Tuned: Race Concepts Maruti Suzuki Zen Steel
Race Concepts' Maruti Suzuki Zen is the very definition on enthu-cutleSrikanth Tirupattur

Tuned: Race Concepts Maruti Suzuki Zen Steel

Looking back at a pocket-rocket that is Race Concepts' Maruti Suzuki Zen Steel

“It's like a grown up go-kart,” says Joel Joseph, the man behind Race Concepts, among India’s leading go-faster shops. Joel made his name tuning the Gen 1 Honda City VTEC, both in naturally aspirated and turbocharged guise, and also building the fastest Indian Touring Car in the country that demolished the MMRT lap time at the last race weekend before the lockdown hit. He takes great pride in the fact that all his testing and validation is done on the racetrack and then transferred to road cars. Race Concepts have their own dyno so all their claims are tested and verified, not figures pulled out from nowhere. Joel’s shop in Bengaluru is always swarming with projects, but the lockdown and subsequent cancellation of all motorsport events meant that for the first time, there wasn’t much to do at the shop. So, they took a second look at the two-door Maruti Suzuki Zen Steel lying in a corner of their workshop since 2016, and got the spanners out.

This Zen Steel gets bespoke coilover dampers
This Zen Steel gets bespoke coilover dampersSrikanth Tirupattur

Now Zen upgrades usually start with throwing out the 1-litre engine for either the 1.3 from the Esteem or the 1.6 from the (old) Baleno. This build uses the 1298cc G13BB SOHC engine, upgraded with forged internals and custom parts, all developed in-house. It gets race-spec cylinder heads, uprated valvetrain components, aluminium underdrive pulleys and a single throttle body intake system with high flow injectors complemented by uprated fuel pumps, lines and a custom fuel rail system.

The G13BB engine now puts out 170 horses!
The G13BB engine now puts out 170 horses!Srikanth Tirupattur

There is also a BMC carbonfibre airbox for better breathing and to charge more cold air into the intake. Engine management is via the Race Dynamics RD R200 ECU while a close-ratio gearbox paired to a stage 2 Exedy race- spec clutch and Cusco limited-slip differential sends the power to the front wheels. There is also an aluminium flywheel and custom driveshafts to take the bump up in power. The engine has been built to meet the FMSCI Autocross regulations, so independent throttle bodies weren’t allowed — a relief according to Joel since that also saves costs. The engine mounts have been fabricated in- house to motorsport-grade. On the safety front the chassis has been seam-welded and then reinforced along with an FMSCI-spec roll cage. The McPherson struts at the front have reworked uprights with a custom geometry, custom lower arms, revised geometry for the rear beam axle and a custom sway bar with an in-built strut tower brace. The team also developed and built bespoke coilover dampers for the Zen. The anchors have been upgraded to larger 245mm rotors, with Nissin callipers at the front and OEM drum brakes at the rear. The PCD for the wheels has been changed to 100mm to accommodate the larger 14-inch Sparco Motorsport rims. It runs MRF competition rubber while the front and rear arches have been widened to accommodate the wider tyres. To cut weight, the left door is made of composite, as is the bootlid. The mouldings have all been done in-house. There is also custom skirting down the sides and a lip at the front. Pop inside and you’ll notice an FIA-spec Sparco seat, FIA-spec OMP steering wheel, an Auto Meter tachometer, and not much else. Only the bare minimum has been retained. Because, racecar.

What does all this mean in terms of numbers? A power output of more than 170 horses at peak revs of 7900rpm and a 0-100kmph time in the region of 5.5 seconds. In a car that has a dry weight of 760kg. But numbers only tell you half the story. “All you have to do is clench your teeth and put the throttle down,” says Joel who took the Zen on its first outing to the Meco Kartopia for an Autocross event, clocking the fastest time at 1 minute and 5 seconds. This was over two seconds quicker than the previous lap record for cars.

Race Concepts is one of the finest tuner shops in the country
Race Concepts is one of the finest tuner shops in the countrySrikanth Tirupattur

While Joel’s usual builds are characteristically manic, this Zen has been built with a different approach. “We didn’t want to spend too much money on it,” says Joel, “the idea was to build a full-blown racecar for around Rs. 5 to 6 lakh”. This led to some ingenious engineering solutions by the team at Race Concepts. For starters, a motorsport-spec brake bias valve would cost around Rs. 13,000, which isn’t exactly cost effective. So the team re-engineered an industrial fluid pressure valve to work as a brake bias valve, costing them just Rs. 2000. The gearbox is not a dog ’box, it is still a regular H-pattern synchro gearbox and has been built with a mix and match of aftermarket and OEM parts, costing less than a third of a gearbox that they would typically put in their ITC cars.

Joel Joseph of Race Concepts
Joel Joseph of Race ConceptsSrikanth Tirupattur

The brakes too are a result of re-engineering, running Honda City iVTEC-spec callipers. A fully forged brake kit would cost north of a lakh of rupees, “but we did this full system in Rs. 30,000”. The camshaft is custom ground and isn’t a very aggressive cam profile. But to counter that, the cylinder head has been designed to allow for more flow. The purpose was not just to keep the cost low, but to keep it low and still build a car that can perform at a very very high level.

On its first autocross outing, this Zen was over two seconds quicker than the previous record!
On its first autocross outing, this Zen was over two seconds quicker than the previous record!Srikanth Tirupattur

Joel says he could build the same Zen, put wider arches, multi-link suspension at the rear, put the best brakes on the market and the best dampers and it would end up costing Rs. 25-30lakh. This “cost-effective” Zen can run at almost the same pace, for less than one- fourth the cost. “People want bragging rights, but the functional bits are all that you need,” says Joel, quite emphatically. The long list of expensive parts some tuners might throw on don’t really justify the performance gains. This project was an engineering exercise for Race Concepts to validate their concepts and while it may not pack the punch or have the show-stopping ability of their ITC cars, this little Zen is probably one of the most ingeniously built cars in the country. It took 70 days of work and brainstorming to build it, and Joel is only getting started.

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