Wa­ter un­der the bridge

Wheels (Australia) - - Feature / Raptor In South Africa -

The Au­gra­bies Falls Na­tional Park (see pic below right) stretches along the Or­ange River, cov­er­ing an area of 820 square kilo­me­tres. The main wa­ter­fall is about 60 me­tres high, and thun­ders into a deep gorge of eroded gran­ite that runs for around 18 kilo­me­tres. The no­madic Khoikhoi peo­ple named the wa­ter­fall Anko­ere­bis, mean­ing the ‘place of big noises’ (pos­si­bly be­cause they’d never heard a Lambo Aven­ta­dor at red­line in a tun­nel).

THIS THING IS A PROPER MASOCHISTI­C BEAST OVER TER­RAIN THAT WOULD CRIPPLE A REGULAR 4x4 UTE

there’s not ex­actly a sur­feit of power go­ing beg­ging. To re­cap, it makes 157kw and 500Nm. Yes, to­day there will be plenty of WOT.

Start­ing now. There’s noth­ing too com­pli­cated about the course – the fast, flat sec­tion snaking across the dry-lake ‘pan’ is clearly marked with flags at the apexes, then the climb and plung­ing de­scent of the dunes is very much sin­gle-trail, but punc­tu­ated by deep wal­lows, wash-aways, rock gar­dens and plenty of stout veg­e­ta­tion to hit if you go off line.

So I se­lect Baja mode, which al­lows am­ple over­steer angle if the sen­sors fig­ure you’re in con­trol, and get my WOT on. Yes, more vig­or­ous ac­cel­er­a­tion would be wel­come, and this leads to my first rookie er­ror. I dumbly ap­ply a cir­cuit-lap­per’s tech­nique of try­ing to min­imise lost mo­men­tum and carry max­i­mum apex speed, but this is cost­ing me in terms of forc­ing a wider – okay, messier – line. “Brake harder for the tighter sec­tions and get it turned in; keep your line tighter,” Wool­ridge in­structs. “Don’t concentrat­e on apex speed. In the fast turns, you’re go­ing well; keep flick­ing it very early – even ear­lier than you’re doing – and keep your foot deep into it to hold the slide. That’s where the mo­men­tum of the slide will make you quicker than try­ing to keep it straight.”

I get that bit, and I’ve never met a bit of ex­tended over­steer on dirt that I didn’t like, so things are go­ing fairly well on the flat. But up in the dunes I’m ini­tially too con­ser­va­tive, and un­der­es­ti­mate just how much pun­ish­ment the Rap­tor’s chas­sis can ab­sorb. Men­tally, I’m in “don’t wreck the ve­hi­cle” mode, when I should ac­tu­ally be in the “try and kill the bas­tard” zone.

The widen­ing of Rap­tor’s track (by 150mm), the Watts-link­age rear end (re­plac­ing leaf springs), and, cru­cially, the move to the Fox re­mote-reser­voir dampers that bring ex­tra wheel travel and ground clear­ance, all com­bine to make this thing a proper masochisti­c beast over ter­rain that would cripple a regular 4x4 ute. It’s not just the abil­ity to mer­ci­lessly belt the front end at big speed into deep wash­aways, it’s the re­bound con­trol that de­mands you re­cal­i­brate what’s pos­si­ble. Even if a stan­dard-sprung ute could han­dle the com­pres­sion im­pact, its re­bound rate would likely pogo you into the next post­code.

Not here. Calls of, “Good! Good! Stay planted! Keep the mo­men­tum! No brakes needed here!” will be the over-arch­ing theme from the pas­sen­ger’s seat, and even for a slow learner like me, it’s an easy di­rec­tive to fol­low. At least un­til I bar­rel too hot into a fast left-hand kink, ex­actly where the track tran­si­tions from hard­packed gravel to rock. I can’t quite get turn-in grip and go straighton un­der brakes, mow­ing down a quar­ter-acre block of scrubby veg­e­ta­tion and dam­ag­ing a tyre side­wall on a rock edge. “Not a prob­lem, that lot needed clear­ing,” dead­pans my in­struc­tor as we limp back for a fresh rear hoop.

Wool­ridge makes light of my ‘mo­ment’ but it’s a re­minder, in case I needed one, that off-road rac­ing can be ev­ery bit as treach­er­ous as ral­ly­ing or cir­cuit rac­ing (well, on any­thing other than a Her­mann Tilke-de­signed track). Since the Paris Dakar Rally Raid was first run in 1979, there have been 26 com­peti­tor fatal­i­ties from ac­ci­dents. Okay, 19 were mo­tor­cy­cle rid­ers, but that still leaves six that were car-re­lated (plus one truck), proof that off-road rac­ing’s com­par­a­tively slower speeds won’t alone save you, if the re­main­ing cir­cum­stances con­spire the other way. By com­par­i­son, our own Finke Desert Race has had three fatal­i­ties since it started in 1976.

“I count my­self as pretty for­tu­nate,” says Wool­ridge. “Of course I’ve had some pretty sub­stan­tial offs, but noth­ing that’s se­ri­ously

THE LAND­ING IS LIKE NOTH­ING OUT OF BULLITT, MORE LIKE DROP­PING A COLD CHISEL ONTO A FEATHER PIL­LOW

in­jured me…” He’s clearly re­luc­tant to be drawn fur­ther into this mo­rose con­ver­sa­tional cul de sac, so we quickly move onto a brighter sub­ject: the fact that if I was a boxer, I would have the hand speed of Eric ‘But­ter­bean’ Esch, when I need to be more like Manny Pac­quiao. As we bar­rel along a sec­tion of the dunes stage, the trail jinks con­stantly and the Rap­tor re­quires a con­stant flurry of steer­ing in­puts to carry our speed. It turns out that my de­fault tech­nique of striv­ing for smooth­ness has no real place in the fre­netic world of off-road rac­ing. “I want you to be like light­ning on that wheel!” yells Wool­ridge over the noise of the en­gine, low scrub hit­ting the sills, and the au­di­ble puck­er­ing of my sphinc­ter. “Faster hand speed! C’mon!”

He says it as “forster”, which I really shouldn’t be reg­is­ter­ing, given how much is go­ing on: a crazy tor­rent of twists and kinks rush­ing at us through the screen, the sus­pen­sion work­ing at max­i­mum ef­fort to ab­sorb the bom­bard­ment of ruts and trenches, our skulls and tor­sos shak­ing around like over­sized Bob­ble­head dolls.

Per­haps sub­con­sciously I hadn’t been fast enough with steer­ing in­puts for fear that the rack as­sis­tance wouldn’t keep up, but this, like many things I imag­ine, proves to be ut­terly un­founded. I go into full “an­gry fighter on the speed­bag” mode, and this meets with approval from my co-pi­lot. He’s right, of course – really go­ing next level on the speed at which you work the wheel seems to get the big Rap­tor al­most danc­ing be­tween the kinks, and your right foot quickly falls in line, a WOT-EASE-WOT quick­step that’s hugely sat­is­fy­ing. Throw in a bit of ‘berm surfing’ on the sandy, favourably cam­bered cor­ners, and I could be a con­vert to this off-road caper.

But be­fore I book my en­try for the 2020 Finke, there’s another dis­ci­pline I need to mas­ter.

Any­one who’s watched any off-road rac­ing knows that in fast, whoop-filled ter­ri­tory, the cars of­ten seem to spend as much time air­borne as they do on the deck. So, time to get my flight wings.

Help­fully, Ford has found a quiet back­road nearby that’s per­fect for the task, and the lo­cal farm own­ers have agreed for it to be closed off. It’s just a few kilo­me­tres long, but punc­tu­ated by six suc­ces­sive, su­per-steep ‘kick­ers’ that climb at around 18 per­cent gra­di­ent in the space of just a hand­ful of me­tres, be­fore drop­ping sharply over the other side. Even more thought­fully, each has been hand-sign­posted with an ad­vi­sory speed that is suf­fi­cient to – just – get a Rap­tor’s wheels clear of the ground.

We quickly agree I’ll need to add at least 20 per­cent to get any­thing that qual­i­fies as air time, but I also need to fo­cus on my throt­tle tech­nique, ad­vises my un­flap­pable co-pi­lot. There was me think­ing it was just a case of bosh­ing the brave pills, whip­ping up some speed, and not squeal­ing like a girl when you force a 2.3-tonne ute into airspace it really shouldn’t be in.

Turns out there’s more to it than that. “Carry plenty of throt­tle right up to the lip of the crest, be­cause that will de­ter­mine our tra­jec­tory,” Wool­ridge ex­plains. “If you chop the throt­tle at the last mo­ment, it’ll make the nose drop even more than it would be­cause of the [for­ward-bi­ased] weight dis­tri­bu­tion.” In sim­ple speak? “Man up and keep it pinned.” We fly like a large box-sec­tion ski jumper, and land much bet­ter than Eddy the Ea­gle used to. My brain is cal­i­brated to ex­pect a land­ing from this speed and height to be like some­thing from the San Fran­cisco street scenes in Bullitt, but of course it’s noth­ing like that; more like drop­ping a cold chisel onto a feather pil­low. The chas­sis of this thing really is ex­cep­tional, and to­day has proved con­clu­sively it de­serves an en­gine that can fully ex­ploit what the un­der­pin­nings of­fer.

Right now, Ford’s re­sponse re­mains a cloth-eared, “WOT?”, but as the groundswel­l builds for this ex­cel­lent chas­sis to have a more po­tent pow­er­plant, ex­pect that to change.

Above: “Whoops. My bad. Can you just add it to my mini-bar tab?” Au­gra­bies Falls in the North­ern Cape Prov­ince. A bit steep even for Rap­tor’s rock mode

“And just over there is where they filmed The­lionk­ing”

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