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Suzuki’s new Swift hatch and sedan in SA

Suzuki kicks off its new model assault with an all new Swift hatchback and standalone sedan called the Dzire.

We drive Lexus LFA at Goodwood

2010-08-23 06:51

Lance Branquinho

Lexus branding meets a legendary circuit. Epic mismatch or automotive performance art of the highest calibre?

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Lexus
Model LFA
Engine 4.8l V10
Power 412kW @ 8 700r/min
Torque 480Nm @ 6 800r/min
Transmission Six-speed
Zero To Hundred 3.6 sec
Top Speed 325km/h
Weight 1 480kg
Tyres F: 265/35ZR20 R: 305/30 ZR20
Front Suspension Aluminum double wishbones
Rear Suspension Aluminum multi-Link
What was Britain’s finest hour?

Was it the moment the Beatles walked into Abbey Road studios to record?

Or perhaps it was the first time George Best scored for Man United?

Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar? Well, no.

The summer of 1940, to my mind and to anybody else who was tutored in English history, was when The Few (the fighter pilots in Britain’s RAF) defended the United Kingdom against Germany’s more confrontational version of Lufthansa, the Luftwaffe…

Besides keeping London English and inefficient, another legacy of the RAF’s Second World War victory during the Battle of Britain was a surfeit of airfields in southern England.

This war trivia may seem quite inconsequential to you but these former RAF airfields became some of the world’s most renowned car racing circuits. Silverstone, Snetterton, Donnington – they were all originally paved as perimeter service roads to RAF airfields.

Goodwood - a place of legends

The greatest RAF ‘perimeter-track’ circuit of all is one that has drifted away from the mainstream racing consciousness – Goodwood. For South Africans, especially Capetonians, the name has some resonance. Our Goodwood is a bustling Cape Town suburb straddling the Wingfield military base and N1.

Of late the British Goodwood Estate’s owner, Lord March, has allowed people to race up his driveway each spring – an event which has germinated into the hugely successful Goodwood Festival of Speed.

The sprawling estate’s greatest treasure remains the Goodwood circuit proper. If this fabled circuit is so spectacular, why doesn’t anybody race there anymore? Well, it's simply too dangerous.

Goodwood ended the great Stirling Moss’s career with a crash in 1962.

Racing was suspended by 1966 - at a time when the Nordschleife was still considered safe for F1. Forbiddingly, Goodwood remained open for testing.

In 1970 it took the life of the preciously talented and infinitely likeable New Zealander, Bruce McLaren.

Much as the Goodwood circuit is a curious reminder of Britain’s finest hour, the Lexus LFA is Japan’s automotive equivalent - the most expensive and impeccably crafted Nipponese car ever assembled.

Haters will castigate it as contrived, inelegant and the consequence of a marketing programme gone awry when Toyota’s F1 team was shelved. Is this really the case?

Begging the question…

Despite the LFA’s rarity (they’re only building 500) and Goodwood’s grim-reaper reputation, Lexus - keen to prove the car’s merit – promised me two stints at the wheel. Somebody at Lexus marketing headquarters was obviously on severe prescription medication when this media event was conceptualised.  

The LFA, parked between the Goodwood pits and clubhouse on a glorious spring day, looks curiously out of place among the immaculately restored period architecture.

My job was to use the circuit’s testing window (severely truncated by noise regulations, strictly enforced by the neighbouring town of Chichester) to navigate Goodwood’s five corners (well, technically six – but we’ll get to that) at speed. The aim? To gauge if Toyota’s most ambitious engineering project yet is worth its supercar billing.

After wandering about in the pits for a few minutes I was politely ushered to a briefing. The chief instructor was quite terse about the perils that lay in wait. “I could show you stuff on the diagram about clipping points and so on but…well, if you lose it you’re in big trouble. There is no safe runoff. Keep it neat.”


Subsequent to the briefing I don a race suite, lace-up driving boots, grab a helmet and make my way to the pits wall – awaiting my opportunity at the LFA’s helm.

Nervousness gets the best of me, though, and I take a walk around the garden adjacent to the pits. It is beautifully tended, quintessentially English. Bronze statues abound. The first one I happen upon is Britain’s original F1 champion (1958), Mike Hawthorn. A few metres on is a hedgerow.

Peering around the corner I notice a headstone engraved with: ‘Bruce McLaren 1937-1970. Engineer. Constructor. Champion and Friend.’

The moment of contemplation is short-lived.

Time to go

Approaching the LFA you’d never say it took Haruhiko Tanahashi and his team a decade to develop. The project’s timetable ballooned alarmingly when a core structural change was made four years into the venture – switching from aluminium to carbon-fibre.

It may appear ungainly, yet at touchable distance the LFA’s classic long-nose GT shape is arrestingly purposeful. Atop the doorframes there’s a substantial aero cut-out to channel airflow to the rear radiators. Detailing is terrifically intricate – none of it superfluous. The insides of the side-mirrors, for instance, have ribs - an apparently negligible detail, yet it balances the LFA’s aerodynamics at speed.

Every composite part of the LFA’s surfacing is geared towards enhancing its high-speed stability. Statistically it tallies all the correct numbers, too. Power is beyond 400kW. Weight? Only 1480kg. Top speed? Moe than 300km/h. Acceleration? As quick as anything  you would care to mention.

Lexus by name. Supercar by nature?

As I settle into the crimson driver’s seat the most shocking realisation is how bespoke the LFA’s cabin is. Forget about finding the odd Verso button, you’ll hardly find a traceable bit of Lexus LS switchgear in here. The LFA’s interior architecture is a stunningly crafted world of hand-built composite, leather and aluminium.

The only ergonomic oddity is a small mirror in the driver’s footwell…

Unlike most contemporary supercars, the LFA only fires up when a proper ignition key and barrel find each other, activating the car’s electrics and arming the starter button.

After pulling back the steering column-mounted paddles, first gear engages and the LFA rolls towards the end of the pits lane.

I fiddle with the exquisitely detailed steering wheel – a manifestation of my nervousness. In the distance turn one, Madgwick, beckons.

My mind is slightly awed at the prospect and rapidly flooding with dread as each idle second follows another. At last, the marshal sets me off. I ease out of the pits, changing to second at 5000r/min. Everything feels harmoniously manageable.

A stab at the floor-mounted throttle pedal instantly suspends any remnant of characteristic Lexus civility. My sense of hearing is immediately impaired by the 4.8-litre V10’s acoustic signature. It sounds for all the world like a late 1990' three-litre V10 F1 car. Never has a Japanese car been as worthy of Ferrari tenor billing as this, a Lexus of all things…

The manner in which this V10 gains crankspeed is simply unfathomable. Its Yamaha cylinder head know-how is abundantly evident in the kinetics of an engine that feels like two R1 superbike in-line fours spliced on to a common crankshaft, then doubled in capacity.

Between the LFA’s chemical black magic of converting premium unleaded to Grand Prix starting-grid noise and its vertigo-inducing acceleration, I urgently have to negotiate Goodwood’s turn one.

Madgwick is a double apex (like nearly all of Goodwood’s corners) right-hander. I brush the left pedal at a touch under 200km/h, braking deep before easing the helm with a subtle right-hand down motion.

Despite the frenzied, traction-challenging overture of the V10 as it approaches a 9300rpm fuel cut-off point, the LFA’s dynamic finesse converts linear acceleration to stupefying levels of cornering g-force, instead of projecting me into the tyre barrier.

A short straight follows Madgwick, leading to Goodwood’s fastest corner - Fordwater.

The blindingly quick right-hander is meant to be taken flat out. A combination of the LFA’s pace, Goodwood’s omnipresent grass embankment on the left and a fear of having my surname mispronounced by a BBC newsreader (in case of a shunt) triggers an intrinsic survival instinct and (embarrassingly) I lift off before settling the car through. Its poise, buoyed by the active rear wing, is as secure as a Swiss government guaranteed 25-year bond.

Hooking a left

The run down to Goodwood’s only left-hand corner, St Mary’s, is preceded by the ‘corner-with-no-name’ – a not at all insignificant prospect when you’re approaching at 220km/h. Firm pressure on the left pedal trims off enough of the LFA’s avalanche of forward momentum before a flick right darts the car into another short zone of deceleration before entering St Mary’s.

Having 412 of the most urgent (and loud) naturally aspirated kiloWatts load up a carbon-fibre chassis, making the steering wheel writhe like a flat-bottomed mechanical gyroscope hinged between two industrial magnets, is a very un-Lexus-like experience.

At this stage – a third of the way around Goodwood – I'm willing to confer supercar status upon the LFA.

There is an inarguable mechanical purity to the LFA driving experience. Its ‘old school’ automated sequential manual transmission is as engaging as the bolt action of a sniper's rifle. Intense. Mechanical. Rewarding.

Exiting St Mary’s, a torrent of 2002 Team Toyota F1 V10 noise shoves the LFA to turn four, the wide-ranging double-apex Lavant corner. I tug a gear down. It takes some effort. The LFA’s downshifts are weightier than gaining gears – all part of the faultless attention to dynamic driving detail visited upon the car’s suite of engineering features by Haruhiko Tanahashi’s design team.

Trailing throttle balances the car through the first apex, readying me for a full-power exit. The LFA strains against its rev limiter (nearly peaking beyond decibel measurement scale) as I wind-off the last few degrees of steering lock.

I change up to fourth before clipping the outside kink as Lavant corner becomes Lavant straight.

Retracting Bruce's last steps
Ever since accepting this invitation to drive the LFA at Goodwood I’ve been having sleepless nights about what might happen next.

Bruce McLaren died careering down Lavant straight toward Woodcote corner in 1970, when his M8D’s rear aerodynamics came apart – at 270km/h.

My right index finger hesitantly tugs the Aisin transmission over to fifth. I realise that in mere seconds I’ll be putting the LFA’s Bridgestones into the selfsame braking zone that killed the celebrated McLaren team founder.

Doubt. Nostalgia. Goodwood’s eeriness. The V10’s mind-numbing soundtrack. A combination of these (multiplied by the LFA’s relentless pace) has me stomping on the left pedal at 250km/h, way past the 150m brake marker. Big mistake. I’ve stumbled into braking zone killing ground far too quickly – Woodcote waits in ambush.

The LFA’s aft axle snakes in protest at my ill-judgement. It's too late to wait for the car to settle. To my mind I must turn-in now and slide it sideways into the wall (the safer option) or risk connecting the barrier head-on. I steady the helm right-hand down a third and prepare for the steering to go weightless and grip levels to be overwhelmed by the forces at play.

Unfathomably, it all comes to nothing. The LFA’s right wheels touch and run true over Woodcote’s kerbing. I flick through the chicane and head into the pits.

Those phenomenal carbon-ceramic brakes at each corner possess heat absorption properties which could cool the sun.

Viewing in-car footage later, I was shocked to find there was actually a dynamic safety margin left despite my Lavant-into-Woodcote late braking theatrics.

The LFA’s benevolence is flattering. Its sum of mechanical engineering genius effortlessly counters a petulant lack of driving talent.

Brand-neutral observers will baulk at the LFA’s price (around R3-million before duties and taxation) and ask some pertinent questions about heritage. You only need to hear that V10 touch 9000rpm once and you’ll be sold on it. Fortunately for local petrolheads, three of these fine supercars are on their way to South Africa.

It's worth remembering one fundamental truth about this car - it's built to a standard, not a price. Lexus won’t make any money on the 500 LFAs with customer signatures inked next to them. What’s the standard in question, though? Simple really - a quest to build as pure a supercar as possible.

Haruhiko Tanahashi has done a remarkable job.

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