New Zealand racetrack for tourists and tragics
THE banked high-speed curve behind me, the short straight dealt with and the esses steered deftly, I reckon I'm doing OK punting the Subaru WRX around the track.
Then the bloke who's been directing me says, "Pull up on the left under the bridge."
So much for hot-lap glory, I figure, here comes a chat about using too much brake/fuel/track. Instead, instructor Andrew Waite adds: "And put your window down."
I do so - and get a massive visceral buzz as a Porsche 911 GT3 flashes past on our right, its rasping exhaust note bouncing off the concrete of the underpass.
Welcome to the sounds, sights, smells and sweat of the Subaru WRX Experience at Highlands Motorsport Park, a gem known to too few in New Zealand's South Island.
The WRX deal is one of several ways for car fans to have a lash at the track - or tracks, as there are three that link to make the 4.1km main circuit. There are Sunday breakfasts through to full-tilt corporate team days.
I'm out for a taste of the lot with Waite, impossibly youthful yet a former national champ in junior formula racing, a veteran of V8 utes and a regular in China's Le Mans-style prototype series.
We start with conditioning - happily not a fitness routine but getting accustomed to the workings of the Sube's anti-lock braking. I have to hurtle at 100km/h towards rows of cones, then stand on the anchors and steer into a row at his command, pulse and brake pedal hammering away.
Next up the slalom and park routine, standard motorkhana stuff that involves threading around the cones at the back of the pits and pulling up in not much more than a car length, in a "garage" defined by more witch's hats. Just don't pull up short or go through the back "wall".
Track time follows, pulling over not just for the GT3 but also for the Ferrari 488 with pro driver that takes a passenger on big-time adrenaline laps. (It's a bonus back in the car park to watch their legs turn to jelly when they alight.)
Before each turn, Waite keeps me on the throttle to the braking markers, urges deft or full-on braking to arrive at optimum cornering pace, then calmly directs me to the apex and exit, the WRX's sporty CVT matching revs seamlessly to progress.
After a few laps, I've reached borderline adequate status and I'm gagging for more - which we sure get, swapping car and driver and heading out in the Experience team's STI.
Waite's businesslike working of pedals and the six-speed manual's gearshift, with accompanying commentary no less, delivers a lap time of a shade over two minutes and a certain clamminess to my palms. The companions on track, the Porsche and the Ferrari, would take 30 seconds less on full song.
These Subes stand up to the rigours thanks to a brief working life on the track. With no more than 2000km on the clock, they go back to the brand's NZ HQ - with their tyres and brakes replaced.
This is one of the most spectacular circuits you'll find. Some sighting marks are in the adjacent pine forests and the short run before the esses is called Pisa Straight, as it barrels towards the Pisa Range, yet another stunning mountain backdrop in NZ's Central Otago.
Highlands is at Cromwell, an overlooked corker of a place about 40 minutes' drive from adventure capital Queenstown and relatively unspoilt Wanaka.
The park's motorsport theme unfolds not only at the track but also in Gasoline Alley, where 48 cashed-up owners can accommodate their racers. There are apartments adjacent to pit lane, should some of the 150 member-investors wish to fly in for a spin.
Highlands Museum squeezes in dozens of cars, many steeped in Kiwi motorsport history and others owned by Scots-born proprietor Tony Quinn - food industry and motorsport entrepreneur, former V8 Supercar campaigner and Targa winner, to condense a bulging CV. It's his 488 doing the fast laps, abetted by a Porsche Cayenne Turbo, dubbed the Highlands taxi.
Quinn, as he recounts in his book, Zero to 60, sketched the layout with son Klark on the proverbial back of an envelope - an iPad anyway - and pinched features from favoured tracks around the world: Nurburgring, Watkins Glen (US), Phillip Island …
Opened about six years ago, the track is hailed more for requiring technical nous than for outright speed. One Quinn or the other has mounted the podium for the Highlands 101 GT event and the calendar is expanding for the track, as it is for its North Island counterpart, Hampton Downs.
Beyond the outstanding scenery viewed from anywhere on the track, the layout is notable for its signalling set-up. The lights, replacing flag marshals, are operated by officials in a multi-screen control centre via 6.5km of fibre-optic and power cables.
Still pumped from the WRX, I climb into a go-kart on the park's equally stunning 650m circuit, also all-electronic. Safety-briefed and running under the low-key alias of Ricciardo, I attack for a best lap of a tick under 60 seconds.
There are echoes of the Sube getting left behind by the GT cars - but rather than putting an expert at the wheel, I need to shed half my body weight to match the skinny kids lapping 2.5 seconds better.