We, for most part, remain lifelong prisoners of the stereotype. That's just the way it is. For instance, we usually picture Winston CHurchill as the successful, war-winning statesman. In reality, some of his career was an unmitigated disaster, like the siege of Gallipoli and the Bengal famine. We like to hear his recipe for longevity, namely "no sports" and use it to justify our own total lack of physical activity. However, this way of thinking is a cul-de-sac, as Churchill was much more than just a guy who smoked and drank a lot.
Some cars are stereotypically believed to be good at certain things, even if nowadays that is no longer true: BMWs handle well, French cars have soft suspensions and Rolls-Royces can't go fast around corners. Some brands skilfully utilize these stereotypes in order to sell their wares, some seem to uphold their veracity with a religious zeal. One such brand is Rolls-Royce. It carefully avoids ever using the "S" word: Rollses don't do sports. Hysterical gearchanges, rock-hard springs and silly Nordschleife records are left to others. One easily forgets that Charles Rolls actually raced a Rolls-Royce, and with good results too.
Throughout my career I have done many special features with cars doing things they were not designed to do, and liked to put interesting vehicles in "improper" contexts. Having driven most of the current Rolls-Royce models, I was confident they were capable of lapping a racing circuit at a decent pace, given a modicum of restraint plus a good helping of weight transfer management. Definitely too many owners treat their Rollses as luxury taxicabs, ferrying people around urban areas, never going on road trips and never driving them quickly around corners. I was determined to show them what the cars were really capable of, but there was a serious obstacle: the company insurance policy.
Rolls-Royce test cars are far less numerous than those of other brands, for obvious reasons, and the insurance regulations are extremely strict. They make scary reading, and a car venturing on a track would automatically void the insurance. I had nightmares of close calls with Radicals and Caterhams, resulting in me crawling away from a smoldering pile of wreckage, and slitting my wrists immediately thereafter. The alternative, paying RR Cars back for the destroyed car, would mean my family would still be bankrupt in the year 2219. Jokes aside, the formal obstacles seemed insurmountable. Nevertheless, I persevered and maintained a steady pressure on the very friendly PR staff at the Goodwood HQ while slowly losing all hope.
And then... a very, very private event during which I was able to pilot a Rolls-Royce around a race track, pretty fast at that, and I knew that some sort of a solution could potentially be found. And it was! All that remained was to choose a completely unsuitable race track, book a place, and wait. I picked Brands Hatch in the UK, since everyone was likely to tell me, with a satisfied smirk on every face, that a Rolls simply would not make it round that circuit. I was determined to prove them all wrong.
Having picked up the matt black Dawn convertible at the Goodwood factory, I drove it gingerly to Brands Hatch through monstrous traffic jams, most of them completely without a visible reason. Seems that British drivers are out to prove the infamous M25 is always frozen solid, even if there are no obstructions to traffic. The Rolls remained cool and aloof throughout the journey, with the interior soaked in good music and the fuel gauge slowly dropping in the stationary traffic. Some glances from other cars were envious, some amused, but here was more proof that Rolls-Royce cars do not make other people aggressive the way that some flashy, sleek supercars do. Good for me, and I arrived at my hotel unruffled, which is the objective of any correct form of Grand Touring.
The following morning I was followed by dozens of eyes as I drove the Iced Black Diamond Dawn (that's the official name of the color) into the paddock. Still, most people probably thought I was some plutocrat who came to the track in a Rolls in order to drive something else, and it was fun to see their jaws drop as I put the big car in the line of vehicles waiting to be noise-tested. Most of them did not realize how quiet the car was at idle, and how well I could hear their comments... Noise testing, the bane of many a car at the noise-sensitive racetracks of Britain, went predictably well. The two orange-clad marshals, both known to me by sight, laughed their heads off while they applied the correct sticker to my windshield. I was ready to go.
Theoretically. I still had no idea how the car would behave on the deceptively simple Indy loop of the circuit. The kerb weight of 2.6 tons, combined with over 600 horsepower and exactly 840 Nm of torque smelled like trouble. The £400k pricetag? Better forget about that. I lined up carefully in the pit lane for the obligatory sighting laps. I was at the end of the line, and the first lap started slowly. Things became more exciting when a historic racing Mustang suffered an engine problem at the exit of the Clearways corner, and suddenly I was almost alone on track, following a Lotus and an MG TF. From my perch it felt like I was following them in a double-decker bus. Finding the correct turn-in point for the challenging Paddock Hill Bend is crucial in a heavy car here, but I could feel that the big machine actually felt good through there, and responded with a reassuring honesty. It was heavy, sure, but the roll and pitch motions happened in harmony and, with careful weight transfer, could be efficiently managed. I returned to the pit garage in good spirits, and spent the next twenty minutes answering questions from fellow drivers. "Are you crazy?", "is it a foil wrap?" and "that's brave, mate" among them.
Time to go out on track. An intense buzzing sound fills the garage, as Caterhams, Hondas and Lotuses zoom around the circuit in tight groups. Helmet on, gloves on, a quick look left and off we go. A gray-haired marshal checks the towing eyelet firmly screwed in the opening in the front bumper, checks my wristbands and waves me forward. I bury my right foot in the thick lambswool carpet, and the black Rolls leaps forward. It can do the 100 km/h sprint in 4.9 seconds, so when it raises its prow and blasts out of the pitlane, everybody is a little surprised at its rate of acceleration. I feel strangely exposed, with no limiting roll cage, amazed at the field of view from the magnificently finished cockpit. It differs greatly from the race cars I normally pilot around here. Also because I can listen to John Philip Sousa's marches at full volume while whizzing around the track.
I limit my stints on the circuit to about three laps each, unwilling to overtax the brakes and tires, as I still need to drive the car to its home after this. At first I automatically get out of the way of the lighter cars (and the very much faster and well-driven GT3RS), but gradually I gain more and more confidence. All those young people, weaned on electronic games, who have never driven a car with good steering feel, mistake a greater steering effort for feel. The Dawn steering is light, true, but beautifully weighted and it conveys the forces acting on the front wheels with well-oiled mechanical precision. The car dives under braking, granted, but the brakes feels sharp and responsive. Only after 4 to 5 really fast laps do I start to sense a softening of the pedal. The fuel consumption on track rises to around 30 l/100 km, not bad a figure at all, and the engine becomes slightly more vocal, with a muffled growl reaching the ears of the driver. I am , emphatically, NOT the slowest thing on track. That feels good.
The feeling of mastering the weight and the enormous power is truly exhilarating, and addictive. I will never forget the sight of a Caterham side by side with me on the straight. outdragged by the black machine, or the joy at being able to cover the Surtees and McLaren corners in one smooth movement without unbalancing the Rolls. Sure, it cannot be driven like a proper lightweight track weapon, but simultaneously no specialized track car offers the same waft factor on the way home from the track. Happy to have gotten safely through the day, I take the helmet off, pick some lint off my dinner jacket, shoot my cuffs and start the relaxed drive back to the Rolls-Royce factory at Goodwood. The front tires need replacing, the rears do not, and the brakes still work perfectly. Absolutely nothing went wrong with the car while on track, and not a scratch has appeared on the massive body. Conclusion? Rolls-Royce owners should drive their cars more. They're worth it.
Images: Graeme Franklin, Patrycja N. Frankowska, Piotr R. Frankowski