Tuesday, May 22, 2018
DriveWerks

Track Attack of the Hatch

The purchase of a new car can be full of excitement, especially when it’s a performance vehicle. The first few thousand miles are often spent breaking things in carefully while getting acquainted with the new car’s characteristics. Mr. Milton managed to become very well acquainted with his Focus RS in just three months, clocking 6,500 miles in the process! In case that wasn’t enough for him, he proceeded to book a track day at Buttonwillow to really put the Focus through its paces.

Trip Advisor

Participating in a track day event is both a great and terrible idea. It’s the perfect place to test the limits of a car safely in a controlled environment. The downside however, is that you run the risk totaling the car at any given moment. For a low buck car like an old Miata, this isn’t too much of a concern as there’s always the option of building another. On the other end of the spectrum, Milty-Man’s Focus RS is still a new car with a sizeable sticker price to match. I was surprised he wanted to abuse his new car so readily.

The Focus RS is supposed to be one of the best hot hatches currently available. Having been on sale since 2016, owners have been able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the platform. You would think the Focus RS would be ready to handle moderate track duty right off the showroom floor, but the internet says otherwise.

Despite being AWD, full of boost tubes, and equipped with fancy Recaro seats, the RS is a delicate machine. Unlike the rivals from Subaru and Mitsubishi, the rear differential on the Focus RS is apparently very susceptible to overheating. When the rear differential temperature gets too hot and wild, it will throw the car into a limp mode, in turn negating the benefits of AWD.

Even more critical is infamous RS head gasket issue. During production, it seems Ford had mistakenly installed the head gasket from the EcoBoost Mustangs onto the Focus cars. While the 2.3 liter motors are similar between the Mustang and Focus, the blocks have different coolant passages. Use of the incorrect gasket means coolant cannot circulate properly, creating a hot spot that’ll eventually cause the gasket to fail. Some cars just blow the gasket, while others warp the cylinder head as well. Ford has officially issued a recall on Focus RS cars built into July 2017, and Milton’s car is most likely one of them.

On the scale of vehicular abuse, there’s three levels I often use as a reference. The first being Joey driving. This driving style is typically not hard on the car, as the car spends most of its time in pieces being retrofitted with heavy duty parts that are usually overkill for the street. The next level of wear and tear is that of T-Griff and Willum. Cars driven by these individuals are typically driven hard, but they are constantly being maintained if not repaired. And then there’s Milton mileage. Easily the most abusive, as he manages to break virtually everything. The e36 318is occasionally seen on this site was daily driven for eight years and only needed the clutch and fuel pump replaced during that time. Within two months of Milton owning it, the poor car needed almost every hose, seal, and sensor replaced. Milton miles are at least 5x tougher on a car than Joey miles. That’s why it takes a dedicated angry mechanic paid in pizza by the slice to “reinforce” any potential weak links.

As much I would have liked to rip all the parts off his new car as an excuse to bust out the tools of destruction, it was decided there was no point. Having never driven the car on a track, we needed to see what the car would do in stock form. All the interwebz hearsay may be correct, but there are too many variables to account for, namely driver skill.

That didn’t mean there wasn’t prep work involved. First Milton purchased a fancy helmet, which was later sticker-bombed. As for the car, the only change for its maiden track outing was higher temperature brake fluid. The Michelin Pilot Sport tires had plenty of meat left on them, so we kept them on to see how good or bad a stock Focus RS performs.

Man & Machine…Plus One

When the track-day-bro finally arrived, Milton spent an additional 120 dollars to have a random man sit in the car with him. Not only was he able to make small talk, the man was also a driving instructor. Given this was Milty-Man’s first track day, it was a wise move, as the instructor man pointed out all the braking zones and how to enter and exit each corner. Every track is different, so the advice from an expert goes a long way.

Out of the box, the Focus RS is equipped with electronically adjustable shocks. All the magazines will tell you that the “Race” setting is excessively firm on the street, and this is true, as the car will feel like a pogo stick on wheels. Naturally, one would think the Race-mode would be well suited to the smooth surface of a race track. Believe it or not, the suspension was still too firm and had to be dialed back to the softer street setting, as the car would become extra twitchy through some of the faster sections.

Throughout the day, Milton managed to do a total of five 20-minute sessions. With each session, he was able to progressively hone his technique and cut down on laps times. By the fifth session though, the brakes started to get spongey. This was the car saying it had experienced enough abuse. With a 250-mile drive home from Buttonwillow, it was best to call it quits while the car was still in one piece.

Surprisingly, the Focus RS held up quite well for a bone stock car. No differential issues, and the head gasket didn’t perform an impression of Old Faithful. On the other hand, the brakes and tires were completely shot after Milton got a chance to inspect them. In fairness, the stock rotors and pads are not intended for track duty, but at least we know where to start making improvements.

Keep the Bank Account in Check

Back home there was a lot of discussion how to upgrade the RS’s handling and braking without overspending. More importantly, without ruining a car still under warranty.

The brakes were an interesting dilemma, as the factory Brembo 4-pots aren’t exactly low-rent. Some people claim to have cooked the caliper piston seals, while others feel the stock brakes are more than adequate. Milton felt they met his driving needs, aside from the end of the day. If we really want to upgrade the brakes, AP Racing and RacingBrake offer front big brake conversions for the RS. To be honest, we’re not sure if a big brake kit is needed just yet. For the time being, stainless brake lines, track rated pads, and StopTech’s slotted 2-piece floating rotors appear to be a good intermediate step. If this combo still causes problems at the track, then we’ll get serious about an aftermarket set of calipers.

The other major debate was the suspension. The factory shocks and springs don’t seem like they match each other, which attributes to the bouncy ride quality. This seems to be a theme with Ford, as the Fiesta ST suffers from this problem as well. There’s the option for coilovers, yet it’d be nice to retain the adjustable suspension functionality and not have to spend over $3000 on a set of KW DDC coilovers that will most likely be adjusted all of once. Attempting to keep the RS somewhat intact, Mountune Sport Springs should be just the ticket, as they’re designed to be used with the factory shocks. Additionally, we want to install Ground Control camber plates, but we’ll need to investigate whether the tight confines of the strut tower will allow for any adjustment using the wide stock diameter springs.

As a side note, Milton had pointed out that Mishimoto has been developing a rear diff cooler setup for the Focus RS, soon to be put on sale (at a cost of around $2500). Milton hasn’t managed to overheat the rear differential just yet, but at least there’s an option down the line should that become more of an issue.

All in all, I think we have a good baseline and know the areas that need addressing before the next outing. This time it will be Monterey’s corkscrew wonderland. With a tight schedule, Mr. Milton needs to get the head gasket recall taken care of by the dealership, install new brakes and springs, and mount some fresh rubber on the wheels. Who knows, maybe as the car becomes more track Focus’d, people will stop flagging Milton down as an Uber driver with a Focus.

-JC

 

Special thanks to Stefan for taking the pictures seen here. Check out more of his photos: @bav_stef on Instagram.

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