PCOTY 2016: Behind the Scenes

Once again, Cockburn's annual crossword sojourn is spoiled by cars, company and cameras

Performance Car of the Year 2016 - Behind the scenes

Day 1: It begins

And so, once again, the assorted wheelnuts of MOTOR inc. are gathered to determine the Performance Car Of The Year and, as ever, the interplay of science and art promises challenge. As do the twinned tasks of assessing the consequence of 4266 horses harnessed for human transport and capturing the spectacle of that for publication.

For the former endeavour Editor Dylan has assembled the finest of minds, present (himself and Ass. Ed. Scott Newman) past (ex-Ed. Tim Robson) perpetual (Morley) and professional (Adult Luff).

For the art-crop, however, he has thrown caution aside and bizarrely augmented Photographers Brunelli and Dewar with a posse of midgets to make a movie of the exercise for global release on the MOTOR website.

A snackAnd my own task, as ever, is to document the doings – principally as a caution – and to further serve society by noting the progress or otherwise of human-factors design which (whisper it) affects every car owner more frequently than does its standing-quarter time.

All of these pursuits commence this year at DECA, established in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley in 1974 and now grown into one of Australia’s premier driver education centres. Certainly it is an impressive facility, well up-market of the speed-’til-they-bleed sites of previous PCOTYs and, as the judges begin to check the cars and the circuit, I seize the moment to savour the advance of automotive design.

Bringing extra tyresAnd in what better sample group? This is, after all, the up-market streak of the species; cars created far beyond the aspiration of basic transport. Cars created to satisfy a segment in which innovation and excellence are prized almost as much as bullet-besting numbers.

And at first pass – such as a showroom spiel – the field here show that copious creativity has been devoted to solving such problems as door opening, engine-starting, gear selection, handbrake release and switchgear placement.

Filming interiorGranted, there were few problems with the traditional solutions to these needs and, in truth, there are few real advances with the changes. Better learn to love ’em, though, because real innovation is running a distant second so far.

Sadly, gimmickry’s got into the aesthetics, too, with many of the cars using the flexibility offered by moulded and plated plastics for gimmickry rather than design advance. Principal among these is the Lexus, the front of which suggests that either someone dropped the clay model or it was bring-the-kids-to-work day in the style-shop.

But there are four days ahead in which to ponder the real progress of some of the world’s most venerated marques and initial impressions suggest that few of them are hobbled by history. Splendid. I for one am happily open to the idea of New World Order.

Fuel stopBut parked stark in the middle of all such innovation is the Porsche 911 GT3, a champion of evolution rather than revolution and a famously powerful argument for this rationale. From first impressions on Day One it’s obvious that the philosophy – and its latest fruiting – are going to be hard to best.

Day 2: the climb

Each of us waking addled from the mixed benefit of having a bear as a bedroom companion, Morley and I join the group as all are offered a choice of key from the lollybox to begin the day’s journey. Emboldened by age and still warmed by memories of last year, I grab the F-Type’s key before anyone else can.

Having a restAnd I am well rewarded for the effort on the road into Victoria’s High Country. In truth, the Jaguar may well be out-pointed on the circuit and against the clock by some other cars here, but few will match its manners on the road.

It’s a lovely driver and, naught-to-whatever times notwithstanding, has real-world overtaking thrust instant and sufficient enough to be breathtaking. The whole experience is marred only by the rear wing popping up during my discovery of this athleticism and remaining up as a sure signal of my curiosity to Mr. Plod.

The carsAnd thus it flags our ascent of Mt Buffalo, at which lovely loft each of us may either assist in the harvesting of art or address the crossword as they see fit.

Happily, either choice requires remaining seated in the car and I am pleased to help by moving mine into position on the peak as the entire fleet are arranged for the feature shot, which will doubtless look lovely on the printed page but, at ground level, looks like the most expensive car-crash in history.

CrosswordWhich is exactly how it impresses a passing park ranger who, not unnaturally, swiftly develops concern ref our road-usage. Morley immediately begins to negotiate the matter but Editor Campbell, somewhat more familiar with diplomacy, swiftly cuts in and undertakes the task himself. His wisdom is profound. Not only are we therefore allowed to remain in Victoria but the image survives to colour your day.

Day 3: the alps

Once again we each dip into the lollybox hoping to find something that makes getting up at this hour worthwhile. As if such a key exists. To add to the grey comes the realisation that I’ve no idea what we’re doing today and neither does Morley. Clearly we need the guidance of grown-ups but when it dawns that he and I are grown-ups all hope of enlightenment fades.

A bit cold outsideLuckily both the art department and the judiciary have plans abrew and, conveniently, both will take us on the Great Alpine Road to Mount Hotham… which instantly lifts the gloom.

There are few, if any, more lovely roads in this country and essaying them in a Car Of Distinction sounds like a splendid way to spend the day. And will prove splendidly challenging, too.

The temptation to taste each of the treasures on hand is immense; the fleet's average output is 290kW and all but two of them are faster, way faster, than the fabled Phase III GT-HO. So savouring them responsibly as we climb, in unseasonable cold, on roads peppered with ice signs and patches of damp, is essentially the difference between having a dick and being one.

I am proud to record that, as ever, no evidence of insanity occurs until, with our destination reached, Photographer Brunelli feels compelled to portray each contender in moving car-to-car shots taken by him sitting up-and-out, exposed and apace, in the open MX-5 at 0-degrees. You do wonder how we get some of these shots don’t you…?

FilmingMeanwhile, the scientists are taking each car through the same road loop to determine its potential as sensible transport. But, naturally, the results of this will be overlooked once The Numbers are gathered at Winton tomorrow and more’s the pity.

A lifetime spent blending exotic car ownership with genuinely satisfying daily use has taught me that excellence in both fields is equally desirable but honour compels the admission that no-one’s asked my opinion.

And so the circus goes, a collage of colour and capability as the masters of each craft ply their prowess and those of us without a newspaper wonder how best to pass the time. Which is not always easy.

Kicking a footyDespite the designated slopes nearby, the kiddies soon find that tobogganing in the snow is disappointing with those two key elements missing. And they can’t play hide and seek because they know no-one will look. But they do have a football and a sufficient inability to keep it out of the bushland as to keep themselves occupied for hours. And who could hope for more?

Day 4: the track

On the last day I rise with spirits a-twinkle. Winton awaits, it’s a glorious day for a speed and even better to be paid for indulging in it. So how better to start such a day than by savouring its surest star? Accordingly, by using an uneven mixture of charm and raw speed, I strap myself into the 911 for the journey to the circuit. Some days are diamonds.

Cleaning the carsA sure mark of the mischief potential of this car becomes immediately obvious in the speedometer, which is gradated in 50km/h increments. Up to 350km/h. And the very first flat-floor overtaking opportunity shows why. I have never been slammed back into a seat so hard.

But as the trip unwinds so does the truth. This Porsche may well be stunning against the clock but it’s frankly disappointing on the road. The ride is crude, to put it kindly, and the noise is all-invasive. Clearly all its evolution has been circuit-based and it will have to completely dominate there to win this year.

Accordingly, an enquiring mind takes me out to the drag strip, where Messrs Morley and Newman are adjudging merit to one-hundredth of a second… a task proving just as difficult as you might imagine because of the horsepower on tap.

Filming the stripGetting a clean launch in the more-manly things present and avoiding wheelspin for damn near the whole strip is a considerable challenge. Mark you, the art department is loving it. And the temptation is too much, so I join Smokey Scott for a romp.

We’ll almost certainly both go to hell for what happens next, but Lordy it’s fun to sit in a raging car creating its own weather system and going absolutely nowhere!

Hanging on a signThat bit of mischief done with, the judges then take all cars out for swift laps, a task unexpectedly challenging on a track badly littered with the rubble and rubber of a recent event. As ever, only Adult Luff’s times will be taken but these are unlikely to set any records and will be viewed comparatively.

The rest of the scholars do their best under the circumstances but some things never change: spontaneous and completely pointless sliding and smoking through certain corners is a sure indication that they’ve discovered the film crew out there, hiding in the high grass, and trust me – you’ve gotta see this movie.BurnoutBecause you will also be treated to the harvest of Warren Luff’s opinions every time he comes in. Opinions given logically, calmly and extraordinarily concisely. The man is an asset, to be sure, but his views are not unique today.

Judges discussionBecause, although less lucidly delivered, those of the other judges, older and younger, reveal a common factor – genuine surprise at the qualities this track is revealing. There’s no single star this year, which I was certain the Porsche would be, but instead, as they cross paths in the pits, a swirling torrent of enthusiasm for everything from the MX-5 to the damn-near ten times costlier Merc.

So, given that my flight home requires leaving before the judge’s decision is announced, I leave this year’s PCOTY unsure of its outcome. But very sure of something even more important…

However diverse our individual parameters may be, beautiful, brutal motor cars are still being created to delight them.


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Paul Cockburn

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