T2: Ride of the Machine
As the sun slowly sets in the west, a lone engine barks into life. A light breeze blows. There is the low murmur of voices from the garages close by as the mechanics pack up for the night after putting the cars to bed for the night, so as to be ready for the next day's racing. In the fading light, four intrepid explorers await a rare opportunity.
That opportunity is to go for a couple of laps of Oran Park in T2. T2 is a Formula 3 car with a difference. At 700mm longer than a regular F3 vehicle, it is built to accommodate a passenger directly behind the driver. It is a 2001 model, built by Bertram Schaefer Racing in Germany, and my chariot for a short period of time.
The front seat of the T2
Pic: Michael Shaw
The fifth round of the Procar Series of Championships was progressing as per usual on a warm winters day in southern Sydney. Practice and qualifying continued relatively unabated throughout, with the main exception being in a GT-Performance session. On this occasion, Peter Floyd rolled his HSV GTS in the quagmire that the gravel trap at the end of the main straight had turned into. The damage was relatively light for this type of accident and the vehicle was running again, if slightly bent, for qualifying.
Paul Stokell, John Bowe and friends from Nation's Cup took to the circuit for their final fling as I headed down towards the Procar bus, photographer in tow to capture those special moments. Upon arrival, I discovered the first of my fellow passengers. To protect the innocent, or possibly guilty, I won't divulge any names. Outwardly calm, I was sure he was eagerly anticipating what was to come. Small talk ensued to pass the time. I won't bore everyone with the details. It wasn't too long before we were joined by the remaining two riders.
An even shorter time later, we were ushered towards the truck parked next door. Inside we all signed our life away on forms that told us we were going to have a good time by signing our names at the bottom of the page. At least that's what I thought it said. I may have been incorrect in this assumption, I must make a note to read contracts before signing in future.
My previous ride, in a V8 Supercar, wasn't quite to the same level of passenger protection.
"What size are your feet?" I get asked. Quick as a flash, I look down at my shoes. Unfortunately this didn't help as the size is written on the inside, but it didn't take too long to remember and a pair of boots were handed over. Next on the list was a balaclava. Racing suit? With so many to choose from, it wasn't surprising when each of us received one that we were able to squeeze into. Gloves, which were slightly too large, and finally a helmet. The helmet fit like a glove.
At this point we are asked if we need to make a pit stop. Not the best time to ask this question but apparently a previous group had someone who required the little boys room at an almost inopportune time. Luckily we had all planned ahead and no one was required to extract themselves from their suit.
Pic: Michael Shaw
All dressed up with nowhere to go. While awaiting the end of the final session, the obligatory photographs were taken. This appeared to involve 4 people making fools of themselves in front of the camera. This is not a role I am suited to, but I believe I acquitted myself well.
At last it was time to head to T2. Our chauffer for today, was Darren Palmer. Darren is an accomplished driver with previous F3 experience, including winning the Lady Wigram Trophy in New Zealand earlier this year, as well as racing in the US and various sports cars. An impressive portfolio. Unfortunately for Darren, it all came to naught.
An external battery is plugged into the car as Darren brings the engine to life. Clearance is received from Race Control for Darren to head out onto the track to warm the car. My patience is holding up surprisingly well as my anticipation increases. Darren sets off out of pitlane with the engine bumping against the rev limiter to keep him below the speed limit.
Michael waits patiently...
Pic: Lauren Briggs
It did not take long before a record ended. Cold tyres, cooling track, no passenger to add weight to the back and a small amount of dirt on the track all conspired against Darren. He spun. Just at the turn before coming onto the bridge, the back end of the car came around. A quick flick-turn later and you'd think nothing had ever happened.
Filled with confidence, and holder of the metaphorical short straw, I was first in line. I must admit that I wasn't expecting this back seat to be Rolls-Royce spacious, but it was still surprising how little room there was to be had. Unlike McLaren's 2-seat F1 car, there isn't the space to put the passengers legs beside the driver. Clambering over the side pod, I placed my feet on the seat. Shuffling them forward, I attempted to find somewhere to put them. To say this was a fruitless exercise would be an understatement. I soon came to the conclusion that it was bend the knees or nothing. This creates an extremely uncomfortable looking position. My knees were way up high and my feet up, or is it down, at seat level. The seat wasn't much to write home about either. Just a small piece of unknown material there to give a semblance of support in cornering.
Darren Palmer awaits
Pic: Lauren Briggs
Hands in the air, the seatbelts were put into place and tightened. I still have no idea what the view is like as all I'm able to see are my arms and those of the two doing the belts. Once I was snugly in place, I was able to take stock of my surroundings. There were two hand grips on the leading inside edge of the rear cockpit. Not very far away were my knees. Above all of this was a roll hoop and Darren's helmet. Just below the hoop was a small display containing two readouts. Both currently blank, though labelled for speed and revs.
And then it was time to start.
The engine erupted into life with a sharp bark followed by a muffled rumbling through the helmet. The shaking was unexpected. The entire car, and me with it, constantly shakes as the engine idles behind my head. It's actually quite a relaxing massage.
Michael trying to work out how he's meant to fit
Pic: Lauren Briggs
Finally underway with a small surge and quickly up against the speed limiter. The car pushed and jarred me back and forth constantly, knocking my head against the headrest an unknown number of times. The end of pitlane couldn't come soon enough. But once it arrived, all hell broke loose. Darren made the car leap forward, pushing me back in the seat.
A short left to brought us onto the track and down into the first corner. In quick succession, I was thrown to the right and then against the belts and right again. At this point I've caught up with the sensations and am able to prepare myself for the acceleration as we go through turn 1.
Up through a couple of gears and under Oran Park's bridge. I'm trying to second guess the braking point into the next right-hander but turn out to be rather a long way short. We turn right, accelerate again and brake slightly lighter than for the previous corners. Comparatively tiptoeing through the double right towards the bridge, I see why Darren was being so careful. Not only was this the spot that he spun, but I could see the dirt on the inside of the track. We travel onto the bridge and brake for the blind corner to bring us back onto the main circuit. You cannot see the corner from the front seat of a road car and from the back seat of the T2, I could not even see as much as that. My view was of the bridge until we went down the large dip that takes us off the bridge as Darren steered to the right. The rear of the car felt as though it was shifting around, not entirely happy to change direction. It settled down and continued through.
By the time I recover from that movement, we're just about to slow again for the Esses. A sharp stab on the middle pedal slows us dramatically as I once again miscalculate the forces about to be exerted on my body. Right and left and along the short straight to the next corner. Until now, we had stayed off the kerbs. Not only that, but we passed the point where I had learnt that we should be braking and was also surprised by the lightness of the braking force. The slight, though sharp, rise in the track makes for a big difference in how the corner is attacked. The left front wheel appears to glide of the ripple strip as we head towards the small crest in the track.
Pic: Lauren Briggs
Heading towards the dogleg, a thought creeps into my mind that Darren appears to be shifting up gears earlier than possible. This thought was later confirmed, as Darren had been shifting a few hundred revs earlier than he would normally within a race. We swing right and then left through the dogleg quite calmly. It was not as dramatic as it had been in the V8 Supercar, which hugged the left side on the exit, constantly bumping and lurching. The T2 was glued to the road and as Darren didn't need to correct the car as much, was able to make it appear almost smooth.
The timing of the braking as well as the closeness to the road, accentuate the drop and rise entering the final corner of the circuit. The tower and pit complex come into sight as we pull out of the corner and onto the pit straight, drawing ever closer to the outside wall. Speed builds as I realise I hadn't even looked at my little display. From this point, I can't tear my eyes away from the speed. Climbing ever so slowly, higher and higher as 180km/h then 190km/h pass by. 212km/h makes a brief appearance before our speed is required to be reduced for the kink.
Braking what felt later and heavier than our out-lap, we enter the first corner once more. I don't know if it was renewed confidence or just determination but Darren appeared to be pushing the car even more. Under the bridge and again seemingly later braking and faster corner speed. The clincher was the obviously higher velocity through the double right leading onto the bridge.
While never overtly so, the T2 was moving around more than the previous lap. Darren was braking later, cornering tighter and accelerating sooner with each passing moment. The sensations were more of the same and I was able to observe my own reactions to the movement of the vehicle. While I could feel myself being pushed from side to side and front to back, my actual movement was in small amounts. The seating position means that the passenger is capable of bracing their legs and arms in preparation of impending events. My head was rarely buffeted by the rushing air and usually only when I poked it out just a little too far to see around the corner.
All too soon, the second and final lap was completed as we slowed down to the pit speed limit. The engine is shut down and we coast to a halt in front of the crew. My belts are unbuckled and I unfold myself out of the seat. A final graceful leap over the side pod contain my last moments attached to this magnificent machine.
Reduced to being a mere spectator, I view the remaining passengers enjoying their own rides around the track. It's just not the same. The thrill has gone while the memory lingers on.
I would like to thank Darren Palmer, the T2 Crew, Megan McLean of Procar and, finally, Lauren Briggs for her photography skills.