Taking On the World – A Simple formula with grand ambitions

TRS brings out their low cost formula to meet the multinational challenge

It seemed like one of those ideas born at the bottom of an empty bottle of San Mig Light. When JP Tuason gave is the inside line on his brand new Formula Ford project, all the C! guys jumped up and leapt straight in with all sorts of crazy suggestions as if they were diving into the first corner of a wet-weather amateur karting race. Rather than focus on the business model, or the Tuason’s master plan of developing a Philippine-based Asian series to fill in the massive void between local karting and the prohibitively expensive Asian Formula 3 series, wild ideas about pitting the car against a plane, a boat, or Lydia de Vega started flying around like shrapnel. And it still had nothing to do with what JP wanted.

You see, the Tuason Racing School has been secretly cooking up this plan for the last 5 years. It involved delicate negotiations with their UK partners, Spirit Racing, and a firm commitment from Ford Philippines as well as setting down some long-term regional goals. It was a plan fuelled by a disturbing love of motor sports and deep national pride. It was a plan to give Filipino drivers a chance to compete with the vest of the best in the region on equal machinery and hopefully graduate to the next level. That plan, however, never included the C! boys gang banging the first unit that landed here even before the ink on the customs papers had a chance to dry. So we came to a compromise.

The TRS crew makes final preparations to the engine before the test run

We promised to cover their plans for a one-make racing series, as well as the business of manufacturing the car here and selling it to other countries, including the original supplier in the UK, and the dream of franchising the TRS Formula Ford racing series in countries like Malaysia, China, Indonesia, and other ASEAN nation only if he would let us have our wicked way with it on the race track. Reluctantly, JP agreed.

The idea was to test drive the development 1.6 liter Formula Ford on the newly revised Subic International Raceway and get a real feel of what a dedicated open-wheel race car can do in its natural habitat. But we couldn’t stop there. And that’s when some of the wild ideas started seeping through our carefully laid plans. “Let’s put it up against a road car to demonstrate the difference between them.” Someone yelled out. “Not just any road car! Let’s pit it against an Audi RS4!” Another one piped up. “Why not go all the way and invite the Drift King and see how each car fares against the next!” Someone else added. The newest member of our C! team, Vince Pornelos, didn’t care as long as there was beer involved.

TRS takes their single seater to the track for the first time and performs their initial set ups

In truth, however, all the ideas were hatched by Kevin Limjoco just to have an excuse to test, even in its semi-prototype form, the 120 bhp Formula Ford against his own 425 bhp Chrysler 300C SRT8 among other formidable opponents. It is really as shallow as that.

So the stage was set. JP was still not convinced that this was an altogether sober idea, but as if to humor us, he went along with the plan anyway. Problem was, this car had never turned a wheel around this racetrack before, much less one in anger. A formula car – any formula car – needs to be properly set up for each and every track. It is not as simple as bringing it straight out of the box and telling the driver to point and shoot, just as it would be ridiculous to expect a professional photographer to just waltz on to a set, switch on a couple of lights and nail the perfect shot for a fashion ad in one click. There are around 12-24 hours of set up involving a cast of several and months of preparation before that shutter is even pressed.

But for the sake of trying to meet a deadline, we had to forego all the tuning and just taste the raw power and fantasize about the potential. In order to keep things fair, and reasonably consistent, JP would baseline the Formula Ford. I would go out in an Audi DTM edition and get a benchmark for the road cars. The owners, being the most familiar with their cars, and having check books with the same name as the one in the LTO registration papers, would set their own times. We were all ordered to drive at 80%. Yeah right.

The Audi felt sensational through the corners, balanced and surefooted, as the Quattro system bit down hard into the damp pavement and leaped out of the turns carrying a frightening amount of speed with it. It may only pack a two liter behind that huge, gaping grille, but they are two of the most willing and enthusiastic liters you’re likely to ever meet. And they’re turbocharged. Toti Turalba comes out shortly to rain on my parade by bringing in the awesome RS4 – the car the DTM wants to be when it grows up. He immediately shaves off almost 9 seconds from my time. Not that it wasn’t expected, of course, but I knew I could put in a tidier lap and at least bring the humiliation down by a good two seconds. Thankfully, they agree to let me have another crack at it. Sure enough, I’m two seconds better off at 1:15.51.

Ian King, one of the country’s top drifters was out next. Known more for show than go, we had to constantly remind Ian that this was a time trial, not a style trial. May sound insane to you, but this is a guy so hardcore that he even sits sideways at the lunch table. Ian brings two of his favorite toys along: the Nissan S14 Silvia and the almighty Subaru WRX STi, tuned to a whopping 380 bhp and fitted with a carbon fiber hood and boot. He immediately sets the fastest time, I only by a fraction of a second. Toti stands there in disbelief looking like he just got puck-pocketed. The WRX has always flown the flag for those with champagne taste and the Coca Cola budget, and nothing punctuated the point quite like the last lap. The mere fact that the STi has big enough ball bearings to even step into the same ring as a 6.5 million peso, 414bhp Audi RS4, shows that Subaru really do punch well above their weight. The drift car goes out in spectacular fashion, but was we kind of expected, was one of the slowest on track. It doesn’t help, of course, that Ian King uses his side window as his windscreen. We tell him to try and keep it clean and keep the nose pointing towards the general direction of the racing line. He tries, and despite a few tail-out heroics, still manages to clock in a respectable time of 1:13.29.

All that’s left is for the Hemi to come out and play. This is like inviting Mike Tyson to go ballroom dancing. It may have over 425 bhp and a shattering 420 pounds of torque, making it the most powerful car here on paper, but it has two left feet and the weight of a two-bedroom Cityland apartment to carry around. I’ll admit, on the straights, this thing was devastating. But damn, it needs a visa to make it around each corner. Kevin is right on the edge, pitching the car sideways around the hairpin. So much for Mr. 80%. He comes in for his flying lap and takes the long double apex left in front of us. We are all standing on the inside of the corner. The darn thing has so much body roll that it looked like we had just been flashed by a trench-coat-wearing pervert as he shows us part of his undercarriage while putting the car under full tilt. But for all the screaming and wailing of the tires, he brings it home with a 1:11.96.

Time for the Formula Ford. This is the moment of truth. It is officially the least powerful car in the lineup, and at P1.8M, also happens to be the cheapest. With just a paltry 120 bhp to dabble with, it can’t even claim the best power to weight ratio. And, it hasn’t even been set up for today’s course; come to think of it, it has not been set up period. The Formula Ford we’re using today comes with a 1.6 liter Focus engine, tuned slightly to make 120 bhp. The actual ones to be sold and raced for the series will have a 1.8 liter Focus engine that will be topping 140 bhp fitted to a 5-speed sequential gearbox. These will be the ones used to race in a one-make series and should be as easy to maintain as a go-kart. “The idea here is to make the transition from go-karts to Formula racing as inexpensive as possible” JP tells me as they check the tire pressures and fiddle with the front wing. “As a matter of fact, there are some people already spending more on karting than what it would cost to run in the TRS Formula Ford series.” He trails off as he slips on his crash helmet and walks around the car for the final time. As JP pulls away, his team gazes on in subdued awe. It’s like watching a boy flying a kite for the first time. He knows it will fly – that’s the whole point, right? But there’s still that wonder and amazement in his eyes when he sees it lift off and feels it fro himself. Jeanette Tuason, JP’s wife and business partner, cheers him on from behind the tire wall making it feel like we were filming a hallmark greeting card commercial. But you couldn’t blame her. This is not just a car lapping around a racetrack, this is life coming full circle for them. A dream coming true, and over 8 years of hard work finally paying off. You could see the pride in her eyes as JP enters the gates to begin his first flying lap. It is one thing to carry the name of a great racer on your overalls, it’s quite another to live up to that legacy without the same resources and opportunities that were available during the time the father, the late Arthur Tuason, was still alive. JP eventually had to hang up his racing suit and climb over to the other side of the pit wall if he wanted to keep stoking the fire that his father started. He, along with his wife Jeanette, his brother Mike, and the dedicated staff that make up TRS have worked tirelessly to build a professional racing school that has been responsible for training talents like Michelle Bumgarner, Mateo Guidicelli, Gabby de la Merced, and Pia Boren – all of which have become household names as well as celebrity endorsers.

JP takes on the straights with everything the pre-production 1.6 liter motor has got
Shooting out of the tight hairpin, the Fomula rockets out onto the back straight
The cars behind each have 4 times more power than the Formula, but lightness is the equalizer

The Formula Ford is just a tangible reminder of all that work. And to see it running around the track brings them just that one step closer to living the dream. I can only imagine the thrill of seeing eight or ten of these cars dicing it out and funneling through the tight corners of Subic, giving our young drivers the kind of experience they need to one day represent their country on the world stage. It may seem like a long shot, but then again, so did the Ford Focus Cup when they first pitched it. As JP crosses the line, there are cheers and tears from all sides. The Formula Ford stops the clock at exactly 1:08.04 and snatches the best time of the day by just a whisker. Just to put that in perspective, JP takes the TRS Focus Cup car out for a direct road car comparison. After all, they are running the same engine. Despite his best efforts, the stripped out racing car that is no stranger to this circuit can’t do any better than 1:19:41, putting it officially in last place.

Once the lap times were all neatly recorded and the competition part was over, JP gives me a crack behind the wheel of the Formula Ford so I can form my own impression of what it would be like to drive something so good at what it does. I climb in slowly. It’s extremely tight in the cockpit, but all the vital bits are within easy reach. The car barks into life and sends a pleasant shiver down the length of my body. Being the first one off the shelf and somewhat of a test mule, this unit has been fitted with a four-speed crash box that is pretty torquey, but not geared well for these corners. I find first and pop the clutch; the car squirms and kicks out as it looks for traction. It is so direct that you feel like just another component in it. Every input has an equal and immediate corresponding reaction. The throttle response is so crisp that it makes it quite tricky in damp portions of the track. It’s the kind of car you want to housebreak. It’s got all the character of an open wheeler, but it just needs a firm hand to keep it line.

I’ve been warned that the gearbox is quite tricky. But so long as you match the revs to the road speed, it slots straight in there and feels quite positive. Each gear feels brutal and is relentless all the way up to redline. The pull under full acceleration is almost violent and feels magnified by the coarseness of the road that filters straight through the steering and floor boards, making you feel that you’re being dragged across the tarmac on a flat sheet of metal. It is so sensitive that you know when you have run over a leaf. Actually, you can even tell what type of tree it came from. Well, almost…

On the wider corners, I want to feel the limits of the car. It is extremely quick but slightly nervous on exit of the turn and under heavy braking. I push a little bit but send the car into a spin. No harm down, but I have to admit, it is really twitchy. The Goodyear Eagle F1s are a delight to use, giving just the right amount of feedback and tremendous grip, but are all too easily overwhelmed by all this power. But in fairness, this is something that should be easily cured in the set up. The Ford engine is such a willing accomplice. I have raced the Ford Focus Cup cars before and have always admired the kind of punishment they can take. This engine, even in 1.6 form, delivers the power beautifully. The torque curve is quite linear with no sharp peaks that can cause some nasty surprises as you get on the gas early coming out of corners. Although I would love a tighter steering ration.

After all the lapping sessions, Kevin, Toti, and Ian went out to battle each other for 200m drag strip supremacy. Ian drove both his STi and his fantastic S14 drift car against the SRT8. If this was Kevin’s way of being vindicated, he is a glutton for punishment. The SRT8 had a very difficult time trying to control all those charging horses in the damp main straight and lost by a hair against the RS4, a car length with the S14, and an astounding 1 and a half car lengths against the tuned STi! I saw Kevin drawing up a “For Sale” sign just minutes after. Ian King and his very well tuned machines were the overall dark horses of the day. As if in denial, Toti continually flogged his RS4, getting faster after every hot lap, but sadly, they would count for nothing but personal pride as the recorded time sessions were nearly accomplished.

We all had our own expectations for how things would turn out that day. And most of us were surprised by the results. All of us could have improved our times even further but the discipline vainly enforced by Kevin forced us all to accept the results, leaving room for a sequel and many more of these time attack sessions. Francisco Blanco, the Colombian race engineer, feels he can get another 5 or 6 seconds out of the Formula Ford just with a decent set up. After seeing what he has done with the two TRS Ford Focus Philippine Touring Cars, I would put a month’s pay to say he was right. After all, not only did he manage to deliver TRS their first race win in the PTCC, but a Focus 1-2 at that.

This could be the start of something huge here. Who knows? Bigger things have been born from smaller dreams. Imagine an all-Filipino racing team winning championships around the region. It’s not that far fetched. After all, considering how the foreign teams pirate our mechanics, there is rally nothing stopping us from building better racing cars than Malaysians, Australians, Chinese, or Indonesians. That’s the easy part. Now let’s just see if we can find some drivers who are willing to take on the challenge.