Racing With The Proton Saga

By Rigval Reza, 13 June 2010

Now if you're looking at the picture and have started thinking that this must be an old 1980s Mitsubishi Lancer you are strongly mistaken. This car is a Proton Saga, which is based on the early 1980s Mitsubishi Lancer Fiore. The Lancer was the basis for the Saga, customized and localised, and was the first car produced in Malaysia. It had been in production since 1985 and was only recently discontinued over here in Malaysia (1985-2008 - amazing right?). It was sold in the UK until the late 1990s and is a favourite for pensioners and people who basically have no clue what driving is all about. Most young men would rather be dead than be seen in one of these, especially if they are trying to impress a girl.

Anyway, the picture above isn't a Saga race car from the 1990s but is a car that is being prepared for the latest season of the Proton Saga or Clubman Cup race series. You see, this is circuit racing at its cheapest in Malaysia and it is going strong in Pasir Gudang, Johor (about 300km away from Kuala Lumpur and closer to Singapore via the two Causeways that connect Malaysia and Singapore). Built in 1986, the Johor Circuit is an international class motor racing circuit that is 3.86km long.

In 1990, just four years after the circuit was built, it was upgraded to the strict FIM World GP homologation requirements. In 1998, it hosted the World Motorcycle Grand Prix Championship (which later shifted to Sepang and has been there ever since). Ever since then, it has been hosting regular local and regional events. But for motorheads it is quite well known as even Graham Goode, respected Ford (and now Subaru) tuner and founder of Graham Goode Racing in the UK, had raced competitively in the Malaysian Touring Car Championships in the 1990s. Of course, nowadays it is popular with Singaporeans who cross over regularly for track days, sprint competitions and other events to whet their motorsport appetite, as the island nation does not have a proper race track at the moment. Even the Formula 1 event held there is a street circuit, like Monaco but at night.

Anyway the old Saga you see pictured above and the one in the opening photo is one of five that will have their engines prepared at this top secret, actually beside some major ring road in plain sight, workshop located in Kuala Lumpur. The thing is, this year the participation for the Proton Saga races is pretty good with at least 25 to 30 cars racing at the venue mentioned above. The specs for the cars are pretty simple. The cars must run all stock bodywork, which means the Sagas must run in either steel bumper specs like those before 1992 or like the post-1992 plastic bumper Iswara versions of the Saga and no extra spoilers, bodykits and aerokits. The cars must run on 13inch rims on controlled tires with adjustable suspension allowed.

Their 1500 cc engines must look stock on the outside, meaning cast iron manifold cannot be replaced for an aftermarket one and the stock SU-Type carburetor must be used. However, everything on the insides can be modified. Now this actually means some pretty exciting things can be put into the engines. Usually the camshafts are high-lift ones with some extended duration, the pistons will be slightly oversized ones and get this, like on those WRC rally cars...offset crankshafts. Both the stock intake and exhaust manifolds are polished to a high degree and the cylinder heads are hand polished. The good thing is that labor costs are pretty low around this part of the world.

These cars make somewhere between 135 to 155bhp at the wheel according to some of the mechanics that work on these engines. It does not sound like much in times where some people are running around 400bhp at the wheel on their Impreza STIs and Lancer Evolutions. But if you do the math, the cars run a minimum weight of around 900 to 950kg with fuel and the mandatory roll cage, the power to weight ratio of these ancient racers is around 170bhp per ton. For comparison, a stock Subaru Impreza WRX (type UK) with 222bhp at the engine has a power to weight ratio of 166bhp per ton. So they are pretty fast in a straight line.

I have driven one of these track prepared cars a long while back and driving it at eight-tenths it is very quick. The whole car feels as nimble and light on its feet. The steering feels quick and accurate due to the whole car being about 60kg lighter (it already was a lightweight 960kgs). It is also noisy as most are run with a straight pipe set up. With a stripped out cabin you can hear all the small stones and pebbles hitting the wheel arches and also the noisy straight through exhaust system. It heightens the feeling of speed.

With the coil-over shock absorbers and harder than usual suspension bushings, it corners extremely flat. Up to a point that is. But, being an ancient Proton Saga based on an even more ancient Mitsubishi Lancer, they are REALLY tricky to drive on the limit. Their ancient suspension, Macpherson in front and trailing arms (without any lateral links to brace the trailing arms except a tiny anti roll bar linking the arms) at the rear, can only do so much to contain so many horses and high G-forces. Even with adjustable coilovers the race prepped Saga is unpredictable.

On very, very high speeds, or driving it ten-tenths, the car becomes a handful. I had the opportunity to hitch a taxi ride in one of these during a test session. They seem to understeer where you don't want them to and oversteer when you don't want them to. It has quite a thin handling envelope which the drivers have to learn when trying to drive these machines quickly.

Now you may be thinking why I have decided to write about these ancient machines. The simple reason is that the experience of driving a car modified for the purpose of going round a track the fastest is different from the constraints of building or owning a performance road car. There are rules and regulations even for this piece of junk, but even within these rules it still is a stripped out race car devoid of all creature comforts and therefore still an extremely focused car to drive.

Now add price factor to the picture. It only costs around US$1,000.00 to buy a very decent, very straight accident free old Saga, another US$1,000 to rebuild the engine with some cams and porting and crankshaft reworking, another $500-600 for the roll cage, rims and (controlled) tires and another $450 for a set of coil-over suspension. Imagine going racing for less than $3,500.00 with entry fee.

This is what budget (or banger?) racing is all about in Malaysia. While it is cheap to build and race a car, it is still prepared to full track car standards and not like some demolition derby races. As mentioned above, everything is honed and tuned. The engine fully developed, the chassis has proper race car shocks and the drivers do practice when there are track day sessions (both in Sepang F1 circuit and in Pasir Gudang) to prep themselves and the cars.

It is budget racing at its best too. It has become so 'cheap' that the last race two months ago (the next race was posponed due to track renovation work to mid June), five Sagas were totaled. I know that one of the teams already bought another old Saga Iswara as a replacement for the next race. You run 'em, crash 'em and buy another second hand car and do the same again. And this is why its still going strong after all these years....regardless of the fact that it is a pensioner's car and it is a car that anyone who thinks that he is young, hip, cool and trendy will never, ever want to be seen in outside of a race track. Check out the standard car below and see if I'm right. That folks, is the newer 1990s version of the Saga and a base for a good cheap race car. Believe it, or not.

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