Track time and driver training in the Ford Focus RS
Most motoring journalists like to think of themselves as racing drivers in disguise. Truth is, many are high on confidence and low on talent. Rather than trying to learn on the fly, Ford suggested we spend some time behind the wheel of a Focus RS with Driving Solutions, learning how to get the best from a performance car at Sydney Motorsports Park. As days at work go, this was a good one.
We've already spent some time in the Focus RS, and found its blend of traction and power a brilliant mix on wet, poorly maintained backroads, but we didn't get the chance to really find out what it can do with no traffic around. With grunt from a gently massaged version of the EcoBoost four-cylinder engine from the Mustang, you get 350 hp (257 kW) of power and 470 Nm of torque on overboost. Boost has jumped from 18 to 23.1 PSI, and the team in Cologne has fitted a bigger intercooler, high-tensile cylinder liners and an uprated head gasket.
Incremental changes, sure, but they add up to something more significant. Keep the throttle pinned and it hammers toward the redline, change gear and you'll be treated to an armada of cracks and pops from the twin exhaust. It's effective, and never fails to elicit a smile.
Step one in our RS education is the skidpad – a flat area devoid of obstacles, save for a few cones. After a quick intro to the different drive modes and what they do, James Stewart from Driving Solutions activated Launch Control, before gesturing toward the horizon. The engine builds boost and bangs into the limiter, popping and sizzling in staccato bursts. The process is simple from there: point the wheel straight, dump the clutch, and hold on for dear life as everything goes blurry. It's like being in a football when it's kicked.
With the skidpad thoroughly soaked, we carve a few slow loops around a circle of cones. "Cars don't understeer," says Stewart, looking remarkably relaxed for someone about to be a powerless passenger with a hopeless journo behind the wheel. "Drivers make their cars understeer." With that in mind, he tells me to punch the throttle and hold the steering steady. The car pushes wide under power, before darting sharply back toward the cones with a quick lift of the accelerator. With the right amount of gas, though, the RS carves a neat arc around the cones, inside rear wheel cocked like the hot-hatches of yore.
Drift Mode was one of the things we weren't able to properly test during our road test of the RS, but the skidpad is the perfect place to let it off the leash. Wind on some steering lock, punch the throttle and the car pitches into a dramatic four-wheel slide, but it's not a traditional balls-out slide with bags of opposite lock – more of a rally-style donut. Ken Block would be proud. The hoon-happy mode is also useful when you're trying to keep things tidy, allowing you to play with the car's balance under power. Get on the gas early and the rear breaks loose, show a bit of restraint and it carves a beautiful, clean arc and just shoots off into the distance.
Our time playing with Drift Mode also provided a valuable lesson in looking where you want to go. "The biggest key to all driving is vision," says Stewart, now reclining on a couch in the Driving Dynamics office. "If you look at car crashes where there is a tree or a telegraph pole, it's always in the middle of the bonnet or the driver door – because once you fixate on a negative, that's where your eyes are telling you to go."
"The more positive you are, your eyes will steer the car to where you want to go," he continues. "If you look and turn your head through the corner you're being positive, and that's where the car will go."
It sounds like the sort of thing an instructor might tell a jumpy learner on their first lesson, but wandering eyes are apparently problematic for beginners and experienced racers alike. That didn't make me feel any better when, car pushing wide on the wet skidpad, we ended up careening toward the only obstacle within about 30 meters like a laser-guided missile. A timely "where are you looking" from the passenger seat woke me from my trance, and the RS skimmed past the cone with just millimeters to spare. Don't stare at the cones. Lesson learned.
Time on the skidpad over, it was time to hit the Grand Prix Circuit at Sydney Motorsports Park. The Focus RS was brilliant on the road, but we didn't really get the chance to push beyond second gear. That isn't a worry on the track and its long, downhill pit straight, sweeping first turn and technical back section. An instructor will be in the passenger seat to start with, to help gain an understanding of where to stop, turn and accelerate.
"Until you get a decent instructor in next to you, you don't realize how much you don't know," says Stewart. Based on experience, that sounds about right. It's daunting knowing you should be going flat out, but not knowing where to brake, how hard to accelerate and what lines work – all while there are other expensive, powerful cars around you.
Session one is a cacophony of messy lines and understeer, a by-product of carrying too much speed into two of the tighter corners on the circuit. A lack of patience getting on the throttle doesn't help, either. It's a good thing Ford is supplying tires. Still, my helmet could barely contain my grin by this point. Trackdays are fun.
Subsequent sessions got progressively smoother and quicker as my understanding of the circuit improved. The Focus absolutely hammers down pit straight, pulling strongly to the redline through the first four gears and well into fifth, by which point the speedo needle is pushing 210 km/h (130 mph). It felt like there's plenty more to give at that point, too. After a dab of brakes, the straight rolls into a long left-hand sweeper where the RS gets up on its tip-toes, clinging on gamely at 160 km/h (99 mph) through mid-corner before drifting to the edge of the circuit on exit.
Although the afternoon started with the RS in Normal Mode, the final few sessions were spent with it locked into Track. The sharper throttle makes heel-and-toe changes easier, while the bone-rattling sport suspension tune makes sense on the smooth racetrack tarmac in a way it never does on the road. The exhaust pops and bangs don't add any performance but they sound cool, and that contributes to the experience as well.
Get things right – brake early, get the car turned and wait to get on the power – and it feels absolutely brilliant, with the same excellent balance we enjoyed on the road. You can sense the power shuffling to the back wheels, and sense the car pivoting more willingly than any other four-wheel drive hot hatch I've driven. I also got it wrong frequently, though, as my concentration faded over the course of the afternoon. Sessions are short and sharp, but it's incredibly difficult to stay switched on for even 20 minutes without making a mistake.
Every time I feel on top of things or get a corner right, I end up barreling into the next corner in a messy blur of ABS and tire squeal. As the afternoon wears on and confidence grows, the overshoots get bigger and the frustration more intense. As much fun as the time was, it lit a competitive fire. I'm already planning my next trip to Sydney Motorsports Park to improve on my performance.
Having kicked off around 1 pm, the afternoon wraps up around 5 pm. The pit garages, filled with lightweight Porsches, heavyweight muscle cars and everything else in between during the day, empty quickly, and the excited conversation between sessions is replaced with the crackle of walkie-talkies as the Driving Solutions crew shut the track down for the night.
The smell of tortured tires and brakes still lingers around the Focus RS, but there are no other obvious signs of the abuse it has endured. Ford promised a hot hatch for track day hooligans from the outset, and there's no question it delivered. The car seems utterly bulletproof, although there are still a few niggles that prevent it from being perfect. My helmet touches the roof because the Recaro seats aren't height adjustable, and the brake pedal is a bit too high to comfortably rev match most of the time. It also looks a bit dumpy in gray, although that's a very subjective thing.
For anyone thinking of buying an RS, we'd absolutely recommend you bite the bullet. We'd say the same to anyone thinking of heading to the track. Get a professional instructor in the passenger seat to start, and then cut loose with plenty of space to make mistakes. You won't regret it.