Starting with the lowest-priced car in the country – the Nissan Micra S – there’s now an all-new, one-make racing series that’s shaping up to be the coolest championship anywhere in the world today. While the well-heeled have numerous choices of spec series – Porsche, Lamborghini and even Ferrari are happy to sell you a car and give you a place to race it – it’s been years since Canadian drivers have had an affordable spec series option.
The underlying theme of the Nissan Micra Cup is to keep costs down and, more importantly, manageable over the course of the racing season. The road-going Micra S, with a starting price of $9,998, is relatively lightweight, has modest power and comes equipped with a manual transmission. If that sounds like a decent recipe for an inexpensive racing car, you’re not alone.
The Micra Cup race car is a lightly modified version of the S. The interior is removed and fitted with a roll cage, racing seat, harness, window netting and fire extinguisher. Underneath, each race car gets a suspension kit from NISMO – not the Micra kit, mind you – but the kit from the Note NISMO for its stiffer spring and damping rates, as well as a different exhaust to make these little racers sound a little racier. Pirelli slick racing tires are mounted on alloys from Fast Wheels and racing brake pads are from Endless.
A complete race car costs $19,998 and I don’t need to tell you that the Micra Cup racing car is a bargain. After running costs that include tires and consumables, entry fees, transportation, Nissan suggests that you can run the entire series for another $20,000. I suspect, however, that if you want to be at the sharp end of the grid, you’ll want a slightly bigger budget.
Series promoter, Jacques Deshaies, hatched the idea for the series immediately following the Micra’s Canadian launch in early 2014. As the story goes, it took all of about 15 minutes to persuade Nissan Canada to support the series. And support the series they do, from getting on the schedule at the very high-profile Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal and the legendary Trois-Rivières Grand Prix, in addition to the massive amounts of technical support required to develop, build and supply a couple dozen highly competitive drivers.
Rightly, given that Québec is Canada’s race-mad province, the Nissan Micra Cup is a Québec-only series, at least for its first year. With 22 cars taking the green flag of the first race at Mont-Tremblant (followed by 25 in Montreal), there’s an obvious appetite for a high-profile, one-make series.
To keep the costs down and maintain the competitiveness of each car, no modifications are permitted. Teams are allowed a little suspension and tire pressure tuning, but beyond that, the car’s livery is the only thing a team can change.
Once you’ve seen a Micra Cup car in person, it takes on the aura of a racing car. In my mind, at least, it’s no longer an economical, five-door. With all its racing bits, it has made the leap from grocery getter to hardcore racer. Luckily for me, Nissan invited me to the ultimate test drive – to race in the inaugural round of the Micra Cup.
For all of the racing, track days and driver coaching I’ve done, I have never driven Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant. That became an advantage, since the series mandated an extra test day prior to my race weekend. After picking the brains of my pro-instructor friends with countless thousands of laps under their belts – thanks Pierre Savoy, Philippe Létourneau and Jean-François Dumoulin – I was able to get the little Micra up to speed after a couple of sessions.
Since Nissan had equipped my car with a top spec data acquisition system from AiM, I used that to my advantage, emailing my data to Peter Krause for analysis. Krause is one of the leaders in data-based coaching and I implemented his insights immediately. Before the test day was even over, I was satisfied with a lap time about a second off of what I’d heard was quick.
In qualifying, a combination of a less than optimal tire setup and a power-to-weight disadvantage put me 15th on the grid. The total weight for a Micra Cup car and driver is based on a 180 pound pilot, and while I was getting 100% out of the car, I’m not quite in the range of 180 pounds and was paying the cheeseburger penalty.
Starting in the middle of the pack can often be a disaster. Watch any race, from amateur to pro, and more often than not disaster strikes in the pack, not at the front. Since my one and only year of karting, I learned to be a great starter and prepared to capitalize on that for my first Micra Cup race.
From my vantage point at the start, I couldn’t see the starter’s station, but my team radioed the drop of the green flag, and I was off. Tremblant’s first three corners are scary enough when you’re driving alone, but in a pack of Micra’s driven by bunch of crazy mad men and women racing drivers, it’s completely mental.
Foot to the floor, I told myself, and I kept it there, slicing my way through the pack and settling into ninth spot by corner four. As I was settling in to a comfortable race pace to manage the longevity of the front tires, one of the regular series competitors and I had a dispute over the same piece of tarmac in Tremblant’s fast corner 11. I got the worst of it, spun, and since I’d seen numerous hard crashes in that corner in previous days, I managed to spin my Micra to a stop on the track surface. Disaster averted, but that also meant rejoining the race in last position. I picked up a couple of spots straight away and a couple more following a full course yellow, ultimately finishing race one exactly where I started in 15th position.
One of the great things about motor racing is that it’s entirely unpredictable, so Sunday meant that it was not only a new day, but an entirely new race. I was looking forward to another great start and bettering my previous result. As a racer, you have no choice but to go for the gap, and I started this second race aggressively.
At the drop of the flag, I couldn’t thread my way through the field as easily as I did the day before. Flat out through corners one, two and three, as I approached the braking zone for corner four, the field bunched up and I saw my teammate and GT Academy winner Abhinay Bikkani, spinning to my left. Suddenly, the driver to my left darted right to avoid another spinning car and didn’t realize I was there, making heavy contact with the driver’s side of my car and knocking me off the track.
Just like race one, I rejoined the race in last position, but this time my Micra was hurt. The alignment was knocked out, the steering wheel off centre, and it had a completely different handling balance. I felt out the car over the next few corners to determine whether any suspension components were broken and indeed nothing was. This Micra is a tough little race car. The impact did give me a few extra degrees of negative camber on my front left wheel, which made low-speed right turns a blast because it turned in so easily, but it made corners one, two and three, the high-speed right handers, downright frightening with crazy amounts of oversteer.
As a racer, you never give up and I wasn’t going to let a bent suspension get in the way. Even with its fun and frightening handling, I managed to pass a few cars and have some great battles with series drivers, working my way up to 14th at the finish.
There’s an allure to one-make racing that you don’t find in other series. Other championships may place emphasis on tire choice or engineering, but a spec series places driver skill above all else. To have access to a high-profile, low-cost, one-make series is the dream for many drivers and we have that again in Canada with the Nissan Micra Cup.
What makes great racing, for competitors and spectators alike, is close competition and that’s what the Micra Cup is all about. Even after the first couple of races, this little series in our little county is getting attention from around the globe. For all the attention that high-dollar GT racing has been getting, the Nissan Micra Cup is a breath of fresh air, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it grows quickly beyond Québec after this first season.
Montreal GP mania: Micra on Canada’s Biggest Racing Stage
By Shaun Keenan
I was fortunate to be a guest of Infiniti Red Bull Racing for this year’s Canadian Grand Prix, and while it would have been nice to see the two Danny’s – Daniel Riccardo and Daniil Kyvat – finish on the lead lap, it was the two Nissan Micra Cup races that had the crowd on the edges of their seats.
The Micra Cup cars peel away from the start/finish line like a swarm of bees and largely stay that way for the duration of the race with small break-away packs spreading out the field at both ends. A small army of cameras capture all the on-track action on GP weekend, and the monitors around the track were the place to watch. From rubbing tires and trading paint/vinyl to bump-drafts and car-flipping, the Micra Cup races had it all, including Canadian racing legend Richard Spenard, former NHLer Marc-André Bergeron and a couple of virtual-turned-real-racers from the GT Academy. Watching them bounce up on to two wheels, cut corners over the grass and close each other’s side mirrors among other things, it was obvious they were having so much fun. And from the sidelines, I was too. The Micra Cup just might have been the most entertaining racing in Montreal.