can be quite an advantage, and it’s exacerbated by the relatively low power vehicles. Steve had another example: “At Bathurst, whether I had a passenger or not made a difference of 6/10th of a second on the first sector alone”.

The pro drivers are there to provide advice and mentoring to the drivers. Not so much in actual driving – although there might be a few quiet words here and there – but in public relations, reputation management and the off-track skills the modern professional race driver needs to acquire if they hope to be successful. And could this series spawn the next Supercars (no longer “V8”) champion, or maybe a F1 star?

“Absolutely” says Steve. “In Australia, it’s very hard to showcase talent on a budget. For example, a Formula Ford car costs $80-$100k, and then you need a good six-figure budget to run. A GT car costs $200-$300k. I know people spending $100 to $150k per year just on karting! Yet in this series you can build a car for $70k, and without damage, I reckon budget for $30-$40k for the year.”

The advantage of the series, according to Steve, is exposure. “All the key players are there at the events, it’s the premier series. There will be the crowds, it’s a good place to build a reputation.”

How fast is the 86 race car?

This fast, according to Neal Bates:

  • Wakefield – 1.08.7
  • Winton – 1.38.9
  • Sandown – 1.26.9
  • Bathurst – 2.42.3 (only a few laps, expected to drop)

That’s quicker than a stock car, by around 5%, which probably buys around 2-4 seconds in the minute…depending on the driver. We do know of a stock 86 (well, upgraded brakes and R-spec tyres) that has run a 1.41 at Winton. The more we learn about this series, the more interesting it becomes. Roll on May 22nd!

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Flat Out Lizard
Flat Out Lizard
4 years ago

Interesting, time to crack out Phil Irvings “Tuning for Speed” and get a few more BHP than anybody else

Also remove all the weight in the car and then add the ballast at the lowest point and middle of the vehicle [also depends on the rotation of the race track]

Need to do every trick in the book to gain a advantage, *cough* all legal of course

Get Larry Perkins to help with some tweaking 🙂

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper