It was merely hours into COTY 2021 before the impact of COVID-19 would be felt. Veteran judge Byron Mathioudakis, here attending his 11th-consecutive year, was the first to show symptoms of this insidious virus.
Not actual physical sickness symptoms; no, more seriously, a downcast demeanour realising he would have to kerb his natural inclination for skipping around and randomly hugging his fellow judges and the production crew after a year apart.
Some of us – okay, me – actually realise we miss Byron’s affections, so at one point very early in proceedings, I consider pinching the petty cash tin to head into town to buy him a haz-mat suit and a respirator, just so some semblance of high-contact normality can resume.
COTY 2021: Mazda CX-30 wins the trophy
Can a Byron fit in the boot? A regular game played at COTY.
There’s no question the threat of a communicable disease weighs heavy on every single one of the 16-man testing and production team. At one point, as we stand in a large group for a briefing, I stifle a sneeze behind my face mask.
In unison, every person jumps two feet in the air, scatters, and starts making signs of the cross at me. Liquid hits my face. Was the first drops of rain? Or did someone just flick holy water on me?
Tough crowd. As you’ll have read earlier, the judging panel is down to six members, and, for the first time anyone can remember, there’s not a single female amongst our ranks. Oddly, there’s only a marginal increase in fart jokes.
When's lunch, Byron?
We welcome the COTY debut of Richard Ferlazzo, the former design director of Holden who brings insight, not just regarding design, but a deep manufacturing knowledge, enlightening us on just how challenging some design decisions would have been to get past the bean counters.
Prior to this we all knew we were a bit suss about bean counters, but Richard confirms it – they really are carrying out Satan’s work.
The walk-arounds take place in a large dusty shed, not the most sexy part of the COTY process, but essential; a bit like getting to know your dinner date before holding hands and sharing a romantic walk on the beach. Or in our case, a tortured flogging around the proving ground, with barely a thank-you slap on the rump.
'...and we call this part here the tail light...' instructs Ferlazzo, probably.
As well as an opportunity to fully understand why, exactly, each model made it to the 10-car shortlist, it’s also a chance to really drink in the details, some delightful, some perplexing.
Everyone seems to agree on the brilliant execution of the Defender, which skilfully blends a retro, respective nod to its predecessor while moving the materials, infotainment and overall tech right into the moment.
Although when I glance at the pricing and options ofour single test example, I can’t help but wonder if the person at JLR speccing the press fleet had been drug-tested recently: it has nearly $4000 worth of premium metallic paint, now hidden under a $6500 satin wrap. Hmm, pass that spliff, you loose unit.
Land Rover Defender, blending in seamlessly thanks to "loose unit" speccing.
We take a short break to have a proper sniff over the obscure old canvass-topped VW Country Buggy parked nearby that belongs to event photographer Cristian Brunelli.
The Big Bru has proved he’s the hard man of classic dungers by driving this screenless implement of torture all the way here from his home in Sorrento on the tip of the peninsular.
He’s still picking the flies out of his teeth on day three, but our admiration continues for weeks.
Cristian likes to keep an eye on his Country Buggy (top main image) from wherever he is at all times.
We don’t have the facility to ourselves. Nearby, a steady stream of car transporters start rolling in, each carrying a scruffy E46-generation BMW 3 Series.
Theories abound as to their purpose, until someone from our team actually approaches the crew of fit-looking blokes in cargo pants and combat boots who appear to be their custodians.
We learn they’re part of some police special-forces division, and the BMWs are about to be ragged senseless on a dirt handling track as the cops complete advanced slide-control training.
The following day, every one the BMWs sports grazes on the driver’s front quarter and off-side rear quarter. Turns out their training also involved deliberate contact to ram each other out of the way, and practice the skills needed to recover from a colleague-inflicted 3 Series shoulder charge.
We weren't allowed to photograph the police or their 3 Series shenanigans, so here's Editor DC undertaking some extreme Covid prevention measures, with jellybabies.
Every judge immediately has the same thought – these jammy cops are possibly having even more fun than we are, which is unheard of and simply not bloody on.
Some of us consider a career change; every one of us starts daydreaming about buying a cheap E46 as a drift car.
In the late afternoon of day two, the video crew need something to justify the expensive drone they begged the accountants to approve, so a group drag race is organised.
Someone in a position of authority tells me to drive the BMW M440i, meaning I’m gifted the field’s horsepower hero and I get to bask in the glory of victory for the 20 runs required to get the perfect take.
The COTY 2021 drag race. Video coming soon, RuPaul sold seperately.
He has the full quiver of drag-racer excuses – “the dog ate my line-locker; I’m waiting for the strip ‘to come to me’” – but the collective faces of the test and video crew become genuinely perplexed when he starts tipping drinking water under the tyres, claiming an excess of traction is blame.
Eventually he just gets the clutch dump and first-to-second shift right, and the little all-paw Toyota fires off the mark like a stabbed rat, but he never becomes more than a red blob in my peripheral vision, as my 4 Series blatts off into the scenery.
'Please don't make me look like an idiot,' but the GR Yaris did not listen.
Throughout all this, the steady methodology of the COTY process continues to march us, one step at a time, towards our top three to take away from the PG.
Mechanical carnage is mercifully limited this year. Only a flexi marker post, clipped by a hard-charging Robbo in the BMW M440i, blights an otherwise clean copybook. Robbo apologises, but then trots out the old ‘Team Manager’ line, which claims it’s easier to slow down a fast driver than speed up a slow one. Dylan just quietly asks him to stop hitting things.
Our logistics and catering guru is Diamond Dave Harding, who paces himself to perfection over the three evenings that dinner needs to be served on-site at the proving ground. DDH plays himself in gently on night one, serving up a solid but unremarkable chicken and chips.
Ferlazzo puts us all to shame with his eating/sketching combo, turning out a fine GR Yaris render and a tum full of beef pie.
He turns the heat up on night two with an excellent Mexican spread, but by night three he’s properly firing, and has organised a local restaurant to deliver slow-roasted lamb shoulder with garnishes and side dishes that are unprecedented in COTY history, like toasted sage leaves and Middle Eastern-style roasted cauliflower with pomegranates.
Pomegranates! It’s like a scene from The Castle, as room echoes with a chorus directed at Dave: “What do you call these, love?”
C’mon people. They are weird little pink seeds called arils from a fruit-bearing deciduous shrub with the scientific name of Punicoideae that originated in the region now called Iran. Everyone knows that.
But don’t get too attached to them, because the chances of them appearing on the menu next year are zero. Hopefully by then normal transmission will have resumed. Okay, poor choice of phrase.