With its headlights blazing and the ignition cut to its engine, Ford’s future V8 Supercar contender, the one and only FG Falcon prototype, coasts into its pitbay with an eerie silence. The Blue Oval’s blue-eyed boy, Mark ‘Frosty’ Winterbottom, gives the thumbs-up to his passenger as he stumbles through the spider’s web of roll-cage, almost tripping over in excitement.
This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s December 2008 issue
Frosty sits in his office chair calmly waiting for another guest to jump in ready for the ride of their life, smiling through the visor in his helmet as he chortles at the ungraceful exit of his last victim.
Then nothing happens, despite a queue of people all dressed in Ford-branded racesuits outside one of Winton Raceway’s garages, trembling with anticipation as they wait for the ride of their life. He shrugs his shoulders just as a radio message beams through from the bunker: “Hop out mate, you’re going in the passenger seat now.”
Without any fuss or fervour, Frosty unclips his belts, contorts himself out of the car and waltzes across to the other side expecting his team-mate, multiple Bathurst winner Steven Richards, (the only other ‘qualified’ driver there) to jump behind the wheel. But Richo’s out the back of the shed casually having a chat to Ford Racing boss, Ray Price.
He shrugs his shoulders again, just as I tap him on the back to let him know he’s my victim now. And, just as soon as he works it out, his eyes bulge with trepidation and the spring in his step halts abruptly.
“Oh, this is going to interesting,” he winces before seeing a positive side to it, adding, “Ah, ha. The tables have finally turned. I’ve never had the pleasure of reporting on a journo before … and I’ve just remembered the story you wrote about me a couple of years ago.”
Winterbottom, and a group from his Ford Performance Racing team, are at Winton in September giving the FG Falcon its first real track test as part of a ride day for the army of Ford personnel that helped build it.
Like its road-going cousin, the FG V8 Supercar is a critical building block in the Blue Oval’s battle to keep the Falcon – the longest-running active nameplate in Australian automotive history – alive. The iconic Aussie sedan is at a career-defining crossroads, under pressure from escalating fuel prices and a massive shift in tha market as the fear of a recession forces punters to bail out of the big sedan segment.
On the racetracks though, the Falcon is still standing tall (heck, it’s won Bathurst for the last three years in a row) and Winterbottom is one of the leading contenders for this year’s V8 title.
Next year, when the FG is officially introduced to the championship, it’s a new ball game for the Ford teams as the car has undergone a radical design evolution to maintain equality with the VE Commodore under a strict set of regulations, codenamed Project Blueprint, while also constructed to reduce costs and ease the labour-intensive time it takes to repair.
So far, only three active V8 Supercar drivers have had the privilege of driving the FG Falcon: Winterbottom, Richards (who also conducted the rigorous aero testing at Woomera’s rocket base earlier this year) and James Courtney, who officially christened the car on its public debut at Sandown in June.
So before the likes of Lowndes, Whincup, Davison and Johnson get their turn behind the wheel, we jumped the queue with a special guest drive at the Winton ride day – with Winterbottom in the passenger seat for a bit of tuition.
MOTOR feature: Lowndes' 2002 00 Motorsport V8 Supercar review
Climbing into the cockpit is not a simple task. Threading yourself through the gap in the roll-cage is an unflattering experience as you contort your body head-first into a hole that’s probably no bigger than a hula hoop (try doing it in your backyard to see how hard it is) and then dropping your bum into a bucket perched flat on the floor and almost in the middle of the car. In doing all of that, you’ve got to try and manoeuvre around the high-tech steering wheel that feels right in the way.
God knows how those blokes make it look so fluid – and fast – during driver changes at Bathurst. Frosty explains: “You have to sacrifice your body a bit as you bang into all the bars on the way in and out. In the lead-up to the endurance races, we practice driver changes all the time and at the end of the day we’ve got bruises everywhere. It’s not easy, but it’s important for the long-distance races to get it right, or it could stuff up the entire race.”
Anyway, after I’ve bent myself into a banana, biffed my helmet, got tangled in the steering wheel and finally fallen into the seat, I clip the six-point harness, tighten the belts and get familiar with the layout of the cockpit. And it is nothing like a family-friendly Falcon at all.
You can hardly see over the bonnet as the seat is so low down, well behind the B-pillar and almost over the transmission tunnel for optimum centre of gravity, meaning the steering wheel juts out of the firewall on a column as long as a fishing rod. And the dash is just a sliver of carbonfibre with nothing on it, in it or behind it.
Instead, all the controls are integrated into the steering wheel, including a mini-dash that displays the gear you’re in, lap times, sector times and shift lights and an array of buttons for seemingly endless functions including the radio, drink bottle, the pitlane speed limiter and even settings for the brake-cooling water spray system.
Positioned just a flick of the wrist away is the gear-lever for the six-speed sequential-shift Holinger dogbox, and nestled between the seats is a compact carbonfibre box housing the main switchgear for stuff like the ignition, fuel pumps, indicators, cool-suit pump and the rain light.
Otherwise, the cockpit is barren and surprisingly claustrophobic with rear vision severely limited by the safety nets on the doors, roll-cage and rear wing, despite the rear view mirror being as wide as J-Lo’s rump.
With Frosty strapped into his jump seat and performing a little prayer (a joke or a genuine plea for a safe return to those up above? I’m not sure…), I flick the ignition switch, which primes the fuel pumps with the whirr of a turbine engine before the 5.0-litre Ford Racing V8 fires into life with a bellow of revs as it cops a gutful of high-octane unleaded.
With the floor-mounted pedals stacked closely together in a beautifully manufactured pedal box, it takes a second to adjust to the heavy load on the multi-plate clutch before pulling the lever back to engage first gear, which crunches the cogs together with a metallic snick that seems to lunge the car forward with a sense of bridled urgency.
With a blip on the throttle to bring the revs up, getting moving is surprisingly easy as I ride the clutch slightly to avoid any embarrassment of stalling in pitlane. And then, as we pull out onto the track, I get the chance to unleash the full fury of the 465kW bent-eight, revving it out until the series of shift lights illuminate on the dash like a collection of dazzling jewels. Then I grab second and, almost immediately, snatch third as the full-throttle acceleration pushes my head back into the seat.
I’ve got no time to check out Frosty as we trail brake into the first left-hander through the esses and then balance the speed to the apex through to the off-camber exit of the right-hander onto the old main straight.
The FG hooks up superbly, though, and bolts up through the gears before we hit the picks again for turn three, resulting in a slight lock-up of the inside front wheel as the grabby pads clamp down on the massive front discs, which in turn pushes the car slightly wide on the exit with a degree of understeer that is surprising (considering we’re hardly at race pace) but easily manageable.
I don’t even have to look at my passenger to sense a degree of nervousness in Frosty’s stiffness. But by the time we get out of the sweeper and into the hairpins on the back of the track without any more slip-ups, he’s starting to free up and begins to offer advice through hand gestures.
Without direct radio communication it’s like trying to lip-read a Labrador, but eventually I get the picture as he instructs me which gear we should be in and the ‘proper’ line through Penrite Corner (the first right-hand hairpin in the sequence).
As I get into the groove on my third lap, pushing my own limits and treading a fine line between being brave and actually looking like I know what I’m doing, I catch a big oversteer slide out of the last corner onto the pit straight. It happens so quickly that I don’t even realise I’ve saved myself from a sheepish walk back to the garage trying to explain why next year’s Falcon V8 Supercar is in the wall until Frosty finally gives me a thumbs-up.
Suddenly, it all starts to click and I push everything a little bit harder, braking deeper into the turns, getting on the throttle harder and earlier and carrying more speed through the corners.
It is then that I can feel the FG moving around underneath me, chattering across the front wheels as I carry too much speed through the slow stuff and drift ever so slightly on the exits as I get on the gas.
But it all comes down around me like a house of cards: I run wide onto the slippery stuff at the edge of the track at Penrite, try to get it back in the right direction with a stab on the throttle, but fail and suddenly find myself looking at the other side of the circuit. I jump on the brakes, dip the clutch to keep the engine running, and finally have time to glance at Frosty who, not surprisingly, has a cheeky grin on his face.
At the same time I hear over his radio, which is still connected to the engineers in the garage, that I have to bring it back to base. Funny ’bout that? He doesn’t even have to say anything: I’ve already grabbed reverse, done a textbook three-point turn and am cruising back to the pitlane.
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In the end, and after only five laps, I get down to a respectable 1:32.692, about five seconds off the guns’ pace on the day but a massive 10 seconds slower than Frosty’s blinding qualifying lap earlier this year.
I reckon his seat is pretty safe.
And if the new FG V8 Supercars are as quick as they are this year, then the Falcon legend will be too – on the track, at least.
Blast from the past on classic MOTOR
2009 Ford FG Falcon V8 Supercar
BODY: 4-door, 1-seat sedan
ENGINE: 4998cc 90-degree V8, OHV, 16v
POWER: 465kW @ 7000rpm (est)
TORQUE: 630Nm @ 5250rpm (est)
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual sequential
SUSPENSION (f): double A-arms, coil springs, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar
SUSPENSION (r): live axle, Watts linkage, coils springs, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar
TRACKS (f/r): 1930/1905mm
BRAKES: 375mm ventilated/grooved discs, AP Racing six-piston calipers (f); 340mm ventilated/grooved discs, AP Racing four-piston calipers (r)
WHEELS: 17 x 11.0-inch alloy
TYRES: Dunlop control slicks
TOP SPEED: 298km/h
PROS: Head-banging acceleration, massive grip, sequential box
CONS: You can’t drive it on the road, rear vision, embarrassing spin
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Winton Raceway Data
|Lap time: 1min 32.69sec|
BF Falcon vs FG Falcon: What's the difference?
While the road-going FG Falcon range is essentially a major facelift of the BF platform, the V8 Supercar version ain’t that simple.
See, because the V8 Supercar rule makers want everything to be even stevens between the blue and the red cars to ensure neither of them has an advantage on the racetrack. And because the basic Falcon and Commodore floorpans are now miles apart in stuff like wheelbase and track width, Supercar central has had to develop a strict set of guidelines to ensure equality.
That means the FG Falcon V8 Supercar is now built on a specific floorpan that has 63mm taken out of its wheelbase – and is almost identical to that of the VE Commodore V8 Supercar.
The new regulations are also aimed at improving the safety of the driver – with the seat located 200mm inboard of the roll-cage – and the cost and labour time it takes to repair major damage.