I call it a ‘movement’. If it were most drivers, you’d call the slip-sliding effect of throwing a station wagon with three on board – some 2.1 tonnes total – 15km/h too hot into a wet corner a moment.
This story was originally published in our May 2011 issue
But ‘moment’ suggests the bloke steering has run out of control and talent. And Craig Lowndes, my chauffeur, is demonstrating control and talent well beyond most drivers.
As the SS-V Sportwagon Redline Edition slews towards the outside of Griffin’s Bend, Lowndes not only keeps it off the concrete – where many V8 Supercars have lost their passenger-side wing mirrors – his inputs are so accurate and smooth that the Commodore’s ESP system hasn’t even flinched.
His car control seems on autopilot, his mind elsewhere. Craig’s normally affable and japey, but right now his enthusiasm’s on the limiter. He’s almost jumping out of his skin.
“It’s between the corners, like right here, where it’ll be the most exciting,” he beams, like a child in anticipation of Christmas presents, as the SS-V blasts up towards The Cutting. But he’s not talking about this wagon. Or his Team Vodafone V8 Supercar. “Even in my racecar the climb up here’s a bit tedious. See? I’ve got this thing flat to the boards right now!”
What I do see is the approach to The Cutting shrinking like tunnel vision. And big wet patches. And a stream of water flowing across the hotmix. And that Craig’s so deep into showing me how slow the SS wagon is – at least in the context of the conversation topic – that he’s still got the throttle pinned as the wagon dives into the blind, left-hander approach to The Cutting.
Fast. When Craig does wail on the Redline’s Brembos, it’s very late. All I see is concrete everywhere bar the track surface, hard-left, which is drenched in rain water.
What follows I’ll call a big movement.
Craig’s an instant flurry of inputs. The wagon’s nose tucks in, somehow, but its bum snaps sideways – the lateral inertia amplified from my rear-seat viewpoint – and the ESP system literally groans as it catches the mass once the rear cocks 40-degrees. ‘Thank God for ESP’, I think, silently…
“Bloody ESP,” Craig shouts, stabbing the ‘off’ button even before the wagon’s straightened up. The throttle’s back in the firewall and as the wagon dances along the approach to the blind-cresting Reid Park, where Mount Panorama starts to get really interesting, thoughts flash in a moment. ESP off. Slippery conditions. We’re not wearing helmets. But…
My pilot’s won Bathurst five times. He’s the current lap record holder and King of the Mountain heir apparent. And in an hour or so, he will fulfil his lifelong dream of finally punting a Formula One car, and on turf he virtually owns. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a stab at a new, potentially untouchable Bathurst lap record in the deal. It’s all his Christmases at once. That’s provided, of course, we make it back to pitlane in one piece.
Fate, I’m reckoning, won’t be that cruel. To either of us.
Through Sulman, he reckons, the 2008 McLaren MP4-23 will be “bloody exciting”, and “interesting” down through The Dipper. As the Sportwagon nearly pinballs through The Esses, Forrest Elbow and on to Conrod, in a masterclass of juggling mass with trajectory, Craig overlays what’s happening with a comparative commentary of things to come.
“See, we’re at 225km/h now,” as the wagon hits Conrod’s crest, “and my racecar will do almost 300km/h here. They reckon the F1 could do 360km/h,” he adds as the SS loads up its left-side tyres through the kink that funnels into The Chase, “but it’s geared for Albert Park. It’ll only do 301km/h today, on its rev-limiter almost all the way down Conrod.”
“I’ll be able to brake so late here in the McLaren,” he enthuses while braking impossibly late in the SS before adding a slide through The Chase.
“Jeez, how many laps of this place have you done?” I ask him. Judging by the quizzical look on his face, I realise it’s probably the stupidest question he’ll be asked all day. Oops. I was thinking out aloud there…
Craig’s comments aren’t meant to condemn the Sportwagon. They’re simply in relative context to the McLaren F1, and of the Team Vodafone V8 Supercar ‘ride’ car – essentially a copy of Craig’s racecar that’s been wicked up a little to provide bona fide race pace once the dead weight of a punter is strapped onboard – that he’ll also punt around Mount Panorama today. Besides, it’s a stellar case of actions speaking louder than words ever could. Few blokes on the planet could hustle a humble Commodore wagon across The Mountain as confidently and quickly as he can.
As a sprog-hauling grocery-getter, it’s a bloody quick one. Its compliance is such that Craig can hit the ripple strips, particularly through Sulman-Reid, harder than he can in the V8 Supercar. And while it weighs a good half-tonne more than the Triple-Eight Commodore, and lacks the racer’s degrees of grip and accuracy by a country mile, Lowndes proves that there’s enough inherent road-holding and balance in the wagon to be pretty bloody committed with the thing, everywhere.
In fact, that blend of balance, compliance and body control has been a strong suit for the Holden’s BFYB-winning SS breed, and the Sportwagon lacks little, if any, of its sedan and (very capable) Ute stablemates’ abilities.
Sure, it doesn’t have the muscle-flexing grip of the HSV gear, but it slides controllably and predictably. Its brakes aren’t as prodigious, either, but if the Brembos can withstand lapping The Mountain by an eager Lowndes without as much as a whiff, they should be ample for mortal talents. In fact, with its stiffer-than-the-sedan shell, sedan-matching (short) wheelbase and Redline fettling, there’s a good argument that the Sportwagon is the pick of the SS patch for reasons beyond the obvious utilitarian advantages.
Exactly how fast was the Sportwagon’s lap? Well, that we don’t know. Bathurst council shut the road circuit off today so that Lowndes and fellow Vodafone-backed racer, McLaren F1’s Jenson Button, could swap ‘offices’. And, thus, Pit Straight is off limits, preventing a full timed lap. Ironically, almost comically, Craig, I and the Sportwagon get trapped in the infield trying to head out onto the track by gates that are pad-locked to stop anyone driving onto the circuit while, erm, Craig is out there on a flier…
As yardstick times go, the most accurate one is the lightly fettled factory Holden VE Sportwagon entry in the 2008 Bathurst 12-hour production race, where McConville/Pretty/Price took a class pole with a 2:35.3sec.
In race trim, Team Vodafone’s V8 Supercar’s 1355kg without driver, (that half-tonne benefit), and its 480kW-odd (at 7500rpm) 5.0-litre V8 race engine holds a clear 210kW advantage over the 270kW (at 5600) 6.0L L98 production donk.
Then you add a six-speed sequential ’box, double A-arm/four-link front/rear suspension – albeit with an unsophisticated if bloody effective live-axle design – plus 11-inch-wide slick rubber, roll-cage stiffening and monstrous 375mm/343mm Alcon race brakes.
Thus equipped, Lowndes set the outright Bathurst lap record, a 2:06.7sec, during practice for last year’s Great Race. That’s a half-minute advantage around The Mountain. Call it daylight … with breakfast included.
Nobody expects Button, or even Lowndes for that matter, to break that benchmark in Team Vodafone’s ride car. Especially given the surprising, perhaps tantalising lack of driver prep for The Event: a few ‘demo’ laps. Button loses his Mount Panorama virginity via a couple of laps in an S-Class road car while it’s still open to the public – speed limit 60km/h – earlier in the morning. Meanwhile, I lose my hot-lap Bathurst virginity in the Sportwagon during what’s probably Craig’s only lap of the place since Audi’s 12-hour win.
Neither driver’s done any more than sit in each other’s idle racecars: seat-fittings, learning the controls, etcetera. And the damp and drying tarmac is ‘green’, race-speak for slippery, with no rubbered-in line to provide race-pace grip. By motorsport standards, it’s a bit gung-ho.
Today’s format is simple for both V8 Supercar and F1 racecar: one out-lap, two fliers then back in. Or, if the case may be, send out the crash crew, which, given the circumstances, isn’t the most unlikely of scenarios.
As far as the local tin-tops are concerned, Lowndes heads out, cracks a 2:11 on his second-flier – bloody quick given the circumstances – and sets a benchmark nobody expects Button to come anywhere near. The Brit’s punted a V8 Supercar before – Whincup’s last year – but he’s hardly seasoned and has no illusions about Mount Panorama’s challenges.
“Even in the Mercedes road car this place feels fast,” he says. As for advice imparted by Craig? “He told me it’s flat (out) everywhere. And that if you don’t come back with the wing mirrors then that’s pretty normal.”
The Brit has a good stab, but he’s clearly not attacking to the level Craig does, particularly under brakes. Call it a 2:17, or six seconds adrift.
“I didn’t expect so much grip,” he says of the V8 Supercar. “I haven’t hammered over kerbs (ripple strips) like that for 12 years, which is something I’ve missed. I was holding on tight all the way. It takes everything out of you.” Then he nails the respect he has for V8 teams who race here each October with one sentence. “These guys are crazy, they really are.”
Cued by a ‘how many Brits does it take to start a car?’ joke (answer: seven), Jenson cruises the McLaren MP4-23 out of pitlane, winds it out to the 15,500rpm limiter – some 3500rpm shy of full race rpm, for reliability’s sake – and Mount Panorama loses its F1 virginity in the banshee wail.
You can hear its little 2.4 V8 scream, in staccato bursts, as the F1 disappears towards the skies, kamikaze camera chopper in desperate pursuit. Button sounds tentative in his attack, until the McLaren rounds onto Conrod and plugs 301km/h all the way down the straight.
It rounds Murray’s Corner, blasts down Pit Straight and, right here, the same light bulbs switch on in many of the thousands of spectators: the idea of F1s at Bathurst isn’t that weird after all.
And at once, hundreds of iPhone stopwatch apps go ‘bing’. Some 1:58sec later, Button breaks the lap record. And the new benchmark lasts for precisely 1:48sec, at the conclusion of his second flier.
Button’s just smashed Craig’s official record time by 18 seconds!
“Phenomenal” he says, back in pitlane. “It’s such a rush.” He reckons that you sit so low it’s hard to see the kerbs and lines across the top, and the straights are so bumpy, by F1 standards at least, that you’re literally fighting to keep the F1 in a straight line, particularly down Conrod.
“I never thought in my lifetime we’d see this,” Craig says about the F1-Bathurst union. “An F1 car around Bathurst initially seemed a bit crazy”.
So how are the butterflies?
“Yeah, a lot of them,” he says.
Did McLaren read you the riot act?
“They just said to keep it off the concrete,” he replies, with a split-melon grin all but confirming he’ll have a crack you could build a bridge across.
Team McLaren flurry about: stabbing laptops, adjusting aero, adding 4mm of ride height, applying Lowndes’ name on the F1’s airbox as a mark of temporary custodianship. There’s silence in the crowd as Craig climbs in, the 2.4 fires up, and The Chance Of A Lifetime clicks into first gear. He’s so preoccupied with getting the F1 moving – those hand-clutches are bastards to modulate – that, it seems, he forgets the pitlane speed-limiter. He enters Mountain Straight, opens her up, and the sensory overload bombards him with answers to questions he’s harboured since childhood.
Jenson stands in the carpark, eating a chicken drumstick, chatting with crew, as Craig screams down Pit Straight. A thousand iPhones go ‘bing’.
The giveaway arrives 40 seconds later. The exhaust note beaming across the Bathurst landscape suggests the Aussie is generally on the throttle, from The Cutting right to The Dipper, longer than the F1 veteran was.
The McLaren shimmies out of The Chase, flashes under the bridge – our first timing marker – and someone whispers “holy shit.” His first full-noise lap in an F1 car and he’s three-seconds quicker than Button’s first flier…
Game on. Lap two, caution to the wind, Craig hammers over a kerb or two, and feels the hotmix skimming the bottom of the tub. The McLaren lifts its inside front wheel through The Dipper – the F1 team was concerned about that – as the local lad milks the hometown advantage for all its worth. One kay down the hill, both sides of pitlane are gobsmacked. Nobody expected Craig to be close to Button’s time. Or, just perhaps, beyond it.
He keeps it off the concrete, rounds on to Conrod, and 570kg of grounded missile is propelled along by 540kW and an added boost of the hopes of a couple of thousand trackside Lowndes fans, most of them holding their breath. He’s clean out of The Chase, deep into Murray’s, over the line.
It’s a 48.2 … or 48.9 … or 48-flat, depending on who you ask. The official ‘unofficial’ time comes over the loudspeaker.
It’s a 1:49, just one second, give or take a tenth, off Button’s best.
“The acceleration is the first thing you notice,” he says, “but it’s the speed between the corners where you realise how much acceleration they have. The F1’s easy to drive to a point. Handling-wise, the F1 is surprisingly forgiving. But to get that last second out of it is a different story. You don’t have to put much into an F1 car to get a lot out of it, while you have to put a lot into a V8 to get very little.
“Around Bathurst, you can crash the V8 over bumps, while you can’t in the F1. You must be more accurate in the McLaren because it’s so sensitive to steering and throttle inputs.
“The brakes are phenomenal,” he adds, and explains left-foot braking an F1 is vastly different to right-foot braking the V8 Supercar. “And as soon as you lift off into a corner, the downforce has the effect that the car’s actually braking itself. Power, weight, steering, braking – the two cars are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. With more laps I could’ve braked much later,” he adds. “And, potentially, it could’ve been a lot quicker. But I was told to bring it back in one piece…”
If he’d only pushed fractionally harder. If Button had been a touch more tentative. If he’d just had one more lap. There are a lot of ‘ifs’.
So Button’s officially ‘unofficial’ time of 1:48 inks the history books.
And Craig? Well, his favourite catchphrase for the day is: “it’s 14 years too late,” describing the point when his F1 aspirations in F3000 overseas took a sharp left turn to a touring car career back home. Whether it’s a blessing or curse, he’ll sleep tonight in the knowledge of the answer to The Big Question he’s pondered for even longer than that.
|Body||0-door, 1-seat open-wheeler||4-door, 1-seat sedan||5-door, 5-seat wagon|
|Drive||rear wheels||rear wheels||rear wheels|
|Engine||90deg V8, DOHC, 32v||90deg V8, OHV, 16v||90deg V8, OHV, 16v|
|Material||alloy head/alloy block||alloy head/iron block||alloy head/alloy block|
|Bore/Stroke||98.0 x 39.1mm||101.6 x 77.0mm||101.6 x 92.0mm|
|Power||545kW @ 19,000rpm (approx)||480kW @ 7500rpm (approx)||270kW @ 5700rpm|
|Torque||n/a||630Nm @ 5250rpm||530Nm @ 4400rpm|
|Fuel/Tank||110 octane/93 litres||E85/75 litres||98 octane/73 litres|
|Kerb Weight||570kg (less driver)||1355kg||1890kg|
|Top Speed||301km/h (limited)||297km/h (approx)||250km/h (limited)|
|Transmission||7-speed sequential||6-speed sequential Holinger dog-box||6-speed manual|
|Suspension||double A-arm, push-rods and bell crank, in-board torsion bar and dampers (f/r)||double A-arms, coil springs, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar (f);live axle, Watts linkage, coil springs, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar (r)||struts, A-arms,
anti-roll bar (f);
anti-roll bar (r)
|Tracks||(f/r) 1470/1405mm||(f/r) 1930/1905mm||(f/r) 1602/1618mm|
|Steering||power rack and pinion||power rack and pinion||power rack and pinion|
|Brakes||278mm ventilated carbon discs, six-piston calipers (f/r);||375mm ventilated/ grooved discs, six-piston calipers (f); 343mm ventilated/ grooved discs, four-piston calipers (r)||355mm ventilated discs, four-piston calipers (f); 324mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers (r); ABS, EBD, BA, ESP|
|Wheels||13.0in x 355mm (f),
13.0in x 380mm (r),
|17 x 11-inch, alloy||19 x 8-inch, alloy|
|Tyres||Pirelli P Zero F1||Dunlop SP Sport Maxx
|Size||13 x 325mm (f),
13 x 375mm (r)
|280/680 R17||245/40 ZR19 98Y|
|Price||$5,000,000 (estimated)||$500,000 (estimated)||$59,790
* includes Redline pack ($2500)