Time Attack – racing the stopwatch in a 345bhp Ford Fiesta ST
Photo credit: Rich Sams
We jump into a modified hot hatch to see what its like being a Time Attack driver at 2016’s Snetterton season finale
We get a first taste of Time Attack in a super-hot Ford Fiesta ST to see what one of Britain’s best-value series is like.
From afar, Time Attack might look like a glorified track day championship. Rather than racing, its drivers are sent out on track in sessions in order to record their fastest lap time. No race starts, no battles, it’s just you against the stopwatch.
Those who crave wheel-to-wheel competition – and can afford to fund the inevitable damage – may not find Time Attack as appealing as a race series. But for those who love driving on the absolute limit and extracting everything from themselves and their car on every corner, Time Attack might just be the perfect fit.
To find out what it’s like to be a Time Attack driver, this Autocar staffer headed to Snetterton for the final round of the year and strapped himself into a Project Carsbranded Ford Fiesta ST, prepared by intercooler specialist Airtec. With extensive engine and suspension mods, including an uprated turbo that boosts power to 345bhp and a very pointy (read: oversteery) chassis set-up, it’s a serious piece of kit.
The Time Attack championship visits six tracks, including Brands Hatch, Oulton Park and Snetterton, and generally takes place between April and September. Our entry is at Snetterton, on the two-mile-long 200 circuit. This year’s series has more than 50 entries per race, split into eight classes that range from Pocket Rocket, in which the smallestcapacity cars run, to Pro Extreme, where modifications are unlimited.
Make no mistake: Time Attack cars are top-level machines. Our Fiesta ST, which is one of the most lightly modified cars in the Pocket Rocket class, has a fully stripped interior, a welded roll cage, bucket seats, harnesses, semi-slick tyres and no traction control, ESP or ABS.
It’s technically still road legal, but slipping behind its suede racing wheel and peering over the flocked dashboard, it feels nothing short of a championship racer. Press the start button and hear its highly strung 1.6-litre engine fire into life and the car’s track focus is clear.
The Fiesta’s class sits alongside the entry-level Clubman category, with power outputs for machines mostly ranging between 200 and 400bhp. At the other end of the field in Pro Extreme, the most powerful car, a Mitsubishi Evo VI, is claimed to be running with 1200bhp.
The day’s running is split into four parts. After a 20-minute warm-up and 20-minute practice session, we move into qualifying – our first timed stint – and then the final.
I know the Snetterton 200 layout from a previous track day there, but the Fiesta ST, which has been set up to be agile and is therefore quite scary for a novice at high speeds, is challenging to get on top of. The class of 22 cars bursts out of the pit lane and I focus on getting the rear tyres warm. Morning practice revealed that taking turn one at pace with cold tyres is akin to roller skating down a spiral staircase.
Once the rubber is up to temperature and I’ve found some track space (you don’t want to come across another car on your lap), it’s time to get down to it. Crossing the line and heading towards turn one really gets the adrenalin going, but taking the first corner as fast as my brain will allow – which is undoubtedly some way off the car’s limit – really gets my pulse up.
There’s no racing to think about, yet the pressure in Time Attack is supremely high because you have no time to make mistakes. Lock up and run wide or take things too steady into a corner and the lap is ruined, so you have to adjust your approach and head back around to the start line to have another go.
What this translates into is barely three decent laps worth recording across the whole timed session. As an inexperienced driver, I’m overdriving one lap and then reining things back a step too far the next. All the while, cars are flying past and I’m quickly learning that the standard of driving in Time Attack is very high indeed.
But then things start to come together. I follow another car and my lines start flowing more naturally from corner to corner. The snap oversteer moments stop – thank god – and I gain confidence into the braking zones. Do I miss the wheel-to-wheel action of racing? Perhaps, but I’m experiencing 90% of the satisfaction of a race with probably 95% less risk of damaging the car.
I end the day’s running more than two seconds off the fastest Fiesta but itching to get back in the car and chip away at the lap times. While my brain soaks up the adrenalin, I chat away to the mechanics and neighbouring drivers about big saves and the times I felt I nailed a corner
When I start to come down from my high, I realise I’ve been rambling on like a caffeine-fuelled maniac for 15 minutes. Clearly I’ve bitten the bug, and bitten it hard. Money permitting, I’d be doing everything I could to be at round one next year.