Paul O’Neill Test drives the S4R race car

February 19th, 2011 by alisonpepler.

At Brands Hatch in the morning on the same day as the crash, the boys from Motorsport news rocked up to test the car. Below is what Paul O’Neill wrote about it in this weeks issue of Motorsport News. I would just like to say a big thank you to Paul, Rob and Gary for spending a cold morning at Brands Hatch.

My friends are constantly saying that my parking is rubbish and that I should perhaps consider getting a smaller car But small city cars have never been my style on the road. So when Motorsport News asked me to try out a racing version of a Smart car, I could hardly silence my giggles. The car in question will form a new one-make Smart4Two Cup, which will run at Britcar meetings. A Smart is one of the most unlikely bases for a racing machine that I can think of, but I went to Brands Hatch with an open mind. But I was struggling to hide my scepticism at the concept of turning an eco-friendly city cruiser into aferal racing beast.
The car itself is a modified version of the Brabus-tuned Smart Fortwo, the slightly larger edition of the Mercedes-built micro machine. It has a three-cylinder 998cc turbo charged engine, which develops about 125bhp. That’s quite a lot for a tiny machine that weighs just730kg. But due to its small size, the car doesn’t have much presence.
The first time I sauntered into the garage I nearly walked straight past it. It really looks too small for a racing car so I had concerns when the time came for me to slip into the hot seat and take to the Brands Hatch Indy Circuit. I had visions of a six-footer like me having to drive almost bent double with my head -wedged against the rollcage, but the Smart is surprisingly spacious and accommodated me easily.The strangest thing about the car is the illusion of size you get driving it. The seating position is very unusual: you sit very high in it, so you almost feel like you’re on top of the car. The Corbeau seat holds you in place nice and securely. The car is also very well kitted out with a custom designed roll cage neatly enveloping the cockpit-it’s made from the same design as one fitted to an extreme off-road Land Rover; so you know it’s going to be strong. The road car Smart has a four-star Euro NCAP crash rating, so with the cage it easily reaches current MSA safety standards.While the Smart does feel very solid to be in, it doesn’t grab your attention like a Renault Clio Cup car would. The organisers of the Smart series point out the car is road legal. But the downside of that is that the Fortwo doesn’t feel like a pure-bred racer; and that can detract from the excitement of driving it.
However; the car does have many redeeming qualities when you get it out on track. As soon as I accelerated out of the pit lane the whole character of the machine changed, and that was mainly down to the engine. The Brabus unit is great. It is mounted inside the car under a hatch behind the drivers’ seat and because it’s so close there’s nothing to shield you from the noise. I could hear and feel every rev and spool of the turbo and it really added to the experience. The engine also performs incredibly well on track. The turbo becomes active at very low revs and gives a smooth power delivery right through the range. Admittedly, the car’s wedge shape means you have to work the engine hard to overcome the aerodynamic drag and get speed down the straights, but it is incredibly perky and responsive through the corners. The handling is probably the car’s strongest aspect. Because the Smart has a very short wheelbase it’s very quick to respond to input and has mountains of grip. The engine delivers the power to the rear wheels. That’s the same layout as a Lotus Exige and it behaves like one at times. Because all of the weight of the engine and gearbox is over the rear axle you can feel the front end lifting on turn-in to tight corners like Druids so it’s up to the driver to keep the balance. The Smart demands a smooth driving style and you have to warm the steering wheel on the brakes before committing to tight bends. The car also has an odd centre of gravity because it’s as tall as it is long, so you can’t simply throw it around corners and wrestle it on the exit because it will under steer if you’re too sharp on the steering. There’s very little body-roll in the car, despite its cumbersome shape. The suspension was set-up a bit too soft for my liking on the car I drove but the Smart has a good natural balance and doesn’t tend to wallow much-unless you get the line completely wrong or try and push too hard. The suspension was a weak point for me because the soft setting makes the car incapable of taking kerbs in corners. That’s a bad thing when the racing line at corners like Surtees demands you clip the inside kerb. Every time I did the rebound on the shocks threatened to unsettle the car and I had to catch it on the steering to avoid a slide. While the suspension settings are still being refined, the car’s brakes are definitely the finished article.
The guys from car builders Smarts4youRacing have designed their own brake specification alongside specialist manufacturer Hi-Spec and the system is one of the best I’ve experienced. I could brake incredibly late for Paddock Hill and the feedback I got through the pedal and the steering was excellent. I could feel every little lock-up, which made it very easy to accurately judge the correct braking pressure for every corner. Within a handful of laps I was in a groove with it. With a smooth turn ­in I could easily carry as much speed through the Paddock Hill Bend apex as any other car on the day. It was a very rewarding feeling closing on to the tail of a Mitsubishi Lancer in a Smart car through one of the fastest sections of the track …
While the Smart is surprisingly sporty at speed the gearbox is a constant reminder that it’s still a road-going car. In my view, it’s the car’s one big failing. The car uses a Getrag five-speed semi-automatic ‘box with a paddle-shift system. It’s fine going up the sequence while you’re accelerating but on downshifts it’s just too slow. On the run to Druids I had to double check my speed every time before I changed down, and when I did it waited for the revs to even out before selecting the right cog. It’s something you’d never notice on the road but it’s not ideal on a racing circuit. The alternative to the standard system would be to fit an expensive Quaife or Hewland transmission but that would hike the car’s price tag of £17,860 (Plus VAT) up even more, and that’s a lot of money in the fist place in my mind. That said, series bosses say the running costs will be low in modern motorsport terms. They reckon you can buy and run the Brabus Smart for three seasons for under £40,000. The bodywork is moulded plastic, so a full re-shell would cost around £2500, about half the cost of higher profile championships.
The car was a pleasant surprise in the end, and by far the biggest battle the series chiefs have is getting people to take the cars seriously. I don’t see the concept luring career-minded drivers trying to get into touring cars out of the usual ladder of progression of Minis, Fiestas, and Clios. The Smart Fortwo is definitely one for the more casual clubman drivers.
My test certainly changed my opinion of the car though. Plus, when I’d finished running I managed to reverse it into the garage all on my own perfectly. Perhaps my friends are right-it could solve my parking problem after all ….

See the full report in this week’s edition of Motorsport News On Sale now…

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