This past friday this stealth reporter spotted what appeared to be our very own Ennis Bragg, and Marshall Aiken, test driving the Fran-Am 2000 mule car that has been shipped over to the US of A for that purpose.
No prep work had been done to the car. And it had on it what appeared to be a year old set of Michelin Pilots.
Jon Baytos was seen watching the tests and conversing with the drivers when they got out.
It was not an April Fools joke. Ennis drove the car first, I drove it second and Keith Roberts drove it last. The sessions were free and we each got 30 minutes in the car. I must say a was pumped up to get a chance to drive this much hyped car. It is beautiful. Very well put together. There were several things about the car I loved and a few that things that I didn't. I am not going to sugar coat things. The dash is trick. It is very easy to read and it is nice to know which gear you are in just by looking. The thing does have 2 more gears than our cars, so it is easy to lose track. The sequential gear box is a dream. No lift to upshift and very easy to downshift. The car had the wrong gear set in it for Atlanta, so I went through the gears very quickly. If anyone is familiar w/ Atlanta, I hit the rev limiter (7200) in 6th gear well before the hill before 10a. According to the gear chart that came w/ the car, that is 138 mph. With the correct gear set, you should easily see 150+ before braking. The brakes are awesome. 4 piston Alcons all the way around. I was breaking past the 100 board into 10a at 138mph and actually had to accelerate back up to the turn. The car is very stiff and responsive to steering input. Unfortunately, the tires were very old. The car was a handfull to drive. Very loose at high speed and pushed at low speed. The rear stepped out at the top of the esses in the top of 5th gear, which stopped my heart, because I thought I had just bought my first Fran-Am car. After that, I backed off a little. I just wanted to bring it back in one piece. After my run, they put it on the scale platform only to find that the front L to R weights were 140 lbs. different. That would explain some of the handling problems. The weights were corrected and Roberts went out and ran quicker and said he loved the car. The car is I think 5" longer than my 01' VD, but it is 6" narrower. As far as power goes, it revs up very quickly, almost too quickly to use the power band, but I am sure that is because of the short gear set. So 1st throuogh 3rd gears I wasn't too impressed, but top end, the things pulls like a bat out of hell. Mazda's were no problem top end. I got comfortable w/ the car pretty quickly, that is until the esses moment. If there was an actual Formula Renault class in the SCCA, and if the Pro series schedule was more put together I would seriously consider buying one of these cars. Like I said, it is very well made, the carbon tub is trick and I felt very safe it the car. I am still undecided at the moment. I would have to drive the car properly setup, w/ the correct gears and decent tires before I made a final decision. I think the Mazda guys are worried, because if this thing takes off, the Mazdas will drop like a stone. It is much faster top end than a Mazda and handles better even w/ the setup so off. I must thank Robert Gelles for the opportunity to drive this car, and his crew for getting it ready. They are a great bunch of guys. Drive it if you get the chance, but only people w/ a sincere intent to purchase one need to ask. I hope this answers a few questions for everyone. I may get another chance to drive this car later this month, so I may know more soon. For the money, it's alot of car.
P.S. Hopefully Ennis will add his two cents worth as well.
First off, let me also offer my thanks to Bob Gelles for letting me take a spin in this exciting car. For informational purposes, my best lap was in the 1:34 range, Marshall's was in the 1:33 range, and Keith turned a 1:30.7 after the corner weight problem was fixed. I drove the car very conservatively but definitely gave the gearbox a workout! Wow! The sequential shift is very cool! I especially liked the fact that neutral was passed first and you have to pull the "unlock" cable to go down to neutral or reverse. Unlike, a motorcycle or a motorcycle-motor powered car, you can't fall into neutral while going from 2nd to 1st of vise versa. The tub itself was roomy and appeared very clean in its design and construction. The car is long and narrow, and was bigger than I had imagined. But, it certainly felt light and nimble on the track. The first thing I noticed as I pulled onto the track was the responsiveness of the front end. I had anticipated a stiffly sprung car, mostly to keep myself alert to that possibility. But, I found a smooth riding setup which felt both refreshingly familiar and strangely different in some way. I think the difference may have been the mono-shock front suspension but could very well have been the corner weight imbalance. But, the familiarity of the cockpit feel and the braking power reminded me that this was a real racecar, not some rolling boat with a Wankel motor. (haha sorry Keith, couldn't resist)
The first two laps, I spent playing with the brakes and gears and checking my mirrors. Once I realized I was actually maintaining a reasonable pace, I put my head down and started driving. It became obvious very quickly that straight-line acceleration was not a problem. I was able to pull up on pinto powered cars with ease. But, when we hit the corners, it was more than a handful. Fortunately, Keith got to drive the car with a better setup. We've got to get him in a real racecar. Actually, he already has one Tatuus (FC) but he seems to rarely bring it out.
So, more on the FranAm. Personally, I thought that it did not feel like 186 hp. But Keith said it felt like it had more than his 170hp (??) Mazda. Maybe, it was the gears, maybe the motor in this car is detuned for some reason. I would be curious to know the answer. I just imagined it would be more noticeable.
Like Marshall, I wasn't 100% sold on the concept. But, the damage to my RF97 means I might be making a decision sooner than I had hoped too. So, now, I'm going to rethink why I'm racing FC in the first place and what my options are. I'm sure I'll have more to say later. Thanks again Bob!!! And thanks to Rance, Scott and everyone at Gelles Racing.