How to Start Racing - buy your copy & accelerate up the grid

Posted: December 6, 2022

Today, Colin is joined by Mark Gillam, owner of Abbey Motorsport. For over 50 years, Abbey Motorsport’s outstanding reputation has seen demand for their knowledge and expertise in motorsport areas including: tuning; alignment; set up; and racing. Starting with Nissan and the 32 GT-R in the late ‘80s, business has diversified in more recent years. Mark and Abbey Motorsport have been heavily involved in many facets of racing, including drift cars, drag cars, circuit cars and Time Attack cars. The latter being how Mark met Colin, over 14 years ago. Abbey Motorsport is a close-knit family business that all like going faster and making cars go better. On this podcast, Colin chats to Mark about tuning, drifting, racing, torque, speed, horsepower, Dyno’s, ECU’s, mapping, and everything in between.

Listen to the podcast or keep scrolling to read the transcript.


Colin: Hello and welcome to another edition of our CAT Chats Cars podcast with me, Colin Hoad. An opportunity to explore the world of cars, motoring and motorsport, with interesting, engaging and diverse petrolheads. Which brings me to today's guest, Mark Gillam of Abbey Motorsport. Hello, Mark.

Mark: Hi, Colin. Long time, no speak.

Colin: Yes, it is. And first of all, I should thank you for coming on to the podcast. I know when we do speak, we can while away a bit of time. I've got lots of questions for you, all based around your world of car tuning, and I'm looking forward to working through those questions. Mark, would you give us and our readers an opportunity just to understand what you do, how you do it, and introduce yourself and Abbey Motorsport? Over to you.

Mark: Hi, I'm Mark Gillam, one of the business partners at Abbey Motorsport that have been around the Nissan tuning game since the late ‘80s, early ‘90s with the 32 GT-R. We diversify a little bit nowadays but mainly tuning, alignment, set up, racing - racing as in we've been involved in drift cars, drag cars, circuit cars, Time Attack cars - and that's how I've known and how I got to meet Colin. I think, is it 14 years ago now?

Colin: Yeah, something like that, mate.

Mark: We're all petrolheads. Two of the boys at work - one races, one does a little bit of track work. We're just an overall very close-knitted family business that all like going faster and making cars go better.

Colin: How long have you been going, Mark? When did the business start?

Mark: The business started, with the Abbey name 53 years ago when Dad was 19 years old.

Colin: Wow. Ok, I've learnt something there already.

Mark: That was back when cars needed a lot of work, like service schedules every 3000 miles/three months, but Dad being a petrolhead as well, he raced a bit of grass track when he was younger. He was all involved in it and very early on in his time in Croydon in Abbey Road where Abbey Garage started, he got to know a chap called Pat Mannion. If you've been around the saloon car world for a long time and Mk1 Escorts, Mk2 Escorts, you'll know the name Revolution Wheels, and that was Pat Mannion. Dad's always been involved in it and at a very early age of 5 or 4, I was involved in learning to ride a motorbike and from when I was 6 to when I was 22, I raced Motocross. That's where it's all started from.

Colin: Yeah, it's in your blood.

Mark: It's in your blood, it's always in your blood. You try and stop, and you can't. You know that, Colin.

Colin: I think how when we started to get to know each other, you were really synonymous with, the whole business was all about R32's, 33's, 34's, doing significant work on those cars. Perhaps you'd just like to give us a little bit of a potted history on how that evolved.

Mark: My dad saw his first 32 GT-R in 1989 with one of his customers, the late Maurice Reeves, who was the father of a very well-known rallycross driver, Trevor Reeves. He bought one of the first ten cars that arrived in the UK. These cars weren't anything to do with Nissan or Middlehurst. They were brought in by Jan Odor from Janspeed to homologate the cars for production saloons, for his late son Keith Odor to race, because, at the time, Datsun Saloon world was Cosworth, and everybody was trying to get on top of each other and so, 32 GT-R turned up.

Colin: Is that in Japan? They just ruled the roost, they won everything, didn't they? Is that a parallel time this was happening or beginning to happen, in the UK?

Mark: The Japanese had a little bit of time because they had the cars - I think Nissan were racing them in late '88. But when they first landed, these ten cars that arrived from Japan in the UK, were all very low mileage cars that were brought and shipped. There were people, like Stig Blomqvist had one, Connolly brothers had them, as in Connolly Leather Interior, Morris had one. There was also one owned by Jan O. Pedersen, who was a speedway rider. That's where the GT-R come from that got involved with Morris. Morris has had two or three over the years and they wanted to go faster and faster and faster. That's when I got involved with tuning and developing them. At the time, towards the end of the ‘90s when I was working in the motor racing game, I was bleeding information over to Dad, what was happening with these cars and the infancy of the tuning, when things were tuned with chip tuning and all that sort of thing. It's been a great big, long learning curve, like a snowball effect - it's got bigger and bigger. We were playing with these cars when a lot of the owners weren't even born.

Colin: I can believe that. I think also what I can see in my relationship with you, is as I've realised what you've done over the years, that was a thriving business, you were very progressive in just building the horsepower and the complexity of the cars, and making them work on track. That's really where I realised the level you worked at, when we got involved in Time Attack together.

Mark: The cars, I think anyone knows that cars are very funny to set up. What I might like you might not like. You have to have an understanding - the years that I did in motorsport, I spent a lot of time listening to drivers - you can soon understand if they know what they want. Or if some drivers need just saying that this is a car, you drive it - but other drivers will give you feedback. Before the Skyline, we were fooled. I think everyone's been a fooled person in their life because back in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s into the ‘80s, nearly everyone who was our age had a Mk1 or Mk2 Escort.

Colin: Yeah. Ford Capri, three litre. They were the hero cars of the era weren't they, at the time when we were young?

Mark: Yeah. That was before the Japanese really arrived -there'd been a few Japanese cars around, like the 120's and that sort of thing, but it wasn't until the mid ‘80s that the Japanese really got their selves going.

Colin: We resented that, didn't we? As a car enthusiast I can remember thinking, 'Oh, I don't really want these cars on the street, I'm enjoying my English cars and why do we need these cars?' Looking back, what a foolish thought, because they really in some ways, spearheaded the development of the car globally, haven't they - the Japanese?

Mark: The Japanese did it on the bikes, even before. When they turned up, the bikes just rolled over our English made bikes - they were just light years ahead.

Colin: Yes. They didn't leak oil and they were reliable.

Mark: You look at the GT-R, a lot of people think they're complex. They were back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, but I look under the bonnet of a modern car nowadays and I'm scared.- not SCARED!- but the amount of electronics and the amount of nannies these cars have. ut they need them, because even your normal car nowadays, is 150 horsepower plus.

Colin: You can get yourself in a lot of trouble, can't you, with a modern car. A Supercar or a high performance car requires some electronic assistance to help you, doesn't it? I see that as a positive. If you're perhaps a purist, you might not want that intervention from the car, but for certainly a lot of people, it's a lifesaver, isn't it?

Mark: I've been around in the motor trade long enough to remember plugs, points, carburettors. How this wave of technology has come through! 90% of the time, it's good, 10% of the time you wish you could turn it off, or turn it right off, but you can't. It's all for the better. 1985, when the Sierra Cosworth came out, 200 horsepower was amazing. Now look - normally aspirated GT86 gives 200 horsepower - it hasn't got the torque, but how technology has come on.

Colin: Yes. That's quite a good thing to raise there, Mark. Before we move on to some more specific subjects, where have you headed your business now? That's a car that I know you fit Superchargers, you do suspension tuning, so, from the R32, 33, 34, how have you moved your business on?

Mark: When the 32, 33 and 34's were around, when the 34 stopped being built in 2002, there was another car that has been a long time Nissan, that’s been built for a long time. The Z car. The 350 turned up - and you'll know all about that - early 2000-2003. We soon realised that this car was going to be a passion - very much like the GT-R - everyone's had a lot of Z cars. We got involved with the 350, then it rolled on into racing the 350, with Steve Burke. The 370 come out - I was involved with Bob Neville at RJN when the early cars were around, when the cars were used for Sony's PlayStation. Then we were wondering, what's going to be next, we ran out with Nissan so, a friend of mine who lives in Japan said to me, ‘This GT86 is going to be another cult car, this is where you should go’. So, we bought one. I was thinking about it today - we've had our car for nine years.

Colin: Wow, ok.

Mark: Ten years old, next year. You wouldn't believe that, would you really?

Colin: Time goes too fast, Mark, sometimes, doesn't it?

Mark: Very soon, we worked out these were a modern Mk1, Mk2 Escort. It's been through a lot of work on suspension. Try and push people towards to see you, Colin, so they can understand their car. A lot of people come in the door, and they don’t really know what they want. Once they understand what they want by spending time, by teaching them to understand their car, they get an idea of the direction to go. We're not all about making horsepower - we like cars to drive nice and to be fun, respond - people like to develop them, and that's what you like to work with people about. The GT86 is still good to us - we supercharge them

Colin: What sort of horsepower are you achieving with a supercharger on a GT86?

Mark: On a totally stock car with a Harrop charger from Australia - depends how far we want to lean on it - we see between 260 to 280 horsepower at the flywheel. A good 80 horsepower gain. But the cars with the roots type blower on them - they've got more torque at 2500 RPM with the Harrop on them, than the stock car maximum. They’ve got a perfectly curved torque curve that makes them so much fun to drive. You can still drive them, change gear, work them hard, but it just makes them so much fun.

Colin: Yeah. A good track car would you say?

Mark: With a little bit of work, they are awesome track cars because they're not ultimately very, very fast. You’re a little bit more in control, because you know, you’ve got 500 or 600 horsepower's worth of car - you can have a big, a very big, accident.

Colin: You don't want errors do you, and things go wrong very quickly.

Mark: They're a good car and they're down around to £10,000 now, so they're a good car to go track daying with. We're just building one for a customer at the moment. Wants to start at the bottom, just kind of making it reliable on the oil, the sump baffling it and some brake lines and that. Hopefully we can keep him going and we’ll develop him over some time, while he gets back with the car.

Colin: That's a nice thing to say. You don't need full race everything to start, do you – you can develop yourself and your car, in parallel. We always, as you know, liaise with your clients and ours, and I think that's a nice way to move forward - developing a vehicle as your skills develop - much safer and in some ways, more enjoyable. I think you grow with your car.

Mark: It's very easy. Where people just think they want big horsepower, and it scares them, -and the business head of mine, it scares them away - so they're not going to spend any money with me. It's the wrong way to do it because we're all about having fun. It's dipping your toe in the water slightly, not jumping headfirst in, isn't it?

Colin: I find it very interesting - I know you've worked in Porsche Cup - I know you've got heavily involved in Time Attack; you're confident to run a rail dragster funny car at 1800 horsepower. Where have you got all that ability and confidence to jump in at the deep end in quite diverse areas of motorsport? You seem to be able to manage all of it. Perhaps just for the sake of our readers, how have you achieved that over the years?

Mark: I suppose the main thing is wanting to learn. A lot of people, and I'll be the first person to say, 'It must be easy to go quick in a straight line?' It is the most intense amount of learning I've done for a long time. Understanding how to get a car a quarter of a mile down the strip as quick as you can, in control and as reliable as you can make it - it was amazing. The stuff you learn and the data that I learnt.I saw and spoke to friends who were still working in the motor racing game. I spent five or six years full time in the motorsport game at Panoz. Lister cars, Laurence Pearce, GT car that run the V12 Jags, like the XJR's and then the GT1, GT2 Porsches.

Colin: You were Porsche Cup, Mark, is that right?

Mark: I didn't do a lot of Porsche Cup, I did bits and pieces. Mainly Porsche work with Parr Motorsport -that's another firm local to us. GT2 993, in the run up to LeMans. After that contract, I then went to work for Laurence Pearce at Lister cars again - GT1 and GT2, Endurance, BPR. Then I finished my motorsport world with Panoz. Remember the big old cars - Don Panoz that passed away - ..?

Colin: Yeah, I do. LeMans purpose-built cars.

Mark: That’s right. I did Le Mans in 2001, but the 2000 - we ran two Panoz cars - I went to build one in America, during the roll up to Le Mans that year for Cup Noodle. Within those two cars, everyone was Japanese Touring Car GT Championship, and I can never remember their names, but the two people I had in my car, were both Nissan factory drivers with the GT500 cars. It’s funny how my motorsport world went together - I also ran the car that was quite good in '97 for Laurence, Lister.- I had Mark Skaife in the car who’s quite well known - one of the original drivers, the original Godzilla's, that raced in Australia in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. That was all a good learning curve. When I showed this data to engineers I know- slipping the clutch - they all look at you and go, 'Well, that's not the fastest way'. But you soon learn when you've got 1800 horsepower, you can't just sidestep the clutch. Because, mechanical engineering - those things will break, or things slip. It's all about engineering a clutch, to get it off the line, with the ability for it to make it boost predictably on the two step. The way the clutch separates every time you change gears, it doesn’t unsettle the car. . As the car goes faster down the straight, the tyres get bigger. It's just amazing to think how much happens in that short time.

Colin: Yeah. You're talking there about clutches. In the clutch and the drive train, working to give the car I assume, a smooth change, is that an air shifter on a gear lever or is that a manual shift?

Mark: The cars, since we ran John's car in 2011, so around that time, automatic gearboxes were coming into fashion. People were being able to develop the torque converter. That world that was very tuneable with electronics. The auto bots coming over the top of the clutch to try to get some predictability with it. This because, the biggest trouble with a clutch when you slip it, is it. If you think about old fashioned clutches that had the normal spring with lever arms, not diaphragm clutches, , the clutches in these drag cars, could adjust the initial pressure on the normal springs. Then you also used to put weight on the centrifugal clutch's arms, so as it spun faster RPM, it put more loading on it. It was all about adjusting the clutch in relation to the track condition.

Colin: That's hard to rationalise. What speeds and over what distance on the tarmac is all that happening? Is it just a few metres and you're doing 150 MPH? How does that equate to something we as a reader can relate to?

Mark: When you think, like the last car we run for John, it was a pro car from America that looked like a 350Z. But, it was on a full chassis car, like what you might know by a Pro Mod, a door slammer. It had a VQ35 in the front of it, twin turbo running on methanol, 1800-2000 horsepower. You think, we used to go from 0 to 214 MPH in 6.6 seconds, but it would do 150 MPH by half track, so that's how fast it accelerated. We used to slip the clutch almost nearly all the time with that car, just to keep it in the rev band, so it didn’t grunt down and drop out, because we had a very small boost curve on that car. It used to slip the clutch for 60 to 74 off the line.

Colin: Ok, that’s hard. This is all new - I never knew that would be a way of getting a car off a line and the mechanics involved in it. What's the terminal speed, once you've done the quarter mile, and what sort of quarter mile times are you doing in that car?

Mark: We got down to 6.6, 6.7, 220 MPH. Since then, the series kind of died in the UK but the Japanese Drag Race, is very big in Australia. The thing that held us up with the car in the end, was, we were breaking blocks - we couldn't keep the stop block together. The Australians are very much into Billet blocks. These three litre, 2JZ engines, 3.4 litre from the Toyota world, and the VR35 from the 35 GT-R - these cars in Australia and America are now down in the 5’s.

Colin: Wow. OK.

Mark: 240, 250 MPH motorcar, and now they're pushing these American engines like seven and a half, eight litre with the blowers on them - they're as quick now because of the technology.

Colin: In terms of safety, we know that when you go circuit racing in the UK, you need a roll cage that's recognised by a certified manufacturer. Is that similar in the drag world? How do they recognise safety and then enforce it?

Mark: An example if you go to Santa Pod. If your car goes over 150 MPH, it has to have a bolt in roll cage. Then there's a ladder system that a car can only go as fast as 8.5 with this type of roll cage. At 8.5, it has to have a more cocooned cage around you so that basically, if the car destroyed itself, you're held in the cocoon. You get up into the Pro Mod guys, where bellhousings are all inspected, because the gearbox and the clutch is inside the car. Then you’ve got what they call bags over the gear boxes - you'd have a bag under the bottom of the sump, so if the engine destroyed itself, it tries to keep the oil off the back tyres.

Colin: What about containment of parts for the driver in terms of gears flying out of casings into the car and things?

Mark: The casings must be approved to be used - Jericho and all that sort of thing - very thick. They have what they call a ballistic bag - a ballistic blanket that goes over the clutch and over the gearbox, to stop this trouble. Everything is so huge, it's unbelievable.

Colin: Is it like lorry engineering in terms of its size?

Mark: No, it's not lorry engineering, but they're all in the epicyclic gearing that takes a lot more load. There was also one gearbox we ran in the 33 GTS, with twin shaft gearbox, so it’s spreading the load between two shafts - it's all well engineered. If someone gets into drag racing, they'd be right into it - it's fascinating. There's so much involved in going fast, like the humidity, the track temperature, the fuel temperature, headwind - it's unbelievable. That's why I was so fascinated with it and I had to learn.

Colin: Yeah, I remember. I think I saw you at Snetterton - you had the car on display and you might have done a run or it was just static, but I could see you looked like you were really enjoying yourself.

Mark: It was in between the first time I was involved with drifting and when I got back involved in drifting, after John decided to retire. I got involved with Steven “Baggsy” Biagioni with the drift cars. That was when I thought it was time to get back to having another go at understanding and working out how a drift car works, because, there's another fascinating way that people think it is easy.

Colin: Let's have some of that because I used to look at drifting and think, ‘They've taken the inner wheel arches out, they got a good diff and put a different steering rack in’. Where are we now with drift cars? That one I saw in your workshop when I brought my Austin down, I thought, crikey, this looks like a work of art and heavily modified.

Mark: I suppose the first thing to start with is to understand what drift is about. Competition drifting with two cars, it's a judge sport, it's not about the first past the chequered flag. It’s about two cars - a lead car and a chase car - both being able to drive very, very close and mimic each other. Over the years, when I first was involved with drifting back in 2005/2006/2007 with Brett Castle, it was in its infancy. They were all 200SX's with basically stock suspension, set of dampers, a bit of horsepower and some tyres, but fully steel body worked. These cars were 400 horsepower SR20's. You roll forward to these modern cars that are built and, well, nowadays, if you haven't got 700 to 800 horse in a drift car, it's not worth turning up.

Colin: Just explain that Mark. Why do you need that? On a damp Steering Pad at Millbrook, you can drift a 150 horsepower, MX5. Why do you need 700-800 horsepower? What is it, what's the benefit?

Mark: A modern drift car makes grip; it's not about losing grip. These cars - you've never seen a car make so much grip. Modern drifting, that some people do not like, is all about carrying angle. That's where the Wisefab suspension comes from on the front. These cars are pulling nearly 77-78 degrees of steering angle. All the time you've got that, the car's got to have a lot of grip, because it’s still got to push its way forward. If it goes full lock, you know what it is - it wants to stop. The more steering angle you need - the more grip. More grip - the more horsepower you need. Everything rolls on, everything wants to get better so, it's like another big snowball. In these cars now, there isn’t a lot left of what was originally a road car. Now they tube front, tube back, radiators moved into the back, because of the amount of heat they make, because of the amount of horsepower they make. The reason they put them in the back is also, not about just getting more cooling, you can run more capacity of water, so it takes longer to warm that water up - so it doesn't get as hot quickly. It gives more air to the intercooler if you're running a turbo, but now the cars have rolled over and are using V8 LS’s with superchargers on them again, turbos are in sequential gearboxes.

Colin: American engines are we saying?

Mark: Yeah. LS3, LS5, LS7, the V8 Ford. I can't remember the name of it, it's the quad-cam engine that's very well known. It's another fascinating sport where you're working on the suspension. In the car, when you turn it on lock, it jacks the front of the car up with the kingpin angle and the struts run very straight, so as it turns lock, it jacks the front of the car out, so it moves the weight to the back wheels, so it makes more grip, or angle.

Colin: So, it's like a camber gain, feel?

Mark: Yeah. We run very little Ackermann because when the wheels are at full lock, they want to be following each other. So, if they had Ackermann, one would be towed out or one towed in and the car would want to stop. It's like the drag racing, it's a learning curve and understanding. It's not about blowing your back tyres up hard and having some fun. When you're at the top of the sport, and these guys have got big sponsors and they've got to win, they need the best and they're all proper - they're race cars, they're not street cars anymore. Some people think that's a way drifting has lost its way, but that's how motorsport works. Look at Formula One in the ‘80s. it was simple wasn’t it. 25 people at McLaren to go racing – look at how many there are now. I worked on it, so we had this car that had a drive-by-wire throttle, like most cars are nowadays. We worked out 0 to 70% on the throttle pedal was 0 to 100% on the throttle body, so, the last 30% of throttle pedal adjusted the boost on the car.

Colin: Ahh Ok - so we're not getting any opening the throttle anymore, it’s just boost?

Mark: You could say so for argument's sake, if we said 70% for throttle, it was 500 horse and at 100% throttle, it was 800 horsepower. So, you could drive this car on what I would use to call ‘stun mode’, that was 70%. It would be a supercar, fast car, make plenty of smoke. Remember this sport of drifting is about spectators and they like to see the smoke, they like to see the people driving blind and having the confidence to follow another driver, like touching door mirrors, that sort of thing. Then when you had step up a step, you press the throttle first or it made more horsepower.

Colin: Wow. Ok. That's a trick, isn't it?

Mark: Yeah. That is something that I've moved on to that I now use on Ted's car as well. There is another love of my life - track days and racing cars.

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Colin: Let's keep going because I'm interested in all the different facets, as I said right at the start - perhaps we can then move into your skills on the Dyno. First of all, you use a Hub Dyno where your dynamometer is attached to the driven wheels. Why'd you favour that over a Roller Dyno where you have the wheels on a roller in the ground?

Mark: I think it came from when I first saw it, the horsepower of the cars that we were rolling up to - we've had our Dyno for 20 years, it's quite unbelievable. When we first got ours, they were very few and far between. Like anything in motorsport, people develop - a lot more people have got Dynos now, so the work is out there, but it's not as much work as there used to be. The ability of the Hub Dyno is more controlled and consistent. Anyone that’s spent any time on a Dyno with a lower horsepower car, when you go single mate racing like when we raced Beetles - there’s another story there again! – when the tyres get hot, you get a lot of change in horsepower. When you strap the car on the Dyno, you can get change in horsepower. The Hub Dyno was probably the best thing that we'd seen, without taking the engine out and putting it on an engine Dyno.

Colin: Got you. So, you’re removing variables that change the amount of horsepower or the readings that you’re getting from the Dyno?

Mark: Yeah. An engine on an engine Dyno, it never gives the same power as when it’s sat in a car because of the amount of air around it. That's why we bought it, and we didn't have to dig a hole to put it in the floor.

Colin: Ok, it's a practical reason. Thanks for answering that because I always found that interesting you use a Hub Dyno, not a Roller Dyno. That's an interesting comment that people, if they use you or they're thinking of going to you, that's a nice thing potentially to know. Just my curiosity in reality, people might not find that too interesting, but I thought I'd ask.

Mark: It’s something good to read up on if you ever read around - there are pluses and minuses for everything. But what you’ve got to remember the Dyno is - a lot of people talk about it for using/showing how much horsepower it's got, - but it's a tuning tool. It's about consistency, about repeatability.

Colin: Driveability. Yeah.

Mark: If a car came in with 8 oranges and went out with 12 oranges, it's got a gain. But that rolls me on to where you've said about - it's not all about horsepower, it's all about driveability.

Colin: Yes. Let's dig in there a little bit. I always like on these podcasts to give our readers something to take home with them. I know you're a guru on ECU's and mapping which I have an interest in, because I'm into engineering. But could you give me a sort of precis/a rundown of, if I've got a stock vehicle - a GT86 - why would I want to go to a completely new system? Rather than just piggyback on/or put a chip in my current, say GT86 ECU? Can you just give us some ideas of level states of tuning and the reason behind it?

Mark: I think we’ve got to move back a little bit before. You’ve got to remember, now, modern ECU’s are so far ahead of stuff that was being used in the middle of the ‘90s, up to 2000/2002. The other issue you've got with modern cars is the amount of CAN Bus information they share between all the ECU's.

Colin: CAN Bus information – I know that as multi message wiring. For our readers, give us a little resumé of that.

Mark: CAN Bus is the ability to send multi messages down two wires. It allows the complexity of the wiring in the car to be reduced, because of the amount of electronics these cars have now got. It means the engine ECU - like on a GT86 - it talks to the clusters, it talks to the heater, it talks to the fuel level gauge and all that. Removing the ECU from a modern car is a lot harder. But how that's rolled on - a lot of these more modern standalone ECU's, now have the ability to have the CAN Bus data written to them. That's rolled on to having the ability to change CAN Bus information. For example, if you swap in engines - say you run a Nissan engine in a GT86 - you could have the standalone ECU's spurt out the right CAN Bus to make the GT86 happy with the speedo, the heater, and the fuel gauge to work.

Colin: I get it. That's interesting because I'm a bit of a purist. What I really find irritating is when people have cars tuned, and then you jump inside, turn on the key, and you've got a Christmas tree of lights in front of you, because the ECU can’t read anything.

Mark: That’s how things have developed over the years. The GT86 we mainly used, we’d remap the stock ECU up to 400-500 horsepower, no trouble at all EcuTek who we use, gives us the ability to rewrite the code in the ECU, that allows us to retune the stock ECU, add stuff on.

Colin: Can you explain that, Mark? What is EcuTek?

Mark: EcuTek is a UK company that have been at the forefront of rearward engineering stock ECU's, to allow end user like us, to tune these cars. They are at the forefront of the 35 GT-R tuning on a stock ECU, GT86. They’re now in heavily into the BMW/Supra world and this rolls on to modern ECU's. Modern stock car ECU's are just so clever now.

Colin: EcuTek is interrogating the data inside that ECU and then manipulating it for a tuner to work with. They're like cracking a code are they, a secret code that the manufacturer has put in?

Mark: Yeah, and the manufacturers are trying harder and harder to stop people, more for the emission levels etc. , but the tuning world will be around for a long time. Rolling back to - about choosing the ECU - you have got to decide what you want to do with the car. Is it a road car? Is it a race car? Is it a drift car? Is it something that you want to be able to play with? Do you want to tune it yourself? The world is out there in relation to what you can do with cars and what people are doing in cars.

Colin: I assume that comes with a price. If you’re looking to find another 100 horsepower in your road car - your GT86 - I'm assuming you don't need to go to bolt on type piggyback new ECU's. Can you do that within the standard ECU?

Mark: Yeah, that sort of gain is when the cars are in NA Spec, We're never going to make a lot of horsepower, but we just make them better. We remove the bits that the manufacturers have to put in to pass emissions and noise tests, that sort of thing.

Colin: That's good information.

Mark: Euro 5, Euro 6 isn't the same emissions as your MOT test. Euro 5 and Euro 6 - they talk about collecting a gas in a bag, out the back of the car, over a controlled drive cycle. Your MOT test has a pipe up the back to measure it with it hot, so it allows us to dot the I's and cross the T's. Also, we can double the horsepower on the GT86 with a stock ECU - it's that clever.

Colin: Ok. I didn't realise until I went to Nissan that in a high performance car, when you put your foot on the floor and you nail it in first gear, you might not be getting the full horsepower of the engine in first gear - it's graduated, second, third, fourth, fifth. Is that a common occurrence? If I were to sit in a McLaren 570S, or a high performance vehicle, is that a statement of fact? Have I got that right?

Mark: You're quite right. When a car is in what they call ‘basic mode’, most cars will have an element of limiting. The way I describe it, going back to the 350Z, that car in first, second and third, the response is limited. The way I describe that to people is if you think the Drive-By-Wire throttle is an elastic cable. In first, second and a third, when you press the throttle, it takes some time for the elastic, to open the throttle butterfly. It softens the car, makes it nicer for everyone to drive because we're not all petrolheads. A lot of people have these cars as their everyday car, or they just want to ride out. But like the 35 GT-R, you can play with the buttons in the middle, turn a lot of it off and make the car very aggressive. In the GT86 you've got some buttons you can play with. With most of these cars you can turn off, but very rarely you can turn it all off. You'll know with the 350Z - even if you turn the traction control off, there's still an element of control for that car with a sniffle.

Colin: That's old technology now, but if you get the ABS engaged when it's off, it pops itself back on, because it doesn't want you to do what you're doing. Or it just gets nervous that you're going to lose control, so it pops back in and it gives you some help. I’m ok with that because the majority of people are going to find that a benefit, aren’t they? That’s a road safety issue, but as we said right at the start, it can be a bit irritating if these systems jump in to help uninvited, I always say.

Mark: I’ve always thought the 350Z is quite funny, when you get people come back in and they say, 'I've worn another set of brake pads out on the front'. I say, 'Well, perhaps you should spend some time and try and understand how the car works'. This because the 350Z - if the car is going to spin - snubs one of the front brakes to stop it spinning, and that's how it overheats your front brakes. Tidy your driving up - you end up going faster and being cheaper on brake pads!

Colin: Agreed.

Mark: A lot of cars are like that, and as we were saying earlier, nowadays, if it's a performance car, and hasn’t got 500 horsepower, no one wants to buy it.

Colin: I spent some time with a customer in an Aventador at Millbrook. He's used to performance cars, so that wasn't a surprise to him. But he said he wanted to drive it around town and take his family in it. He was a bit nervous of driving it, because of the 700 horsepower or thereabouts. We've just come to Millbrook for a couple of hours to do a car familiarisation and go through the settings. You've got three settings if you like: road/wet road would be setting 1, enjoying yourself is 2, and then 3 is circuit mode. We went off to the High Speed Bowl and explored the three settings. We got the car rolling at about 10 MPH in each of the three settings and then literally, floored it up to around 100 MPH. In the road/wet road mode, it was quite disappointing - obviously not if you're on a wet road with your family in the car. But if that was 450 horsepower, I'd be surprised - it was completely wound back. Mid-setting on the system, you're now starting to feel like you're moving on and then you put it in, I think it was Corsa, the race mode, and you're absolutely flying as you'd expect. There is quite a lot of tuneability, isn't there, in these systems for not just perhaps giving people a smooth ride, but for safety. I'm not sure everybody could cope with just one setting in a car like that.

Mark: It's like talking about ECU's and what we do with them and what manufacturers do with them. When you think the little 1 litre Ford EcoBoost engine will go from 70 horsepower to 140 horsepower. Same engine, all to do with the ECU. It shows you how much control modern electronics have over cars with the drive-by-wire etc., That's where the DCT and the automatic gearbox is - it gives the manufacturer more control over how the car's used for warranty reasons.

Colin: Ok. Explain that a little bit more for us, Mark.

Mark: If you've got a car that's got automatic or a DCT transmission and you're out playing with your car - you’re having your Sunday morning ride or drive, it’s a manual car and you miss-shift - instead of going fourth, third to fourth, you went third to second, it will buzz - you could manually change down a gear and you could hurt the engine or lock the back wheels and go off. If you've got a modern car with auto or a DC gearbox, and you thought, 'Oh well, I'll be fine, I'll try and pull it third to second', it won't let you do it. So, it gives you more. It's easier for the manufacturer to control how their car's used. The DCT and the automatic, how they've come on is very good, but a lot of people say it's not a purist car anymore - you can't change gear.

Colin: Yeah, they do.

Mark: Even the manual gearboxes that we run in the cars with the sequential, with the flat shift. It's just a totally different way of driving a car. That's how the ECU will integrate with the older cars, like the R32's/R33's. We're building these cars now - we're putting sequentials in them, the DCT transmissions, out of the BMW's.

Colin: Wow that's interesting.

Mark: The modern link ECU can put out the right information via the CAN Bus to go to the control box that runs the DCT gearbox. It integrates them all together so you can bring this car into more modern data and information. I remember when the R35's come out - 480 horsepower, and they would walk all over a 550 horsepower 34 GT-R just because of the gearbox - you don't lift off, do you?

Colin: No, you don't, you just keep your foot down. I can see the benefit in that, and I must admit I am a purist and I like changing down a lot, heeling and toeing. I don't need an auto blip, but it's nice if you need it. I can see the benefit in both sides. I like the fact that in a double clutch gearbox, I can drive through a corner and change gear - I can go up and down the gearbox - I don't lose drive, I don't lose traction, and the car remains dynamically balanced in most cases. I can see both sides of the coin, really. I've got to the point where I appreciate being able to put a paddle through a corner, feel the enjoyment and the speed that brings. I think there's room for both, if you're a petrolhead, but you're right, purists want a gear lever, don't they?

Mark: I think they can live side by side. I learnt with the 32 GT-R that I share with Ted, a friend now - you've met Ted - when we put the sequential, the Holinger , in that car, when we kept eating gearboxes. I think it was three years ago, we put a flat shift in it, and I soon worked out, although it's four-wheel drive, it's a little bit old technology now. But it's still good fun and you’ve still got to learn to know how to drive it. I worked out that you could drive the car harder, because as soon as it got sideways in a corner, you didn't lift off, you just pulled another gear, with the flat shift. I started looking at the information, and you realise you're going that much quicker, because technology is playing its way again.

Colin: Yes. It gives these cars a new lease of life in some respects, doesn’t it? I've witnessed you and Ted and that car fly around the track, hounding supercars. They still can hold their own against a modern car still, if they're well looked after, well prepared and got reasonable horsepower. I think that was a car that was in advance of its time, wasn't it? And still is a quick car.

Mark: It's still a very, very fast car. It was way ahead of its time back in 1986, when it was being bounced around in Japan. Going back to the tuning - working with the ECU’s when they were remapping stock ECU's and finding the limit of the turbos, with the ceramic wheels falling off. How coarse and aggressive the tuning used to be, where now, with the time, the tools, the investment and the development, you can make these big horsepower cars drive like a stock car.

Colin: I always think of something like an M3 CSL. When you changed gear, it felt like I was going to pull the diff out the back of the car and then - we're talking 20 year old technology aren't we - you get in a modern supercar or a modern high performance car, and they're remarkably quick. You don't always appreciate how fast you go in the sense of speed and isolation. I think part of that not only is the cabin isolation - so perhaps it's quiet inside - I think it's how the car responds to your inputs, and how you drive it quickly. Everything is working in synergy and smoothly, isn't it? Sometimes you just don't realise how fast you're going.

Mark: My question to you - is that helping our drivers, or is it not helping the drivers, when they can get in a car and go as quick as they can, without understanding how the car works?

Colin: I think whatever you're in, and you'll appreciate this, if you're looking for that last 10%. If you've got a supercar, finding that last 10% takes a lot of bravery and a high level of skill. If you're trying to find that last 10% in a Mazda MX5, you go into some of the faster corners at Silverstone - you might not have to brake too hard, because you didn't gather too much speed on the straight and you go through a corner at 90 MPH. Whereas in a supercar on that straight, you might hit 160 and you've got to brake down to 100 MPH. When you think about driving something like a 720S at high speed, that takes an awful lot of skill. People come to us with those cars and say, 'How long will it be before I could drive in a way that the guy was driving it, on the Silverstone track when they gave me a demo?'. I'd say, 'Well, that might be a life quest - because the person that gave you the demo was a professional racing driver'. So, in terms of how I look at that, quite a few thoughts run through my head. As you know, we race a Citroen C1. Well for Copse Corner, if you come out of Woodcote well, and you go into Copse Corner around 87-89 MPH in that little Citroen C1, you don't need to brake, you just keep your foot and you slide through the corner!

Mark: Is it flat? Is it not, lift off?

Colin: It's a hint of a lift just to get the nose in, just to get the car to grip up - just a hint. You scrub speed off as you go through, but you're still going into the corner at 90 MPH in a C1.

Mark: That's bravery. It's bravery that you learn, and it's all about confidence and having the ability to understand that car. You've taught me a hell of a lot over the years and, you know my wife calls you 'God' over what you taught her!

Colin: I can't imagine I deserve that.

Mark: I think you are very good. Even my close friend Steve Jordan that turned up with you the other day with his wife - both very, very good motorcycle racers – champions - and that's going to lead on to another story soon! He came back to me and said 'I can't believe what I learnt'. The best of it, and we will never forget this, when I brought James to you, remember in the Golf?

Colin: Yes. Totally!

Mark: That chap, James, a friend of mine - we went to see Colin to have some tuition - I turned up in a Volkswagen Golf diesel and he was like, 'Why haven't we got a GT-R or anything?' I said, 'You don't need anything to go fast in. It's what you understand in the car'. He still talks about it to this day and says, 'You don't need anything fast - it's the ability to hustle a stock car - it’s good fun'.

Colin: Yes. I think my personal view is, coming back to the question. I think it's more fun to drive, shall we say, a lesser car flat out, than a supercar at 50%. So, in terms of getting the best out of yourself, getting the best out of the car, I'm not sure that we've headed -in terms of how these supercars are now - into a world where people can actually exploit what that car can offer you. Let's be honest, they're very expensive. I was with a client in Silverstone quite recently in a Boxster. It's a standard engine, good suspension, good brakes, half cage, nice seats and harnesses, and he can pedal. We were going very quickly, to the point that a few people came into the garage and said, ‘is it tuned?’. The customer's a very quiet, nice man, he just said, 'No, it's a standard engine, just good suspension', etc. I can see a lot of value in that. Probably the whole car's worth £20,000, which is a significant sum - I'm not saying it's not, but it's not £250,000. You'll probably have a different attitude to driving that quickly, than perhaps you would driving a supercar that's worth £200,000 or £300,000. It's horses for courses, isn't it? It's what you want from your car, and I totally respect that. But I think in terms of our cars getting better for drivers, they're so damn good that you've got to be pretty brave and highly skilled, to get the most out of them.

I'll probably finish that comment by saying - they're all just contextual examples. I was with a customer in a 675LT, which is a phenomenal car - there's no question - that car is the height of modern engineering and grip. My customer is new to track driving and within a few laps of Silverstone on his first track day, we were doing 160 MPH down the Hangar Straight. That just to me, typifies the discussion - they are so fast. If the gentleman hadn't had training - you imagine buying that or a 720S and not having any training - and flooring it down Hangar Straight, you might arrive at Stowe, way quicker than you realise, and you're into a problem. I think we're in another league, aren’t we?

Mark: Even the amount of electronics that we can play with, with the ECU, the gearbox, the ABS, yaw control and the dampers. If you abuse it that much, it will still bite you.

Colin: Yes. I think you come to a point where you can't defy physics, can you? I always say, like with ESP when we're doing coaching. If you enter a corner where grip limit on that radius is 50 MPH, enter at 52-55 MPH - the system is going to help you - enter that corner at 65 MPH - you're going off. You've only got a finite amount of grip. Even with your clever systems and all that you do - I totally agree, they're there to help you - but you can't rely on them if you're driving recklessly, or driving without process and making the car do too much work.

Mark: Yeah, it's fascinating. Going back to drag racing, with suspension - the rear dampers, when they used to go off the line, I used to go full down and they used to lock up, so they never used to unload the rear tyres. When you go off the line, it lifts the front wheels off the floor, so then the whole weight is on the back wheels and that kind of ties in with the drift cars - when you turn it on lock, you're moving all the weight to the back. They all go around corners, go in a straight line, go sideways, they all link together in the end, there’s always something that crosses over between them. They're not separate projects, they all talk together, and the thing that's overall is - they've all got four wheels.

Colin: Yeah. Mark, do you know what? I think that's a lovely place to wind up our conversation, because you've really completed the circle there, right from where we started, and now where we're finishing.

Mark: There is one more thing that I will tell you that I'm doing. I've been two wheels for a long time riding the road, but I'm going to have a go at bike racing this year, because that's another fascinating thing to learn, is riding the motorbike. Going around corners on a motorbike – the set up on a bike, because it's totally different to a car. It's unbelievable.

Colin: You're braver than me, Mark.

Mark: My wife races, Vanessa.

Colin: I know, yeah.

Mark: I like doing track days, but I want to have a go at racing and talking to Steve Jordan about the bikes - it's fascinating. Again, it's something else to learn. It's magic.

Colin: Yeah. Mark, you're a true petrolhead. A couple of things to cover before we finish – it was really great to talk about your experiences, your knowledge, how you've evolved through - I suppose I call it your career - in terms of all the variation of engineering you understand, and the vehicles you've been working on - that's fascinating. Thanks for the insight into ECU's and tuning, and your Dyno. Before we leave, how do people get hold of you if they'd like to find you? Would you like to give me an idea of emails, phone numbers, social media?

Mark: Abbey Motorsport on Facebook; Abbey Motorsport on Instagram; our website - very easy to find. There are not multiple names, it's very easy. Our website's got our email addresses on it or pick the phone up. The whole world is more involved in emails, and you get a lot more understanding when you talk to people - so leave a message. I still work, still on the spanners or in the Dyno room. I think from what we've spoken about, and we've gone off a little bit of a tangent, but we've spoken about everything. We always learn and it's always good to talk, you learn all the time. I think you've got to live and learn every day - every day's a school day.

Colin: Yeah. Mark, that’s a lovely place to stop, mate. Thank you very much. Great to talk to you, and I shall look forward to catching up with you soon.

Mark: Thank you very much, Colin.

Colin: Thanks for reading. Follow our social media channels for our next podcast and till next time.

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