THE LAST ACTION HEROES

Maxxed to Zero

WORDS BRUCE NEWTON PHOTOS NATHAN JACOBS

EMOTION REIGNS.

FORD’S BOFFINS HAVE BEEN LET OFF THE CORPORATE LEASH TO PUT AN EMPHATIC FULL STOP ON 56 YEARS OF OZ HERITAGE. FORGET MARKET RESEARCH, THESE ARE THE CARS THEY REALLY WANT US TO DRIVE

HE Brisbane Ranges are a low sprawl of hills covered by scrubby gumtree forests that roll up out of the plains west of Melbourne.

From up here you can look to the south over Victoria’s second city, Geelong, then swing your gaze more southerly toward the You Yangs, that small but steep collection of rocky mounds that protrude suddenly and surprisingly from the surrounding wheat fields.

At the eastern end of the You Yangs behind a high fence sits a group of buildings, some squiggly tar, dirt roads and a giant banked oval. This is Ford’s You Yangs proving ground. For more than 50 years Falcons have emerged from here and made their way up into the Brisbane Ranges in search of real-world validation of what has been developed behind the wire.

Some have been heavily disguised as they’ve driven these sparsely travelled roads. But not today; these two Falcons are being hidden in plain sight.

To all the world these cars look like a standard XR8 and XR6 Turbo. Get up real close and personal and the Pirelli P-Zero tyres might get a trainspotter’s antenna rising, but the more likely hint that something’s up are the slightly nervouslooking blokes in the passenger seats of the two cars, exuding the vibe of new fathers who have just handed their pride and joy to strangers.

That’s exactly what’s happening on this warm Monday, because Wheels is getting to sample the last Falcon models, the XR6 Sprint and XR8 Sprint. Or at least we’re sampling the mechanical package ahead of its May launch.

“This is our car, this is the car we want to drive. This is for the customers but also our car,” insists David Burn, nervous father number one. Or, as he is officially titled, Falcon/Territory chief program engineer.

Justin Capicchiano, nervous father number two and Sprint program manager, nods in agreement. “Right from the start our attitude was this can’t be a cynical sticker pack. It needed to have real substance and something behind it that differentiated it from a normal car.”

Burn is shorter, stockier; Capicchiano taller and thinner. Despite their physical disparities they are united in their passion for the limited edition that marks the end of 56 continuous years of Falcon assembly and 91 years of Ford production in Australia.

“I wouldn’t be anywhere else. And it’s a conscious choice,” insists Burn. “I have a long history with the car and a lot of respect for the car. I was offered the chance to do other things but I said no because this is something I really wanted to do. I’m really passionate about it.”

What becomes clear talking to Burn, Capicchiano and others involved in the Sprint project – designer Nick Eterovic, suspension leader Eric Otten and powertrain guru Bernie Quinn – is that this has been a labour of love. The budget, although never stated, has surely not been substantial enough to afford some of the changes that have been made.

Consider that, during a development program begun in late 2014, a core group of no more than 20 people re-engineered the suspension around a new tyre, developed the most potent version ever of the locally manufactured 4.0-litre turbo six, including a cool new carbonfibre intake duct, and introduced new tooling and assembly processes so Eterovic’s exterior vision could become reality.

“I have called in every favour I was owed and now I owe plenty… so do you Justin,” says Burn. He’s laughing but he’s not joking. There’s something so right about the last Falcon being a love job. It’s a story familiar in the annals of vehicle development in Australia, where talent, innovation and effort have often overcome a lack of resources.

On first taste the XR8 Sprint is showing the benefit of that affection. There’s an edge and tautness to the suspension set-up

Maxxed to Zero

The decision to use Pirelli P-Zeros, rather than Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres previously favoured for sports Falcons such as the GT-F and R-Spec, was just about the first call the development team made.

More launch and cornering grip was the goal.

While the rear Sport Maxx is officially sized at 275/35 and the Pirelli at 265/35, the Ford men insist the P-Zero is the bigger tyre.

They roll on the same 19x9.0-inch rim because nothing bigger will fit under the rear guards.

What’s in a name

The Sprint name harks back to the first US production Falcon V8 manufactured in 1963, then a local adaptation of the XM/XP made by Sydney speed shop owner Bill Warner in 1964-5 that is said to have inspired the original Falcon GT of 1967.

The Sprint badge appeared again (left) as the name for a limited-edition version of the ED XR8 in 1993-4.

“There is a really dynamic quality to the name; there isn’t too much aggression but there is a kind of optimism too, and a natural fit,” explained designer Nick Eterovic (below).

that says sports sedan. But the subtlety of the damping tune is superb, the rapid and multiple inputs on those rough surfaces are obvious yet controlled instantly on rebound, the steering is weighted with certainty and its willingness to sit planted on-line in big corners inspires confidence.

The Sprint XR8 rolls on the latest and more subtle iteration of the R-Spec suspension that Ford Performance Vehicles debuted in 2012 and upgraded for 2014’s GT-F. The shift from Dunlop Sport Maxx rubber to the Pirelli P-Zeros undoubtedly plays a role in the certainty it displays, as do new geometries and re-valved monotube ZF Sachs shock absorbers. The aim has been to soften the car off a little, rely on the better grip of the Pirellis a little more and give it a balanced Grand Touring feel.

On these coarse and sometimes chopped-up Brisbane Ranges roads it feels like the XR8 Sprint has hit very close to the target.

Later, on the ride and handling circuit at the You Yangs, Otten demonstrates how the Sprint has also benefitted on the limit from the latest round of tuning. The car drifts in a lazy and completely controlled oversteer slide through the flat-in-fourth sweeper, then uses its six-pot Brembos to haul up and tuck the nose faithfully into a series of left-right-lefts. The speed is high, but the front-end of the XR8 doesn’t want to budge.

“When the old car understeered you couldn’t get it back unless you took a massive correction in the throttle,” says Capicchiano. “Now they’re very forgiving.”

I try it out. He’s right. There’s more certainty in the nose under pressure, and more predictability in the rear, all the while accompanied by that supercharger whine as the Miami V8 gathers itself up and rushes forward with a familiar linearity.

By contrast, the XR6 Sprint’s version of R-Spec feels a tad softer, the steering less weighty and defined. But that’s a mere entree compared to its engine. The V8 makes more power and virtually identical torque, but the six’s atomic mid-range has now gone nuclear. It then surges into a top end that charges toward the redline with all the desperate urgency of a Kamikaze hunting for a US battleship.

“For a turbocharged 4.0-litre engine with a big old piston and a long stroke, it hits 6250rpm super-fast,” smiles Quinn.

“We have come up with the ultimate I6 turbo ever produced, which is quite fitting because it is the last one.”

Essentially the XR6 Sprint donk is a combination of 270kW XR6T engine and 310kW FPV F6 ancillaries. The carbonfibre intake is new, as is the exhaust, and that all leads to reduced intake losses and exhaust back-pressure. There is more boost pressure and a higher-compression piston, but without affecting combustion pressure and temperature.

And just for a bit of added goodness, throw in transient overboost, which lasts for 10 seconds in every gear and drags power up from 325kW to 360kW, and torque from 576Nm to 650Nm. The V8 continues with overboost too; it just doesn’t feel as dramatic.

The turbo now comes with launch control as well. So stand on the brake, rev to 2000rpm, sidestep and go. There’s a millisecond of think time before the engine and the high-output ZF HP26 auto engage and the world goes blurry and noisy, the I6 sucking air, valves thrashing and exhaust howling. It’s the sound of the hounds of a mechanical hell baying for 98 RON.

Capicchiano sits in the passenger seat hand-timing my run – 4.7sec. “We’re seeing 4.5 seconds out of both cars,” he says calmly. Just think about that for a second.

The last FPV, the 351kW GT-F, clocked a 4.7 when tested by Wheels. Our best time in the FPV F6 has been 5.0.

But the party’s not over yet. The turbo’s immense mid-range is evident in roll-on from 80-120km/h; 2.4 seconds. That’s 0.2sec quicker than Wheels has managed in an F6. I can sense the boys back in the Wheels office champing at the bit to test these cars. Burn smiles at the prospect, clearly relishing the thought of his Falcon, the last Falcon, being tested hard by an enthusiast.

This is what the Sprint is all about.

“When we sit down for a program, normally we do extensive market research, lots of clinics and other things. But for this program we didn’t really do that,” he muses. “We felt like we knew what we needed to do, we knew what the customers were asking us to do. These are the cars we would want to own ourselves.”