Four Seconds

In 2017, John Drysdale, a newcomer to racing, partnered with veteran driver Steve Phillips in "The Rocket", an e36 BMW M3 with a S54 engine swap from the e46 generation of M3. "Four seconds" is the true story of a novice race car driver working to cut four seconds off his lap time in his rookie season of amateur GT racing at Atlantic Motorsport Park, in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Part 2: Four Seconds

By John Drysdale

In 1975 a young Gilles Villeneuve came to Atlantic Motorsport Park in a Formula Atlantic car. His fastest lap of 1:00 still stands as the lap record to this day. Soon after he was signed into F1.

In 2015 in the maiden year of "The Rocket," on Hoosier slicks, the original car owner managed a 1:11.6 in qualifying. This was the fourth fastest time at Atlantic Motorsport Park in any GT car. As of the 2016 season, many of the local gt3 cars began to run Nitto NT-01's, in a gentleman's agreement of sorts, to save on costs. On these tires, it does a solid 1:14.5.

In our local race series (TRAC series) we do bracket racing. The rocket is in GT3, and our bracket is 1:14-1:17s lap times. To be competitive with my co driver, or the competition, i need to cut six seconds off my best time on the track in the Focus RS (1:20). Six seconds does not sound like much. But as such a small track like amp, six seconds is an eternity. Six seconds is GT5 class times, not GT3. That is the land of a decent spec Miata Time.

In my favor, the rocket is a proper race car, and has a better power to weight ratio than anything i have driven on track. It also has a proper race suspension, and it has been tried and tested. This is not a street car with compromises for comfort. This is a car that has one purpose, and that is to lap as quickly as possible on a race track.

A day of firsts

My first time driving the car was not in ideal conditions. It was May 16/2017. It was a cool single digit (Celsius) day, and to top it off we had on and off light rain. The track was mostly dry, but it was damp in places, with a small stream running over the track just before the breaking zone on the back straight. It would not be a day for good lap times. An experienced GT3 racer figured my car could probably do a 1:16-1:17 given the conditions.

After a winter of bench racing, full of fantasies that I had more skill than I did (and would be the next Schumacher), I was finally in my new racing gear, staring down my new race car. I was "that guy." I was the guy with gear too nice, and too free of blemishes, to know what he was doing. It was time to introduce my ego to reality. And as much as I hoped I would be a born natural, I knew I was about to get a big fat slap of reality. To put things in perspective, my co driver, and our competition had been driving e36 M3 race cars as long as I had been doing HPDE. When I was playing Gran Turismo 10 years ago, they were racing real cars. In fact, Steve was working with Aston Martin and Porsche in IMSA at the time.

This car was far faster than anything I had driven; six seconds a lap faster than my 2016 Ford Focus RS. This was an eternity. My RS would not even be through the final turn and the Rocket would be done with the front straight and over the finish line.

What did it feel like? Well, I remember taking my time strapping in. The harness was comforting in it's snugness. I was lower in my seat than I am used to. The engine roared to life, and the lightweight race flywheel and clutch rattled in anticipation of what was to come. Without a rookie stall (those would come later, I assure you), the car rolled off and into the pits. I went on to the track. In the following 15 or so minutes I had 7 months of rust to shake off. I also had to get used to a totally new car, in full racing gear that felt foreign to me. I hate driving with new shoes. And it was cold and a bit damp and my tires still had the stickers on them.

How am I doing for the excuses?

My first time in the M3 was quite an experience. What surprised me most was both it's sheer handling prowess, and how easy it was to drive. It was a great platform for a relative beginner.

Surprisingly, with all it's prowess, and despite the conditions, the rocket was an easy to drive car. The shifting was solid, and the pedals were set for perfect heel-toe. The S54 revved like it was a whip across the gauge, screaming ahead of me in a charge to the next corner. Power delivery was frantic, but linear and predictable. Steering was light and responsive. The chassis communicated everything, but the MCS suspension kept things from being jarring or harsh.

Most noticeably, the car was balanced perfectly. The car just felt like it pivoted right under my seat. No surprises. There was no front end weight to manage on corner entry like in my Focus RS, and no heavy pendulum in the back like my air cooled 911... waiting to flip me around should I be foolish enough. Unlike my 911, it was not trying to kill me every lap. Instead it had a steady voice that said "I will do exactly as you ask, just don't do anything stupid, because I will do that too!" It just did what I wanted it to do. It was flawless. The only errors that were shown were my own... harsh inputs were met with jarring results. This is a race car after all...

After the first session I began focusing on smoothness, and the car responded with greater pace. Not wanting to mow the grass, or chop down trees on my first damp cold outing, I took the braking and corners easy. My style was more "point and shoot" (which is polite for: "I sucked in the corners"). I went from 4/10 driving to 6/10 to 8/10 with each session. And shoot it did. I felt bumps that I did not know existed: High speeds and race suspension will do that. When I leaned on the brakes into turn 1 my rear inside wheel came off the ground. With what felt like little effort, I chased down a Cayman GT4 on Sport Cup 2 tires like the Porsche was on a cool-down lap. His best was 1:20. I managed a 1:18.5.

A baseline: 1:18.5s

The time was not bad for a first time out under non-ideal conditions. This time was a raw number, crafted in part from my fundamental experience driving cars in general, and from the prowess of the Rocket. Compared to my prior times, this was an incredible lap time. Compared to my GT3 class, it was still four seconds off the pace needed to win (Those same cars also swept the 2016 podium at the Tremblant Fall Classic in Quebec, Canada, so they are good times). Four seconds is a lot of time, especially at these speeds. As a plus, I know it will be easy to go faster still with more seat time, and under better conditions. As a negative, with each second you go faster, there is less and less room for error in our narrow bumpy track. I am in uncharted driving territory at these lap times, and as I get faster, I expect to discover even more bumps that I never realized existed. Plus, speed is one thing... but you also need to do it while managing traffic, and be safe about it all. Oh yeah, and did I mention that my competition has been racing these cars longer than I have been driving on track?

I have my work cut out for me. 2017 is going to be an uphill slog... and a lot of fun!