||02-29-2012 08:04 PM
Tearing Around the Track
It was hard to sleep, knowing that today would see us doing laps around the 4.5 mile Grand Course at VIR and real-world driving time. By the time we were shuttled to the starting line, and breakfast – the team had already modified the track with some cones to slow us down in dangerous areas of the course. VIR has been referred to as the closest thing to the Nurburgring with its healthy dose of elevation changes, blind corners, hairpins, and balance of turns and straights. With that said, the Nurburgring has claimed many lives, and is referred to as “Green Hell”…….so this gives those of you who’ve never been to VIR some idea of what we’re in for.
Comforted that they’ve taken time and thought for our safety in this manner, we stood waiting by about five idling ZL1s, like moths to a flame…it just sounds so good. I seriously think I could burn an entire tank of gas and more just listening to one idle. One of the people who were moving cars around asked one of the engineers if they needed to do anything special to the cars before lining them up for us in pit row. He replied “No, just start the engines and let them warm up”. I was floored – but it really is a testament to how seriously track-capable these things are, right off the showroom floor.
We donned our head-socks and helmets, and piled in. Aaron Link, the MR engineer who also lapped both record times at the Nurburgring and VIR in the ZL1 lead the first group, and Tony Roma led the second pack for warm up laps and “follow the leader” parade to learn the track before we were let loose. I need to mention that I’ve never driven on any road course anywhere before this…and that the last time I drove a 500+ horsepower car, I ended up turning into oncoming traffic, peeling out on a section of grass, and almost hitting IVAN the IVER test mule at Camaro5 Fest One…so…bear that in mind. I’m not an idiot…but I am a rookie by all definitions of the word.
It was just under 40° outside, which meant there was concern for the tires – they NEEDED to be warmed up before we could go all out. Yet, I was astonished…I guess I was expecting the car to drive like it was on ice given the warnings and cautions we’ve received regarding these tires…but they really weren’t bad at all. We even carried a decent level of speed through the corners on that very first lap. Of course, taking the correct path in the turns helped – and Aaron definitely knows this track well.
I was riding shotgun with another journalist, and I noticed he was fumbling a bit with the automatic. It surprised him that the car wouldn’t shift by itself in manual mode. It held the gear, and even bounced off of redline before I mention he needed to shift with the + paddle. After a while he got the hang of it, but finally decided to revert to letting the car shift for him.
There’s only so much you can feel about the car in the passenger seat…but I was paying real close attention to VIR. The Grand Course is intimidating…it never seems to end, and each turn feels harder and more dangerous than the last; a baby Nurburgring, indeed. Aaron led us through without much drama, and we made two more laps of the course to ensure the tires had enough heat in them.
As we returned to pit row – I noticed we were down a car…it appeared as though one of the other journalists there spun out on a tight turn for whatever reason (multiple 360s, so I heard)…there was no damage to the car, but I’m sure it made for an interesting first lap!
This ought to be fun…I think I have the hang of it…I chose a red/black manual for my first few laps. I was very excited to see how this car would feel, now that I’m driving. By using launch control as Tony had explained, the car jolted forward like a hungry panther and before I knew it, I was in third approaching the first turn. As I travel ‘round the right-hand bend, and later into the high speed esses…I’m astounded at how the car can jump a curb like spider-man, and then re-attach itself to the ground like nothing had happened. All the while, it’s maintaining that same silky-smoothness that I noticed in our brief ride the day before.
Power delivery is smart – not “exciting”. When racing - depending on the mode the car is in – the engineers have remapped the throttle response to allow a driver to modulate throttle (and subsequently power) much more precisely. This is in comparison, I was told, to the way most other car companies map their performance car throttles to provide an instant jolt of power so the driver “feels” he or she is going fast…but in reality, it’s very difficult to accelerate around a bend, because the throttle is so touchy. ZL1 lets the driver use a much larger amount of pedal travel to adjust the same amount of throttle…Chevy’s approach allows the driver a much larger degree of control when powering around a corner. It does work vey well, and is a welcome character trait in my eyes!
As I came up to the dreaded Oak tree, I made a mistake. Going into the turn I downshifted too quickly, and didn’t heel-toe correctly, so the LSA yanked the 305s out from under me and started to slide the back end out. Instantly PTM intervened and cut power…The best way I can describe what happened next is as though the hand of God Himself came down and tapped the back end of the car where it needed to be; because as soon as the car righted itself (which only took a fraction of a second), I was accelerating out of the corner and down the straight. There was no drama, no feeling as though I’d lost control. It’s supportive, not intrusive - as if the ZL1 said “Ohh, good try! Let me help you out, here. You’ll do better next time!” I am a complete believer in the abilities of Performance Traction Management. It is completely jaw-dropping what the system can do.
Note: PTM is not really divine intervention. As evidenced by a certain “accident” the day of this experience…you still need to have your wits about you as you drive it. Don’t expect it to compensate for serious driver errors: It’s there to help to amplify a driver’s skill level.
As I accelerated up the straight, I decided to give no-lift shift a try – available in any PTM mode. I powered through first, and as the tach needle exceeded 5500 rpms, I kept my foot on the gas, and as fast I could, depressed the clutch and pulled the suede-covered shifter into second. The engine maintained rpm but didn’t hit the rev limiter, and it held the supercharger’s bypass valve closed, which over-boosted the engine for just a moment providing 100+% available power the second the clutch reengaged! It’s very easy to use – just be in a PTM mode. Impressive!!!
The rest of my laps were uneventful, but telling. This car REALLY can drive a road course as well as it drives to the grocery store. It is so light on its feet that it feels as though you’re driving something between a base model Corvette and a Grand Sport. Turn in is predictable…and if you don’t think you’re going to make a turn? Just turn more, the grip is there! Transitions from left to right or vise-versa are incredibly well controlled – the car is always planted firm, responsive, and ready for the next direction. The seats could use a bit more bolstering, but the suede does wonders to keep you seated.
Note: If you’re thinking about tracking this car and you’re 5’11’ or taller…seriously consider avoiding the sunroof option. A helmet has trouble clearing the roof and forces you either to recline or sit awkwardly at an angle…in neither case can you safely use the car to its full potential.
The automatic was impressive, as well. The staged up shifts are a welcome improvement…you still need to anticipate the shift, but it’s a lot more like a manual now - where you don’t need to plan 500 rpms ahead of time. You click the new paddles, wait about a half second, and it shifts with only the slightest of jolts. Downshifting is great, too! The engine seems to rev up just a bit as the transmission downshifts before a corner. If you’re IN a corner, it might upset the vehicle – but the unsettling isn’t bad, and PTM is always there to help out.
While embarrassing - I’ll share something that might help illustrate just how brilliantly the ZL1 can chew up a road course; even one as challenging as VIR, driven by a novice such as me: It is so agile and responsive in the corners, and the power is so ferocious…It only took about 5 laps of the track, going as fast as I dared, to upset my stomach a little. I was cleared for another go, but I had to sit down and recompose myself instead.
Pictures One & Two are of some Corvette ZR1s that were handing it to various Porches, BMWs, Nissans, & other cars when we first arrived at the track on Sunday. :thumbsup: