Left collarbone’s very sore. Bruised even. Hurts like buggery when it’s touched, which is often. By me, mostly. Bored; touch the collarbone. Stuck in traffic; collarbone. You get it.
This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s November 2002 issue
It’s sore because that’s where the Green Eyed Monster’s three-inch-wide steel seat belt tensioner buckle, set for Craig Lowndes, sat on a less-fit torso. It hurts because under Winton Raceway’s braking areas, through its needle’s eye flip-flop, through the violence of the cleavage, the tensioner bashed it like it was Mundine’s head in an Ottke fight. I touch it because it helps me remember everything about driving a V8 Supercar. It hurts four days later.
Who wouldn’t want to test a V8 Supercar? Six hundred-odd horsepower, rear drive, dinky little rubber and brakes that never go away.
Floated the idea to Ford. The fleet of these things they’re interested in is scattered from Brisbane to Melbourne. And, bizarrely, completely skips Sydney. We got the Monster because it’s the meanest-looking Ford, its driver is a triple champ and nobody, bar nobody, bests him on uncut natural ability.
Fast forward to Double Zero team manager Allan Heaphy struggling to hide his doubts in the minus three of a piccaninny dawn. Lowndes, with that innocent-abroad, wide-eyed-wonder-at-the-hand-life’s-dealt-him way of his, bounces in like the day’s fifth red cordial is already doing its job. It’s a skeleton crew, so he pitches in, equal share of the doings, bare handed on sub-freezing metal.
And then the sun’s up. It’s three degrees. Craig goes out without mercy, then back in. He’s happy it’s all running smoothly, so they bundle me in beside him. He’s a genius, this bloke. Who he is oozes out in the way he drives. Beguilingly smooth, simple and it all seems like fun. Even at this hour. Like he’s just a 20 year old out revelling in his own car control again.
This isn’t, of course, Craig’s race car. It’s the spare. It’s got the ride day engine in it, with torquier, less powerful mapping and cams than the hard-core race engines. The Dunlops have seen better days; four of them, in fact. One at Barbagello and three other test sessions at this very track.
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It’s set up to push the nose at the limit. There are a couple of reasons: firstly the AU has an inherent understeer problem and, secondly, if you were sticking an unknown quantity into a race car, you’d want it set up safe, too. But it’s plenty quick enough.
Shy of not spearing off and not looking too slow, the aim of the day is to get a feel for it and to see if V8 Supercars are at all similar to roadies, with whom they share but roof, bonnet and boot panels.
The first surprise is the driving position. The seat’s lower, compared to its cowl height, than you’d find in almost any road car you can think of. The wheel’s a flat-bottomed, suede number and about a foot across. And getting going’s fairly simple, really. Flip up the ignition’s protective cover, move the toggle south, then press the start button.
The fuel pumps whir, the starter heaves, but there’s no explosion. Instead, the fire lights one pot at a time and the whole thing gradually becomes angry.
First is the easiest cog to find. It’s where it is in almost everything, but the throw’s something else. The heavily assisted clutch is almost Corolla-like in its heft, but the gearbox has nothing to ease the pain.
Craig calls it a crash box because, he says, that’s how you have to use them. The throw is so tiny you check three or four times to make sure it’s in first, even when the ‘CHUNK!’ sound guarantees you it is.
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There’s a lot to remember. It’s like driving on ice when the tyres are cold, says Heaphy. Don’t bother with the clutch on the straight gate upshifts (1-2, 3-4), but use it on the diagonals (2-3, 4-5) says Craig.
There’s more, but the driving on ice thing fair pushes the rest into irrelevance, so the first stint’s familiarisation only. There’s that bit, doohickie by the seat, don’t touch that thing, fergawdsakes.
Not using the clutch is easy for Craig to say, but years in fast road cars condition you that gearboxes aren’t fusable drivetrain links for powerful engines and should thus be treated with a degree of empathy.
And the Holinger feels bloody awful. The throw on the 1-2 shift would be no further than an inch. Clutch, silence, clunk, back on half throttle.
Noise, even at this doddery pace, is all-pervading. And sweetly muscular. It’s the same for five laps, bursts of unadulterated violence punctuated by the complete silence and deep concentration of every gearchange, then more violence.
The steering’s amazingly light. Again, it’s Corolla light. Dunno what they sook about, these blokes.
Then it’s time for a think. Even quick men from other formulae have struggled to get to grips with these things, so imagine how overwhelmed a nonce feels. Your head needs regular recalibration. Gun brakes, for example, don’t mean you can brake later than you would in, say, a Porsche or an STi. You brake earlier, because you’re carrying more speed.
More stuff comes without thought on the second run. Except the gearbox. It’s still a bastard, but at least the sense of it is becoming apparent.
It’s actually (with this high-wire, big-net set-up, anyway) not a nasty car. Push harder and illogical things begin to look logical. Earplugs, for example. It’s ferociously loud and the noise is pure, wonderful aggression. It’s in your face and threatening and leaves you in no doubt of its potency.
A V8 Supercar might struggle from the lights (the tyres are, in fast car terms, tiny) but from 20 km/h there’s not a road car in Australia that’ll run with it.
They’re blindingly quick. Example: finally get full throttle in second out of the last turn and the gear disappears before you’ve fully straightened the wheel. Third lasts as long as this sentence. Fourth doesn’t do much better and you grab fifth before the start/finish line. It’s so thumping that, on the new section, it’s pulling fifth and getting real interesting vis-à-vis run-off area. And Winton’s too short for sixth.
The big issue on Winton’s narrow confines isn’t its power, but how to use it out of the maze of second-gear corners. The diff is almost a locker but not quite, which gives great drive out of fast corners.
Push it harder in the tight stuff, though, and it’s a riddle only the best truly solve. You know you have to squeeze gradually on the throttle or those narrow-gutted Dunlops will bag up. And that hurries their ineffectiveness, so the more you do it, the easier it is next time. And yet, there are plenty of times when you feel like you don’t get enough out of the rubber.
You feel like you’ve been feeding it beautifully and you suddenly compute there’s plenty more on offer. So you just nail the pedal and, sure enough, the grip was there all the time. Then, a few laps later at the same corner, even your original throttle openings will be too much and the tail snaps hard.
For all the talk of their bastardry, the feedback is superb. It boasts breathtaking sensory literacy from all but one area; its brakes are mute. They’re not real bright, but they can stop heavy things – they just don’t tell you anything about it.
The pedal’s incredibly stiff; perfect for sharp heel-toeing, but little else. Give it the berries in a conventional, car-like way and bugger all will happen. Nothing. It won’t even look like slowing up.
You have to punch it bloody hard before it gives the traditional hallmarks of retardation. It takes, needless to say, some getting used to. If you drive them for a while, Lowndes reckons, you can feel a trace of something down there, but the irregular visitor has no chance.
It’s easy, then, to push too hard and buzz a tyre and the first indicator you’ll have is the smell inside the cabin. Seriously. Yet they’re incredibly strong with never a hint of fade. The muscle required is, apparently, the trade off. Big master cylinder, consistent pedal, no feel or smaller cylinder, consistently dropping pedal, some feel.
When you move further into the depths of the car’s ability, you realize the steering’s not so light after all. It is, in fact, heavy. As you near the grip limits, it gets heavier. Go past them into understeer and – in direct contrast to almost every road car – it gets heavier still, all while maintaining its erudite yabbering.
Tip it into the fourth gear sweeper at 5400rpm and you can tell you’re off the pace over the first half because it’s still manageably light. In the second half, it’s almost as though you’re in a conventional car with a manual rack.
Yet the feedback just keeps coming. The steering is very lucid about the goings on of the two children under its control. There is, simply, no road car alive that can match it for front end communication. Everything from tiny undulations, minute changes in tyre pressure and you can even feel painted white lines and taped marks beneath the unladen wheels.
The chassis itself isn’t beautifully balanced with this set-up, but it’s incredibly stable in the fast stuff. The diff helps, even if it means you need some torque running through it before the thing’ll tip-in. Try to cruise around in angel gear after missing a downshift and it simply won’t turn. It’ll just push straight ahead. It seems to need torque to turn, which is why gear selection under braking is such an art in these things.
That means, in Lowndes Lore, skipping third on the way to second. Err, no thanks. With a gear throw this tiny, it’s just too easy to wrong-slot. And break the engine. Each and every laborious step is fine with us. The throw’s not overly heavy, which is a surprise. It just demands phenomenal accuracy of both hand and throttle-foot up and down the ’box.
And then the first time you crack home a clutchless shift, you feel like the king of the driving world.
And it’s faster that way. It probably takes about half a tenth to snick it in versus two or three tenths with the clutch, using more arm speed (but less force) than you’d use in an XR8 or a ClubSport.
To do it you have to a) be confident and, b) remember it in the first place. Instinct says to go for the clutch. Provided you pull the lever fast enough, though, it’ll go through, even under full torque load.
The sensory overload never ends, because driving the Monster smells and even tastes different to roadies. If you push until you find the pace where it all suddenly becomes hard work, and you’ll be forced to gasp at air scalded by fumes from sizzling fluids, toasted pads and baking metal. And it’s just beautiful.
In the end, they’re actually not that difficult to drive (at this pace, anyway). Undertyred by law, lots of power, and they roll a bit (no, not like that, Cam!).
There are similarities to road cars, but not many. You have to give it some front spring back before it’ll turn in, for example. But hook it up and it all makes sense and it flows. It tries to intimidate you one minute, surprises you with its friendliness the next.
Oh yeah, my left collarbone hurts and it always makes me smile. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
Through rose-tinted lenses on classic MOTOR
2002 00 Motorsport Ford Falcon V8 Supercar
BODY: 4-door sedan
ENGINE: 5.0-litre 16-valve pushrod V8
POWER: 460kW @ 7450rpm
TORQUE: 610Nm @ 6200rpm
TRANSMISSION: Six-speed Holinger manual
SUSPENSION (f): Double wishbone, Eibach springs over Ohlins shocks, adjustable anti-roll bar
SUSPENSION (r): Live axle, Watts linkage, Eibach springs over Ohlins shocks, adjustable anti-roll bar
TRACK: 1632 mm (f), 1610 mm (r)
BRAKES (f): 377 mm slotted, ventilated AP discs, six-piston AP calipers
BRAKES (r): 330 mm slotted, ventilated AP discs, four-piston Brembo calipers
WHEELS: 17 x 12-inch (f & r), O.Z. alloy
TYRES: Dunlop SP Sport 280/680 R17 (f & r)
PRICE: $350,000 (est.)
From the pit lane
If you think Taylor got any special treatment you’re wrong. No, V8 Supercar testing rules are very strict and the presence of 00 stickers on the car meant it had to run Lowndes’ used Dunlops; “not the best set of tyres in the rack,” according to Heaphy.
Nervous Taylor? He says he isn’t but the last minute slash behind the pits contradicts that. Lowndes does a few laps to warm up everything. It’s to make sure Taylor isn’t going to get any nasty surprises and he logs a best time of 1:27.3sec. Going hard? “There’s not a lot left in it.”
With a head full of instructions MOTOR’s fearless editor hits the ignition switch, raises the revs, eases the clutch out and idles out of pitlane. Not stalling is a good sign.
“He’s got third, he’s going alright,” Lowndes says, grinning. “There’s a lot of shit on the track, if he’s half a car off line he’ll be in trouble.”
He starts to use more revs and brake harder and his shifts become quicker and more positive. Heaphy mans the stopwatch.
“He did a (one minute) 38sec first lap, a 35 and that was a 33, he’s starting to get it honking,” he says. Lowndes and Heaphy start a running commentary. “Whoops, he got a bit sideways there.” “He’s holding the throttle through the sweeper.”
“I’ve gotta say, I’m sort of impressed,” says Heaphy, who hadn’t heard of Taylor before today.
Second time out, Taylor is a lot more confident, bores out of pitlane and proceeds to go quicker with each lap until he calls it quits.
“You’re an ace,” Heaphy says, “You did a 1:29.3. I wouldn’t complain about that time, that’s pretty good.” – Steve Nally