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VCMCer in Europe


  • VCMCer in Europe

    Thanks to a colleague at work, I was able to purchase an exotic car driving experience at a steep last-minute discount. The experience involved convening at an unused airstrip (you guys will be familiar with this!) and going out for a few laps with an instructor alongside.

    Since we had to hire a car anyways, we decided to make a weekend trip out of it and explore Oxford while we were in the area. Here are my impressions of the cars that I drove around the track which was short (about 40 seconds) but had long straights to let the cars stretch their legs a bit.

    Lotus Elise: 2000lb/190hp

    I have wanted to try an Elise for a long time as I have seen a few of them at local autocross events. I think of the Elise as a great "compromise" car - light, agile, reliable, and cheap enough to use on a daily basis.

    Since this was my first car, I spent a few laps learning the track and was a bit tentative. Also, the instructor had me stay in 3rd gear even for the slow corners. I think she didn't want any chance of spins on the damp corner exits. The passing etiquette was that you wait for a turn signal from the car ahead, and then pass on the right. I spent a couple of straights staring at the big diffuser of a Ferrari wondering if the Elise was too low to be seen!

    Overall, the car felt just like I thought it would - the small cockpit, small steering wheel and short shift movements made you feel like you were wearing the car. Unfortunately with the wet conditions you couldn't really explore the handing limits of the car.

    Porsche 996: 2900lb/315hp

    The Porsche is another great "everyday car" that is practical enough to drive every day. I have driven a 911 before, but really only on public roads and in a very careful manner. I was looking forward to pushing one towards its limits.

    The car I drove was a retired race car equipped with roll cage, race seat, and stripped interior. This all enhanced the experience for sure, and really let the mechanical sounds of the Porsche 6-cylinder boxster engine come through.

    The most memorable part of this car was the engine. It sounds terrific, and power is steady all the way to the high RPMs.

    Ferrari 360: 3200lb/400hp

    This is definitely the car that I looked forward to the most. Driving a Ferrari is one of those "must do before I die" sort of experiences.

    My first Italian car started off in a very Italian car sort of way. I pulled on the door handle and the power window slides down a half inch, but the door doesn't open. I pull again. Nothing. I wave at the instructor sitting inside and he opens from the inside. It turns out that I just wasn't pulling hard enough!

    Pulling away, you can already tell that it has a super light flywheel. A gentle touch on the gas and the revs fly up to 2500, let out a bit of clutch and the revs fall way down to near stalling.

    The shifter is difficult and the clutch is really heavy. My first lap out and I grind 4th gear. Oooops! My first couple of tries at rev matching are tough, as the RPMs seem to quickly fall off in between shifts. And it's hard to shift quickly because it takes twice the usual force to get through those metal gates!

    Eventually, my muscles learn the controls and I am able to actually upshift and downshift with smoothness. This is the only car where I was tired afterwards! When you can drive it smoothly, I have to say that it makes you feel like a strapping Italian stud with wind-blown golden hair.

    I have to say that the most memorable part of driving the Ferrari was the whining of the gearbox behind me as the speeds increased. The car is certainly very fast on the straights, but it went by so fast that I can hardly remember it.

    Aston Martin DB9: 3890lb/400hp

    It is interesting to hop into the DB9 after the 360 because it feels like a totally opposite sort of car. The interior is amazingly luxurious. The dashboard and every over surface is covered with stitched leather. The instrument pod looks like a Swiss watch. The DB9 was an automatic with paddle shifting. That along with the immense weight of the car means that it feels very much like a yacht, if the Ferrari feels like a speedboat.

    I will remember the DB9 for the rich sound of its V12 engine, long braking distances, and sluggish responses to corners. While I think the DB9 by far looks the best out of the group, it ended up being the least fun to drive at the limit.

    Ford Ka: 2000lb/60hp

    It might seem odd, but I was actually looking forward to the smallest and cheapest of Ford cars – the reason being that we were going for a timed “autotest”. An autotest is basically a test of parking lot manoeuvring skills. I turned out to be not as much fun as I’d hoped – the course was incredibly tight, and had none of the flow which I’m used to with an autocross.

    Take a large space and make the teeeeeniest:

    Subaru Impreza WRX: 3200lb/230hp

    The Subaru in a sense is a good last car as it was very similar to a regular passenger sedan. This version is the 220hp version rather than the 300hp STi which is a tad disappointing, but I did still manage to pass one of the Ferraris on the straight (heh heh).

    Since I was only allowed to drive the cars to about 90% of the capabilities, I would have to say that competing against the clock – even in a much slower car or a kart – is more fun. On the driving side, nearly all of the instructors were interested in knowing where I had learned my skills and I gave them a brief description of autocross. I definitely have my years of experience racing around cones to thank for my confidence in pushing these cars right away and not worrying at all about my ability to detect and react to how they behave.

    I am really grateful to have had a chance to drive the cars. Unfortunately, the time behind the wheel was only 5 minutes and all of that was focused on driving the car as well as I could. It would have been great to spend a whole day or weekend with each of these to appreciate the subtle nuances of each.

    Full gallery here.
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