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Turbo Lag - Across The Pond

Genius Is Close To Madness

Alistair Weaver
Mar 1, 2008
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Motorbike launches are brilliant. I was on one for less than two days and two people crashed. The first lost control on a tricky corner and dropped the bike, mangling his leg. The second was so busy watching others that he missed a turn, destroyed the bike and left himself with internal bleeding. This prompted a bout of communal concern, followed by a shrug. These are motorbikes-they're dangerous, people crash-get on with it.

No one can doubt that perching on top of a glorified pedal cycle at 180 mph with contact patches the size of two credit cards is inherently silly. Lose it at that speed in Phoenix and they'll be scraping your bits off the road in Vegas. It's mad and yet strangely alluring. On a car launch, you can't even step off the plane without having signed a squillion disclaimers. But the bike world still has a hint of anarchy.

The bikes themselves are reflections of this passion. The new Suzuki Hayabusa produces 197 hp at 9500 rpm from a 1340cc engine. In independent tests, it hit 100 mph from rest in a ridiculous 4.9 seconds and, after 10.2 seconds, was travelling at 150 mph. Few racecars can get anywhere near that, and the Suzuki is road-legal-yours for the price of a used sedan.

No one pretends that a superbike is easy to ride. Give the throttle an over-exuberant twist on the wrong road and by the time you've shouted your first Hail Mary, you'll be arse over tit and playing chicken with a truck. You have to treat these toys with care and ride them as if your testicles were pinned to the fuel tank-because they are.

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Turbocharged cars used to be their natural bedfellows. The artificially aspirated cars from the late '70s or early '80s were tricky at best. At times, the turbo lag could be comical-making good progress meant second-guessing what would happen next. If you jumped on the throttle, you'd have to hope that by the time the thrust arrived, the road had straightened out and the little old lady had chosen not to cross.

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to sit next to the 1984 World Rally Champion, Stig Blomqvist, as he pedalled an Audi S1 rally car up the famous Col De Turini in France. This car belonged to the famous Group B era of rallying, when the machines were comically overpowered. The S1's 2.1-liter engine developed more than 600 hp in a vehicle that weighed only slightly more than a pack of cigarettes.

Snow covered each of the Col's 16 hairpins. Blomqvist hadn't driven the car in 20 years and it was still on its original tires, but that didn't stop him teasing the horses. He would jump on the throttle and we'd wait a moment until the engine hit 4000 rpm, when we'd receive a short, sharp jab to the spine. Then he'd have 1500 rpm in which to deploy the thrust, snatch the next gear, left-foot brake and grab the handbrake.

It felt impossibly crude and outrageously exhilarating. From the passenger seat, I was watching a man trying to tame a wild animal. "These cars had a lot of power," Blomqvist said, "but you still wanted more. If the other drivers can cope with the horsepower, then you always want more."

Contrast this with my experiences last year when I rode alongside Marcus Gronholm in a modern Focus WRC. Now with more mass and only 300 hp, the sensations were almost mute. Sophisticated anti-lag systems delivered power and torque in a harmonious, abundant flow. Gronholm tweaked the paddle-shift gearbox and made minimal inputs with the wheel. "To be sideways in a modern rally car is to be slow," he explained. Here was a man being served by his machine. The effect was still impressive, but the rush was gone.

It's the same with modern road cars. In the past couple of weeks, I've spent time in the latest Porsche 997 Turbo. It is, undeniably, a brilliant piece of engineering. Were it not for a momentary pause in the throttle response and its outrageous pace, you'd be hard-pressed to tell that it's not naturally aspirated. As an everyday supercar, it's superb, but the experience still left me cold. That turbo shove, that hint of madness, was missing. It was understated grace, when I needed a dollop of 'Cor blimey.'

This is not meant to be a diatribe in favor of low-grade engineering, but we must be careful that, in perfecting the art, we don't subdue the passion. Big-bang turbos might upset the purists, but they bring with them a unique and potent dose of excitement. Madness is the new cool-just ask the bikers.

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By Alistair Weaver
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