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Shepparton Shenanigans ? Driving Impressions

12/08/10 | by admin [mail] | Categories: Event reports

by Mike Seidler.

With the Civic still out of action following my discovery of the limitations of ?off the shelf? head gaskets at last year?s 6 Hour Relay at Phillip Island, I saw 11 July as simply an opportunity to take my new daily driver Outback for a run up to DECA to perform scrutiny then watch the proceedings and help with timing.

That changed with an offer from Darren McKemmish to share his Fraser Clubman (a contra deal for his use of my trailer), so I added my driving suit and helmet to the gear in the car and headed off early on Sunday morning for the drive up to Shepparton.

Fog and drizzle at Nagambie suggested that the weather would be less than welcoming, but by the time scrutiny was completed the fog was gone, the cloud cleared and we were treated to a bright sunny sky for the remainder of the day. Of course there were still a few puddles of standing water on the skidpan and the track to catch the unwary.

Ten cars with 16 drivers had assembled for the fray with the usual eclectic mix that such ?formula libre? club events attract. Entries ranged from high performance road cars (RX8, Lancer Evo8) through gravel rally cars (Datsun 180B/SSS, Volvo 244) and track-modified sedans (Galant, Datsun P510, Commodore VL) to clubman sports cars (Lotus 7 Mk4, Fraser Clubman).

Dinta showed the caution of one ?once bitten? by not only bringing his track-spec Galant on a trailer, but having Kate arrive in the gravel-spec car as well ? although this may have been due to them running in the HRA X-Trial on the Saturday night. The McKenzie Volvo arrived covered in mud having also been subjected to forest roads the night before and, after a quick wash in town, completed the first set of skid-pan tests on rally tyres.

Fraser Clubman ? Darren McKemmish

A classic clubman design in the Lotus 7 mould, the Fraser has been Darren?s toy since mid 1994 and has seen service in Grand Prix Rallies and other road touring events, sprints and motorkhanas as well as the Phillip Island 6 Hour Relay in 2007 and 2008.

My only prior experience of it was a short ?putter? around the Calder car park after helping at scrutiny for a club sprint about 10 years ago.

Inserting myself in the snug cockpit in preparation for the first of the skid pan/motorkhana tests I was immediately reminded of the tightness of the foot-well that makes the Civic seem positively spacious. Even with my driving boots on, the close spacing of the pedals was going to be a challenge and the firm pedal action also took a little practice.

The torquey nature of the 1600 2TG motor (equipped with ?rally? rather than ?race? spec cams) meant that 1st gear was only used to get the car off the line with 2nd (and occasionally 3rd) being used for the tests proper. All the right ?open sports car? signals were there with the induction roar from the twin DCOE Webers on the right hand side of the car, the side pipe bellowing away on the left, the very direct steering feeding back through the tiny steering wheel and moisture and the occasional small stone being flung into the cockpit despite the cycle guards on the front wheels. A full-face helmet is a must in these situations.

My major difficulty, tight footwell & pedals notwithstanding, was misjudging the length of the car. Even a short car like the Civic still has a good metre and a bit of metal behind the driver?s seat. With the ?clubbie? you sit just forward of the rear (live) axle with barely ˝ a metre of car behind you. As a consequence I miscalculated the stopping distance at the finish garage, overshooting on my first few attempts and not stopping with ?part of the car between the flags? as required.

That aside it was nicely balanced and responsive to the throttle and, most importantly, fun to drive.

Having gained some familiarity with the car through the motorkhana tests I was then ready to take it out on the track. While the tight pedals were merely an annoyance on the skid pan, they became a real hassle on the track. The overall balance and poise of the car was never in question, however I found that my transition from a heel and toe down-change to getting back on the throttle was almost invariably hampered by just tripping the edge of the brake pedal. Whether this contributed to my spinning at the ?hairpin? on my second run I cannot say, but it certainly interfered with my ability to concentrate on driving the track cleanly. That Darren is able to drive the car smoothly must be testament to lots of time spent in the car or perhaps to deceptively dainty feet.

When we returned to the track for the afternoon session, Darren got his first two runs in relatively close together (to save adjusting the belts all the time), however as he came off the track from his second run a high pitched metal-on-metal sound and the smell of coolant indicated that all was not well. A quick inspection showed that the fan belt had been spat off and that, together with a puddle of coolant, suggested that the water pump had had enough (still TBC by an ?autopsy?).

With the trailer at hand there was little to be gained by pulling it apart on the spot so it was towed back to the car park ready to be loaded up at the end of the day.

This left me without a car to have my second session on the track, but not for long. Matt?s Commodore, which in the morning had been shared with Scott Doughty and Judy Corocan, was now down to ?only? one driver, so Matt duly offered me the VL as my mount for the remainder of the day.

VL ?Berlina? Commodore ? Matt Swan

The VL was Matt?s 3rd rally car after a brace of Mazda RX7?s. It started life as, quite literally, ?mum?s taxi? being his mother?s car from new until Matt inherited it in 1999. Conversion to a rally car was achieved in part with components from Paul Leicester of ?Friends of OPEC Rally Team? fame who had campaigned a VL back in the late 80?s to early 90?s

The car started life as a normally aspirated 3 litre, was converted to turbo spec in the early 2000s then reverted to normal aspiration as it became evident that turbo power accelerated rear tyre wear without appreciably increasing the speed of the car. Powered by the current well balanced N/A motor, Matt was knocking on the door of the VRC top 10 until his acquisition of the ex-Simon Evans ARC WRX in 2007 saw him burst through the door and into the top 5.

With the WRX serving gravel duties since then, the VL has been progressively converted to tarmac spec, running the Phillip Island 6 Hour in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 with an increasingly tarmac oriented suspension set-up. This was capped off at the 2009 6 Hour with the impulse purchase of brand new Bridgestone rubber that saw the car consistently going faster than the nominated time.

My only previous experience of a VL was driving Peter Otzen?s standard example around a Maldon Muddle motorkhana course back in the early 1990s. What impressed me at the time was the car?s balance and the benign handling that comes from a comparatively long wheelbase.

Settling into Matt?s stripped out track car I was struck by how well laid out it was with all the controls in exactly the right place ? no tight footwells here! It probably helps that Matt and I are about the same height. Hitting the starter button resulted in the mellow burble that only a well worked 6 produces.

Heading out onto the track for my first run reinforced my initial impression regarding the ergonomics - everything was where it was supposed to be and by the end of the warm-up lap I was already feeling comfortable in the car.

My first run was deliberately conservative, but even so the car inspired confidence. I had been expecting to need to ?persuade? it around corners but instead of a heavy projectile needing constant correction, it sat firmly but lightly on the road, went where you pointed it and, thanks to the well weighted power steering, responded well to measured inputs. The balanced 3 litre straight 6 (courtesy Nissan via M Swan esq) pulled beautifully from moderate revs meaning that only 3rd and 4th were required ? although I did experiment with 5th on the long straight. The LSD kept the rear end in line when accelerating out of the tighter corners and the brakes, when stopping hard for the chicane, were firm and consistent.

My first run was around 10 seconds off Matt?s best time. The second run I started pushing a little harder. Over the ?hill? and the ?table top? the car required a touch of opposite lock as it unweighted slightly on the rise but certainly nothing desperate, and I got within about 5 seconds of the car?s owner. A third run saw me take another second or so off that and I was only just starting to explore the car?s limits. I have no doubt there was more to be gained without being silly and throwing it into the trees. It was just so easy to drive.

This impression was further reinforced on the skid pan where the torquey engine and LSD meant that, with the right combination of throttle and steering input, the car could be made to go pretty much anywhere with no handbrake required. Added to that, it had more than 50cm of metal behind the driver?s seat so stopping with the car on the finish line was not the same challenge it had been in the clubbie.

Overall it was an absolute hoot to drive and a credit to Matt for having set it up so well.


Matt competing on one of the very large motorkhana tests at DECA

So which was my favourite?

If I could find the space, in between all the Civic bits, either would be a welcome addition to my garage. They represent opposite ends of the typical club-car spectrum ? a modified production sedan and a purpose built lightweight sports car - and different answers to the same question: ?How can I go as fast as possible while remaining on the track??

The clubbie was pretty much everything I?d expected ? tight, direct and very involving. A bit more time spent in the car, narrower driving shoes and perhaps a subtle modification of the interior trim to give another 10 ? 15mm to the right of the accelerator pedal would make it a great choice for a (fine weather) sprint.

The VL on the other hand was a pleasant surprise. Although Matt was bemoaning the fact that, despite all his work, it still ?...drives like a taxi...? I think it is this very quality that makes it so much fun. It has no particular vices and although it can turn around and bite you (as Graham Pate discovered in a trial run when braking too late for the chicane) it provides plenty of timely feedback about what it is doing and positively encourages press-on driving.

My thanks to Darren and Matt for letting me loose in their respective toys. It was a great insight into the choices that others have made and the different sets of compromises and constraints that every competition car represents.

Now if only we can get Lindsay Fox along to the next Shepparton Shenanigans....

Michael Seidler


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