This is not the Garden of Eden. The wind is coming straight off the South Pole and slicing straight through five layers of clothing. It's billiard table flat at Mallala, but not as green. Not even an ant hill to catch the eye. You can make out the earth's curvature on the horizon.
The grey and beige nothingness is broken by a few desultory buildings, some Armco railing and, every 70.4 seconds or so, a white, blue and red blur. There is noise, too, a not unpleasant guttural howl punctuated by a brief explosion to mark most gearchanges. It's the familiar sound of an engine hitting the rev limiter.
This is a test day for a race team. Nissan Motorsport is shaking down its hi-tech wondercar, the GT-R. There is no roar from the crowd. There is no crowd. Mallala could be Maralinga. Testing is the side of racing few see. It is hard, repetitive work. Do a few laps, analyse, alter this, change that. More laps; nope, didn't work. Try something else. Think of the variables; engines, tyres, springs, ride height, castor, camber, toe in/out, anti-roll bar...
Nissan Motorsport boss Freddie Gibson is the organ grinder; Mark Skaife is the monkey. Lap times are good; great compared with the old model Skyline and better even than Dick Johnson's pole time from the 1989 championship race. But the car looks jumpier than a turkey on December 24. "It's nervous and I'm nervous," remarks Skaife. Nevertheless, he continues to drive the way he knows best. Somewhere between flat out and just beyond the limit.
"The front seems better but the rear is leaping about," Skaife reports quite unnecessarily during one of his many mini debriefs. We could see the tail dancing, bouncing, leaping; he didn't have to tell us. More laps, more stops, more chat, more fiddling.
Then the half shaft breaks on the left side. A couple of mechanics climb beneath to replace it. A nod, and Skaife climbs back in. Three laps later the GT-R crawls back along the pitlane. The right side halfshaft has failed, and that's the end of the test. The spares will have to come from Japan.
This is bad news for Wheels. We've been waiting patiently for the session to wind down, at which time the precious GT-R, the only track version in Australia and at this stage unraced, was to be handed over for a track evaluation. "Sorry mate," Gibson apologises. "We'll see if we can do it next week." We haven't quite gone away empty handed. Photographer Kent and yours truly have each got pneumonia.
Twelve days later the same cast and the same refrigerated wind are together again, at Calder Raceway. The GT-R, now with a couple of extra sponsor's names on its flanks, but no major backer apart from Nissan, has two shiny new halfshafts fitted. "We discovered the Japanese have struck halfshaft trouble, but no-one thought to tell us," Gibson says wryly.
With its warpaint on, the GT-R looks mean and purposeful, with maybe five or six degrees of negative camber to suit the radial tyres and identically sized 11-inch wide, 18-inch tall Yokohamas stuffed under each fender. With its rounded lines, it seems almost futuristic alongside the outgoing car - the boxy, sharp edged Skyline.
This is the full-spec car the team is trucking back to Mallala for its competition debut. Aussie-built engine pumping out precisely 576 horses (429 kW) and, lordy-be, 410 Ib-ft (558 Nm) of torque from that 2568cm cubed, 24-valve twin cam in-line six. With twin turbochargers. Six speed gearbox developed jointly in Melbourne by Hollinger and Nissan Motorsport and Holden. Nissan Atessa ET-S variable torque split four-wheel drive. The Super Hicas four-wheel steering of the standard GT-R is in place but blanked off.
This is a device of some complexity. The team has been on a steep learning curve since it took delivery of four roadgoing production GT-Rs. These were to be transformed into race cars. A shockingly expensive process. Just how expensive is a Nissan secret, but we're allowed to guess.
Let's see now, Gibson says he's prepared to build race versions of the GT-R for privateers next year. The price? Oh, about $500,000. By deduction, then, the cost of developing and building the first GT-R produced by the team at its astonishingly pristine and clean headquarters in Dandenong must be more than $1 million. That includes getting the six speed gearbox program going, trick magnesium suspension uprights, more coil springs than you'll see in a one-day tour of a pogo factory, special this and special that...
Gibson isn't saying how many dollars and yen the project gobbled up. Not a nod; not a wink. Press him, and the usually cheerful Gibson dial goes all serious: "A lot. Too much." We're prepared to bet this is the world's first million-dollar Group A touring car. If we're right, Nissan is spending, let's say, a few million dollars annually in Australia on motor racing.
Far and away it is Nissan Australia's largest promotional activity. Of the local manufacturers, Nissan claims to have the longest continuous involvement in motor sport, dating back to its rally team in the 1970s. It has persevered even when regulations have not been kind to its product, and when its product has not suited the rules.
This year the works team has wrought a minor miracle to turn what should have been a hopelessly uncompetitive car - the elderly Skyline - into a championship contender in what is acknowledged is the toughest touring car series anywhere. Testing, testing, testing ... and then the drivers Jim Richards and Mark Skaife jump aboard on race day and drive the ring out of them. But the old Skyline is yesterday's technology.
After seasons of sweating to turn relatively primitive road cars into track weapons, Nissan has produced the killer machine. The master track blaster. As Gibson readily concedes: "It's the first time Nissan has had a proper race car." The GT-R was designed to out-blast the dominant turbo Ford Sierras, which themselves were purpose-built to rule the racetracks of the globe.
The difference is that the Sierra was the car of the 1980s. The GT-R, as sure as day follows night, will be the car that reigns in the 1990s, at least as long as the rule-makers keep their hands off the present Group A regulations. Already, with the paint hardly dry on the Nissan, there are those who believe the GT-R should be hobbled.
Gibson, who has never been opposed to handicapping when appropriate - "the show comes first" - asks only that the GT-R be given a period of grace. "This car will win races," he asserts. "However it might take a little time to do it." He doesn't have to point out that the numerically strong Sierra clique argued enthusiastically against handicapping even when the Fords strung together the longest winning streak in local touring car history.
Gibson has done his sums. The 2.0 litre Sierras, obliged under local Group A rules to weigh a minimum of 1185 kilos, have about 540 horses on tap. The 2.56 litre GT-R, much heavier at its mandatory 1325 kilos, needs 600 horses to be competitive. Gibson admits the team is on target already, theoretically, anyway.
Mr Ivan Deveson, Nissan Australia.
Sorry about the GT-R. Yes, I was really surprised at how easily it buckled when it hit that wall. I guess I was only doing 260 clicks. Anyway. I guess the team can bolt together another one
within a week or so.
Regards to Fred and the boys,
PS: Any idea when we can schedule
another track test?
I didn't have to write that letter. But, sitting on top of a million bucks' worth of precious metal, such awful thoughts skip through the brain. It's God's way of telling you to act your age.
How many switches are there, I ask rhetorically? Buck Rogers didn't have it this tough. Mark Skaife does a count. He's not just a pretty face. Thirteen, he announces triumphantly. Plus any number of warning lights, gauges, dials, readouts and buttons. "Don't worry about anything, unless a warning light flashes," Skaife suggests.
Richo and Skaifey are helping me settle in. That's the official reason for their presence. More likely they're keeping a close eye on their future. Both expect to have their Nomex-covered tails in the Sparco driving seat in the coming three weeks, Skaife at Mallala and Richards at Wanneroo. Conditional, of course, on the supercoupe being in one recognisable piece.
It's only taken two inter-city air flights, a bout of pneumonia, several anxiety attacks, recurring bad dreams that always start with "Dear Ivan" , personal abuse from the editor and queasy looks from a team manager, assorted Motorsport crew and two drivers.
But the engine is burbling away pleasantly and in about seven seconds I'll be heading down pit lane. Right after someone tells me the pattern for a six speed gearbox. And while you're at it, buddy, where's reverse? Just in case I've got to back up the escape road. Just a little joke, Fred.
Skaifey has been giving me his impressions of the car. "It feels a lot different [from the old car]. It's very hard to put a finger on its behaviour. It's not a progressive car. The limit is difficult to judge. You've got to drive it past what you believe is the limit to discover what it can do. Then you say, hey, it can do it." The car, Skaife warns, is still some way from perfect. "We haven't got the handling sussed out just yet."
As instructed, I flick on four toggle switches, to activate the coolers for the front diff, rear diff, transfer case and gearbox. Clutch is surprisingly light, the non-syncro gearbox smoother than the similar crash boxes in the previous two Nissan touring cars. The rev limiter is set at 7700 rpm. I figure I'll make my upchanges at 7000...
Power comes in with a wonderful steady surge. The evolutionary process in engine management systems has all but eliminated that all-or-nothing feel that characterised turbo cars of even a few years ago. The first racing Skyline, I recall, had nothing underfoot one moment and then 360 neddies the next. It was an absolute brute.
Each generation of Nissan racing cars has taken on greater refinement. Gibson acknowledges the contribution of the San Diego-based Electramotive, now known as Nissan Performance Technology, a company at the forefront of engine management know-how.
Turbo boost has been set at a very conservative 1.3 Bar, the equivalent of about 520 hp. It will be tweaked to 1.8 Bar in race trim, equal to the dynoed 576 bhp. As it is, 520 is more than adequate, though not alarming, for the power delivery is so smooth.
I don't believe I've ever seen a tacho needle move so swiftly. Because of the six gears, the changes come up much faster. No sooner do you change up than, hell the needle is arcing past seven grand again. Without intending to, I use the rev limiter twice. Damn.
The gearbox is sweet to use, but I muff a few changes. Fourth instead of second. I've never used a gearbox with four planes before. The pattern, by the way, is like a conventional H for the first four cogs, with fifth and sixth in the third plane. Reverse is in the fourth plane, up where seventh would be if it were a seven speeder.
Turn-in is surprisingly sharp even in the slower corners - it's certainly better than usually experienced with an all-wheel drive road car. When pressed harder the GT-R hops alarmingly - pig rooting - bringing back memories of some errant behaviour experienced with the car it is about to supersede.
While it hops about through corners, it does leap out like a gooly from a shanghai, with impressive traction and balance. It's not idiot-proof, mind, but the driver soon discovers he can use more throttle than he first believed possible without the car turning nasty.
What's happening is that the brain in charge of the 4WD system directs power to the rear wheels until they break traction. It then transfers surplus power to the front wheels. The transition is, let it be said, managed without any dramatic change to the attitude of the car.
In the interests of science, there is the temptation to sink the slipper, bang the throttle right to the floor coming out of a turn and hang on for an uncharted discovery tour. The thought lasts but a fleeting moment. "Dear Ivan..." Brakes are fantastic, though requiring plenty of pressure. Unlike the older Skylines, there's no sign of nosedive.
I do a few more laps until photographer Kent gives me the thumbs up, and then I nose the GT-R, the million dollar GT-R, into the pit entrance. Had enough?" Gibson asks. "You can do some more, if you want." I'm sorely tempted. "Dear Ivan..."
No, that'lI do us, I hear myself say.
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