Imagine if you could take your favourite road, snip out 1.4km of the best bit and join the ends together in a paddock somewhere.
If you did that, depending on what your favourite road looks like, you might get something like DECA, the Driver Education Centre of Australia, on the outskirts of Shepparton, itself about three quarters the way to the NSW border north-ish of Melbourne.
The facility itself has skid pans and training circuits and everything necessary to train learner truckies during the week, but we’re most interested in the circuit out the back, 1.4km of wide-enough bitumen, bent in eight places to form a quasi-circuit.
It’s not a racetrack, per se, and the trees dotted around the track – some on the outside of the fastest corners – are there to remind you as much. So, too, the fact most of the circuit is line-marked like a public road, with unbroken lines demarcating bitumen from grass – when there’s not a fence – and a single, broken line in the middle.
The purpose for our visit is this: no cops, no kids, no well-meaning old folks giving you dirty looks as you drive past their house. And something becoming increasingly an attraction, at least in Victoria, no cyclists riding in the middle of the road around blind corners. Not that they're not entitled to do so.
As DECA is more a closed road than racetrack, the stopwatches are left alone; so, too, helmets. It's the perfect place where, for day one, judges can break ice with our 11 go-fast contenders.
And, as you might expect when you give five car nuts an empty circuit and 11 cars that aren't theirs, no time is wasted. Myself, having herded the cats as per my role as PCOTY quartermaster, am left to find all the slower cars already on track. I have to get the eye in in something fast, so Jaguar F-Type Coupe R AWD it is.
In the F-Type you slink into a low, pillbox cockpit, peering over a long bonnet and almost feeling to sit over the rear axle. I pull the little drive mode switch backwards to engage the Dynamic program, knock the shift lever into manual mode. Double checking the active exhaust button is pressed is as much a part of the routine with this car as the ol' click-clack.
I turn on to the track from the infield bitumen car park, straighten the wheel and boot it down towards the first right-hander. The rear-drive version would be either strobing the traction light or slewing sideways in a spike of revs right now, but the all-wheel drive version just sinks claws into bitumen and converts 404kW into forward momentum with an efficiency the rear-drive version could only dream of.
Pull the steering wheel paddle for second and the noise and urge continues almost uninterrupted. It’s so loud – with a hot rod, sinful, somewhat flatulent racket – it's easy to wonder just how this car is legal.
And I feel almost guilty given DECA shares its back fence with some bloke’s backyard. Make that many blokes' – brand new-looking tiled roofs and the tops of clotheslines peek over shamrock-coloured Colorbond fences. Yep, suburban encroachment of our beloved racetracks isn’t limited to capital cities. I just hope they like cars.
The F-Type does an outstanding job of making the DECA circuit feel like a go kart track, giving 200km/h a nudge along the 600-odd-metre main ‘straight’, where you can hold it flat through its right-hand kink, braking for the fast-incoming right-hander.
But unless you’re Warren Luff, this is not a place you want to be triggering the ABS in anything, let alone the faster stuff. And the AMG GT S, and 911 GT3, are all hitting similar speeds down into this corner.
Down into turn one, long, aggressive undulations live in the braking zone and can unsettle even the most planted car. It's here the 208 GTi 30th first reveals to the judges an ever-so-slightly nervous rear end under brakes, while here and elsewhere, cars like the 911 GT3 and Commodore don't break a sweat.
And while it is busy blowing away the judges with its grunt and mid corner, Cup tyre-enhanced grip, over these bumps it's best to either keep out of the C63's super-stiff RACE setting, or take it very easy.
The right hander after this is long, ducks under a tree, and you pick up the throttle early as you ready for a little rollercoaster-inspired right-left whoop-de-doo – so cambered that, when you’re on it in a fast rear-driver like XR8 or RC F, you better be ready with a dab of corrective steering, lest you end up scooping bits of ditch out of the lower air intake.
It was here the ballistic AMG GT S, in particular, turns the mouth to cotton with incredible mid-corner speed, while the 911 GT3 encourages you to commit, and cars like the F-Type simply frighten you witless.
Having survived that, it’s a brush of the brakes to calm whichever car you’re in as you turn right into a compressing incline, which shoots you up towards a blind crest. Those who’ve been here before know to square the car up beforehand.
This is the last corner you properly learn at this place – and up until, and even beyond that point, it demands maximum respect. Not least because an enormous eucalypt lives on its outside.
After the crest – taken very carefully in the faster stuff but, if you’re feeling particularly brave, flat in cars like the MX-5, it turns out – the track then drops back down, compressing suspensions, where you’ve gotta make sure it’s tidy before you input for the next blink-and-you-miss-it left-hander. That spits you out, on the brakes, readying for a long, opening right-hander around a little hill.
With the trees watching from a distance on the outside, this corner is Drift City. And it’s here among the rear-drivers the XR8 excels, showing off a talent for sideways action. Like every other time we've tested it, it feels more comfortable sideways than driven in any manner you might call behaved.
Although with provocation and a heavy hoof the Jag will join in as well, even if it’s a bit of a wild ride with all four wheels gnashing at the bitumen.
Having tidied up any slides you’re unleashed back on the 600m straight, taking a breather, eyeballs widening in the Jag, AMG GT S and 911, as you catapult through the kink. Or check your watch if you’re in the MX-5.
Being just day one at PCOTY, this was not the place for ten-tenths, entire-lap commitment in any of the cars, let alone the fast stuff. For the Jag, AMG GT S and 911 GT3, half the gearbox's cogs weren't getting used. DECA, instead, was the PCOTY Warm-Up.
But even cars like the LS3 SS, RC F or C63 couldn’t properly stretch their legs, which says more about them than it does about DECA. Our field, this year, is fast, we were all quickly learning. The times, come Winton, were going to be quick.
And so the slower of the bunch seemed to revel around the tighter track, like the 208 GTi, Megane Trophy R and even, to an extent, the i8, with its stiff-as-a-board chassis and razor-sharp front end.
And for me, the C63 is the star of DECA. It sounds so good, I wouldn't want to own an aftermarket exhaust business making products for these things, the OEM organs are that sorted. It's got grunt and the chassis to back it up.
Merc fitted its PCOTY C63 with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup2 tyres – the same as that on the 911 GT3 and a 458 Speciale. Overkill? On paper, perhaps. But around DECA, with great, satisfying reserves of mid-corner grip to lean into, the C63 felt awesome.
While we were still saving the proper, balls-out testing for later, by design or luck, after day one and DECA, already the wheat and the chaff were beginning to separate. Not necessarily by means of entire cars, but mostly in the details.
We cruised to our Wangaratta hotel as the night rolled in, the judges all at work in their minds developing theories. For more answers it was time to climb the alps.
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