The CSL is late. Mr Ed Taylor looks at his watch and decides he’d like the BMW delivered to us at the restaurant where we’ve just had dinner, rather than the motel as planned. That way we can drive it home.
This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s April 2004 issue
As he calls the tilt tray driver, Jesse Taylor and Greg Kable are explaining to me that while the Continental GT is capable of over 300km/h, there won’t be sufficient room to stop the 2.4 tonnes before the fence at the end of the runway tomorrow at Avalon. Their hand gestures illustrate that if it were to be attempted, the Bentley would come to rest most likely on its roof somewhere back in Melbourne.
It’s the tail end of Australia Day, and rather than sitting under a sprinkler back in Queensland, drinking polar bears and cola, I’ve spent the day driving down to Werribee from Sydney in a convoy of 12 cars, in preparation for an early start to Performance Car of the Year 2004 tomorrow. It’s been an unusual day. Already Editor Taylor and Eccentric Cockburn have established me as their plaything. As much as is practical, I am to be the brunt of all jokes, and any co-operation on my part by making stupid statements is most certainly appreciated.
We amble onto the street to wait for the CSL. When it arrives, the truck driver unceremoniously backs the $210,000 Beemer onto the street, hands MT the keys and leaves. How very cool. There’s a moment of silence as we take in the beauty of the carbon fibre roof.
“I bags the front seat!” I shout like an idiot as MT opens the driver’s door. Then I realise no one but me is lining up to be a passenger. While this is a day among days for me, for everyone else it’s situation normal.
Idling through the main street, the CSL manages not to blow its cover until it exits the last roundabout, when Taylor cracks the throttle wide open and scuffs the new Pilot Sport Cups satisfactorily. I can’t help thinking, “You lucky bastard, Cass, welcome to PCOTY.”
After a sleepless night like Christmas Eve as a kid, day two finds us at Avalon airstrip for the first day of testing. The safety briefing over, MT informs me I’ll be coming with him for a ‘sight’ run, to make sure there’s no aircraft wreckage on the runway, or something.
MT hurtles the big Jag at full tilt around the tight corner onto the runway, explaining to me, over the shrieking tyres, the need to carry good speed onto the straight. Up to this point the whole idea of 300km/h down an empty runway hasn’t concerned me. That is, until I realise you have to almost exceed the lateral grip levels of the car on entry to enable enough speed to be carried all the way to the trap, which is alongside the ‘if you don’t stop now you’re gonna die’ final braking marker.
I kiss my arse goodbye as he kisses the apex, wondering to myself how I could possibly have thought that being able to get my Falcon a bit sideways through a wet roundabout qualifies me as a PCOTY judge.
Sensing I was somewhat intimidated by the speed run, Taylor suggests I take something slow, like the Volvo, to get my feet. The Volvo, as it turns out, does 250km/h.
The rest of the morning is spent hopping in and out of various fast cars and casting sheepish yet lustful glances at the Lamborghini. Do I just hop in and go? I think not. All the other judges have already driven it, posting a top speed of 288km/h. But after pulling 280 in the really heavy Bentley (and, more importantly, stopping the thing without using the fence), I figure I’m as confident as I’m going to get.
Here goes nothing.
Minutes later I’m glancing at the needle edging towards 300 as I lift my right foot well before the first braking marker and place it firmly on the brake pedal. The Gallardo tucks in neatly around the sweeper as if I just took the exit off the motorway; my slowish speed of 275 comes as no surprise. The Lamborghini feels so capable under brakes, and has so much grip on entry, that on my way back up I decide that this time I’m going to have a red hot go.
“Lambo on the runway” comes over the radio as I bury my foot early in third gear and slingshot onto the runway. I’ve barely straightened up before it’s tickling the rev limiter in third as I pluck fourth. The van at the end of the runway comes into view shortly before I grab sixth gear and bury my foot one more time. Adrenalin causes my leg to shake as I hold the screaming V10 flat until the final braking marker. I ask the big question of the brakes and the Gallardo pulls up unfussed.
“Lamborghini 290,” crackles over the radio. Someone asks who was driving. “Punter,” comes the glorious reply. Life is good. That is, until Cam McConville does 292 in the afternoon. Bastard.
By the time the PCOTY field rolls into Winton, I’m starting to feel a real part of the whole circus. But I can’t work out if David Morley is on form this year. I’d been preparing myself emotionally for the barrage of mickey-taking that I was assured would come. So far it hasn’t. I casually ask him why he’s chosen not to make me cry. “Because I haven’t kicked you in the nuts yet,” comes the reply. I was wrong; Morley is in fine form.
Putting on a race suit makes you feel like a professional. Spearing off the end of the straight in a cloud of tyre smoke and dust doesn’t.
Only McConville is timed, so the rest of the judges have to get creative about being competitive. I jump in the ClubSport and follow Morley in the SS, hoping he can’t embarrass me by getting away in a slower car. MT joins us in the GT, rounding me up before the flip flop and then diving in under brakes to get in front of the SS, after which both Morley and Taylor demonstrate the visual spectacle of silken power oversteer.
The Hillclimb, I’m told, plays the most important part in determining PCOTY. If they don’t stand up and be counted under normal driving conditions, they don’t make the top six.
Coming down the hill, as it turns out, isn’t necessarily as much fun as going up. The GT, for example, is a dead set hoot going up, always scrambling for rear grip, showing heaps of body language. I find myself winding down the window to take in the sound of the angry Boss motor roaring at me from the rock walls. Coming down, on the other hand, the weight up front becomes all too apparent, pushing wide on steep corners, and the brakes all of a sudden seem to lack feel and modulation.
In very different ways the CSL and the Gallardo are sensational. The CSL begs you to be exacting with how you drive; it rewards precision but penalises indecision. The Lambo, however, makes everyone look like a hero. It soaks up mistakes, and doesn’t have a nervous bone in its beautifully low-slung body. Chasing the silver CSL down the mountain in the Gallardo will remain in my memory forever.
With today’s top performers firmly in our minds, we gather at the Benalla glider club, where the judges calculate feverishly to come up with a top six, based on points, before it’s too dark to shoot them. The winner is then determined by judges’ votes. I’m told to vote unashamedly for the car I’d like to spend the most time in, weighing my decision on my gut feel about which of these six has stood up and said, “How ’bout it?” I vote for, umm, I’m not allowed to say, but you’ll find out...
Day five: this little piggy drives the Patrol support car all the way home. Hardly worth mentioning...
Design Highlights - The Seven Virtues
Nissan 350Z's instrument pod: clean, concise and neatly column-mounted to move with the wheel
Audi RS6's side screens: why these aren’t a standard feature in all Australian cars is a mystery
Lamborghini Gallardo's switches: effective and well placed, an ergonomic miracle
CSV Mondo's wheels: elegantly engineered, heat-dispersing and easy to clean
Bentley Continental GT's bonnet catch: at last, an intuitive bonnet latch that makes tradition earn its keep
BMW M3 CSL's roof: an intelligent use of weight-saving carbon where it does most good
Volvo S60 R's pop-up screen: not quite a head-up display, but it significantly assists refocusing
Design Highlights - The Seven Vices
Audi S4's minor controls: completely obscured column stalks and confusing wheel controls
Mazda RX-8's centre console: the difference, should you be still unsure, between style and design
BMW M3 CSL's pedal placement: if you’re going to have a two-pedal car, site them for two-foot usage
Audi / Bentley keys: parts-bin denial of a Bentley buyer’s legitimate right to individuality
Lamborghini Gallardo's roof edge: blew off at less than maximum speed. Hope the rest was better tested
Chrysler Crossfire's wheels: 18s front, 19s rear, and odd sections. Choice of tyres? Not
Chrysler Crossfire's gearchange: hurts like all hell when you jam your finger in it