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Saturday, 13 August 2011

One Ticked Off The Bucket List

This article is so called because I've said from the start that I will drive this car before I die. As of 12/8/11, I have.
For my combined Birthday and Christmas present in 2009, my grandparents bought me a supercar gift experience that entitled me to drive a Lamborghini Murciélago 6.2 around a former airfield in Elvington in north Yorkshire (which I booked for February '10). Going from a 67bhp Fiat Grande Punto 1.2 to a 570bhp Lamborghini V12 a mere 2 or 3 months after passing my driving test was... interesting, especially as the driving position was rather awkward (requiring short arms and long legs) and I couldn't see out very well. The result was somewhat feeble driving. It was certainly fun though, and it sounded awesome - not just to hear that 6.2-litre V12, but also to snick-snick the open-gated manual gearbox into position - but I didn't really do myself proud. I didn't even hit 100mph. This year, however, was going to be better than last year......

For Christmas in 2010, I got another gift experience (that I asked for, rather than being a pleasant surprise). With another year of driving under my belt, I was finally going to drive the Gran Turismo Hero Car: the awesome Nissan GT-R. This is a car I followed as closely as one can on the internet. Every new spy photo, every new technical detail, I knew about it pretty quickly. The PlayStation racing sim had sparked a real love for the Nissan Skyline GT-R, and the bespoke R35 is something I anticipated more than pretty much anything (except maybe Gran Turismo 5). After about four years of dreaming about what it's like, and sitting in one at every opportunity at car shows, this was the big one. I was actually going to find out.

I said in my head on the way to Kenilworth (on the 12th August '11) that I would be able to compare Gran Turismo to real life. If my mind hadn't been distracted by a metallic dark grey McLaren MP4-12C in a petrol station, I probably would've remembered how the Lamborghini threw me around when the instructor and I swapped seats and that at the end of the day, even though the cars on GT5 handle almost identically to their real-life counterparts, and my Logitech Driving Force GT communicates so well you can get an excellent feel for how much grip there is, your chair at home isn't moving. Instead, I started thinking about the prevailing weather conditions as it started raining...

The clockwise circuit. Pit entry before final chicane.
We eventually arrived dry at Prodrive in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, where the track is based. Prodrive are actually a lot more important than they get credit for. They've put together Subaru Impreza rally cars for years - including Colin McRae's championship winner, if I'm not wrong - as well as the Aston Martin DBR9, Ferrari 550 LM, the 2011 Mini Countryman WRC, a few limited edition road cars and probably a few other things too, so it was cool to be on their turf, and actually spot a Countryman WRC somewhere out of the way of experience-goers.

As we sat there having arrived early, two of my siblings my mother and I (the third sibling and my dad weren't available), we rolled the windows down a little and relaxed, as the distant sound of Audi V8s, Lamborghini V10s, an Aston Martin V12 or two and the screaming supercharger of an Ariel Atom 300 echoed through the very tall trees that help hide secret cars from view. The anticipation built up as it had before in the car park at Elvington... and then it rained again. First it was light, raising the fear that this was the start of a slow-burning storm that would last our entire visit rather than simply a quick shower. With the 3:15pm deadline for when we could show up looming the rain picked up quite heavily, before subsiding into light drizzle and then, thankfully, nothing at all. Perhaps we were just on the edge of a bigger rain storm. Still, it left us with just enough time to get the minibus over to reception to sign in, get my papers in order and hop into the passenger seat of an MG ZS for two demo laps.

Once I'd found the right woman with a clipboard to show my paperwork, I waited as a white Nissan GT-R hoved into view, turning right before the north-east chicane and looping round the coolest car park I've seen all year, with two V8 Audi R8s, an Aston Martin AMV8 and two DB9s (one coupé and a Volante), three Ferrari F360s (one Modena and two Spiders) a broken-down F355 and an F430 of each body style, four Lamborghini Gallardos (three early Spyders and a rare LP550-2 Balboni in white), a Murciélago LP640 Roadster, a Porsche 911 Turbo (996), a Lotus Elise (S2), an Ariel Atom 300 SC (piloted by someone dressed exactly like The Stig), and a Vauxhall VXR8 (powered by a 6.0 Corvette V8 and hooned around by a lunatic). The latter two were for passenger thrill rides only. I stood eagerly as the previous person got out, waiting for the instructor to walk over and call out my name in a "now it's your turn to drive your dream car" kind of way...

"Olivia?"

Crap! Have I missed it? They explicitly say that if you're late, you don't get to do it, and it was by now a few minutes after 16:00, when I was due to be in the car. The next 10 minutes of waiting for the GT-R to return again were agonising, as I started to genuinely think he wasn't going to say my name after "Olivia" got out. Thankfully, he did say it, and I immediately put my hand up and hopped over the little fence for spectators (they must have been running late or something). I walked towards the instructor - sadly, his name escapes me - who extended his hand. I was a little nervous, so I looked at his hand for a moment and started handing him my paperwork, before realising he was going for a handshake. Brain fart number 1...

After I said hello, I headed towards the GT-R as the instructor opened the door for me, and lowered myself in. Having sat in GT-Rs before, everything was instantly familiar, yet it was still exciting to see it, a bit like seeing Jeremy Clarkson in person for the fourth or fifth time, except that this time it was the equivalent of finally being able to shake his hand and say hello (which I haven't actually done to JC yet). The bucket seats expected someone a little thinner than I am, and at first my side flab felt a little squished, but as I would later find out, those substantial side bolsters come in handy when the going gets twisty. The driving position was much better than in the Lamborghini I drove 14 months previously, but it still felt quite dark and enclosed, perhaps just because I'm used to driving a hatchback with taller windows and a much bigger windscreen. Still, it was resolutely a driving environment and not an armchair in a box with a wheel in front of it. One thing I'd have to get used to quickly was the semi-automatic gearbox, as like any real petrolhead, I've only ever driven a manual car (even the Murciélago). I asked if I could use the paddles to change gear myself and the instructor replied "I'll tell you when to change gear". Good. With my left foot retired for the next 10 minutes, I pressed on the brake and he pressed the starter button (why I couldn't have done that myself, I don't know...). The GT-R cleared its throat as it awoke and rested into a bassy hum. He put it into Auto while I got out of the pits - for want of a better word, as it was really just a line of cars with cones between them - and I released the brake expecting it to move off on its own somehow. It did a little, but I did of course have to brush the accelerator a bit... until we were cut up by a yellow Gallardo Spyder. These supercar drivers, eh? It's always all about them...

But enough about other people, and more about me in my supercar. Once the Gallardo had moved away in front of us, I started to move down the "pit" exit, avoiding the wet-surface skid pan, and onto the track. We were still going about 15mph initially, so I was prompted to move things on a little. Whenever I need to motivate the Punto, it takes a fair bit of throttle to get it to do anything at all, and this habit meant that I jerked the GT-R forward when I first tried to do the same thing here. Perhaps I'll have to mentally adjust how I use the accelerator. Or perhaps not; once we moved onto the track, the instructor kept saying "Give it a little more throttle", so I did. The first time I squeezed it a meaningful amount, there was more of a surge than I expected and I backed off again, but with memories of the Murciélago in the back of my mind, I wasn't going to waste another prime opportunity, especially not now I'm so much more confident behind the wheel (with 20 months under my belt instead of 2), so I persevered. The GT-R surged forward with the kind of constant force I've only ever felt before on a tube train, and the low, growly sound of the 3.8-litre V6 TT stirring underneath me motivated me further. The leather-bound soft metal gearshift paddles (right to go, left to slow) felt thick and meaningful when I changed gear. In fact, it was such a satisfying thing to do that I didn't really miss having to use a gear stick. I think I would miss it on a long term basis, but for now it was absolutely appropriate for what I was doing, and my left foot didn't keep tapping or pressing on the foot rest like I thought it might. I'm quite happy that my brain readjusted so quickly and easily to using paddles. That said, after the first chicane, I did forget to change up into 3rd gear despite the instructor saying "Up one! Up one! Go up a gear!" After I finally did, he felt urged to remind me how to use them. Brain fart number 2...

After that was out of the way though, things only got better. After two more chicanes (one of which looks impossibly tight, yet we're all encouraged to accelerate through it), I got to the final right-left-right before the long straight, lining up to overtake the Lamborghini Gallardo that cut us up before, on the exit of the final corner. Four more cylinders? 30 more bhp? Big deal. I know the GT-R is extremely grippy, even in conditions TopGear would call "mildly moist", so before the wheel was even straight I extended my right leg as far as possible and the GT-R duly responded, perhaps thinking "Yes, let's finally get this show on the road!" in that big computer mind it has. The result was unbelievable. It felt like the back of the leather bucket seat was a catapult that had just been released, and the Gallardo simply disappeared to my left. A part of my brain that had made me lift off before started saying "No, this is scary", but the rest of my brain was saying "No, keep going, this is fucking awesome!", and I got it up to 116mph before I had to slow back down again (I wasn't allowed to take it up to the red line in case I broke something, but generally shifted at around 5-5500rpm out of 7000). I only know this having watched the video afterwards, but I did have a quick glance at the speedo and saw it brush past 100 without incident. I had never felt acceleration like that before, and it was enough for me to say "Bloody hell!" out loud. In the braking zone, I again had to use the pedals differently - my 1.2 Punto has the bigger, more potent brakes from a 1.4 thanks to the factory workers being slightly Italian, so there's not much travel in the brake pedal and I don't have to squeeze it much. This meant that the instructor (okay, I think his name might've been Paul, but don't quote me on that) had to say "Ok, slow it down now, bit more, hard on the brakes! Theeere we go". At the end of the first chicane, there's a big bump, and the first time I accelerated on it, it felt like the car moved around a bit, perhaps coming unstuck, but the video didn't reveal any wobbling, so it was probably a brief drop in traction that the highly-advanced ATTESA-ETS All-Wheel-Drive system sorted out in an instant.

I had to get used to changing direction in the GT-R as well, because I generally consider being thrown to one side in the seat (well, as much as those side bolsters would allow) as doing something wrong or being messy, but here it's just because this car weighs 1740kg (plus people and petrol) and can still change direction quickly, and even in the two tight chicanes bookending the straight, you're going through them notably faster than you would on the road. The steering wasn't as heavy as the similarly hefty Murciélago, but it still felt very meaningful. It was very nice to use, and felt quite natural once I'd settled in. It's heavier than my Punto's steering, but in a good way (Fiat steering has too much power assistance, so there's not much feel). I do think that with practice, I would shave seconds off my lap times by acclimatising to how much you move around in the car and getting more confident and faster. In fact, I'd like to think my times tumbled anyway, but there isn't actually a start/finish line, so I'll never know. You're allowed 4 laps, an out-lap, two hot laps and an in-lap, and as I did the rest of them, I overtook another Gallardo Spyder (an orange one) in the same place, as well as a Ferrari F360 Modena on the little straight before the final chicane. I would also have overtaken an Aston Martin DB9 Volante there the next lap, but just when I was ready to accelerate again, they stayed right, and so did I, as I was instructed to pull into the pits. Curiously, the DB9 didn't pull into the pits, so maybe they were defending...

The instructor put the car back into Auto mode again as we made a long right, then went past the car park and looped round again to park to the right of an Audi R8, accidentally running over a cone with my left-rear wheel as I did (well, I am used to short-wheelbase hatchbacks). As we came in he asked me what I thought. I think I must have just used a superlative, but I can't remember. I shook his hand and thanked him for what he had just helped me do, but it was a slightly weak shake, fair enough considering the white-knuckle ride I just gave myself. It's difficult to immediately put an experience like that into words, but I can tell you now it was a rush like I have never had in a car before, if at all, and probably won't have in my own car for many years to come, which is actually quite a depressing realisation...
Still, I have at least experienced it, and I like to think I made the most of it, all things considered. I certainly gave a few poster-worthy supercars what-for, which was very satisfying. I was also far from disappointed after meeting my dream car. They say "don't meet your heroes", but there are some exceptions to that, and this is one of them. It is brute force, materialised. What a machine.

Unfortunately we missed the last minibus to a complimentary "Ride in a 4x4" on Prodrive's off-road course (which only costs a donation to charity), as it was getting to the end of the day by then. I watched as some of the cars went off to their resting place, including an LP640 Roadster and the DB9 Volante I would've overtaken, their V12s sounding utterly glorious in their own ways. Then, a different instructor in a white Mitsubishi Evo V (one of the other experience cars) turned up, asking out the window "Is anyone here still waiting for a minibus? Do four of you wanna lift back to the car park?" Two of my siblings, my mother and I obliged, and he drove us half way round the track before peeling off and asking for directions to our car, stopping right behind it. Of course, many thank-yous were in order! There was no seat belt for the middle rear passenger, so he was gentle on the brakes, but gave us a little something in the chicane to remember (you don't need to brake after the first right, so he pretty much took it as he normally would, albeit probably a little slower on entry). It was nice that my appreciative spectators got a little taste of what I just did. To top it all off, on the way back, my car-spotting eyes saw another McLaren MP4-12C (this one finished in eye-catching 'Volcano Orange'), a Ferrari F430, a Jaguar E-Type (S1), a blue Ford Sierra RS Cosworth and two lucky people with their own Nissan R35 GT-Rs.

Overall it was a great day out. The instructors were helpful, professional and friendly, the weather held off at the right time and the venue was great. I also left with a USB stick with a video of me driving, 6 pictures from a professional photographer and a printed photo in a special little folder thingy. As for the GT-R? I must have one. Full stop.

BONUS IMAGE - One of the Lamborghini Gallardos I overtook (with strange exhaust trumpets).
There are two kinds of people in the world: Those that would rather show off in a Lamborghini, and those who would rather hunt down and overtake those people in a Nissan GT-R. This may or may not be true.

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