Monsters on ice: sliding sideways with a Supercars ace
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Mere moments before the new millennium, The Matrix came out — a big-screen sci-fi flick that forced us to question artificial intelligence, while also giving Keanu Reeves' film career a sizeable kick in the pants.
The eventual trilogy brought with it fandom and fascination, and while I was never necessarily part of that pact there was always one thing I lingered on; 'bullet time'.
The thought of being able to seemingly suspend time in the midst of stressful chaos for a while consumed me. And I thought it had disappeared from my psyche completely, until a few weeks ago at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds (SHPG) in Cardrona.
Frequent Driven readers will recognise these snowy surroundings, as the SHPG is a firm favourite among a range of manufacturers. Its wide open expanses of joyous snow provides an ultimate playground for both four-wheeled larrikinism, and for new-car testing.
But there's a third element, and that's driver education and safety.
“These days they don't actually teach you how to drive the car [when you get your driver's license]. They just teach you how to park and not to go over the speed limit and to stop and stop signs,” says Cameron Waters; echoing a sentiment plenty of road-safety pundits have been saying for years.
“So when people do go through different conditions, if it's raining or icy, they aren't trained for that.”
Waters is the race-driver front-man for Monster Energy Racing, who on this day played host to a range of their guests (and myself, an infiltrator) on the lush SHPG snow.
The 23-year-old is a regular in the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, and is currently in the midst of his third season as a full-time driver. Along with being in Cardrona to experience the snow for the first time with the Ford Mustang GT and Focus RS, Waters was there to underline how important practical driver training can be.
“You come here and people start the day and they're so foreign to it, they don't understand what to do when the car's sideways or how to control it. By the end, they leave a completely different driver.
“It's good that you can actually teach people something that they can use through their whole life, and it could save them one day.
“Obviously every driving condition is something you've got to adapt for; whether it's on a road, or if you're racing, or if you're on snow. I've done a lot of speedway and off-road rallying, so I've driven in all kinds of different conditions, and this is just another element.”
Much of Waters' comment was echoed in the improved performances of the various 'pupils'. Having started the day with a sedately paced slalom, the improved ability to link corners together and use the easily manipulated weight transfer of the Mustang was clear to see by the time they had reached the second, much quicker course.
My turn soon rolled around, which woke up the butterflies in my stomach.
Oversteer has long been a phobia of mine. It's a commodity I rarely try to invite into my own driving, be it on a race track or a gravel road. But on the snow, oversteer is a necessity.
And I needn't have worried. With power only being sent to two of the Mustang's wheels, speeds were low … to the point where it almost felt like the world was moving in slow motion. Bullet time.
That meant confidence, and when the first of the corners came I didn't hesitate to jolt a generous amount of left-hand-down through the Mustang's steering wheel. This pitched the car into the slide, with a slew of calculated micro adjustments through the wheel and pedals to follow.
The game thereafter was to link all the corners together; a feat most of the guests could boast about achieving at the end of play. Of course, the hope is that these learnings will function not only as bar-room banter — but also as refinements to driver instinct and car control.
Waters' Cardrona stay was brief, with the busy Supercars calendar in full mid-season swing ahead of the PIRTEK Enduro Cup.
Though the youngster approaches the first of the endurance events — the Sandown 500 in Melbourne — as a defending race winner, results have been difficult to come by. Following last weekend's Coates Hire Ipswich 300 event, he sits 17th in the championship.
“At the end of last year we were finding a real sweet spot in the cars. We were competitive, we won Sandown and got a podium at the Gold Coast and another at Pukekohe. We had momentum.
“In the off-season [Holden] brought out the ZB Commodore, which is a better car than what they previously had. And being that the championship is so tight … there's 14 ZBs, if just some of them improve then you're automatically outside the top 10.
“Not just that, but they've also made improvements in other areas and our cars aren't handling as good because of the tyre change. [But] I think it's getting better. Through the year we'll get stronger and stronger.”