There are a few options when getting into club-level circuit racing. The tired-and-true Spec Miata is a great route for those who want to improve their cornering and racecraft. Similarly, the Spec E30 runs at a comparable pace, but the extra torque and the sturdiness of the car provides a very different driving experience. Ex-Grand Am driver Thomas Merrill knows his way around a variety of machines, and shows us how to extract all the performance from a well-prepared Spec E30 from Sonoma Valley Racing with grace and aggression.
Like the Spec Miata, the Spec E30 isn’t exactly a powerhouse. Momentum is priced at a premium, and those who can conserve it the best tend to go the furthest. Rules require stock ratios to be retained in Spec E30, and so it’s expected to fall out of the M20B25’s powerband from time to time. That means gutsy charges into the corner are rewarded, if not necessary.
Since “understeer is momentum’s enemy,” states Merrill, “a driver that can drive with the rear end will be strong.” The E30 is naturally little tail happy, and the rear suspension has a funny habit of changing toe under compression. Controlling a nervous backside is all part of the game, and not only it critical to going fast, but it’s fun. It makes them lively, and this sort of racing is all about budget thrills and keeping the focus on driving.
The suspension setup is kept intentionally simple to place an emphasis on skill, not chassis tweaking. There is some room for camber and toe adjustment to make it a little more incisive, and while the rear sway bar can be adjusted, the front must remain fixed. As Merrill mentions, “the setup has a lot of camber so the car will roll over and take a set before it grips.” Some set and roll help the cars feel progressive, which makes it approachable.
Therefore, the handling comes down to getting a choice selection of parts together. The sticky Toyo RR tires give Merrill some stick, and when conjoined with the required Bilstein shocks, H&R springs, and Suspension Techniques front swaybar kit, the boxy BMW actually turns very well! Though the Spec E30 is a little too stiff for the streets, it’s a reasonably soft racing car and soaks up the bumps at Buttonwillow quite well, though it does like to slither over camber changes (1:35).
This means Merrill can charge over curbs without concern. There’s no aero platform to maintain either, so three-wheeling isn’t avoided. It’s a little skittish at lower speeds, but when the car is no longer torque-limited in the quicker stuff, it’s stable and reassuring with a hint of benign understeer. Note how he has to manage the front-axle grip at 1:51 and reduce his throttle input to keep the car on-line.
The whole process requires some deliberate manhandling; Merrill gives the steering a good yank on the way into Buttonwillow’s Turn Twelve to get a lot of oversteer running onto the front straight. “You’ll see the fastest guys appear to really throw the car around, but they are managing weight transfer and using the energy to keep the car free in the center of the corner.” With a little rotation, he doesn’t let any understeer from the heavy inline-six up front slow him. In fact, this particular lap was so devoid of understeer, he pipped the Spec E30 lap record at Buttonwillow by a few tenths. It might have been an unofficial lap in practice, but it still deserves lots of praise.
Hats off, Mr. Merrill.