Feature: Suzuki Baleno

When I tell people I often visit races to or track days where friends are going to race they always ask me “that’s a very expensive hobby, isn’t it?” And I always tell them that it can be as expensive as you want. The occasional track day can be done with a completely stock and very cheap car, when I visited the TT Circuit in Assen in The Netherlands to shoot the photos for this blog I even saw an old Peugeot 205 driving a few laps!

“But what if you want to race in a competition? “ is the next logical question. Well, there are a few options. The Mazda MX-5 Cup or Chevrolet Cruze Cup are perfect for racing on a fairly small budget, but most drivers in these championships need sponsors because the costs will still be to high otherwise.

In recent years Time Attack is becoming more and more popular here in The Netherlands for amateur drivers. It’s a great way to drive in a competition with low costs and in the lowest class, Semi Pro Street, the rules are quite relaxed. The cars must adhere to some basic safety rules but expensive things like a full roll cage aren’t mandatory. Because of this the number of participants in this class is high, 35 this season, with a broad range of cars. Of course there are many Honda’s, but also a few BMW’s and even a tiny Toyota Yaris. Some of the cars are driven by friends of mine, and I think one of these is the pinnacle of low-budget racing.

The owner of this car, Daniel, bought this particular car at the end of 2010 for only 850 Euros. It was an almost stock Suzuki Baleno GSX with a 121 HP 1839cc engine. Of course the car didn’t stay that way for long and a lot has been modified since then. Because the Suzuki Baleno was never a very popular car there are almost no aftermarket parts available and the owner wanted to keep it as cheap as possible, so a lot of the modifications are homemade or created by handy friends.

One of the first things addressed was the handling. The stock suspension is replaced by coilovers from BC Racing and the car was stiffened with custom made front and rear strut bars. This greatly improved the handling which is, as we all know, very important on the track. Daniel is planning to fit a roll cage to increase the stiffness of the chassis and to improve the safety.

The engine is still almost completely stock. Actually, it is the second engine because the first one broke down last year during a race due to terminal failure of the conrod bearings. The engine still breaths via the stock intake with the original filter housing, although a K&N filter is used, instead of some open air intake system. The catch can is made from a thermos flask with a small filter on top to vent the oil fumes from the crankcase. Oil cooling via the sump and the heat exchanger was insufficient, so after the engine failure an external oil cooler was fitted just behind the front bumper to lower the oil temperature.

The car sits on 15” wheels with 195/50 tyres and for races and track days these are replaced with Toyo R888 semi-slicks to enhance grip. To increase the stopping power the front brake discs and calipers are replaced by bigger ones from a Honda with custom brackets. At both the front and the rear EBC Yellowstuff brake pads are used to reduce fading.

The interior is almost completely removed, besides the stock dash as required by the Time Attack rules. The steering wheel is replaced by a QSP wheel and the driver seat by a Sabelt bucket seat with GSP belts. A few extra gauges are fitted on the centre console along with some switches. One of the switches is connected to the radiator fan to increase cooling when necessary. The fan can be turned on even when the engine isn’t running to lower the temperatures under the bonnet and to cool the engine by natural circulation of the coolant.

Daniel competed in the 2011 Time Attack Championship with this car without any mentionable racing experience and he did it far better than anyone expected. He ended up in the second place, behind a 300+ HP Volkswagen Beetle and in front of a Audi A5 with a 3 litre turbo diesel engine. In the current 2012 season the top of the leader board is occupied by far more powerful cars and he’s currently at the 13th place.

So, is racing on a tight budget possible? Yes, I think this car makes it perfectly clear that you can race for a few bucks without ending up in the rear of the field being overtaken left and right by faster cars. Although the 2012 season of Time Attack had a huge influx of sponsored cars the number of independent is still high so it is still possible to compete in the sub top. And even if you don’t want to race in a competition the occasional track day or trip to Ring can be lots of fun too.

– Alex Kamsteeg

Photos by Alex Kamsteeg