Struggling Imprezas, a fast BMW, slow Audi and a Forester from heaven

All I can think to myself as I stand at the flag-off point is how odd a collection of vehicles this is. Does nobody know what an autotest (sometimes referred to as a gymkhana) is?

I can see an old Legacy station wagon. I can see not one, not two, but three Subaru Foresters, only one of which is fettled by the STi skunkworks team.

I can see a W124 Mercedes-Benz E Class. There is also a Volkswagen Passat. A Suzuki Swift. A BMW 335i. There is even an Audi S5 coupé.

This looks more like a gathering of a youth-oriented Sacco meeting than the starting lineup for one of the best motoring tournaments this country has seen in a while. Maybe they are here to vie for a Top 40 Under 40 vote in a business newspaper pullout. Who knows?

NO FEMALE FASHION BLOGGER

But then again, peppered among these concours-class automobiles are an infinite number of Subaru Imprezas, ranging in vintage and iteration from the first-generation GC8 saloon (and a solitary GF8 estate) to the (almost) latest 2014 STi; a boggo automatic WRX and a highly tuned 5-speed STi share space with a new 6-speed stock car.

The number of doors varies from two to five. The tailpipes are all spitting sharp bursts on the overrun. They are all blue; so blue and noisy that a female fashion blogger would wear sack-cloth, tear out her hair and smear ashes upon herself if she were to spend even five minutes in their midst.

I am no female fashion blogger though; I am in my element here: the drivers are my friends, and irrespective of what I sometimes write about their cars, I cannot help but admire the array of metal stretching backwards towards the tail end of the runway. This is going to be good.

The drivers all have questions and suggestions. Some say they cannot see all the cones, and could I please place a few more?

No, the course is what it is, you should have used the sighting lap to get your bearings. Now you have one practice lap to decide how hard to throw your car in my carefully hand-crafted hairpin turns when you put the hammer down.

Others say they might get lost.

Sure, go ahead and get lost… and get disqualified in the process.  You either follow the course as is or forget about getting ranked. Please, pay attention. Next!

One or two say the first roundabout is too tight.

I know, I made it that way. It is deliberate. Use your brakes wisely, sir.

What these drivers do not know is that the organisers have laid down a special surprise for the spectators. It is here that we (as tradition has always dictated) pause and go back in time to names and cars that have featured in this column before. We will start with the car.

If you remember the onset of the strained relations between Car Clinic and the Subaru Fan Club, then you definitely remember a piece that appeared here titled “The White King vs The Dark Knight”.

DARK KNIGHT

The Dark Knight (a black Zero Sports GDB Subaru Impreza WRX STi — the so-called N10 version) was originally owned by Zul Mohamed before changing hands twice and landing under The Paji’s ownership, which is just about the time he and I pitted it against a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI Extreme Edition; and the resultant write-up instigated a war that saw social media light up in flames and all forms of diplomacy disappear between this columnist and Subaru drivers everywhere.

I enjoyed driving that car fast, just as much as I enjoyed writing the review. The car was sold not too long afterwards.

The current owners of The Dark Knight said they would put up an appearance, but not the way many would have expected.  Like extra-terrestrial beings, they would come from the sky, bursting through the clouds in a tiny aircraft, I’m guessing a Cessna.

Unbeknownst to whichever driver would be trying to prove himself on the skid-pan at the moment of first contact, the plane would do a low flyby as said driver gunned his poor engine towards the end point aiming for a flying finish (in a manner of speaking) in such a way that both aircraft and vehicle would cross the finish line together. I think some of my colleagues might be watching too many reruns of BBC Top Gear.

The Passat driver drew the short straw. As he did his lap, the plane appeared and circled overhead. As soon as he entered the final straight, the plane dipped low overhead, aligned itself with the car and… and everybody forgot about the car.

Faces turned skyward, jaws hung open, fingers fiddled with cameras and there was a collective gasp as both car and plane shot past the befuddled crowd, leaving behind a swirling vortex that may or may  not have created a bit of unwitting immodesty among the more fancily decked out female viewership. Talk about a photo finish.

About that Passat: the driver does possess prodigious amounts of testicular fortitude… either that or he desperately wanted to drive on a skidpan.

The car may pack the necessary firepower: a 3.2 liter V6 engine; and the drivetrain may have been ideal to counteract the effects of driving a big saloon at high speed through tight corners: it has Volkswagen’s 4Motion 4WD torque-vectoring technology, so grip and handling create no cause for alarm; but this is a compact saloon specifically designed to compete with Merc’s C Class and BMW’s 3 Series; though whether or not “compact” is the right adjective to describe the car may be the subject of some argument.

It is comfortable and luxurious. This means it is not ideal for use a getaway vehicle, ergo the suspension is oriented towards the wafting end of the bump-swoosh spectrum.

It lumbered hilariously through the turns as the driver tried to make short work of my infuriatingly technical road course.

The size did not help. Save for the Legacy, it was easily the longest vehicle at the tourney, and could also be very easily the heaviest (not sure about the Audi S5 and its massive V8 engine).

I pictured a look of Wacky Races-type frustration on the driver’s face as the car pitched and rolled its way through the slalom before exhaling in relief at the finishing straight, where the V6 would at least try to compensate for the suspension’s excess of pliancy and lack of compliance in the corners.

Speaking of the finishing straight: the BMW 335i proved a revelation to my tester’s eye. It was surprisingly slow off the line and proved a bit of a handful in the turns, kicking its tail out at the slightest provocation — and inspiring a wild cheer from the crowd in the process.

However, it gave a whole new meaning to “flying finish”. Thundering down the final straight, the car would each time cross the line at a speed that looked as spectacular as it looked unsafe.

That car is insanely fast at that top end. This was further proved by the braking distance required to reel it back in; running all the way to the end of the runway in a cloud of dust kicked  up off the little-used tarmac as the driver tried to save both tyres and brakes from cooking themselves in the steaming cauldron of violence generated underfoot by that impossible velocity.

The Suzuki Swift was a bit of a comic relief. Seriously underpowered, it would have been the next best candidate for trouncing the turbo cars if only (i) the driver pushed it hard enough and, (ii) he ditched the deadweight in the car in the form of a passenger.

Its 1300cc is not much to speak of, so running two deep in the car means that the little available performance is further handicapped by a weight penalty.

Driving at half-throttle didn’t help his case either.

The Swift is a sporty little car, ideal for the challenging slalom which demanded the handling of a housefly to post a good time, as is the Honda Civic Type R.

These were my two candidates for glory on Day 1 of the event, but that was not to be. One driver went wild with his 9,000rpm VTEC car and handbrake in a quest to woo the crowd (Type R Civic) while the other seemed to provide a low-speed taxi service for his passenger, possibly taking his time to count the cones as he drove slowly past them (Swift).

How underwhelming.

While the Civic Type R provided the entertainment, the real shocker came from the solitary Forester SG9, the STi car.

It was nowhere in my top five list of preferred finishers, until the moment I saw its driver show his mettle. He spun out on the final hairpin during his practice lap, reversing into the opposite lane and getting slightly disoriented, but recovered fast. He learned from his mistake.

What we saw in his subsequent laps is the kind of stuff YouTube videos are made of. The car was pushed to its limits: the suspension bottomed out in sharp turns and the hairpins were taken with such alacrity that it felt like watching a cartoon. I have never seen a Forester turn that sharply; almost on its own yaw axis.

Where power was required, the driver went all out. Where braking was required, he almost chucked himself through his own windshield dropping the anchors.

Where turning was required, he turned, harder and faster than anyone else. No surprise then (spoiler alert!) that at the end of the day, he set the fastest time and took the podium.

The blue Imprezas proved that all my reviews have not been rubbish. Understeer dominated; which was then followed by more understeer and then capped off by one last dollop of understeer.

The final hairpin proved to be their undoing as almost all STis bit the dust (literally) trying to carve the sharpest line that would then feed their cars into the final straight.

Not many saw this, but I rubbed my hands with glee every time a contender wiped out; while thinking to myself “Where is AYC when you need it?”. The Evolution team needs to step up.

DRAG LORDS

There isn’t much to say about a head-to-head shootout between two cars in a straight line, apart from that it is highly addictive. The drivers wanted to keep at it as long as their fuel and clutch kits allowed.

The shootouts also provided moments of great hilarity, such as the final one that took place before I had to shut down the entire programme. Old Legacy in the left lane, some other Subaru on the right.

Both drivers had eyes on the Christmas tree (the traffic light that indicates when the contenders can gun it). Red… red… red… orange… the next light should have been green but the joker in the right lane did not wait to confirm what colour came next. He just sped off.

By the time the green light came on, he was almost halfway down the track, aiming for the horizon like his salary depended on how many sunsets he could capture through his windscreen before the day was over.

His visibly disgusted rival couldn’t do much beyond throwing his hands disgustedly in the air and slowly amble after the jumpy fellow; who by that point must have been celebrating his illegal victory.

It reminded me of one of the most apt sayings I have ever read: A man running alone thinks he runs fastest. A Subaru running alone will flatly refuse to come back to the start line, irrespective of whatever race infractions its driver may have committed.

There was a bicycle too. The lone rider showed up, begged to be let on the track, and as track master, I allowed it. He did his recce. He then threw down a gauntlet: he wanted to take on the fastest car. None of the drivers wanted to play ball: bicycles can be ridiculously fast when the going demands it.

Zero-100 in less than three seconds and speeds well north of 300km/h are the forte of these bipeds… in other words; one needs a highly tuned Nissan GTR or a painfully expensive Bugatti Veyron to take on these leather-suited speed freaks if embarrassment is to be avoided. Well, humiliation was on the menu that Sunday as the Audi S5 (V8 power, team favourite) was roundly flattened by the highly motivated rider.

I do not like motorbikes and redemption came at prize-giving time. It just so transpired that while the S5 may have initially lost to the bike, the fastest car on the drag strip set the exact same time as the iron horse.

On a short half-kilometer arena like ours, defeating a bicycle is well-nigh impossible; and matching its pace is the stuff of legends, Well, we had a legend in our midst; a hero who eventually took the drag trophy.

Never mind that he was driving a Subaru wagon (and an old one at that). Cyclists, get your collective act together and then come challenge these flat-four boys. They have come a long way and if appearances are anything to go by, they are here to stay.

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