Fast and furious
Bathurst preview: Driving a V8 Supercar is not as easy as it looks
MANY of the people who tune in for the Bathurst 1000 secretly believe they could be a contender at Mount Panorama.
Television makes it look easy, from the 290km/h blast down Conrod Straight to the romp across the top of the hill and the dive down through the Esses to the Dipper and on to Forrests Elbow. But it’s not. Not even a little bit. A V8 Supercar is a wild beast, noisy and hot and fast and furious and ready to bite you any chance it gets. And that’s just driving, not worrying about actually racing against a bunch of hotheads who’d give almost anything to claim the biggest prize in Australian motorsport.
I know because I’ve just been crammed behind the wheel of Tim Slade’s Bathurst racer to see what it’s like. It was only a handful of laps at a track called Winton, not the peak of Mount Panorama, but I now have a crystal-clear picture of the difference between a roadgoing Holden Commodore and its race car cousin.
It’s scary. It’s uncomfortable, intimidating and difficult. Did I mention fast?
When smiling Scotty McLaughin and jumping Jack Perkins blast past while I’m finding my feet, it’s something else again. Fear and intimidation at a different level.
But, sitting to write, I can’t stop smiling. Perhaps it’s the lingering effects of adrenalin.
As I arrive at Winton there is a mix of fear, anticipation and excitement. This is Bucket List stuff for me and a childhood dream for any V8 Supercars fan. I’ve already been on email to Supercheap Auto Racing’s pitlane boss, Jason Bush, for a some tips and a copy of the driver’s manual. It’s tough just learning what the buttons on the steering wheel do.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” Slade reassures me.
“Hah. You’re going to make a right goose of yourself,” chimes in James Courtney, a former champion and serious Bathurst contender. And I thought he was a friend.
The toughest job all day is getting into the car. The racer might look like a cushy Commodore, but it’s a handbuilt thoroughbred constructed from kilometres of super-tough steel tubing. I have to squeeze in through the gaps and then plop into a seat built for someone 10cm shorter and 30kg lighter.
I make it in but I can’t straighten my arms and my legs are jammed up against my chest. But I don’t tell anyone. I’m here now and I’m staying.
The engine starts easily even though it has 480kW but I know it’s a temperamental beast and I’ll have to be careful not to stall when I head for the track. Now there are six giggling race drivers all waiting for me to fluff it.
But I clunk the six-speed gearbox into first — there is no synchro to ease the shifts — and rumble down the pitlane with the speed limiter controlling the car and my enthusiasm.
On the track, I have to get going quickly. The tyres must be kept hot, the engine has a narrow operating range and there are a bunch of drivers doing serious test laps in preparation for Bathurst.
“Remember to make your gearshifts strong, all the time. Don’t muck around,” says Bush over the radio.
So I push the long-travel accelerator pedal down, work up through the gears to fifth, and try to take it all in. That’s the tough part, because I’m using all I have just to drive the car. How do racers have time to talk tactics and wave to mum?
As I find some speed, things get easier. I don’t notice the stifling heat, the violence of the response or shattering noise.
I can feel the gears dropping smoothly into place, enjoy the super-sharp response of the steering, luxuriate in power that seems unlimited, and brakes that kill speed.
Now I can watch the gear change warning lights flicker across the electronic dash and even begin to push a tiny bit towards the car’s limits. It’s moving around, squirming as I unleash the power, then pitching and rolling through the corners.
I’m keen to discover more but I’m not remotely fit and this is not easy. My chest is crushed by the cornering forces, pushing the brake pedal is like stepping on a brick and I have to wait-wait-wait for the power if I don’t want to flick into a spin.
Not just that, but the Dunlop racing tyres are rubbish. They have probably done too many laps but they feel like giant marshmallows at each corner. I can’t get any sort of feeling of what’s happening and I know I could do more with better grip.
“Are you going to print that?” one driver asks me later. “You should, because we all agree about the tyres but we can’t say it.”
After a quick stop to catch my breath — and babble to the crew about what I’ve learned — I return to the track, only to be jumped by three of the serious racers as I’m heading to the fourth-gear left-hand sweeper. And I realise, in mere seconds, the difference between a journalist driver and a Bathurst racer. There is a blast of noise, a flash of colour and they’re gone.
I try to keep up for a couple of corners but I’m wheezing and cramping from Slade’s seat, and I have no chance. So I stop.
Hours later, as I replay the laps in my head, I think of all the things I coulda-shoulda-woulda done, and how much more I could have got from the car. But I also know I’m kidding myself.
So, as I plonk down in front of my television on Sunday morning for The Great Race, I will watch with extra respect. And just a touch of pride. But I’m not kidding myself. I know what it really takes.
If you think you could be a contender at Bathurst, take it from me, a paid-up pretender, it’s never going to happen.
It’s scary. It’s uncomfortable, intimidating
and difficult. Did I mention fast?
Who’s been sweating in my seat? Driver Tim Slade briefs couldabeen Paul Gover in the V8 Supercar’s cramped cockpit,
top; relieved all-round, left; Gover checks Slade’s telemetry,
above; and Slade makes a blistering entry to the Winto track when clear of the pits.
Pictures: Mark Stewart