Voices

I experienced a Tesla, a Toyota 86 and a Formula Vee racecar all at Phillip Island

I love the variation in my job, which overlaps seamlessly into my recreation.

ON FRIDAY NIGHT I picked up a Dodge Ram, a giant American ute over 6m long with nearly 1100Nm of torque that can tow over six tonnes. Naturally, I drove it to Phillip Island where I used it to set out cones and yes, a 3500kg ute is somewhat overkill for carrying a few bits of brightly coloured plastic. But it was fun! d11d8622

I spent the rest of the day instructing novices to racetracks at an MSCA Come and Try Day, one of whom was driving a Tesla. I also hotlapped a mate’s 86, and drove a tiny open-wheeled Formula Vee racecar. And then drove back home in the Ram.

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Image credit: http://www.sdpics.com

I’ve written quite a bit about the 86, and a Ram review is on the way, so I want to zero in on the Tesla and the Vee. You don’t drive student cars, but nevertheless the Tesla 90D S was quite an experience. It’s nearly 5m long, weighs close to 2200kg of which around 700kg is batteries, and has two electric motors, one for the front axle and one for the rear. Below is the 100, which is very similar to the 90:

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Everything is controlled by a sophisticated array of computers driven off a huge variety of sensors, and the Tesla is very much the car of the future, now. So of course it is different, and that was even noticeable while we were waiting in pit lane, where there was of course just quietness… in contrast to the car with a modified exhaust owned by another of my students!

Then there was the satnav – I have a printout of the track with me, but the Tesla has a 17-inch display screen and Google Earth. Not often you can see that sort of detail.

d11d8634 I looked closely but there weren’t any of the geese that populate the track represented on the screen. More work needed, Tesla.

Soon it was time to follow the pace car out on track, and as we passed the circuit entry I told the driver we could accelerate. Well, we did… and as I’m sure you’ve heard, Tesla all-electric acceleration is quite something to experience. It’s pretty brutal, and accompanied by barely any noise so there’s an odd disconnect between ears and body – I’m used to hearing the roar of a V8 or something when we gather speed that fast. Nevertheless, you get used to it.

Out on track the Tesla performed better than I expected. It’s heavy and not even a pure sportscar, but it seemed to handle the track very well, aided by a cautious but competent driver. Obviously there were no gearchanges to upset balance, the car tracked accurately in the corners, was stable at speed and generally permitted rapid and unhurried progress. The braking, always a problem with roadcars on circuits, would have been helped by the regeneration system. If the stability control ever kicked in I never felt it, and I suspect there would have been all manner of driving aids working in the background to contribute to the car’s track performance.

Rapid progress could be made for sure, but the car’s ability to pile on speed did seem to tail off earlier than an equivalently-engined petrol vehicle. On public roads with 100km/h limits you’d never worry though, and I think it can be confidently said that Teslas are rapid in more than just short straight lines. Overall, it’s an impressive vehicle and it’d be interesting to actually try and hotlap it. 

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Image credit: http://www.sdpics.com

We had two instructor sessions in the car, both about 15 minutes long, and between the first and second the owner was able to recharge the car off a 240v power supply. However, after the next one – when he had more confidence and was therefore quicker – that wasn’t possible, so I guess come the day that we’re all driving electric sportscars we’ll need a lot of fast-charging devices. Better than the array of jerrycans we use now I suppose.

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But that begs a question – would you drive an all-electric sportscar? I would if there was nothing else, a bit like I’d eat tofu if the alternative was starvation. Yes, the speed and acceleration is there, but you miss the rawness, the theatre of the petrol engine which for me at least is a large part of the enjoyment of a motor vehicle, and no amount of engineering or electronics can compensate for the delightful directness of a lightweight motorcar.

Just like the Formula Vee. This is a tiny little open-wheel racecar weighing less than 500kg built using VW parts from which the series gets its name. You sit low and need a full-face helmet, it’s manual, and there’s absolutely no electronics to help you at all. You have to remove the steering wheel, then squeeze into the cockpit, then refit the wheel.

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I’m happy I’m not any wider, and that I’m wearing my race shoes with thin, narrow soles as the three pedals are close together. The four-speed gearshift is to the right, and it’s the smallest gearlever you can imagine with the shortest throw I’ve ever used. I’m given a direction only to use third and fourth, which is more or less what I say to my own students.

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Image credit: http://www.sdpics.com

The engine is behind me, and it’s noisy. The owner, trusting soul that he is, pushes me out of the pits, and it’s time to hit the track.

The acceleration is, after the Tesla, slow. But the sense of acceleration is quite different, and so you feel like you’re going faster than you are. You’re much lower, there’s the loud engine note rising in direct proportion to speed, and you have to change gears yourself. There is a thrilling connectedness with the car the larger vehicle cannot offer…you can see the front wheels… it’s a real racecar, just a little one. It’s also mid-engined and not mine, so I’m taking it easy, not wanting to explore lift-off oversteer into Turn 1. But I am learning. I thought I knew Phillip Island but this car is teaching me so much more about the track surface it’s like I’ve never turned a lap there before. It would be amazing to race one of these, and they’re pretty cheap by racecar standards.

Maybe I’ll buy that Dodge Ram and load a Vee in the back, while I still can before Teslas take over the world.

Further reading

Title image and all on-track shots by SD Pics: http://www.sdpics.com


Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is the editor of PM4x4, an offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/