Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lapping Laguna Seca

In the period where this blog lay dormant, from September 2008 until February 2009, I had the pleasure of getting my Subaru WRX STi out to not just one, but two track days.

The first was at Laguna Seca, a track I knew pretty damn well from all the races I'd attended there, as well as my crazy virtual test drives before I bought the car. This was back in November, so the expectation was that the weather might be inclement. Luckily I convinced my father to join me in his Porsche Boxster, and his experience with track days in general and Laguna specifically proved to be great help.

We showed up to the Speed Ventures-organized day, surrounded in the paddock by everything from Ferrari 430s to Godzillas to a Mazda 3 and Infiniti M45. After a drivers' meeting I got a chance to sneak two sighting laps, which was hugely useful. My first impression was that the track seemed much smaller and more confined than either from the spectator areas or from Gran Turismo 4. The tyre wall on the outside of turn 3 was particularly worrying! I also noted how blind both the entry and apex of the Corkscrew were, requiring drivers to sight off a particular tree, conveniently marked with a cone.

My dad got to go out first, and I sat beside him to start learning the lines and braking points, as well as seeing the superb etiquette of a car track day (pointing people by if they're faster, something alien to me from my experience with motorcycle track days). It ensured the fast guys didn't get held up and the slower guys didn't feel pressured, both desirable goals.

Finally it was my turn. After a warm up lap I started to push the bright blue Rex, immediately discovering that once the needle hits 3000rpm, you need to start prepping for the upshift, because the 7000rpm redline is coming very soon. I'd set the rpm warning beep to come on at 6700rpm, but this soon proved too low. The key to performance was to keep that turbo spinning, and the flat four was constantly goading me into making it sing. In terms of handling, the phenomenal grip I'd experienced on the roads was clearly evident here, and it took some time before the limit on corner speed became mechanical rather than human. In some corners I vowed to never go full chat, simply to ensure I returned home with the car in the same condition as when I left.

Back in the paddock after the first session I reflected on the nature of the track. The gradients were massive and the characters of each corner so different that it felt like a series of mini challenges as opposed to one big one. What's the best line for the double apex Andretti hairpin? How late to brake for turn five? How much speed to carry into turn six? Where to shift in the Corkscrew complex? How to best string together the Corkscrew exit, turn nine and the Rainey Curve? All these questions come at you lap after lap, and very few were definitely answered by the end of the day.

The second session proved to be the fastest, as rain arrived after lunch. I managed to go faster than my Dad, although you'd expect an STi to spank a Boxster without too much trouble. By the end of this session I was unsure how to make any great gains, but this issue took a back seat for the rest of the day. Session three was slightly damp, so I focused initially on lines and braking points, then as it got wetter I looked to start experimenting with grip levels, seeing if I could start to get the car moving around beneath us (a tough job in a car that prefers to roll along like it's on rails). The best options for some tail-out fun were the uphill exit of turn 5, and the low-speed final hairpin, turn 11, and I took full advantage. Now that I'd learned the track, it was time to learn the car...

The fourth and final session was fully wet, and I managed to settle into a comfortable rhythm with a white STi and a red WRX. The three of us formed a dominant Subaru train, picking off cars one by one, regardless of their power, as they struggled on the soaking wet surface - Mazda RX8, Porsche 911, another Porsche, Nissan GTR, they each fell to the staggering capabilities of the Subarus, albeit piloted by track day newbies like myself. It was terrific fun, and proved that my fears ahead of time of it being wet were 180 degrees wrong. The wet track day is the best.

As we left the track my gas light came on. A glance at the odo and a quick calculation revealed a figure of 8mpg, which was hilarious in its political-incorrectness.

The next track day was at Southern California's Buttonwillow Raceway. Essentially a club-level circuit, there's no spectator facilities and very little to hit. The major challenges proved to be remembering the track, with its flat and featureless layout, and the soaking mud in the run off areas that threatened to turn any car turtle if they hit them at any kind of angle.

The main focus of this day was getting track time for my wife. One of the agreements we had made was that she would do a track day if I bought the car, so it was time to make good on this. Buttonwillow was a great place to start and once again the excellent Speed Ventures crew made it a well-run and unintimidating event. By her fourth session, with the help of an instructor, she'd finally gotten things to click, stringing together braking points, apexes and acceleration points to put together a clean and quick lap.

My experience with the day ended up finally putting me in a place where I was finding the car limiting my pace. Or to be more correct, the tyres. The Kumho Ecsta rubber was noisy and consistently letting me down on both turn-in and under acceleration, scrabbling for grip and making a big fuss of it at the same time. It's major selling points (cost and durability) seemed less important when you're trying to keep up with a 350z on track day rubber. Still, there's plenty of tread left on them, so it will be some time before I can upgrade.

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