PCOTY 2017: The Track

PCOTY 2017 The track main

And so, as one of the mightiest flotillas of PCOTY fodder ever assembled is washed and fuelled in a small Victorian town on a languid spring afternoon, more than one set of eyes is surreptitiously checking weather apps under the heading ‘next 24 hours, Winton’.

Wet weather had been forecast for some days but had yet to materialise. For a sodden Victoria, it’s no hardship to go without the stuff for a couple of days at least, and one more day would be bloody great.

The thought of a greasy and narrow track lined with concrete walls isn’t filling editor Campbell's heart with joy and rainbows, either. “It’ll be fine," he said, with the quietly resigned air of a Melbournite more than familiar with the concept of rain ruining parades.

Winton RacewayHaving zero access to a salty old farmer to avail us of the chances of a dry Tuesday, it’s in the lap of the gods, despite DC’s fervent wishes.

To be fair, the morning actually starts out pretty well. Despite a reasonably solid breakfast ordering error resulting in a pile of fried food that even I couldn’t finish, the day dawns with a hint of sun and a bit of a nip in the air.

When I was a young man a job in meteorology involved as much accuracy as setting course with a sextant made of breadcrumbs. A nice suit and a winning smile for the telly didn’t change the fact that the conditions that were generally forecast for the following day bore as much similarity to reality as anything that comes from the desk of Donald Trump’s foreign-policy advisors.

Scott in the rainApparently, though, these days meteorologists now have access to multibillion-dollar projection software that can more accurately model and predict our weather patterns in the short, medium and long term, and accuracy has improved a hundred fold.

Bastards got it right today, didn’t they... literally the moment the last car was lined up along Winton’s pit lane, small drops began to fall.

“It’ll be fine,” says the eternally, foolishly optimistic Campbell. “Just a passing shower.”
There’s a law of averages that applies when attending race tracks, and it essentially holds that the day will generally be far from average. Either it’ll be Hades hot, Kelvinator cold or 40 days-and-nights-worthy raining… and today definitely is turning into the latter. The ‘passing shower’ sets up camp just above the circuit and turns on all the taps. At once. Great.

John Bowe drivingOur resident adult John Bowe is circumspect. ‘‘All these conditions will tell us is who has the best tyres,’’ opines the touring car legend, who knows Winton better than the back of his dunny door.

He’s right, too. Such is the top-heavy balance of our fleet, the tyre spec across the 12 cars leans towards dry-condition grip. Most people who own Ferrari 488s, for example, don’t tend to expose such expensive toys to such high levels of potential harm when the weather turns to poo – like it has for us.

Speaking of the 488, the Ferrari contingent has – almost inconceivably – doubled overnight. Not sure if it needs a band of techs and a vanload of bits for four journo hacks and a real racing driver – who actually races Ferraris – to do 40 laps absolute tops. In the decades' worth of PCOTYs I’ve seen and done, not once has a company sent so much as a toolbox and a rag, let alone uniformed mechanics, a PR minder, a brace of tyres, laptops and a rattle gun. Anyway.

Focus RSAfter much theorising about installing a large number of Bunnings six-by-three shades right the way around the track (hint: pretty impractical), and no sign of the weather letting up for the duration, there’s nothing for it but to get stuck in and hope for the best.

Bowe is on the clock, with a plane flight to a warmed-up racecar at the Gold Coast 500 awaiting him, so he fires out post haste to record his thoughts on the contenders. It would literally be impossible to guesstimate how many times he’s flung a car around the joint – his career stretches back to the stone age, after all.

What becomes immediately apparent is how hard he can push, despite the now completely soaking conditions. Smoke pouring from the Focus RS’s brakes is not what I expected to see today.

I follow his lead and venture out first in the RS – I figure it’ll not want to try and kill me straight away – and I instantly find there’s loads more grip off the typical racing line around the back of the track as the rain keeps tumbling down. “Should play to your strengths, then, Robbo?” quips Morley. Staying about a metre off every apex is the trick, with the polished inside line as obvious and unwelcome as a mezze platter at a One Nation barbeque.

BMW M2The rain keeps chucking down, but the Focus, wearing stock Michelin Pilot Super Sports instead of the optional – and more dry-focused – Pilot Sport Cups, proves an admirable plaything, as long as the drive mode select switch is kept away from the track mode. Even on a drying line, the compression damping is strung so tightly in Track mode it’s utterly awful to drive, with no feel and not a skerrick of subtlety. It’s frantic and measured in oddly measured doses, this little monster… it’ll take a while to extract its best.

Likewise, the BMW M2 lucked in on the tyre lottery, with its Pilot Sports revelling in the rain. The little Bimmer’s low, broad footprint and sinuous suspension tune helps it to key into the road, while its steering – easily the best from BMW for quite some time – provides enough feedback and delicacy of response to find turn and lateral grip despite the water filming on the surface of the track.

It also feels like there’s a bit of torque trickery going on in lower gears, as if the ECU is holding back a bit in first and second. In such wet conditions, that’s perfectly okay with me. If anything, it adds to the Bimmer’s aura of being a bigger, more mature car than it actually is.

The cars in wetThe Golf GTI 40 Years, too, belies its physical stature and reputation in the face of such a formidable field with a very impressive performance. Its Golf R-derived donk and top-spec diff give this GTI a real dose of attitude, and it dances like a sugared-up boxer on its Pirelli P Zeros in the teeming conditions. It’s not the best set of boots for soaking rain and a slick track, but at least you know which end is going to give way first.

It’s time to move up to some cars with serious horsepower figures behind them, and I pick the Lexus GS F for no other reason than its perceived friendliness. Sure, it’s real-wheel drive and packs a smidge more than 350kW, but… I mean, it’s a Lexus, right?

The blisteringly orange paintwork reflects off the sodden tarmac as I ease into the low-slung cockpit and gingerly head out to test some limits, only to find my original summation is true. Mostly.

Lexus GS-F rearThe Lexus GS F is a big, playful puppy dog, with a chassis that permits a bit of tomfoolery and a set of Pilot Super Sports that are well suited to today’s conditions. Its 5.0-litre nat atmo V8 is an absolute beauty, too, though its best work is done north of 6000rpm – not a figure we can readily reach today. Finding grip at the front end is easy enough, though, and there’s a sense of bank-vault solidity about the GS F that’s reassuring.

The HSV’s Continental SportContacts are up for it, too, and so is that mighty, mighty 400kW supercharged V8 and the VF’s lovely chassis, its softer tune suiting the conditions to a tee. Its only weak link for me is a driveline that doesn’t like to be rushed.

The Mustang, though, is all at sea here – quite literally. Its Pirellis are not giving the long, languid GT the confidence needed to get anything meaningful out of it, which is a pity.

Mustang fastThe rain has abated somewhat, and resident drag racing wannabes Newman and Morley are eyeing off the centre strip of tarmac for some performance testing. The rest of us are ogling a three-kilometre ribbon of rapidly drying race track, casting sideways glances at the big end of performance town. The decision is taken to try for some performance times, and the rest of us can only watch as the Ferrari and Lamborghini are marched out to uncertain fates down the guts of Winton.

The answer comes soon enough, as the big guns flounder through giant puddles on the unused section of the 0-100km/h straight – and right before it starts to rain again.

As the heavens really go to town over Winton, I’m strapped into the Audi R8 at the end of pit lane and wondering how clever an idea it really is. I like wet-weather driving, but it’s gone beyond that point. I inch out onto a track that is no longer a patchwork of blacks – it is a solid, uniform ocean of shimmering grey ripples that’s starting to form lakes where no lakes should be.

HSV R8 sidewaysThis is when I discover a new mode on the R8’s steering wheel dial – Wet Performance. Cue a hallelujah chorus! Combined with the fiendishly grippy Continental Sport Contact 6s, the R8 is an absolute riot to fling around in conditions that would give an otter pause for concern. The 5.2-litre V10 is limited at lower revs, but gives up its 8250rpm if you’re brave enough to give it a crack, while stability control allows a little bit of fun before not killing you.

The same can categorically not be said for the Nissan GT-R. Nobbled by its dry-biased Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tyres, it’s a heart-stopping, lurching mess of sudden jinks under even moderate throttle, a complete lack of turn when there’s moisture in the way, and an overarching sense that carnage is just a breathe on the throttle away.

Nissan GT-RThe same goes for the Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe, but its waywardness is more to do with a chassis that’s so tied down it lacks the subtlety to deal with less than ideal conditions. It’s not a trait that hampers the softer sedan, but the coupe really suffers at the hand of stiff springing.

Of the three biggest bangers of the week, the one that gets the best of it is the 911 Turbo S. Its massive P Zeros – 305mm across the rear, if you don’t mind – are quite at home, and leaving the dampers in their softest mode allows for a shockingly quick turn of pace off a corner, and unadvisedly late braking into them.

The rear-drive Huracan is also on P Zeros, but is much edgier than the all-wheel drive 911 on the well-watered track. It steers more than well enough, but short-shifting the 427kW V10 is advisable lest several hundred thousand dollars' worth of ski-boat orange Lamborghini is left on Winton’s white concrete walls.

Lambo Huracan rearAnd despite its army of minions, the Ferrari is hobbled by its Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyre spec in the damp, but a brief window of semi-dry opens up for me to have at least one half potent punt. The 488 is seriously, seriously quick, and that gearbox is so otherworldly fast it beggars belief, but I’m left waiting for that... Ferrari-ness, I guess you’d call it.

Even though to tacho goes to 10,000rpm, the party is stopped just before 8000rpm, with the shift lights on the steering wheel blinking obstinately. It’s still loud and intense… but it’s a more bass-driven intensity that takes some getting used to.

And so the day goes – the cars with the most suitable tyre package for the conditions continue to shine, while others fall back in the reckoning almost through no fault of their own. Having said that, though, a performance car that’s worthy of winning the PCOTY prize needs to bring the magic, no matter the weather.

Ferrari 488 frontCue a call from an industry mate at the same track the very next day. “Hey, how good is the weather at Winton today?” Rotten git.

Dragged down

Rain, rain, go away...

The first 400m of the Winton dragstrip did, in fact, dry out all but completely for a few minutes. But as a recce revealed, from the 401m mark (and the dirty big yump where the strip crosses the circuit) the next 400 metres were puddles. Big ones.

Bearing in mind the Ferrari was likely to be doing 210-plus through the traps, I for one didn’t fancy playing slalom through the ponds. And by now, the outfield was so wet the chances of finding a fence were odds-on. So we went back to scaring ourselves on the circuit. And we waited.

Finally, with help from the wind, the track dried enough for us to run the cars we’d not tested before – 911, R8, GT-R, 488 and Lambo – meaning we've had to publish existing numbers for the rest, which are all as-tested by us on different days at Heathcote Dragway, except the M2. Its numbers are from a different Winton test.

Wet weatherOnly thing was, those damn puddles were still there. Which is why, at well over 200km/h and having left from a standstill 400m and just 10.9 seconds earlier, the Audi launched into the yump, the helm went light and a bow wave hit the screen. By the time I figured out where the wipers were and hit the stalk, we’d travelled another 50-odd metres. And you cannot imagine how relieved I was to note that the R8 was still pointing straight and still had black stuff either side of it.

Beyond sheer, blind terror, the other drama playing out was Scotty’s attempt to get anywhere near Ferrari’s claim of 0-200 in eight seconds in the 488. Time after time he lined her up and after each run he went back to confer with the Ferrari minders. While each new attempt netted a good time, they're not the figures you'll find in the brochure. And then it started to rain again…

0-100km/h
1 Porsche 911 Turbo S 2.9sec
2 Audi R8 V10 Plus 3.18sec
3 Nissan GT-R 3.20sec
4 Ferrari 488 GTB 3.30sec
5 Lamborghini Huracan 3.55sec
6 HSV Clubsport R8 LSA 4.48sec
7 BMW M2 Pure 4.55sec
8 Mercedes-AMG C63 S 4.56sec
9 Lexus GS F 4.99sec
10 Ford Focus RS 5.04sec
11 Ford Mustang GT 5.20sec
12 VW Golf GTI 40 Years 6.00sec

0-400m
1 Porsche 911 Turbo S 10.70sec
2 Audi R8 V10 Plus 10.93sec
3 Ferrari 488 GTB 11.00sec
4 Nissan GT-R 11.21sec
5 Lamborghini Huracan 11.25sec
6 Mercedes-AMG C63 S 12.48sec
7 HSV Clubsport R8 LSA 12.55sec
8 BMW M2 Pure 12.82sec
9 Ford Focus RS 13.08sec
10 Lexus GS F 13.09sec
11 Ford Mustang GT 13.38sec
12 VW Golf GTI 40 Years 14.00sec

Terminal Speed
1 Ferrari 488 GTB 214.40km/h
2 Porsche 911 Turbo S 212.40km/h
3 Audi R8 V10 Plus 209.58km/h
4 Lamborghini Huracan 209.46km/h
5 Nissan GT-R 199.67km/h
6 Mercedes-AMG C63 S 194.10km/h
7 HSV Clubsport R8 LSA 184.84km/h
8 Lexus GS F 179.72km/h
9 Ford Mustang GT 176.72km/h
10 BMW M2 Pure 175.82km/h
11 Ford Focus RS 173.82km/h
12 VW Golf GTI 40 Years 171.75km/h

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