DOWN AND DIRTY

Familiar territory for a Subaru, if not a BRZ

- SN

A LOT OF people are scared of dirt when it comes to their cars. Iím not sure why, but Iím here to tell you why thereís nothing to fear. Autocross has always been one of my favourite motorsport disciplines and the best way to describe it is basically driving around an unsealed go-kart track.

There are tracks dotted all over the country (there are more than half a dozen in Victoria alone) and they vary in length, speed and roughness. To be honest, the rougher tracks are fine for some road cars but probably not something low-slung like the BRZ. Thankfully, the Kyneton track, an hour north of Melbourne, is frequently graded, well-maintained and of a similar quality to a country driveway.

Essentially, autocross is a step up from the dirt motorkhana tackled in month one of this long-term test. It replaces a memory-testing flag arrangement with a defined circuit, Kynetonís facility having the ability to offer many different course layouts to keep things fresh. None are particularly high-speed, mostly tackled in second gear, but 80-90km/h is plenty on a slippery surface.

Itís cheap entertainment, costing just $35 for the day, or $45 if you want to use rally tyres. Iíd love to, but sadly none fit 18-inch rims. There is a Toyota 86 wearing the appropriate shoes wrapped around 15-inch Subaru wheels, which j-u-s-t clear the standard GT brakes and suspension.

A common theme in club motorsport is the wide variety of machinery that takes part. There is a rally-spec MY05 Subaru WRX STI, a handful of standard Rexes, plenty of French hatchbacks, a group of BMW E36 3 Series, random old Japanese cars (Toyota Corollas of various vintage, Mitsubishi FTO, Mazda 323 Astina, Nissan Pulsar Q), a Renault Scenic and a truck with a rear-mounted Chevy V8.

THE BEAUTY OF AUTOCROSS IS THAT YOU DONíT NEED TO SPEND MUCH TO BE COMPETITIVE

Whatís more, you donít need to spend much to be competitive. The top placings are occupied by allwheel drive turbos, but driven well, a decently-powered front driver (anything with 100kW or more) on rally tyres could easily finish in the top 15. Each entrant receives eight runs, two attempts at four different courses, and to level the playing field and prevent a íroad-sweepingí disadvantage - early runners being penalised by a thicker layer of loose gravel - the course is watered between each run and the running order shuffled.

The BRZís rear wheels begin spinning quicker than the fronts as soon as the light turns green and barely stop for the entire run. Thereís very little grip on road tyres and itís extremely easy to over-drive the car, which I spend most of the day doing. Small inputs are required; the BRZ may not have much grunt, but it has more than enough to fling the rear out very sideways if youíre greedy with the throttle.

Itís a tough thing to get your head around, but you can go very quickly without ever reaching full throttle - in slippery conditions, youíll often go quicker if you avoid it. On run four, I win whatever the opposite of the jackpot is and run first on the course, directly after the water truck. The Michelins work very well on the road but struggle on wet mud; still, itís probably my best run of the day. I knew I was going to be relatively slow on this run so didnít push too hard and it paid dividends.

Thereís a healthy level of competition. No one is driving for sheep stations - if you care that much there are better motorsports to be involved in - but everyone still wants to do their best and the time gaps are usually very small. Having driven for fun, not speed, and spent too much time sideways, I was surprised to see the BRZ finish 18th out of 48, but had I shaved another five seconds off (less than a second per run) the Subie wouldíve finished 10th!

This is the beauty of autocross. Not only does the unsealed surface help car control, the brief nature of the runs means any mistakes are punished harshly on the scoreboards but the closeness of the competition means any hesitation will cost you places.

Itís cheap, fantastic fun. The slippery conditions also result in virtually zero component wear: you barely touch the brakes, thereís little lateral load to wear out tyres, gear changes are few, etc.

Next month weíll be using a similar set of skills, but in a very different environment.

- SN