Paul Gover finds out what it really takes to drive a V8 Supercar
If driving a Supercar looks easy, it isn’t. While Jason Bright was looking the other way Paul Gover drove his BOC Commodore at Winton and came away impressed – and with eyes wide open
Supercars race teams practice pitstops all the time.
Getting a slick stop at every service is one key to success, and a weapon against failure, as races are often decided in the pitlane.
It’s not just the enduro battles, either, as Jamie Whincup proved when he jumped Craig Lowndes with a slick trip to the pits to score his 100th series victory at Sydney Motorsport Park.
But when it’s you that’s up on the jacks, with the crew racing to the corners and the refueling rig, it’s not nearly as easy as it looks when you’re watching the television.
I’m thinking about all the things that could easily go wrong, from letting the wheels turn while the crew is on the rattle guns to missing the shift into first gear, or letting the clutch up too early, or, or, or…
“You’ll stall. Everyone does,” Garth Tander warns me.
“Ha. You’re in for a treat. It’s not as easy as it looks,” laughs James Courtney.
The pitstop is part of the plan for a pre-enduro track test at Winton in the BOC Commodore to set the scene for this year’s long-distance races including Bathurst. It’s not about testing a driver for a race place, but to get a genuine insight into what happens on a test day and then pass it along to Auto Action readers.
My car is Jason Bright’s racecar and his long-distance partner, Andrew Jones, will be supervising things and ensuring the $500,000 Commodore finishes the day in the same condition as it starts.
The start actually comes the day before the track time, with a refresher course and seat fitting at the Albury race base of Brad Jones Racing.
I’ve been here many times, from the days when it was a single shed servicing the AUSCAR Commodore that laid the foundations – professional and financial – for today’s three-car Supercars squad and the Development Series and Kumho championship cars that also run under the BJR banner. It’s a busy place, with more than 50 staff operating under the direction of the Brad-and-Kim show that has always been the heart of the program.
The contrast between the brothers, company chief and retired racer Brad and former spanner man and commercial rainmaker Kim, is obvious from the start.
“Hey, you’ll have some fun. We’re glad we can help out,” says Brad.
“Don’t crash. Don’t break anything. Remember, it’s not sheep stations for you,” warns Kim.
Then they pass me down to the BOC crew, who are finalising preparations on the car under the direction of team manager Chris Clark (with no E), a former McLaren man in Formula One.
Getting into the car is the first challenge. Even though Bright is not the slimmest man in Supercars, with only Shane van Gisbergen topping him at this year’s pre-season weigh-in, the seat is a long way from the door and there are plenty of rollcage bars to avoid before dropping down into the seat.
The mechanics eventually decide it will be easier to remove the door, which – thankfully – only takes a minute with quick-release pins.
So I drop down behind the wheel and immediately realise two things: Bright sits very low in the car and the seat is too tight with his custom insert in place. I can barely see the end of the bonnet and I cannot get my bottom to the bottom of the bucket.
So I lever myself out, the mechanics remove the insert, and I try again. This time I’m down into the seat and, with a bit of wriggling, I’m fairly comfortable. I immediately realise the pedals are a stretch and the steering wheel is set high, but nothing that’s a deal breaker.
It’s a contrast to the last V8 Supercar I drove. That one was Tim Slade’s Super Cheap Commodore in 2014 and getting into his teeny-tiny seat was like plopping muffin mix into a cake tin. I was able to run a half-dozen laps at Winton, but then my legs began to cramp and, following a rear-end lock-up into Turn 3 that scared Adrian Burgess nearly as much as me, I parked it.
We also try a radio check with my helmet, then a quick run-through of the buttons on the wheel and the switches on the centre tunnel.
I’m only really worried about the start procedure, the pitlane speed limiter and the radio button, and the crew locks the dash on the most-basic set-up to give me a gear readout and shift lifts. It all looks fine and much less worrying than the driver manual – yes, truly – that was emailed through from Walkinshaw Racing ahead of my Slade drive. It had all sorts of worrying detail on every single button and the various dashboard displays.
“You won’t need all that. We’ll keep an eye on things from the pits and you can just drive,” says Clark, with the reassuring delivery of a doctor about to begin open-heart surgery.
Next morning he’s driving in a company Commodore as we motor south from Albury to Winton under threatening skies and, eventually, sprinkles of rain. By the time we hit the pitlane it’s obvious the track is fully wet.
But BJR has work to do and so Andrew and Macauley Jones, more members of the family clan, get to work in their Development Series cars. They’re not hanging around eventually AJ pushes past the braking mark at the corner opposite the pits, thankfully with some extra bitumen available to spin the car around without hitting anything.
It’s not remotely reassuring for me…
“I think we’ll wait a while. It should dry out around lunchtime,” says Clark.
Which is much more reassuring.
But the sun arrives, the track dries quickly, the other cars run through their programs, and I’m being called.
The BOC racer gets hot water pumped through the engine to prepare for start-up, then barks to life. It’s up on jacks, warming up and waiting for a set of tyres for me track time.
Then it’s down and I’m in. And I realise the view is really quite rubbish. But there is no time to complain as Andrew Jones sits down on the sill – remember the driver’s door is off – for my final briefing.
“Now, remember, it’s eggshells,” he begins.
“Eggshells?” I ask.“Yes, push on everything like you’re pushing on eggshells. Easy on the gas, easy on the brakes, just get a feel for things. Do some laps and then you can stop and we’ll have another talk.”
The cabin is silent now, the door is shut and I’ve been strapped tightly into the seat. All I can hear is my own breathing. And, remembering my last birthday had a 6 at the front, and the only gym I’ve seen lately is one on the way to work, it’s not a happy sound.
But the adrenalin gets me through and I flick down the master switch on the console, then thumb the starter button on the wheel. The engine turns freely and, as I give it more of a tickle on the gas, it fires.
There is no backing out now. So I push down hard on the clutch, which is lighter than I expect, then pull back on the giant gearlever – which sits above and beyond a new ‘handbrake’ that’s just been fitted for Bright’s race starts – to select first.
A bit more gas, a bit less clutch, and I’m away. No stumble, no stutter and no stall. Thankfully.
Down to the white line at the end of the pitlane and I hit the limiter button and I’m away. Thankfully, AJ has pre-warmed the tyres so I have good grip, but I’m still barely beyond road-car pace through the first four corners as I work up to fourth gear to The Sweeper.
And then I know how bad the vision is, because I cannot see any of the kerbs through the esses. I think I’m on the line, but I really don’t know.
But then I hit the first big straight, uncork most of the 650 horsepower and enjoy the instant hit all the way to fifth gear. The car is raucous and raw but clearly built for the job.
A hard stab on the brakes and I’m slow, too much, for the tight-left onto the extended Winton layout. But I’m still loving the sensations flooding through the car and me, from the barking exhaust to the metallic clack of the shift lever, the urgency of the shift lights, and the heavily-connected feedback though the wheel.
There are three more torrid laps as I’m trying to adjust to the assault on my senses, and assess the amount of grip available at the front and rear ends. I know that too much gas will turn me around and pushing too hard or too late on the brakes will mean a near-instant lock-up at the front, with a loss of steering and all sorts of potential nastiness.
So I pit.
“What’s up? You’ve only done four laps,” says AJ as he opens the door.
“I’m stuffed. Quick, I need some water,” I reply.
I’ve forgotten that the cabin in the Commodore is quickly up beyond 40 degrees, with near-zero airflow for cooling, and I’m overheating. Being over-tense on the controls is not helping.
As the silence returns and I start to relax, there is some welcome banter.
“Well, at least you’ve managed to give it 100 per cent throttle. The other blokes we’ve given a drive have barely gone past 60 per cent,” laughs AJ.
“Now, get back out there.”
So I do, enjoying the brump-brump-brump of the limiter in first gear before the explosion of second-gear acceleration back onto the track.
I’m more relaxed, more focused and – yes – more professional this time, as my speed increases and I get closer to the proper operating window of the BOC Commodore.
Now I can feel the excellent front-end grip on turn-in, the genuine balance of the Car of the Future Chassis through The Sweeper, and the power-down grip of the Dunop slicks.
It’s not as racy as some GT3 cars I’ve tried, and definitely missing things like paddle shifts and ABS brakes and traction control, but far better than the earlier V8 Supercars which wobbled and bounced about the place when I took the wheel.
I’m far more comfortable than I was in the Super Cheap Commodore, and I’m getting more track time than I managed during a quick run in the ‘Sandman’ Supercars van that Triple Eight boss Roland Dane trots out for sponsor events, and I’m liking it.
The car is gripped up through corners, and can easily handle more steering and throttle inputs than I’m managing. The back steps out a couple of times in second gear, but it’s a progressive slide and nothing to fear.
So I stop again for another chat, and a tune-up.
“That was better. You’re only five seconds off the pace now,” says AJ.
As I’m sitting I’m remembering some other cars I’ve driven over the years at Winton.
Production-class MR2s and Corollas were fun but not very fast, and a Falcon XR6 was a sideways romp that gave me one of my best-ever race starts – until I was belted from behind into The Sweeper.
Track time in Dick Johnson’s Sierra RS500 was plain scary. It was super-fast on the straights but tippy-toe through the corners, with instant rally-style slides available anytime and anywhere.
And the Audi A4 quattro that Brad-and-Kim loaned me for some Super Touring background? It was nailed down everywhere, more like a thoroughbred single seater than a touring car.
Then AJ brings me back to the present.
“You ready to try that pitstop now?,” he asks.
So the crew gets ready and Clark comes over the radio with the instructions.
“Take it easy, just come in on the limiter, hit the marks and wait for the boys to do their job. Oh, and hit the board but try not to bowl me over,” he says.
So I do as he says and then I’m thrust into the air with the sounds of rattle guns accompany a rocking feeling as the wheels are switched.
I’ve decided to leave it in first for the whole job, so I’m holding my left foot down hard against the clutch stop with my right foot hard on the brake. Then I need to wriggle to get more comfortable and I realise I’m releasing the brake. No. No.
But I get it back on track and the car is dropped. It bounces slightly and I dump the clutch. And I don’t still.
I’m just congratulating myself as I reach the pitlane limit, dump the speed limiter, and realise I’m at full throttle. The car bucks, bounces onto the limiter, and I battle the steering to keep the car straight.
So I’m definitely an amateur, then.
But the speed is better on my final run, I can see and feel the times coming down – as my upshifts come sooner each lap – and the we’re now working together. The car is nicely balanced, I’m being more positive, and it’s just . . . well, fun.
But then, coming into turn one, the car is moving to the left when I want to stay right. It takes a second, but I realise I’ve locked the left-front wheel. There is a blue light shining from the wheel, and Bright tells me later he has a warning buzzer plugged into his helmet, but that’s no help as I battle to get back to the proper spot on the track. I make it, but it’s a reminder that a small mistake can have big consequences.
As I wobble up to turn three, my personal favourite with its wide-open entry and the chance for a big blast of power before a hard brake, I’m thinking it’s probably time to stop.
It’s also the time I realise my left knee is hurting from being banged against the centre tunnel, my hips hurt from being jammed down into Bright’s seat, and even my forearms hurt from holding the wheel.
But I’m sitting more comfortably on a giant piece of foam that means I can finally see the kerbs, so there is time to run for a little longer.
Once again, I feel more of a driver than a passenger or conductor, placing the car more accurately and being more assertive on the gas and brake. There is much more to come, but then . . .
Entering The Sweeper, staying well right for a late turn-in, AJ goes past in his Development car. He cuts down early across the kerb, washes speed through the middle of the corner, hooks up the gas and is gone.
Right then, right there, I can see where he is slashing an easy second from his laptime. And why he’s a professional racer and I’m a writer.
But the car is straight and still shiny, ready for Bright’s main-game test the following day, and I haven’t been onto the grass or into a wall.
So it’s a success and I can now report that the Car of the Future, on the grippy new Winton layout, is much more user friendly than other touring cars I’ve tried. And I’m awed, again, by the talent and commitment, and fitness, of blokes who race them wheel-to-wheel and door-to-door for a living, especially at Bathurst.
Days later, after looking at pictures which show the BOC Commodore could be parked and not the dangerous beast I remember, I can still feel the punishment my body has sustained in just 20 laps. I can only imagine a double-stint at Bathurst…
But there is one more job and it’s fun and revealing, as I email Chris Clark to get details of the Dunlop tyres I had been using.
“They were from Bright’s car, Bathurst 2015,” he replies, before the knockout punch for the amateur.
“Oh, and they were all round when we fitted them”.
Date posted: January 11, 2017