RUNNING SCARED SCARED
Fear is the driving force when you’re trying to handle a V8 Supercar, writes JAMES STANFORD
ALL I can hear is my heart pumping. The earplugs and helmet block all other noises, leaving the thump-thumpthump to fill my head.
I’m trying to breathe slowly and surely, but I’m terrified. Here I am sitting, sweating in a real V8 Supercar, which I’m about to drive on a real track — not a PlayStation or Xbox.
Here you pay for your mistakes with crunched metal, broken bones and big bills.
Team BOC chief Kim Jones tells me before I arrive at Winton: ‘‘You crash it, you own it.’’ And he’s not joking. The BOC Commodore is worth about $500,000 and it took thousands of man hours to build. Its custom Chevrolet V8 engine, supplied by Walkinshaw Performance, costs more than $90,000 and could easily be ruined by a bad gear change.
In a week Andy Jones will be hustling it over the top of Mount Panorama, brushing past concrete barriers before nudging 300km/h down Conrod Straight in his bid for Bathurst glory.
I don’t know how they do it. I have enough trouble getting in the car. There is only a narrow opening in the steel web of a roll-cage.
You have to squeeze through this and get your legs under the steering wheel at the same time.
It requires poise and co-ordination, and I don’t have much of either.
The grand entry goes pear-shaped, especially when I get stuck halfway.
‘‘Not the most elegant entry I’ve seen, but hey, you’re in,’’ says Jones, who eases — nervously — into the temporary passenger seat.
I don’t let on that I’ve never been around the longer Winton track used for V8 Supercar rounds.
As we sit in pitlane, he points out what some of the knobs, dials and switches that dominate the centre console are for.
Now it’s time to go. Deep breath. I flick the ignition switch, make sure it is in neutral and hold the starter button. It whirs and whirs and then, bang, the hand-built Chevrolet roars into life.
The whole car shakes and the vibrations are transferred to your body through the seat, the steering wheel and the pedals.
The throttle is so sensitive the smallest blip causes a fearsome eruption. The twin pipes, which often belch flames when the driver backs off the throttle, actually point out from the passenger’s side of the car, but it still sounds so incredibly loud and angry.
I take another deep breath and tell myself this is no big deal.
After all, I’ve driven lots of frightening machines; methanolpowered V8 sprintcars, Centurion tanks and even the odd Daewoo.
I select first, apply some throttle, release the clutch and stall. Damn it.
Not the bold exit I’d been hoping for. I succeed at the second attempt and soon we’re lumbering up pitlane.
Five litres of custom-built V8 combustion muscle sits under the bonnet, waiting to be unleashed.
It will have to wait longer. My first lap is a fumbling mess of crunched gears and jerky throttle applications.
I’m screwing up the heel-and-toe technique — where you brake with your heel and use your toes to blip the throttle as you operate the clutch with your left foot.
Every down-change is a disaster. I can’t get used to the rectangular steering wheel, which I am stupidly trying to shuffle through my hands.
Jones taps my leg and points to pitlane. Trundling down to the garage, I’m so embarrassed I just want to disappear. I expect them to order me out of the car and away from the track — I wouldn’t blame them — but no such thing happens.
Jones calmly talks through what I’m doing wrong and emphasises the importance of relaxing and letting it all flow.
This time out feels a bit better. I’m still mangling those down-changes and going so slowly it’s shameful, but I’m more comfortable with the steering.
Back in the garage, the team’s data expert, Andrew Edwards, goes through my telemetry.
It shows every mistake in clinical detail on computer monitors. It’s a hi-tech wall of shame. The big Richter-like scale lines don’t lie, revealing just how slow I’m
going and that I’m still having trouble with some of the gear changes.
The data also shows I’ve been using only 50 per cent of the throttle.
This time Jones stays in the garage — race drivers take a lot of risks, but there is a limit.
I fire up the engine and rumble away from the garage without stalling.
It’s so much easier without Jones watching every move from the passenger seat. He’s very forgiving, but having one of Australia’s fastest drivers watching your every input can make you a bit anxious.
Things start to go a lot better. I start to get a bit more assertive with the heavy Hollinger gearbox.
It is unlike any transmission in a road car. The gates are close to each other, but you have to bang the shifter in with confidence and just the right amount of revs.
At the same time, you’re trying to slow 1355kg of race car with the same foot. The brakes have a lot of force, so you need to apply much more pressure than you would in your average road car, but not too much or you’ll flatspot a tyre. T’S starting to come naturally and soon the gear changes are almost taking care of themselves. My biggest concern is picking the wrong gear and buzzing the engine, like grabbing third when you are aiming for fifth.
I can imagine valves crashing into the top of the pistons and the bill for a new engine arriving in the mail.
It doesn’t happen. I do fumble the odd change, but nothing too bad.
Now it’s time to let the Chevrolet V8 stretch its legs.
The power surge when you really get stuck in is simply incredible. I ease
Iout of the corners trying not to spin the wheels and gradually feed on the power until the Holden is straight.
Then I press the right pedal down hard and it goes bananas.
I mutter something unprintable under my helmet. The huge acceleration as the engine surges towards the 7500-rev redline is simply stunning. It’s like a show ride on steroids, but comes with the adrenaline-laden soundtrack of a furious V8 and the element of real danger.
You could do this for days on end and never tire of it.
I use the clutch to change up through the gears.
The real drivers don’t. They can stay on the throttle the whole time.
Telemetry later reveals that I’m exiting the last corner at the same speed as Jones, but the slow changes mean I’m 15km/h down by the end of the main straight.
For the record, Jones hits 212km/h. I pick up some speed as I gain confidence and really start to enjoy it.
But there are some corners I have no idea how to tackle, including the fast left-hand sweeper on turn five. This is not the time to experiment. I’m not about to risk spinning or firing into the concrete barrier, so I just ease through.
Jones takes me for a run at the end of the day and enters the same corner 40km/h faster, on a completely different line.
It seems almost impossible that he would be able to do this and stay on the track, but he does.
He dives deeper into all the other corners and hangs the back end out on the ripple strips on the way out of the corners. It’s a staggering display and at this pace he would need only about nine minutes to lap me.
Kim Jones is waiting for us in the garage and is relieved his car has survived the day in one piece. ‘‘Pretty amazing, huh?’’ he says. I try to explain how incredible, how overwhelming it was.
He says: ‘‘Well, imagine doing that with 30 other guys who want the same piece of track as you.’’
That is a truly awesome thought.