It’s an ugly getaway. All brutal jerks and harsh bursts of revs that cry then die as the demented clutch refuses to cooperate. The driver’s helmet thuds as it staccatos into the air box for the fourth time, which seems to be the final straw. Suddenly the Cosworth V8 shrieks as all abandon is thrown, the clutch is dumped and the rear Avons turn to smoke, the back of the car slewing and slipping onto the circuit.
At once it is here and gone, the soft morning sun glinting off the open wheeler’s streaks of gold as it scorches up the back straight, the wind delivering a delayed delight as the noise morphs from a smooth baritone to a full-bodied scream that leaps and soars.
This isn’t a Formula 1 car, and nor are we in Europe, the logical home for a racer such as this. They don’t make mountains quite like this in America, either. Snow-capped and jagged, they ring the valley with that rare kind of beauty unique to New Zealand. We’re in the south island, just outside Hanmer Springs, at the HQ of Rodin Cars – the ambitious start-up that we profiled last month (May, 2019). Created by Aussie IT millionaire David Dicker, Rodin’s mission is to build cars that are faster and more exciting than anything you can buy from Ferrari, McLaren and Pagani. Like I said, ambitious.
And this is Rodin’s first attempt. Resplendent in black with an exposed carbon fibre finish, the brooding behemoth – dubbed the Rodin FZed – has all of the calling cues that’d make Daniel Ricciardo feel right at home: enormous wings, oversized slick tyres, shrink-wrapped bodywork and a removable steering wheel. And today, I get to drive it.
In a previous life it was the Lotus T125 – a ‘customer’ car that leapt to motoring infamy in 2010 for its knife-edge handling and astronomical price tag – but when that project imploded spectacularly, Rodin purchased it and set about improving things. “I didn’t realise how poorly developed it was,” Dicker tells me as the FZed returns from its shakedown and noses into the pit garage. “But I did hear a rumour that it was still almost as fast as the actual Lotus F1 car when they tested it in Portugal. I’d say it’s loosely based on a Formula 1 car from 2010-11.”
And who wouldn’t want to drive a Formula 1 car, even one that’s a few years off the pace, if given the chance? It seems such a no brainer, until you find yourself standing next to one, that is, and the nerves kick in. Helmet on and dressed in a (now) sweaty Nomex suit, my breath fogs up the visor as I wait to climb in.
Even the atmosphere has a sniff of Formula 1 about it. Mechanics in matching uniforms and radio headsets fuss over the car as they fit tyre warmers, wield spanners and plug in laptops and leads. I’m handed the steering wheel, which is 3D-printed from titanium. It’s surprisingly heavy, though it all seems relatively straightforward. Gearshift paddles on the back, and buttons for TALK, ACK, PAGE, PIT, AUTO and NEUTRAL on the front.
“The only ones you have to worry about are TALK and NEUTRAL,” says Matt, the disarmingly young Kiwi in charge of the car’s mind-numbing maze of electronics.
The clutch paddle is on the back too, below the left shift paddle, and it’s worryingly small. Only large enough for one finger, its travel feels impossibly short, about an inch or a little more. But at least the cockpit is comfortable. My legs are quite long, so I have more of a bend in them than is ideal and the steering wheel has to be extended to allow me to turn it without hitting them, but there’s heaps of elbow room and the vision out is superb. I can clock two thirds of the front wheels, much of the lower suspension wishbones, and even some of the detailing in the bodywork around the barge boards.
Go time. As if by osmosis, the engineers whip off the tyres warmers with a flourish and begin to push the FZed out of the garage, bright light bursting as my eyes adjust to the sun. We stop on the circuit itself and Matt reaches in to begin the ignition sequence: flick the ‘Master’ switch near my thigh. Wait. Crank it once. Wait. Crank it again… Detonation. The engine fires and the cockpit explodes with vibrations. It’s a visceral sensation, as though the V8 is hardwired to my spine. I’m told to take control of the throttle and give it a few blips. It rips through the rev range then settles with virtually no rev hang. It’s immediate. Pin sharp. Precise.
Conscious of the temperamental clutch, the engineers give me a push to assist with those crucial first metres. I give it some revs, ease out the clutch as best I can and I’m away. I grab second before I have time to think and immediately try the brake pedal. I’d been warned that carbon-ceramic brakes are hopeless when they’re cold (“It won’t stop at all,” says Dicker), yet I’m still unprepared for how dead the pedal feels. It’s like pushing a piece of concrete and worryingly, there’s zero retardation. I accelerate again and squeeze a little harder on the brake, mindful of not locking a wheel. It’s marginally better, with a tiny bit of give in the pedal.
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The steering is surprisingly light. So light that it feels almost power assisted, though the way the car rides the bumps is encouraging. One of the key changes Rodin made to improve the FZed was to swap out its obscure Italian dampers for high-end units from Ohlins. “The results were transformational,” says Dicker. There have been aero tweaks, too, though the engine has been left largely untouched. Built by Cosworth for Lotus, the 3.8-litre donk is effectively an IndyCar race engine, complete with a cast-aluminium block and heads and forged-aluminium pistons. It produces 503kW and 450Nm, which should be ample in a car weighing 589kg.
Ample is the wrong word. I meant excessive. As I leave the final turn that leads onto the main straight on Rodin’s 2.4km circuit, I give the throttle its first proper squeeze. For context, the fastest road car I’ve driven is a McLaren Senna, which has a power-to-weight ratio is 434kW/tonne. The FZed’s is nearly twice that.
The throttle travel is long and I probably venture about two thirds into it. The result is shocking. The FZed explodes with forward momentum and delivers a sensation of seemingly limitless power. So intense is the turn of speed, it’s as though the car has been clobbered from behind by some invisible, unstoppable force.
And the noise. Oh, the noise. If it was deep and purposeful low in the rev range, it’s a different animal altogether with some revs on board. The pitch crescendos, the vibrations seem to smooth into one continuous fizz and the volume becomes all-consuming. Give the car its head and it’ll pour on speed with an insatiable appetite for revs. Second gear disappears before I have time to realise I’ve already grabbed third, my lizard brain reacting to the shift lights and feeding in another gear just shy of 9000rpm. And that’s short shifting. Wring it out and it’ll run to 10,300rpm. Danny Ricciardo nudges 12,000rpm, but unlike his highly strung Renault, which only needs to last one race, the FZed can run for the equivalent of three Bathurst 1000s before it needs to be torn down.
And that’s core to the FZed’s appeal. It has been designed to be low maintenance. Owners should be able to turn up at a circuit with one mechanic, blast around all day, and go home.
They needn’t be Lewis Hamilton, either. By lap three I’ve built some more heat into the brakes and I start to lean on the car; to revel in the enormous mechanical grip out of the slow turns, and that almost indescribable sensation of downforce through the quicker ones. It’s remarkably intuitive to drive quickly. The steering loads up nicely as the forces increase and the whole car seems to hunker down as the speeds climb, the chassis keen to delve into the vast reserves of adhesion on offer.
With the brakes finally up to temperature, I actually find myself over-slowing the car and needing to accelerate into the corners. Hit the pedal with confidence and the stopping forces are so enormous I’m thrown forward in my belts, despite the fact they’re buckled tight enough to squeeze my rib cage.
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It’s all very confidence inspiring, until the inevitable happens. With my sense of my own ability swelling at the same rate as the heat in the tyres and brakes, I go too deep into Turn 1 and experience a white-hot lick of unbridled terror as my brain calculates my velocity and the remaining tarmac, and comes up short. I have time to register my eyes are beginning to swivel towards the trees some 50 metres away before the Yoda-like voice of Rodin’s chief driving instructor, Mark Williamson, echoes in my brain: “Stay calm and look through the corner. If you balls it up, keep looking through the turn. Don’t focus on what you might hit, otherwise you’ll hit it.”
In that millisecond I command my head to turn as far right as possible to clock the exit and instinctively I actually release some brake pressure to help the car to turn. Before I know it I’m out the other side of the corner, no lock-ups, no corrective lock. In fact, I still over-slowed it, so enormous is the level of grip.
It’s an uncomfortably effective demonstration of the level of performance on offer, if you’re willing to chase it. Conscious that I’m in someone else’s million-dollar track toy, I bravely decide to exercise caution, yet even so, I feel like I’m peeling back a layer of the car’s personality with every lap. It’s a lovely thing; alert, super agile and willing to rotate, but it’s that seemingly bottomless sense of power that dominates the experience. It’s addictive in a way no road car can match, with no plateauing or tapering off as the revs rise. Just more noise and speed.
All up I get eight laps over two sessions and half that number is spent warming the brakes, yet even so, the FZed has left an indelible mark. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever driven. Where fast road cars, and even very fast track cars like a GT4 and Formula 3, have easily reachable limits, the FZed is vastly more capable. It must be incomprehensibly brilliant when it’s up on its toes, the driver pushing to eke every last bit of performance at the limit of adhesion. And amazingly, the FZed I’m driving is soon to be gazumped. While the first five cars will be sold with the Cosworth V8, any thereafter will have Rodin’s own 4.0-litre V10 and an aero package equivalent to a 2018-spec F1. “We want the aero to be basically what the current F1 guys have, minus the halo,” says Dicker.
“But what’s the point?” I hear you ask. “It’s astronomically expensive, totally irrelevant, and you can’t race it.” Well, that’s only partially true. At US$615,000 (A$873,000) before taxes and delivery charges, the FZed is undeniably pricey. But plans are afoot to make it eligible for Formula Libre, an international category that caters to a wide variety of racing cars. And forget logic. A purchase like this is an extravagance, a reward, a luxury for those who already own many fast cars but want a proper taste of Formula 1, without the headaches or compromises of buying an ex-racecar with actual provenance. And in that regard, I can’t think of anything else that comes close.