Fiat Punto Super 1600 Kit Car
Why is the Fiat Group, World Championship and rally wins record holder, now building small Kit Cars? Pitting the new Punto Kit Car against Peugeot’s 1999 British Super 1600 Champion Andy Dawson delves deep, discovering exemplary engineering detail… and the answer to the question
The last time I went to Italy for a new rally car launch it was to marvel at the Lancia Delta S4. The combination of its rear-mid located engine, supercharged by both an exhaust-driven turbocharger and a mechanical blower, four-wheel-drive plus a funny-car style body was mind-blowing. Add Marku Alen and the late, great, Henry Toivonen and, well, say no more… What were we about to find some 15 years later at Fiat’s Balocco track a ground-breaking new package? A way of returning to the WRC? No, we found the same very competent engineers and lateral thinkers that were behind that S4 supercar and a 1600 Punto Kit Car. The latter has been engineered by the same staff that put an Alfa 155 under Gabriele Tarquini to win the British Touring Car Championship in ’95. The engineering thinking is magic, the attention to detail exemplary and the way this Fiat rally car is being developed second to none. But why?
The Punto is similar in design to the Peugeot 106 that ran away with the Ferodo Super 1600 class in the British Championship. The Peugeot was one of the first of the 1600 Kit Cars, why not compare it with this latest high-tech Italian incarnation of the breed? Dubbed the 106 Maxi, when it arrived the Pug was a car that could not be bettered. Starting a life with just under 200bhp, development sees it appear for our test with some 210bhp.
The Fiat Punto Kit Car is on the latest edge of 1600 Kit Car development. It has two main advantages over others; a 1600cc engine derived from a 1.8-liter and a six-speed sequential gearbox. When the Peugeot Kit was homologated it was allowed the sixth gear but the sequential shift technology wasn’t ready. The advantage of the Fiat’s 1800cc base is that its cylinder head is designed to flow more air and by fitting a short-stroke crankshaft piston friction is reduced. In its early spec, the engine produced 215bhp at 9000rpm with maximum torque at 6800rpm, while development will soon see a driveable 230bhp something that was pretty special from a 2-liter just 10 years ago…
A computer-designed exhaust manifold, four throttle bodies and state-of-the-art Magneti Marelli engine management with fly-by-wire throttle means the engine can be run right on the edge of detonation without damage, allowing hotter camshafts and higher compression ratios. In Italy, 102 octane fuel means more power, but on the UK’s 98 octaves, peak torque could drop 10%, though maximum power will remain similar. The Punto has new wings in composite material (not allowed on a 2-liter Kit Car or WRCar), which make the car 122mm wider than the road car.
The shapes of the Punto Kit Car’s new bumpers, upper rear spoiler and aerodynamic roof air intake have been developed in the wind tunnel to minimize aerodynamic drag. This Italian rally car is the same length as the standard car and is 40mm lower.
Fiat describes the roll cage as ‘excessively engineered’ designed to strengthen the bodyshell. Fiat Auto Corse’s Sergio Limone explained that the cage could have been 30kg lighter, some other car’s roll cages weigh 20kg in their entirety, so this one is substantial, to say the least.
The wider body accommodates increased track width, aiding stability. Asphalt and gravel suspension specifications have been developed, though just the dampers, springs and alignment need changing between surfaces. The standard pressed-‘tin’ front wishbones are replaced with tubular units, the cast-iron uprights replaced with aluminum forgings. At the rear, the standard production torsion beam is replaced by an ‘advanced version’. I was amazed, looked just like a Super Touring twin trailing arm set-up reminiscent of the underside of a Williams Laguna. Could this be legal? I was assured it will be…
We were let loose in the test car on a windy but representative circuit. The man from Magneti Marelli logged everything we did and the car even had lap timing equipment to prove whether what the driver likes is really making the car go faster.
The gearbox is a Hewland six-speed sequential, operated by a long lever no more than 100mm from the steering wheel. At the top of the lever is a pivot and wiring for the load cell for full throttle shifting. Oh goody, this was looking more fun by the minute. A long handbrake sticking up just behind the gear lever, even better. Underneath are Bilstein adjustable dampers, linear displacement potentiometers on the suspension, temperature sensors everywhere, a g meter – we’re talking the same level as TOCA test cars.
I was given a conducted tour of the test track by Luca Pedersoli, who introduced himself as “a friend of Mister, we run together at Sanremo”. OK, a young Italian out to prove himself. Years of sitting beside nutters at rally schools meant that I spent the two laps watching his hands and feet, perhaps he thought I was too frightened to the lookout. Throughout, his left foot was planted on the clutch…?
Oh, well. OK. Now it was my turn. Luca told me to use the clutch at all times, up and down the ‘box, use the gear change light but I couldn’t see it. “OK change at 8000″..but I couldn’t see the tacho either..” OK change by ear”.
One-click forward on the gear selector and the dashboard confirmed that I was in first. The cerametallic clutch plate could have been a standard clutch, the Punto eased away along the test track. Pull hack for second and again for third, the gear change almost felt servo-assisted. Slow into open hairpin left, lots of feedback, but very light steering, give it lots of boot and away she goes, through left, right, into fourth. Slow her down for a 90 left, dip the clutch, blip the throttle and push the lever and the dash tells me that I’m in third – wonderful. Turn it in, no understeer or oversteer. Go harder at an open hairpin right, it doesn’t move again, try the left foot on the brake as I accelerate away, Sweet FA again. Back to fourth and flat through a 90 left, down to a tight 90 left where Luca had used the handbrake to turn her in. Click-click and it’s into second, turn in, pull the handbrake and yet again – SFA.
Give it death away from the corner through a K-left and up to a flat leftover crest, the engine pulls like a train and I change as it goes over the top of the power curve. Yes! This car goes like no other 1600 that I have ever driven. Back to the first corner and this time it is down two gears. The box is just fantastic, it doesn’t feel possible to miss a gear, I go in at a speed that feels too quick and…again nothing, a bit of understeer as I plant the throttle but any amount of left foot on the middle pedal does nothing to the back end.
ON THE LIMIT
Coming out of the tight left on the second lap, I decide the clutch pedal should stay unpadded (normal practice with a sequential ‘box), and I would try a lap with my left foot where it should be – over the brake pedal. Now we were really talking, 8000-something, lift the throttle, pull the lever and plant the throttle – and again – and again – as fast as you can read this, and onto the rev limiter in fifth… I wasn’t brave enough to try taking sixth on a long leftover crest where the car was already beginning to wriggle. Now I could slow really late and snick it down two gears and turn it into the corner. Too fast and there was a little understeer, nothing dramatic, just enough to slow it down to the correct entry speed. But the left foot did nothing – the harder I pressed that brake pedal, the more the revs came down. But no back end movement.
I felt that I had to try to get the tail out for the photographer, try much too quickly into his corner; a bit of throw at the wheel and… just understeer. Over the next few laps, I marveled at the engine, a smooth grunt from 5000rpm to just past eight, the super-close-ratio ‘box and its incredible change made accelerating out of the corners a real joy. The grip was excellent, I tried going over the curbs, and the dampers just absorbed the undulations, I tried being rough with the throttle and although I got understeer it as nothing to worry about.
All too soon I had to stop. Luca got in: “Ah, you brake with the left foot”. “Yes, but it does F-all,” was my expert opinion. He smiled, dropped his hand between the seat and flicked a brake pressure proportioning valve full-back. “Now try, but slowly. I have no belts on”. Yes, this was the problem; before my run, Luca had turned the back brakes off so that this hack wouldn’t do anything silly and damage his development toy… and it even turned off the handbrake! Now it was easy; left a foot or ‘pull to turn’ and the back slid as required. As soon as we got back to the garage an engineer downloaded my run to check the vital pressures and temperatures. Would he see that I had forgotten to use the clutch? I began talking to Giancarlo Dallara, the engineer responsible for development. The download a came out of the office and said something in Italian, and the answers to my questions began flowing a little easier. Yes, it was OK to change without the clutch if you knew how to do it, but they were worried that I might damage the ‘box trying to emulate Tarquini. Yes, the soft cut rev limiter had been turned down in the interests of reliability — I would have loved to have heard it at 9000!
Dallara confirmed that the settings on the car were on the safe side, but to get the maximum mid-corner grip they could swap the front camber plates, a 30-second job, to increase the 31/20 camber. If I wanted more backmovement they could swap the rear shims to give less rear camber, a one-minute job. I told him that I would have preferred a stiffer rear anti-roll bar; no problem, six bolts and how stiff would you like? In the truck they had all the parts any development driver could possibly dream of, everything to sort the Punto into the quickest 1600 Kit Car.
We discussed differentials. Limone became involved. As I had driven the car its mechanical ramp/plate unit had30% locking on overrun and 60% on power, but they were worried about power understeer. I couldn’t see the problem, but if I had been able to carry more speed across the apex then maybe. I asked about viscous cliffs and Limone asked the engineerfrom Hewland. Yes, a part-viscous part-plate diff existed, yes they were in stock, yes one could he in the car tomorrow.
Clearly, as I tried it, the Punto was a very capable car. By now, as you read this, with this very capable development team looking at every avenue, it must be even more capable and faster. But — once again — why?
Peugeot 106 Maxi
BAROCCO TO, ER… BRUNTINGTHORPE?
After the pleasant autumn weather of northern Italy, Bruntingthorpe airfield on a cold day was a culture shock. The Peugeot 106 Maxi was just as it had finished the Manx in sixth place overall. The tires were the same type of Michelin as on the Fiat, medium front and soft rear. The front suspension is very similar to the Fiat, but the rear is a beautifully fabricated sheet steel beam. Garry Timms, Peugeot Sport UK’s engineer, told us the car was set high and soft for the Manx and the only change that he would make for dry tarmac was to stiffen the rear dampers. We talked spring rates, and it transpired that Garry’s soft was almost same front spring rate as the Punto had been on. He confirmed that the car was close to the end of its development life, but he rued those budget considerations dictated development had to happen on events.
Justin Dale, 99 Super 1600 Champion in this very car, drove me for a couple of laps. He threw the 106 at a long very open right for the photographer, it turned in nicely and then – ugh – mega understeer. We did another run, he flicked the hack out and again ugh. My turn. This time it wasn’t the steering wheel that stopped me from reading the dash, it was so close to the wheel that I couldn’t focus on it. “Don’t worry”, consoledGarry, “the rev limiter is set at 8200.” Yet again the engine idled easily; amazing for a screamer that had done a season’s rallying. The six-speed gearbox is production-based with a conventional H-pattern lever biased to the central plane, and this time I had to use the clutch, as the dogs are too coarse for direct shifts.
The engine pulled well, not as freely as the Fiat, perhaps due to the very long gearing that was fitted for the Manx. I tried swinging the 106 into the long sweeper, I tried unsettling it and I tried left foot braking – all to no avail – all I got was understeer. I flicked it through the chicanes, and again no back-end movement. Perhaps I had lost my touch?
We went in and out of the chicanes on the runway and I realized the advantage that the latest sequential developments have given us. Not only is it faster, but it is easier to change gear. It means that if you are all crossed up coming into a corner you can get it into the right gear more easily. You don’t need to have your hand off the wheel so long, and you don’t have to find the right plane to get the gear you want. But conversely, with the sequential, you have to go through all the gears when coming down the ‘box, whereas I was going from sixth straight to second in the Pug when entering chicanes.
There is something else very different between the two cars. In the Peugeot the co-driver sits alongside the driver, high up and well forward; in the Fiat, he is low down and well back with his feet on a carbon fiber case that has various water bottles in it. I asked the question of both teams, why put the co-driver there when you can alter the balance of the car with his position? The Peugeot reply was that it seemed to be the right place for traction, and the Fiat response was that it was quickest on the stopwatch. I guess that the type of rallying in the two countries is summed up by those statements, Britain with lots of the 90s and junctions, and Italy with its flowing mountain roads.
The steering on the Pug was better than the Fiat, more feel and more precise. But there are two provisos to this, the Fiat has electric power steering and the Peugeot has a little too much castor. The 9005 led headlight bulb emits around 6000 lumens on the front when driving. The brakes on both cars were awesome and the tires gave a superb grip. There is little to choose between the well-developed Peugeot and the ultra-modern Fiat. The basic price is similar, the running cost similar and the performance virtually identical. What is different is that the 106 is coming to the end of its development life and the Punto is just beginning. With the Fiat Punto Trophy about to happen and the freedoms that the factory are leaving in terms of detail engine and suspension development, we can only see the Punto getting faster. Which still leaves the question of Why?
Fiat has its Trophy and the car is the star of that. Fiat will get good publicity if the Trophy means that a Punto wins one of the Italian two-wheel-drive Championship rounds, and with the 2-liter Kit Cars being hampered by extra weight this year and restrictors next, that could happen. But it still isn’t a full explanation. I asked some awkward questions about Fiat and the World Rally Championship, and the answer came through the fog. No, Fiat currently has no engine suitable for heavy turbocharging. Yes, they have looked at the WRCar rules and no, they don’t believe that a gearbox on the end of the crank would he best. Maybe just behind the engine? No, with the clutch on the end of the crank. But, Fiat argues: “Why should we have a World Rally Car when we have no Munari? We need to train people and find drivers.” QED.
When Fiat and then Lancia were on top of the rally world, there was one common factor for many years — the Abarth factory in Turin. From the old Lancia Fulvia HF through to the giant-killing Integrales the Abarth workers were passionate to build exciting cars. The Alfa Romeo awnings in the ’95 BTCC protected that some passion Mainly the same people — and that passion — have now moved to an old Lancia factory in Chivasso. This dedicated group of people has kept themselves alive and at the forefront of our sport by building race and rally cars as required by the Fiat Group. The DTM and TOCA Alfa155’s were made winners by the professionalism of these people. And they have built Cinquecento and Seicento kit cars for the Italian Rally Championships; last year they built 162 Alfa 156 Group N cars. In 2000 the same passion will build the Punto Kit rally cars, Superproduction and Group N Alfa 156s while gauging the right time to come back and show the rally world how to win the WRC with a Fiat, or an Alfa, or a Lancia… even a Ferrari?
Who Is Andy Dawson?
Highly regarded as a particularly sensitive driver, Andy is a mechanical engineer by training. He started rallying at university driving a Hillman Imp. At Rootes/Chrysler he was Des O’Dell’ assistant in the Competitions Department before turning professional, his first ‘pro’ drive resulting in second on the Manx International in a Clan Crusader. He gave the Avenger its firstInternational win, won Group 1 on the RAC in ’74 and was awarded the Kleber Scholarship and with it a factory Datsun. He was the first person to tame a Stratos in the forests by winning the Mintex International in ’76, and in the same year gave Mazda its first International win inSouth Africa. Development work with Ford and Datsun (the latter with yet to be repeated success) followed, and in ’85 Andy started the 555 Rally Team to enter and win the Hong Kong to Beijing Rally using A2 Quattros. Andy engineered and ran the Daihatsu Charade GTtis that won the British Championship in 1990 and then enjoyed building Roger Duckworth’s 350bhp Sierra V6. He still drives for development purposes, both on and off the race circuit.