After years of working on Grand-Am cars, Aaron Topal had a pretty strong sense of what mattered in a track car. His desire for a little more accuracy and speed pushed him to take the next logical step on from his Miatas: grabbing an AP2 second-generation Honda S2000 and pushing it on cone courses before making the jump into wheel-to-wheel.
That was just a few years ago. Since then, he’s been through a few of them — he’s working on his fifth now. That high car count is due in part to the exacting nature of a car that he describes as “raw, direct, rewarding, and demanding.” With the aid of NorCal ace Matt Powers, he’s developed the latest member of his garage into a precise and capable machine that holds its own in Super Touring 4 and challenges some of the established platforms in that category.
Where an E46 might need a little provocation to get it to rotate properly, the Honda S2000 doesn’t. “It’s inherently pointy,” Powers says. The S2000 is a fast but fairly heavy car for its size, but, thankfully, it’s relatively light compared to an E46. It also has dual A-arms at all four corners, a fantastic gearset, and above-average reliability going for it.
It may not have the E46’s broad powerband or benefit from the same extent of development, and it definitely doesn’t accommodate taller drivers, but the Honda S2000 offers a compelling option for the ST4 drivers looking to try a newer, nimbler chassis and to avoid paying the BMW tax.
Sitting on the scales at a respectable 2,660 pounds with driver, this S2000 is already roughly a hundred pounds lighter than most of the E46s it shares the category with. That, and a great gearset help make up for its straightline shortcomings.
Whereas most of the faster E46s in ST4 will make an average of 240 to 250 horsepower at the rear wheels, the F22C motor in this car, a mostly stock example, makes an average of 225. The peak figure of 240 horsepower is impressive, but it’s made at 7,800 rpm. Redline is found 600 revs later, and the curve is much peakier.
The S2000’s been called the “torqueless wonder” for a reason. That powerband is pushed far to the right and, compared to the tractable BMW S54, the F22C has to be revved quite high before it’s “on the pipe.”
It makes up for its meager midrange with a great gear set and one of the sweetest shifting six-speeds in existence.
“Fifth gear is close to 1:1, so we’re usually able to claw back a little in the third, fourth, and fifth-gear sections. In fast sections starting in fifth and leading onto a sixth-gear straightaway, we’re fast. Thunderhill’s Turn 9 and 14 come to mind,” Powers notes.
Third gear is reputed to be a little flimsy, but the differential still seems to be the weak link. It’ll break before the box does. Still, the synchros are known to go since the S2000 needs shifting like a small dog with separation anxiety needs a parent.
What helps the most when it comes to cornering is its packaging, its size, stiffness, and suspension design. Dual wishbones at both axles with good geometry and a reasonable amount of space for rubber are its greatest strengths.
With the E46s, we’re usually trying to find front grip. Because the S2000 is better balanced inherently, it understeers less and is easier on the tires, but we have to dial some of the pointiness out of it. Instead of finding front grip, we have to add a lot of wing and a little front and rear toe-in to stabilize the car,” Topal says.
They’ve been working extensively with ANZE suspension to get the most from the Penske 8300s. With the right setup, it’s an exploitable car, too — not too pointy to drive consistently.
“We ran a test day recently on worn tires. The motor had lost some compression — probably 40 horsepower down — and I was still on race pace,” Powers says matter-of-factly, which sounds more like a testament to the potential of the car, and less like bragging. “When it comes to peak pace—when everything’s working right, we can probably get more pace out of it in a qualifying situation than we can with our E46s.”
Most of the car’s speed comes from its cornering, where we can generate a little more peak grip,” Topal says. “In long-duration corners Like Laguna’s Turn 9, its greater peak grip gives it a noticeable advantage.”
However, the E46’s strut design and current rules give it a certain advantage in cornering. Running a taller tire as allowed by the rules, and the E46’s larger wheel wells effectively widen the footprint since the extra shoulder meat is used. Whatever penalties these large tires incur, the greater surface area of the tire more than makes up for them. The S2000 would have to be raised to an unreasonable height in order to fit the taller tire underneath it.
“The main difference is probably the rate of steering,” Powers starts. “Everything’s a lot faster with the E46. You make a snappier steering input to help the car start to rotate on entry. Because the BMW is a little more reluctant to point into the corner, it helps to “grab it by the scruff of the neck and toss it in. There are a lot of quick steering movements needed to help load the front end.”
The S2000 is a very different car in this respect. The need to keep the rear underneath the driver is what requires additional consideration — not getting the front to fall in line. The rate of steering must be much slower so as not to agitate the rear on entry. “It drives much more like a formula car. Your inputs must be smoother,” Powers elaborates.
Unfortunately, the S2000’s numb steering makes this process a little more challenging, but repetition breeds consistency, and the car hasn’t proven to be any harder to drive over relatively short distances. At least that’s what I’m told, but maybe Matt just makes it look easy.
The rebuild took little time—soon they were back in a new, blue AP2.
The S2000 showcases its superior cornering speed compared with ST4 E46 BMWs. An outside pass in Thunderhill’s Turn 1 starts as far back as Turn 11.
While the S2000 struggles to spin its wheels most of the time, it is a little more sensitive to abrupt weight transfer than some of its rivals, though Topal admits to trying to dial some of that out of the setup.
“When you upgrade to a square setup, you need to try and tune some of the bump-steer out of the rear to keep it settled,” Topal says. It tends to get through the midcorner phase without as much push, but that doesn’t mean that picking up a little understeer at corner exit is impossible if the throttle is opened too quickly.
Complicating things more, that push can turn into a push-loose situation pretty snappily, and catching the car’s rear takes quick hands. It’s better not to wrestle with it like this in every other corner. The S2000 can wear a driver out fairly fast. The addition of an OS Giken 1.5-way differential has mitigated this issue somewhat, but it’s really dependent on the throttle application. “It drives a little like a midengine car,” Topal says. “If it’s sliding and you roll on the throttle slowly, you can neutralize the slide pretty well.”
Another notable difference is in the way the brakes are applied. The BMW, reassuring and strong, still needs a more progressive application. “I try to work up to the E46’s ABS threshold. Meanwhile, I’m dancing it a little in the braking zones,” Powers notes.
The S2000 is not a car that requires much tip-toeing up to the limit, and it has a different, more exacting way about it. Anti-dive allows a much firmer initial brake application without fear of lockup or ABS intervention. The car also benefits from a set of Stoptech big brakes — C43s up front and C42s in the rear. Weight and grip remaining mostly equal, the S2000 brakes later over a shorter distance.
However, trailing off the brake must be done with the same sort of superhuman smoothness demanded by a formula car. Releasing the brake pedal too quickly can push the car into a mid-corner understeer if it’s balanced on the way in. It will oversteer, most often in a snap, if the mid-corner phase is hampered by understeer.
If you had to guess, you’d probably figure the S2000 isn’t as suited to lengthier races. For starters, it’s a little cramped in the cabin. Drivers much taller than 5’11” will struggle to find a comfortable position inside.
Furthermore, the compact nature of the car has its limitations. Fitting a fuel cell in the rear isn’t really an option. The fuel tank sits on top of the rear subframe, and it’s difficult to mount a sizable cell back there without compromising safety.
Having a narrower powerband means more shifting. Whereas the BMW can downshift pretty casually from fourth to third on the way into Sonoma’s Turn 11, Matt has to skip from fifth to third and then down to second. It just takes a little more effort to keep the car humming.
Most irritatingly, lacking much midrange power means that it struggles in traffic from time to time. Getting thrown off rhythm, having to abort a pass attempt, and dicing with a rival can kill momentum, which takes longer to recover.
Some Speed Left
There is a plan to make it more effective in the middle of a pack. Topal is planning on mating the crank from an Acura RSX Type S and F22C’s top end in a 2.4-liter engine should improve tractability and still make similar peak power. If all goes to plan, the powerplant should be ready by next year.
It is heavy for such a small car, but much of that weight has gone into making it rigid. There’s a monocoque body with an X-bone steel frame that runs the length of the chassis. For that reason, it is harder to get it much lighter than it currently sits.
“We might have another 40 to 60 pounds to remove. We’ve got a gutted dash and the full OEM cluster, plus wiring and brackets that don’t need to be there,” Topal adds.
If they’re able to reduce weight a bit more, then the tires might not matter quite so much. As it currently sits, the S2000 depends on the added grip of a Hoosier slick to remain competitive with the current power-to-weight ratio.
There are several reasons to keep developing this chassis. It might be somewhat oddball, but the act of building one is not an excursion into the uncharted wilderness. There’s a rubric to follow, and Honda still supports the S2000. Thanks to a broad aftermarket, parts are plentiful and race-worthy, and not all that much is subject to failure. There are the typical wear items: hubs, bearings, differentials, and axles, but it is otherwise a fairly stout car — surprising for something so small, nimble, and ostensibly highly strung.
Plus, it doesn’t suffer from the BMW tax. Far from a finicky sprint car, the S2000 has all the speed, support, reliability, and challenge to make it a realistic contender — and a rewarding one at that. It just needs a few more folks to get onboard the “torqueless wonder” train.