Cowland on Cars

Don’t tune your car, tune yourself

by Paul Cowland
22 May 2023 4 min read
Don’t tune your car, tune yourself
Photo: Matt Kimberley

Looking to clip apexes, shave tenths and generally obliterate all-comers on road and track? Then spend a few quid on yourself before you spend it on your car, reckons Paul Cowland.

The world of car tuning has been very, very kind to me over the years. Since the ‘90s I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in all manner of exciting projects, from tuning cars for Saab and Subaru, through to special builds for Audi, Toyota and Isuzu. To put it simply, I still spend a huge part of every working day with fabulous companies that make all manner of truly efficacious go-faster trinkets. Want an exhaust that can make your Fiesta sound like it has 400bhp? In fact, would you like your Fiesta to actually have 400bhp? Well, I’m pretty sure that I can hook you up with the brands that can make it happen.

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While I can look you in the eye, and genuinely assure you that all of these quality products will do exactly what they say on the tin, making your car into the kind of road-legal go-kart that the accountants and marketers stopped the engineers from creating in the first place, I feel compelled to tell you that there might be a better way to spend your tuning budget. And that’s on the most important component of all in any car. The nut behind the wheel, as the very old joke used to say…

You see, it matters not if your perfectly adjusted coilovers are working in symphonic harmony with your polyurethane bushes, uprated anti-roll bar and semi slick tyres, giving your car the kind of lateral ‘g’ adhesion that would give most fighter pilots chiropractic issues, because if your talent levels haven’t been set to match, then you’re most likely going to be calling your insurers from the nearest ditch. And that can be both embarrassing and expensive. 

The One That Got Away: Paul Cowland and the Subaru Impreza 22B he should never have let go
Cowland in his Subaru days… Photo: Paul Cowland

A faster car will only give you a faster accident, unless the operating system behind it – and that’s you by the way – is operating in a similarly uprated plane. If you choose to ‘tune’ your own abilities, before you look to do the same with your car, then you can expect significantly better results, not only from your car, in whatever state of tweakery that’s in, but also in any other car you choose to sit in. That’s the beauty of spending time and money on yourself, you see. It’s an uprated part that can be transferred into any chassis in mere seconds, making it tuning budget that you’ll always be able to realise, even when you’ve sold your current car…

As a Subaru tuner in a previous life, I used to sit with hundreds of wonderful and lovely customers, many of whom had just spent a significant amount of money with me, endowing their cars with more power, better handling and the kind of stopping prowess that gives you seatbelt bruises. What I learned as I watched them enjoy their latest upgrades was that, in most cases, at least a fair proportion of that cash would have elicited a greater point-to-point performance had it been spent on the driver. Had they done both together, then crikey, we would have created a supercar-shaming package of moving parts that would have been very hard to live with on track.

And it really is that easy. At most track days, and on most circuits, you’ll find an instructor. For the kind of money that wouldn’t even buy you a decent panel filter, and certainly for a LOT less than that remap you’ve been eyeing up, they’ll sit with you and help you develop your own technique. It’s hard for us that have been driving ‘quickly’ for a long time, and let’s face it, particularly us men, to accept that we’re perhaps not the flinty-eyed driving gods that we thought we were, but if you can park your ego for a few laps, the resulting download of information and skill that will be passed across the cabin will doubtless be the best money that you’ll ever spend in going faster.

This was brought home to me in crystal clarity during one warm, dry and perfectly grippy track day at my home circuit of Donington Park. As a track I’ve lapped since the age of 17, and with thousands of laps, and even a couple of class race wins at the place, I felt I knew all I needed to know. That said, when my good friend, talented wheelman and most gracious of instructors, Darren Langeveld offered to sit with me to see if there was any time to be had, I naturally accepted. Deep inside, I just knew that my encyclopaedic knowledge of the place, coupled with my well sorted Subaru BRZ beneath us would ensure that he would look on, impressed, knowing that not even he could improve upon this masterful display of driving perfection…

How to take a panning shot
Photo: Cameron Neveu

How wrong I was. After a couple of hot laps, I looked across, expecting to hear him say, ‘My god, man… that was flawless! My work here is done!’ Except he didn’t say that, of course. What he actually said, was, ‘Not bad, but you’re losing a couple of tenths in almost every entry and exit…’

The cheek of the man! Obviously, purely to humour him, I played along with the charade, listening intently to every instruction, braking point and turn-in reference. And before the hour was up, we’d shaved almost 2 seconds of lap time off, simply by being in exactly the right place, in the right gear, with the right tyre loading and throttle opening at all times. TWO seconds. In a car and on a track that I thought I couldn’t know any better.

Anyone that does sell tuning parts will happily tell you just how much more horsepower a 1200 kilo car needs to lap 2 seconds faster at a track like Donington. I can tell you now, it’s not a small number, and you’ll need a few quid to achieve it. Put it this way, it would have cost a lot more than the Donny Diner sausage and chips that I bought Darren to thank him for his time and trouble. (Although, please do note, other professional instructors, at other circuits, may require actual cash for this service. Never hurts to go in hard with a dinner offer, though.)

Making yourself faster really is the best performance mod that money can buy. It’s cheap, it’s transferable, and then if you do choose to tune your car, every modification will have an exponentially larger benefit. And the best bit? Unlike anything else that you do to tune your motor, you don’t have to tell your insurer…

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  • D Macallister says:

    Excellent article. Having done the IAM Roadsmart Advanced Driving course in 2018, and now mentoring Associates through it, I would agree that investment in your driving skills is very worthwhile.
    “Skill with Responsibility” has given me a whole new perspective in and enjoyment of driving, irrespective of how powerful the car is.

  • Nigel+Griffiths says:

    The Institute of Advanced Motorists train and encourage drivers to read the road safely and keep up road speed. That’s not speeding but progressing efficiently and with due care and attention at all times as to the road surroundings and conditions. It’s amazing how much quicker journeys are as a result of applying IAM skills.

  • Mark Scott says:

    Hi Paul, it’s true that many drivers who buy classic cars have been too used to modern comforts and don’t know how to get the most smiles per mile. Having said that if the classic us running rough then smiling is not on the cards. People should check out Andy at AG Tuning in Yorkshire and set him to work miracles can happen

  • Jim Clark says:

    Good advice, but need [ must ] basic grip limit experience first , you already had that.
    Like wise IAM its all very well until limit is exceeded due to lack of experience.

  • Johnathan Edwards says:

    Couldnt be better said…

  • Sidney says:

    Apparently a customer once wrote to Ducati asking for the most cost effective performance upgrade, the reply being rider training. At the same time, if you’re not in an event, don’t race at all. Death is the cheapest pointless exercise.

  • Mr B.B.Payne says:

    I am fed up with motoring programes on TV that show so called experienced drivers turning there heads and talking to the camera or passenger and also taking both hands off the wheel to make a gesture, it just rearlly shows what bloody bad driver they are, it sets a bad example to younger drivers.

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