Takes Two to Tango!

I just about managed to squeeze in. Seated rather tight, my mind wandered to the three days that I went to a gym after paying for the full six-months package. I should’ve done the six-months, in hindsight. “I am one size too big for this thing. Maybe two,” I said to the mechanic struggling to clamp my seatbelt in. It felt like my shoulders would come off and hang from my hyoid bone.

It had been almost a decade since I got into a proper single-seater race car. And there I was, in a foreign land, ready to floor the pedal to see if I was still half as good as I used to be in my years of whatever little racing I’d done. No words can explain how tense I was. With no idea of what to expect, I listened carefully as Paul gave me instructions on how to get the car moving. “Don’t worry, you’re gonna be alright,” he said to me. I had just been forced to wear a Matador outfit and thrown into the arena to fight an annoyed bull. I’ll be alright – I keep repeating this statement, almost in sarcasm.

Just then, I see Dhruv take off in the Toyota GT86.

Now, many of you would raise eyebrows and try to ridicule us for driving an evidently simple sports car – the GT86 – against a proper racetrack specialist. But hang on, I have a solid reason for that. The Toyota GT86 was designed to bring back the true sports car experience back into a world of over assisted and electronically controlled everything. The idea was to keep it simple, minimalistic. It’s not your regular hyper car with a few thousand horsepower, and the ability to go from a standstill to, bah, 500 clicks in less time than it would take for you to read this sentence. It’s not governed by fighter-jet levels of complex electronics, and doesn’t wear Frankenstein’s footwear to go around the corners.

Similarly, the single seat race car that we have here isn’t the first cousin of a formula one car. It doesn’t drive using obscure circuitry. It’s an honest-to-goodness, moderately powered race car with no razzmatazz to leave you bewildered. So, in essence, it’s the coming together of two basic and simple recipes that deliver massively on taste and likeness.

The GT86 is the result of a lot of history. It’s been hailed as the spiritual successor to the AE86 series of the famous Corolla, and the boxer engine is a tribute to the Toyota Sports 800 – the first true sports car that Toyota ever produced. There’s more heritage to talk of – the front engine, rear drive layout goes back all the way to the Toyota 2000GT, which was designed and developed by Toyota in collaboration with Yamaha, and was hailed as one of the most entertaining cars of the time. The 2000GT was single-handedly responsible for altering the automotive world’s view of Japan.

But rewind just 45 minutes, rather than a few decades, and you find me driving a minivan – coordinating the shoot with Kapil, torturing Jared with my words on the radio to drive as close to Dhruv in the Dodge Challenger, and issuing other random instructions. Once the main framework of the photo shoot was done, and we had Kapil’s permission to go and have some fun (while he’d keep shooting from different locations), it was time for all hell to break loose.

Dhruv started the Lambo, and the ground shook like it was an aftershock of some volcanic eruption – which it was, because when the 6.5 litre, 691 horsepower engine was given the slightest hint of a spark, the LP700-4 sounded like Mt. Etna had just lost its temper. Huh, show off. I’ll teach you what an explosion is.

The whole act of slipping into racing overalls becomes an example of vulgarity when you reach my age and have a body as flexible as an iron pole. Picking the size of 2XL – one size too big just to conceal the beer belly – I slipped into the racing overalls and was ready to tear the tarmac. “Right, now watch and learn, boys. Watch and learn,” I mumbled.

I walked towards it. Suddenly, the over exuberance shrunk and transformed into a sense of anxiety. I was hugely excited but also quite nervous. Stood next to the race car, gave it a long look, and got in – I was experiencing my first race car in more than 10 years!

I was rolled out of the hangar and got positioned to drive out of the pits. The moment the starter button was pressed, everything instantly became irrelevant. The rage of 180 brake-horsepower at my ear lobes egged me to floor the throttle. This thing does a 0-100km/h in 4 seconds. It doesn’t feel like your backside is on fire, but it does feel plenty fast. The key here is to bring the tyres and brakes up to temperature and keep them there. When I got out on the track, both were as cold as the arctic. It took me a couple of laps only to start getting some heat into them, and also figure out the lines and braking areas. Once I started getting the hang of it, I also started allowing my foot to go deeper into the footwell and braked as late as I could for each of the corners.

The 5-speed sequential gearbox shifts extremely precisely, and it was a joy to keep hammering it in from one gear to the other. Theatrics come as a default by-product of driving a race car, as many would attest. I overcooked a corner, tried correcting it mid-corner and the damn thing snapped. Some quick natural reflexes and counter steering later, my eyeballs came back into their position. This was a laugh! This single seater was a hardcore, focused track tool with an instantaneous steering and bang on gear changes. Surprisingly, it was also quite forgiving, and going over the kerbs never felt like my spine was disintegrating one link at a time.

Time was running out, and I had to put in some hot laps in the GT86 as well. As I rolled into the pits and the engine stopped, there was silence all around – as if the world was at peace. As if I was at peace. With a deep breath, I opened my eyes. My heart rate was rapid, but it never felt as good and warm within. A slight but satisfying smile formed on my face. It was special.

I keyed the 86 and jumped into the driver’s seat. This isn’t your über luxurious brand flash; it’s a back-to-basics, unpretentious sports coupe. The interior is functional and it’s got a spec sheet as populated as the Vatican. The best thing about the GT86 is that in a world obsessed with very synthetic cars it makes you believe in the religion of driving. It makes you believe in cars. It’s not the quickest or the most powerful thing on the road, nor does it have a computer chip from Nasa’s R&D centre. It’s even got tyres from a car as uninteresting as the Prius! But, the moment you get into those brilliant seats, you feel as if you belong there. You sit low, the steering is magnificent to hold, and everything just shrinks around you. But what makes the 86 most special is the way it behaves. 

The Autodrome’s ‘Club Circuit’ is a combination of very technical corners and a couple of decent straights, and you need a car with very direct and sensitive controls to exploit such a track layout. The technical parts of the track are immensely enjoyable, and that’s where the steering of the GT86 displayed its brilliance.

At the risk of sounding insulting to some purist sports car makers, it’s possibly the best electric steering system I’ve experienced so far. The steering wheel instantly translates the thought-cloud of your mind and action of the hands into immediate directional changes. There’s a very defined mechanical feel to the steering, and it allows you to exploit the car’s capabilities to the greatest proportions. There’s a particular section of the track that makes me smile every time I think of driving through it. A wide left hander after a hugely enjoyable chicane (series of right-left-right corners) that required late braking, and then a hard turn-in that leads onto a smallish straight. Keep the entry brisk enough and there’s very predictable understeer, but dab the throttle a bit and the tail starts to play with you, checking if your reflexes on the steering are fast enough to keep up with the naughtiness of the chassis. In the motoring land of fat tyres, massive electronics and huge power, rarely ever is a car so entertaining.

The engine is very clever too. It’s quite exotic, even, because not many manufacturers do a boxer engine these days. The 86 has a 2.0 litre, flat-four boxer that belts out 197bhp and 160Nm of torque. You almost always have to keep the engine on the boil if you wish to seek satisfaction from it. The fact that the motor redlines at 7400 revs and peak power is achieved just 400rpm shy of it, at 7000, is proof of that. It features both direct and indirect injection, and the 6-speed auto that our test car came with is borrowed from the lexus IS-F, but is mated so beautifully to this engine that the power delivery and the characteristics of the gearbox are completely in sync with the rest of the car.

This is the happiest car I’ve driven the whole year – its skinny tyres urge you to get into a friendly game of slides, while the phenomenally cheerful chassis keeps your confidence intact. It was the perfect companion to the single seater, and together they were the perfect companions for me over a very quixotic afternoon. It’s like having Victoria Pendleton on a date. Two of them at that!

Disclaimer: this feature was done for AutoX and the original piece appeared in the magazine in 2014.

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