Why Spec Series Aren’t Really Equal

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As fans of singler seater series like F2 and F3 where the cars and engines are a fixed specification and manufacturer, we like to think that because the equipment is the same for each team, it is the driver and the engineers working for the team that make the difference.  They’re the vital cogs that result in wins and championships.  Sadly, this is only partly true.  The reality is that Spec Series aren’t really equal at all.

In the world of model car racing, there is a category called Box Stock.  Fans of F2 and F3 will recognise the basis.  Competitors must use stock items as supplied by the original manufacturer.  The aim is to provide a level playing field where everyone is competing in the same equipment, costs are kept low and the driver’s skill determines the winner.  Sounds good right?    Of course it does.

So would it surprise you if I told you that Box Stock racing is probably the most expensive way possible of going model car racing if you want to win it?  I’m going to explain this to you but I want you to remember that what I am describing is directly applicable to the world of single seater racing as it is to model car racing.  You can substitute a Mecachrome F2 engine for a Mabuchi electric motor and it would still ring true.

Spec Series Aren’t Really Equal: The Scalextric Club Example

Let’s take slot car racing as an example and look at a hypothetical but oh so real example.  You probably know slot car racing by the name of Scalextric, Carrera or AFX.  An electric car follows a groove in the track and the driver controls the speed via a hand controller.  It’s a fast, cheap and easy to get into form of racing.

In our hypothetical example, a club sets up a race series where competitors must race the Scalextric British Touring Car Championship cars.  Ok cool, so we can choose between a Honda Civic, a BMW 125 Series 1, BMW 330, MG6 or VW Passat.  There’s even a nice range of liveries available or you could repaint your car to look like any driver’s car you might wish.  Awesome!

Scalextric-BTCC-Cars-At-BTCC-Media-Day
A range of Scalextric BTCC cars on display at a BTCC Media Day – scalextric.com

So you purchase a nice Matt Neal Honda Civic for $44.99 and go to the club night all excited with your brand new car and get utterly thrashed by the other cars.  You’re lapping as fast and as consistently as you can but getting lapped by the front runners and finish way down the back.  How can this be when the cars are supposed to be the same?  If the answer is driver skill and race car tuning, you would be partly right but mostly wrong.    Welcome to the murky world of blueprinting.

Spec Series Aren’t Really Equal: The Secrets of Blueprinting

Blueprinting is the name for trying to produce the ultimate example of the car you are racing.  To do it, you buy as many of the same car as you can afford.  You take them all apart and you measure all of the components.  The fastest motor with the least electrical resistance and strongest magnetic downforce.  The strongest traction magnets.  The roundest wheels.  The straightest chassis, axles and track guide.  All the best bits go together in one car.  Then you start on your tuning.  Gluing parts, truing tyres and adjusting the body rock.  All vital factors in getting the best out of a slot car.  It takes lots of money and it takes lots of time if you want to go really fast.

This probably sounds like hyperbole and nonsense but it is absolutely true.  At a club I race with, one guy spent somewhere north of £300 on a single type of car (single price around £20) in order to make the fastest ones he could.  It worked, he won countless national and club championships.  Yes he was an excellent driver and car tuner as well but does the kid with a single £20 car really stand a chance against this level of preparation?

Remember that slot cars are the cheapest form of model motorsport around.  If you wanted to race radio controlled cars such as Tamiya cars for example, the principle is the same but the costs are increased.  And r/c cars wear their tyres out like they are on Pirelli F1 rubber so now you have tyre replacement costs to also factor in.

Tamiya M Series Minis Prepare to race Eastbourne
A grid of Tamiya M Series Minis prepare to race at Eastbourne Electric Car Club – eecc.co.uk

Spec Series Aren’t Really Equal: Engines

The same is very much the case in the feeder series.  Despite these being spec series, the teams with the most money can afford the most parts in order to ensure that the best bits are fitted to their cars, worn parts are replaced quicker and weak engines are identified and replaced.  Money is the driving force as always.  If you can afford multiple engines and the time on a dyno to find the best ones, you’ve already got an advantage over the team who cannot afford more than one engine per car.

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Jehan Daruvala’s season is a case in point.  His engine was so down on power that while he was on the same pace as the fastest cars in the corners at Spa and Monza, until his engine replacement for the Monza sprint race he was losing 5 or 6 tenths of a second per lap on the straights compared to his teammate.  Following his engine replacement he scored regularly and even won the final race of the season.  And he was racing with Carlin who are a well funded and well prepared team.  Carlin are one of the benchmark teams for spec series racing.  I wonder how his season would have been if they could have investigated and confirmed the issue sooner.

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Pedro Piquet made some interesting comments as he left the series as well about how Callum Ilott’s engine was noticeably down on power as well.  Which begs the question, was the budget not there to replace the unit or did the team not have the means to identify that the engine was an issue?

Spec Series Aren’t Really Equal: Conclusions and Questions

All of this raises the big question.  Are we really watching a series of equal cars where the drivers and teams compete on an equal playing field to see who is the best?  The answer sadly is clearly not.  So if Spec Series aren’t really equal, what can be done to make it more even?  A budget cap?  Restricted working practises?  The W Series model where all cars are run by one team and the drivers and engineers rotate between the cars wouldn’t work with a team championship being contested.  It is very difficult to see a way to ensure more parity.

I have one major question left though over the tolerances between engines and other parts being used in these spec series.  Clearly, engines should not be being sold to the teams if they result in a driver losing several tenths per lap in straight-line performance.  That might be acceptable for toy cars being sold for under £50 but not when a driver is spending £1 millions a year or more to race that car.  So the question is, what are the defined tolerances currently and how can this be improved to ensure a better competition?  Answers on a postcard.

 

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