The mistake was pure rookie, the rebuke from The Presence instant and cutting.
‘‘You changed up mid-corner. You should know better than that.’’ The tone was both stern and shocked.
Should have known and did know and that one simple flick of the paddle shifter had destroyed the flow of the lap and taken a big, smelly dump on my confidence. The Presence wanted perfection and nothing less, but I couldn’t deliver.
My defence? The presence of The Presence made me nervous and I forgot the basics from Race Driving 101 (or was that Track Driving for Dummies? I always forget) and popped a cog mid-bend. Oh how I wished there and then I’d popped my clogs instead because even The Almighty himself could not have instilled as much fear in me as my passenger.
Let me explain: for some silly reason the wonderful folk at Lexus Australia decided it would be a good idea to let me drive their LF-A supercar, a hand-built weapon with the same basic performance parameters as a jet fighter and a similar ability to wreak havoc.
Then they decided the best place to set this beast upon me... sorry, let me enjoy the car – would be Sydney Motorsport Park, the race track formerly known as Eastern Creek.
Then came the rider: for an absolutely wonderful day they would bring along no less a person than Lexus ambassador Alan Jones (the 1980 formula one world champion, not the radio host) to give me a few driving tips from both sides of the cockpit.
Dear reader, let me put this into perspective for you. Imagine you have plucked guitar strings for a while and think you might be OK on Kumbaya but not much else. So a friend suggests you can have a quick lesson from ‘‘someone who’s pretty good’’ then play for them. You agree, the door opens and in struts Eric Clapton.
So far so not good. But wait... it can only get worse. While I stand drinking coffee in a bid to drown the butterflies in my belly, the rain starts falling.
Then – oh Lordy, no – I am dragged, kicking and screaming, into a V8-engined Lexus IS-F sedan for a few rain-soaked sighting laps with Mr Jones, aka ‘‘The Presence’’.
He, I can truthfully say, is a master and on that wet track my fear turned quickly to amazement and admiration.
He talked, but his eyes had a hard-edged look as his inner computer processed every microscopic piece of information and made the constant corrections demanded by fast cars on wet tracks, zapping instructions back to his hands and feet. It was artistry, it was magic and it was a bloody impossible act to follow.
My turn with the IS-F and at precisely 250metres beyond the notorious Turn One, 150metres past the pit exit road and 150 metres before the scary Turn Two, about the point where I am getting off the gas and onto the stoppers, I discover Mr Jones has left his smiley face back in pit lane and pulled on his disciplinarian’s visage.
On my first flying lap, approaching Turn One, his instructions were machinegun-like and went like this: ‘‘Roll off the throttle. Come all the way off. Trailing throttle now, touch the brake, trailing brake, ease it in, feel the wheel, off the throttle, off the throttle. Now ease it in, give it some, get out wide, roll up to Turn Two, pull back on the throttle. Brake-brake-brake, drop gears, now push out wide – wide – wider.
‘‘Stay out, feed in some throttle, now flick it left and pick up the outside of the corner. Swing back over right, hard on the gas, clip that apex. Now ease back left, hit that outside point and flick back to the right now! Now! Now! Touch that outside point, flick left, kiss the kerb – wider – wider – wider, now float it across on full throttle, catch the camber change and touch the outside. Now straighten it up and nail it. Brake and accelerate only on the straights to keep it balanced.
‘‘Now touch the inside, straight away go left, hit the apex then flick back right – brake! Brake! Now turn it, keep turning, wind off lock, back on the gas. Hold it, hold it, hold it, now full throttle and back into it. That’s a lap.’’
Jones didn’t draw a breath for the entire 2.8kilometres and neither did I, for different reasons.
He explained how getting one corner right sets up the car for the next one and the importance of ‘‘flowing’’ the vehicle, stringing all those corners together to make one good lap and then doing it all over again. Perfection.
I soldiered on under decreasing instruction for another few laps and on the fifth or sixth pass he was quiet. Taking the silence as tacit approval I parked the car next time around and puffed out my chest with sheer pride when, as we rolled to a stop, The Presence told me the lap was ‘‘not too bad’’.
By the time we dropped into the low-slung LF-A the track was dry and the fight I’d had to keep the twitching, sliding IS-F under control on the damp circuit was a fading memory.
The words ‘‘chalk’’ and ‘‘cheese’’ don’t even come close to describing the differences between IS-F and LF-A. ‘‘Sopwith Camel’’ and ‘‘Super Hornet’’ might. The IS-F is a fine car in its own right but parked next to the LF-A it is a wheelbarrow.
So compact is its cockpit that The Presence easily filled the space behind the wheel and we were kind of glad there was no clutch pedal. It could have made life difficult down in the pedal box.
His big hands almost enclosed the small, thick-rimmed steering wheel and his slightly odd, long-arm driving position meant the seat was well back.
Our pit lane exit was ferocious, our entry onto the track theatrical, the whole sideshow accompanied by the noise of 10 pistons fighting to be let out.
The speedometer is a digital readout within the rev counter – a rev counter that glows yellow, then orange, then bright red as the engine revs rise and gears want shifting – and on the straight, after a couple of kilometres of being smacked around the car by the G forces generated in the corners, I looked across and saw 229km/h pop up in the little window. On the next lap it hit 237km/h. Respect, AJ.
Then we swapped seats and despite the fact The Presence had the airconditioner shooshing cold air at us, perspiration was rolling from me, dampening my hair inside my helmet, trickling down my back and making serious pit stains on my formerly cool black shirt.
Swiping the little paddle on the right selected first gear and the car rolled along pit lane. I flicked second as the car moved from pit exit to track proper, lit the blue touch paper and watched the world distort itself as my eyeballs rolled backwards in my head in equal proportion to throttle force. I grabbed third gear, gathered a big bundle of revs then mashed the brake pedal with my left foot while feeding the throttle with my right.
Snapping and snarling, the car became pure aggression, a sinuous thing trying to turn its head and bite me. But I had watched The Presence at work and saw enough to know the drill. Keep the boot in and just work it, making the most of the car’s beautiful poise and cornering balance.
‘‘Take it, you mongrel!’’ I yelled in my head over my own internally-generated soundtrack (The Doors’ LA Woman, if you must know). It was almost sensory overload and through it all the LF-A was yelling its own glorious song and the little steering wheel was twitching in my hands.
On one lap I saw 218km/h flick up on the speed reader. On the next, 220.
Joy, pure bliss. A religious experience. And then it happened. Living in the moment, I made one too many downshifts on the approach to Turn Two and the rev counter started its radioactive countdown. Yellow, orange, red. And stayed red, red enough to hurt, red enough to burn. A quick glance showed 9000 revs on the screaming motor and I wanted to stop it hurting itself, fearing it might break something I couldn’t afford to fix in this lifetime or the next. And I shifted-up a gear in the middle of the corner. And The Presence admonished me.
I backed off and in that moment of relative quietness I heard the voice: ‘‘You shift up or down before the corner, you shift up or down after the corner, but you never change gears in the corner.’’
There was another lap left in me but it was purely symbolic. The speed was gone, the pause button pushed on any conversation, the carnival well and truly over.
But you know what? It had been a great day. I had driven one of the world’s rarest production cars, I had discovered the unbridled joy that can be wrought from a mix of fear, reflexes and enthusiasm, I had not only met one of the world’s great drivers but had been given a driving lesson by him, and, for a little while, had the chance to impress him.