The world is beginning to take notice of something sport-compact tuners have known for a long time: that despite their physics-defying drivetrain layout, FWD cars make great race machines.
For proof of this, one need look no farther than North America's new fastest overall time-attack record-holder (Toronto's William Au-Yeung and his PZ Tuning 9th-gen Civic coupe), or the scores of stock-bodied FWD Civics clocking 7-second 1/4-mile E.T.s at over 200 MPH. Today, after decades of our proving their worth, it seems that FWDs might truly be headed for a golden age in racing.
In response to global demand for fuel efficiency, reduced emissions, and urban accessibility (read: parking), as well as consumers' desires to go fast in style, compact cars and hot hatches are in huge global demand, and their makers are finding themselves more and more in heated competition to one-up each other. It's partially to this extent that OEM involvement in TCR racing is absolutely exploding around the world today, bringing to life some of the best-performing and most reliable (and coolest-looking!) modified sport compacts in professional road racing today.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Announced in 2014 to debut in 2015, what was originally called the TC3 International Series was developed as a low-cost racing class for drivers of spec SEAT Leon Cup cars, running in tandem with various larger/faster cars of the TC1 and TC2 classes of World Touring Car Championships competion in Europe. After news of the series sparked interest among OEM-partnered race teams, the one-make restriction was lifted and teams and OEMs alike rushed to enter their most capable C-segment production-based models in competition.
An Italian team called Target Competition was first to officially register for competition with a SEAT Leon, but were followed quickly by Onyx Race Engineering in Great Britain with a Ford Focus program, Swedish team WestCoast Racing campaigning three Honda Civics (sadly, not with Spoon engines), and others fielding Volkswagens, Audis, and more.
Once it became clear the series would be officially recognized by the FIA as the "TCR International Series" later that same year, the floodgates broke open. The TCR Asia series was officially established, followed by regional and national series in Belgium, China, Italy, Portugal, Thailand, Germany (under the ADAC blanket), the Middle East, UK, Australia, and eventually here in the States, racing within Pirelli World Challenge and (soon to be) International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) competition.
WHAT MAKES A TCR CAR
Whereas the top GT cars of most professional sportscar racing series in the world are tube-frame, carbon-fiber-bodied race machines made in the image of production cars, all TCR cars start life as "bodies in white" plucked right off their manufacturers' assembly lines. Under their hoods are 330hp-limited 2.0L turbocharged engines, usually built versions of engines they're available with in dealerships — in the case of FK8 Honda Civic Type R TCR cars, that means tuned versions of their factory-turbocharged K20C1 engines.
Factory unibody sheetmetal and suspension locations must remain; all cars must employ largely faithful OEM wet sump oiling systems (as opposed to race-bred dry-sump systems); wheels are limited to 18x10 inches; brakes to six-piston front calipers and 380mm rotors, and two-piston rear calipers; and all cars must use a spec front splitter, chassis-mounted rear wing, and Pirelli P-Zero Racing Slicks and Racing Rain tires. TCR cars in other series may retain their OEM transmissions, but in the Pirelli World Challenge they utilize awesome paddle-shifted, sequential dog-engagement gearboxes.
That all might seem like a lot of restriction, but it actually leaves lots of room for aftermarket parts choice and tuning.
The modus operandi for most TCR racing efforts is this: OEMs get involved, authorize a tuning shop to build the competition cars from factory-supplied engines and bodies, certify one eventual "TCR" forumla for sale, and then racing teams (and private individuals!) can buy those cars turn-key from the authorized builders.
In the case of Honda and their Civic Type R, all competing TCR cars are built and tuned by J.A.S. Motorsport in Italy, and in Pirelli World Challenge competition are campaigned by Realtime Racing. In the case of Hyundai, its competing i30 N TCR cars are built directly by Hyundai Motorsport, and are campaigned here by Bryan Herta Autosport, formerly of Red Bull GRC fame.
MEET THE CHALLENGERS
If you want to know which parts will work best and deliver the fewest problems on your own car, or if you're looking for fabrication or engineering inspiration, look toward professional racing. When an OEM's reputation, a shop's brand, and all partners' livelihood are on the line, they tend to go with the best parts and craftsmanship available.
We were lucky enough to be invited out by Pirelli USA to Circuit of the Americas (COTA) to witness the debut of TCR racing on our shores during the second round of Pirelli World Challenge competition. Upon setting foot at the famed circuit, we immediately ran over to the TCR pits for a closer look at these new machines, beginning with — you guessed it — the Hondas.
J.A.S. Motorsport has handled competition builds for Honda in multiple touring car series around the world for many years since 1996, and their FK2 Honda Civics Type Rs have won 17 regional and national TCR championships around the world. Realtime has been racing and winning in Hondas on our shores for even longer, and have amassed a whopping 89 World Challenge wins and 14 championships. And let's not forget which of the world's FWDs owns the Nurburgring lap record. That's right — the Honda Civic Type R. With such a rich racing history in place, we felt the safe bet to take the first two wins in the weekend's double-header were these guys.
But one look at the Hyundai challengers proved they shouldn't be dismissed. Hyundai has been making big investments in its racing programs in recent years, and it shows. While their i30 N doesn't yet have the racing heritage of Honda and their Type R models (with the i30 long sold here as the Elantra), the N is a completely different animal and, in terms of performance, is a downright beast. Oh, and Bryan Herta Autosport's two Hyundai i30 Ns qualified first and second by an impressive margin for the first race of the weekend here at COTA. So there's that.
Seven other teams fielding 10 additional cars, including the Alfa Romeo Guilietta TCR, Audi Sport RS2 LMS TCR, and Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR, all looked eager and capable to turn the tides. And if there's one thing that could be said of any brand-new racing initiative, it's that anything can happen.
Holding true to the Texas mantra, at 3.427 miles and wide all around, COTA is big. It's big enough to host the cars of the TCR class and the even larger TCA class in the same run group, as well as allowing several of Pirelli World Challenge's many other classes to run together. It's also fast, and features an uphill climb into a brutal Turn 1 where pileups are the norm.
Such a range of emotions washed over us come the rolling start to the first-ever TCR race here in America. The cars are awesome and we shuddered to think of them all garbled on top of each other heading into Turn 1, but we also recognized the names of several of their drivers who would rather risk that fate than give their competitor the advantage in such a hallmark race.
The cars spread out and fought for inches as they crossed the green flag at the start/finish line, scrambling for a clear shot up the hill. Fourteen screaming turbo 2.0-liters belting out 4,620 horses in unison gave way to 56 screeching tires and squealing brakes as they turned into the apex at once. And then it happened.
The no. 18 VW Golf of Jarett Andretti ed the no. 44 Honda Civic Type R of Nick Esayian, pitting it into the center of the crowded pack. It was a sitting duck. Just as we began to fear the worst, the skill of the TCR class's drivers shone through and catastrophe was avoided. Esayian righted his car and the race continued.
As the race wore on the two Hyundais pulled an ever increasing gap on the rest of the pack, their competitors' only hope lying in an extended full-course caution and a chance to catch up that never came (though Andretti did reap a bit of karma when his VW malfunctioned, forcing him out of contention). It was an easy first victory for camp Hyundai, with drivers Michael Lewis and Mark Wilkins claiming First and Second, and as a consolation, Ryan Eversley took Third from behind the wheel of the no. 43 Honda Civic Type R.
Race no. 2 the following day would be much the same, with the two Hyundais starting on the pole from their victory the day before, and pretty much coasting to another 1-2 finish, this time with Wilkins ahead of Lewis ... and Eversley claiming Third, once again.
In only its fourth year of competition, and first in the U.S., TCR-class racing is still very much on the ramp-up. A quick look over the eligible platforms list shows no fewer than 17 makes/models that can be adapted for competition. While most of them are foreign cars that will likely never make it to our shores, in that list are the Audi TT, Ford Focus, Subaru WRX, Mercedes CLA/GLA, a certain rumored Volvo model, possibly the Kia Forte, and likely several new 2.0L turbo cars to come.
With this being only the first two races of the Pirelli World Challenge season, and another debut yet to come from IMSA, we expect TCR participation to only grow in size and intensity. And who knows — with FWDs getting better, faster, and stronger every day, maybe we'll yet see that all-out, FWD GT series we've been waiting decades for the rest of the world to realize it needs.