It started out as a fairly simple concept: build a batch of race-cars for a one-make series, but it’s precipitated the biggest restructure in HSV’s corporate history.
This was first published in MOTOR's April 2006 issue.
The contract to build and supply 20 Commodore-based race cars to the Bahrain Grand Prix Corporation has become such a Big Deal that the Clayton-based operation has sprouted a whole new arm. Dubbed Walkinshaw Racing Options, it’s obviously a very nice fit with HSV’s road-car business and the Holden Racing Team operation.
But as the new name suggests, the new side of the business will make its turnover by supplying turnkey race-cars and a bunch of performance gear. Some of it is bolt-on and some is not; some of it is road-legal and some is not.
Six-piston brake kits and short-shifters are at one end of the Walkinshaw Racing Options catalogue. Complete race-cars, like the ones that are Bahrain-bound at the other.
Heck, there are even plans for a line of fitting and tuning shops (probably operated by HSV dealers) which would use the `Walkinshaw Performance’ shingle. The business case for that lot is still being nutted out at Clayton, but rest assured, HSV is thinking big.
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Of course, it’s the Bahrain contract that has kicked off all this activity, and when you understand the depth of modification that goes into the cars, you can see how a chain of race shops no longer seems beyond the realms of possibility.
See, turning a V8 Commodore into a rent-a-racer is one thing, turning it into a vehicle that will withstand the trials of 50-degree C ambient and a fleet of drivers who learned to drive in two-pedal Hummers is another thing entirely.
I’m not saying I now know how Glenn Seton felt that year his engine expired at Bathurst while he was in the lead (on the way to his first win on The Mountain) with about seven laps to run, but I do have a certain sense of how race cars can tear your heart out.
A few years back, I was invited to drive an open-wheeler at Calder. Man, I was banging on the front gate before first light on the day of the test. Trouble was, there were other journos invited to sample a drive, including one female TV presenter who shall remain named Jennifer Keyte.
Naturally enough, the TV yobs pushed their way to the front of the queue and Our Jen (who, it must be said, looked pretty good in a race-suit) strapped in, did a quick piece to camera and then proceeded to torch the clutch before she’d traveled 20 metres down pit lane. Spare car? Nup. Game over. Sorry, boys. Bugger.
And then a week or two ago, I got the call up to come and have a test drive of the Bahrain-spec Clubsport-R (badged as a Cheverolet Lumina SS R for the Middle East) at Sandown. This time, I managed to elbow my own way towards to top of the waiting list with only a couple of punters ahead of me who defied the trend by not trashing a single component of the car.
But wouldn’t you know it: the absolute millisecond the straps were cinched up, the door was slammed shut and I started to roll down pit-lane, the heavens opened.
It didn’t just piss down, it freakin’ blattered down in 44-gallon drumfuls. I couldn’t see a damn thing, clearing the pit wall by Braille. The indicators were going nicely, though. By the time I’d worked out that a left-hook Commodore has its indicator and wiper stalks reversed, I was going for third and using the nag-drag rail as a guide. Ah… there’s the wipers.
Of course, that’s when the problems really started, because the violence of the downpour was leaving big, deep puddles all over the Sandown surface. Throw in the feisty engine (thanks to its lightened flywheel), the Yokohamas that amount to little more than cut slicks (definitely not wets), and a shortened diff ratio and I was getting up to all sorts of big elbow action. To be fair, you’d need flood tyres, not just wets, to get anywhere in this mess.
Scramble through the esses and up to Causeway corner in second, line up the back straight and squeeze on the gas. And the rears go up in steam. Drat.
I tip-toe across the normally super-fast corner at the end of the straight and take Dandenong Road Corner at about 60km/h in deference to the fact that this very car is due on a plane next week to go to Bahrain. That and the fact that HSV’s engineering boss, John Clark, is bigger than me and has already had a quiet word. I’m not fooled by his smile for a moment.
I make the decision to forget about the whole thing and head back to the pits, but then it goes really pear-shaped. Heading under the bridge before the left-right on to the front straight, the steering goes all light and the car heads for the boondocks. Yep, the dreaded aquaplane.
Being a race-car, I’ve got no ABS (staying off the brakes in an aquaplane is the best idea, anyway) and no air-bags, so I’m starting to feel a bit deflated about now. Not to mention what Clark will do to me. But just before I run out of track, I finally find some grip and lurch off at walking pace to burble up the pit entrance and park next to the second car, which has just been abandoned through lack of grip by reigning Bathurst champ Todd Kelly. Wimping out was probably the right call, then. Clarkie thinks so.
Like a lot of cloud-bursts, this one passed pretty quickly, so half an hour later, it’s deemed dry enough to have another crack. Except it’s not. Maybe on proper wets, but on the AO48s, it’s still like driving on buttered glass. So I can’t really tell you too much about how the Clubsport-R is likely to perform in the desert in 50-degree C ambient. But I can tell you a few things.
The lighter flywheel and shorter diff has really improved the LS1’s perkiness. The short shifter is more accurate than a road car by a factor of about 2000 and even though it’s a lefty, the shifts are vastly more positive.
The paddle clutch has a savage bastard of a take-up and the five-plate slippery diff can be a bit clunky at low speeds. I could live with it, though.
The other thing I know for sure is that the Commodore is a whole lot fitter for losing those 200kg, and if the road-going version could be pared back to the 1430kg of the Clubsport-R, it’d be a much different story.
Not only is the steering more responsive, but the whole car feels more willing to change direction and generally do as you tell it. Obviously the urethane bushes and the three degrees of negative camber help, but it’s chalk and cheese when it comes to driver feedback compared with a normal Clubbie. Ultimately, though, I’m sat here, still wondering what the Clubsport-R is really like when there’s some grip on the track and some heat in those Yokos.
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That’s about it, really, if you don’t count the trillion little things like bonnet pins and tow-hooks and such. The good news is that a Bahrain-spec racer can be yours in right-hand-drive form for the (literally) princely sum of $120,000 or so, depending on spec. The queue forms here.