Monday, July 09, 2007

Dancing with a baby elephant

The weekend was spent on an overnight trip to Wilson’s Promontory, a national park that also happened to include the Australian landmass’s southernmost point. Jean, The Architect, Another Architect (The Architect’s coursemate) and I rented a car on Saturday and took a 3-hour drive.

We (or more accurately, I ) had a grand plan to rent the Toyota Prius for this trip. However, this fantasy of driving a soundless ghost-car was shot to bits by the fact that the discount for Melbourne University students does not apply to this fuel sipper. The next best choise was an ugly, ugly Toyota Camry with a 2.4L VVTi engine. It was huge, chunky, and appears to be styled after a slab of pork chop. Fortunately it was white.

The Camry is so ugly we need a rainbow to distract the eye

The drive out of the park was exhilarating (The Architect drove in). The road was a mix of short straights, hairpins, swooping curves and chicanes with a variety of camber and elevation changes.

With a car full of dozing passengers, my objective was to fly though this road as smoothly as possible. This means making use of as much width of the road as possible, including the opposite lane when safe and visibly clear.

A sign recommended 20 km/h for an upcoming left hander, the low speed suggesting a tight hairpin. From 100 km/h, ease onto the brakes and slip deep into the wrong side of the road, tyre walls brushing the grass verge. Gently get off the brakes and slowly start turning in early, balancing the decrease in brake force with an increase in steering angle. Let the other tyre walls rumble on the crumbled inside edge of the road, timing the events precisely so that this was the instant of maximum steering input and zero braking. The speed is now 40 km/h, 20 over the recommended but still not uncomfortable owing to the huge turning radius. Past the apex, gradually open the throttle while letting the steering wheel slowly unwind itself. Balance the unwinding rate so that the car just touches the far edge of the tarmac when the car straightens out.

I was obviously lost in my memories. It’s not as high adrenaline nor fast as setting hot laps, but it was just as technically challenging. There are different parameters to consider- visibility of the opposing lane, balancing (de)acceleration force with comfort and optimising input rate of change to be as undetectable as possible.

Taking a slab of pork chop-like car through that 20 minute dance out of the park was the best drive I’ve had in a while. The passengers slept soundly throughout, until I made everyone play a car-pushing game. We’ll talk about that another day.

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