SCI Interview: CGA Race Engineering

Running a historic racing car is not always the daunting challenge some imagine it to be. For ‘old’ can very often mean both ‘simple’ and ‘straightforward,’ and in many cases diagnosing problems and effecting repairs on a classic racing car can be quite easy for the experienced race mechanic. But we’ve now reached the stage where some pretty advanced and sophisticated machinery finds itself eligible for historic competition (witness the appearance of an Audi R8 at Sebring’s SVRA Endurance Classic this year), and this brings a new set of challenges for the historic racecar preparation specialists of the world.


In Europe, the Group C Racing series has been run for several years now, providing a competitive outlet for owners of some of the greatest cars from the Group C/IMSA GTP era. These cars are a big draw at major historic events like the Silverstone Classic and the Goodwood Festival of Speed, and SCI travelled to Donington Park recently for a newly established historic event that was headlined by Group C Racing. There, we spoke to Alistair Bennett of CGA Race Engineering, a Cheshire-based team that prepares and runs a large number of historic racecars for events across Europe.


Although CGA’s main focus to date has been historic single-seaters, when their Japanese client Ketsu Kubota acquired a Nissan R90CK Group C car recently, he naturally engaged them to run that, too. Kubota is the only Japanese driver ever to have won an FIA-sanctioned race for Formula One cars (having taken victory three times in the Historic Formula One series) and is also a former Historic Formula 2 champion. He’s now looking to take on the hitherto-dominant Jaguars and Mercedes in the Group C Racing series with his stunning R90CK.

It’s early in the day when we speak to Bennett, and the team’s pitstop practice has just been interrupted by a call to clear the pitlane for the Historic F2 race. “We had a great run in testing on Thursday, fantastic, really consistent, the car ran like a dream,” he enthuses. “Ketsu was able to lap consistently in the 62-63-second bracket with no real issues.” Poking around the car earlier in CGA’s garage, we had noticed a comparatively large LCD screen attached to the dash – a decidedly un-period feature. “We’ve been adding bits and pieces to make it easier for Ketsu to drive,” explains Bennett. “You literally can’t see anything out the back of  a Group C car, and there can be a big speed discrepancy between the Nissan and some of the guys in Group C2, so we’ve done as much as possible to make it manageable for him.” The weekend had not passed off without drama, however, as the RC90 broke a gear during Friday’s qualifying, something which Bennett notes was the Achilles’ heel of the car in-period.


Compared to running something from the 1950s or ’60s, the main challenges involved in running a late ’80s/early ’90s sports prototype concern composites and electronics. “It’s quite easy to make parts for the older cars – with our F1 cars we just upgrade the material specs and that generally gives us very good reliability,” says Bennett. “The Nissan is much more complex, though – the carbon moulds don’t exist anymore, so carbon-composite damage is the most difficult thing to rectify. Mechanically, it’s not that bad, but you have to keep 100 percent on top of crack testing and preparation, and we do rigorous strip downs and rebuilds quite regularly.”


CGA aim to strike the same balance between reliability and speed that any contemporary race team would, and there is definitely no ‘we’re just happy to be here’ attitude about their involvement in historic racing. Discussing the car’s VRH-35Z V8 motor, Bennett declares, “You could probably get that engine to last forever if you turned the boost off, but then the Sauber would turn their boost up, and we’re not here to finish second, are we? We’re always trying to find that knife-edge balance between getting all the horsepower out of the car, but at the same time making sure we’ve got a reliable, useable tool for the whole year.”


When Group C machinery first began to appear in historic events, everyone running them hit upon the same problem with the cars’ electronics. A purchased car would frequently come with an assortment of unlabelled printed circuit boards (PCBs) to slot into the ECU, with no indication as to which PCB contained the 1,000bhp, go-for-broke qualifying map and which was the more reliable endurance race map. The in-period ECUs also refuse to work with anything other than archaic DOS-based computers, so the otherwise-strict Group C Racing technical regulations have had to be relaxed somewhat to make it easier for competitors to run their cars. “There’s three choices,” outlines Bennett. “You can stick with the original ECU, go down the Pectel-style route, or you can go with systems from Life, MoTec and so on. A lot of our competitors have done the latter, but that’s not the trick – the trick is getting your engine map right.”


And while the Group C Racing administrators have been pragmatic enough to allow the use of modern electronics, elsewhere the rules are much tighter. “The aero and mechanical regulations are quite strict,” says Bennett. “You’ve got to run the same pick-up points, suspension geometry, track, wheelbase and weight as in-period. All those things are controlled. The organisers inspected the car at the start of the weekend, and came back again when we stopped in qualifying to see what we were doing with the gearbox repair, so we are definitely under the microscope – maybe not as much as in modern GT racing, but it’s still very closely controlled.”


Although Kubota has enlisted the services of CGA to prepare and run his car, he himself has been instrumental in the effort by making contacts back home in Japan. “It’s become quite difficult,” Kubota says. “After Renault took over Nissan and Carlos Ghosn came in, there was a lot of cost-cutting and many of the NISMO staff who would have known my car were let go. All that’s left is parts.” Bennett adds that Kubota’s digging has been a ‘real strength,’ particularly as he has been able to track down some of the original R90 project engineers. In this respect, CGA have the upper hand on many of their competitors, who may not have such a close link to their cars’ creators. “We can get some data off the car, send it back to Japan, and straight away we can clear up any question marks or potential risks we might otherwise have faced,” he says. “When it comes to integrating a new system like the ECU with the mechanical package, I think we’re well ahead of the game.”


Of course, sportscar fans will always remember the R90CK for Mark Blundell’s eye-popping qualifying lap at Le Mans in 1990, when the turbo wastegate jammed open, sending so much power to the rear wheels that the car began snapping sideways alarmingly, even on the straights. Nissan elected not to have chassis plates on these cars, so their provenance is never 100 percent certain, but chassis numbers were stamped underneath and inside the substrate panels, and the majority of numbering on this car indicates that it is chassis R90CK-05, which counts only the 1990 Le Mans 24 Hours and the 1991 Daytona 24 Hours among its period race starts. But with a third-place finish at the Donington Historic Festival and a win at the summer’s Silverstone Classic race now under their belt, Kubota and CGA look to be well placed to expand and enhance that record.


Thanks to Alistair Bennett and Ketsu Kubota


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