Dan DeGasperi pulls the harness tight, hangs on in the passenger seat of the fastest front-driver around the famed Nurburgring.
There’s merely a whiff of smoke from the brakes of the Renault Megane RS275 Trophy-R as it pulls into the pits for the next of about five hundred Nurburgring passenger rides it’s been doing today.
The team of French drivers – including Vincent Bayle who set the original front-drive lap record in 2008 with the Megane R26.R and Laurent Hurgon who set the fastest front-driver record here in 2011 with the Megane RS265 Trophy and now with this RS275 Trophy-R – are strapped into the six-point racing harness (available as an option on the new car). They’ve been doing this all morning, giving awed passengers the fastest 20-kilometre taxi ride they’ve ever been on.
When I strap into the passenger harness, I shake hands with Bayle. It’s been six years since the now 40-year-old set an 8:17 lap of the Nurburgring in the second-generation Megane R26.R – the grey with red wheels nugget with the big bum that, with perspex rear windows and pulled-out airbags, was even more stripped out than the new Trophy-R. It, too, had no air-conditioning, like more than a few overheating Falcon cabs.
Because the Megane Trophy that recorded an 8:08 time three years ago had a comfy rear seat and climate control, this new Trophy-R seems more like the successor to that original R26.R that remains one of the coolest cars never to come to Australia.
If you fold down the rear backrest in a regular Megane RS265 or the RS250 before it, the driver gets to hear much more of the tasty crackle and pop from the exhaust. It is nothing compared with the RS275 Trophy-R, however. Not only is the rear seat pulled out (saving 23kg) but insulation is too, which lightens the back of the car by a further 18kg.
Not sure what that’ll do for coarse-chip road noise on Australian roads – the Mini Cooper JCW GP followed a similar path that made you feel as though you were sitting in a cinder box – but it liberates the sound of the tasty new Akrapovic titanium exhaust. As a bonus, another 4kg goes with the replacement of the standard exhaust.
On the main straight, it’s as though the afterburners have been lit coming up to the first turns, the vwoorrp of the exhaust challenging the industrial thrash of the engine in comfortably the best The Voice battle you’ve ever heard.
From the passenger seat you can feel only what the car is doing through the seat of your pants, unencumbered for better or worse by steering and pedals communication. As a regular driver who has had many hot laps with racecar drivers over the years, I’ve always been left humbled and staggered by the depths of braking, grip levels and balancing of the chassis they can achieve from much higher speed. Passengering with a racecar driver at the ‘ring, however, is something else. Yet there’s classic car control techniques at play, some of which I’ve used on twisty roads, only here it’s happening in ultra-fast forward.
There are too many highlights. The way Bayle wrestles with the steering on entry to faster sweepers, rowing on lock then winding off to unsettle the rear end slightly then guide it back on-line, and in doing so keeps the Megane RS275 Trophy-R neutralised from understeer. The Michelins deliver other-worldly grip levels, and the car simply feels hunkered down.
On a long straight punctuated by a bridge (which Nurburg commuters happily pass under each day on their way to work) my fine French driver mutters something above the noise, then makes a hand gesture, palm horizontal, quickly raised up, then back down. Ah, gotcha. His right driving glove grabs the steering wheel again blocking the speedometer I’d just seen passing 200km/h. We’re flat in fifth, we get air, then I see kitty litter.
Hard on the brakes, the Megane squirms as though a mash of the Brembo brakes has given it a face-plant, hind legs in the air. Bayle guides the steering left and right, ultra smoothly, bringing his partner back to him in a single tight tango move. Among a flurry of throttle blips and downchanges, the front left tyre is kept thumbed into the tarmac in the 90-degree right hander. From a mechanical sympathist point of view, it left me cringing at just how hard the tyres are working yet completely in awe at what they are achieving.
A plunging downhill right-hander – I remember these corners vividly by memory, but struggle to pinpoint which of the 72 they were! – sees Bayle set up the Trophy-R by giving its middle pedal a staccato stomp then winding on more lock than required. Again, the rear is unsettled, but more dramatically this time, though counter lock is applied before wasteful oversteer occurs. It simply allows him to have the car straight earlier and get back on the right pedal sooner.
Parts of the track I thought were straights (see Renault Megane RS275 Trophy Review here) come under the physics pressure test at higher speeds, with slight kinks bullying the Megane off line, though again delicate balancing of the steering allows the boot to be kept in.
Similarly, at higher speed the elevation changes of the Nurburgring are more noticeable, and over one particular section the Megane fulfills the old cliché of feeling like it’s on the rails of a rollercoaster. You’re pressed into the seat base as the track plunges, flattens, then rises.
Blind crests dominate this circuit, and when you come over one of them the sight of seeing a wall of graffiti, rather than lots of comparatively soothing kitty litter, turns the rollercoaster analogy a bit more specific. This is wild mouse stuff, the Megane turning right after the crest at the sort of speed you think should have it ploughing into understeer, grafting that new nose into the concrete. (So, about that old myth that bum-draggers understeer…)
There’s a place in the world for cars like the Renault Megane RS275 Trophy-R, a car probably funded by the profit from all the mainstream Clio RS automatics peddled to first-time Renault Sport buyers. It is an unabashed, hardcore track car, a front-wheel-drive hatchback that channels a Porsche 911 GT3 for less than a fifth of the price. The Trophy-R is back in the pits, Bayle cheerful to see the smile on my face, barely breaking a sweat, merely a whiff of smoke from the brakes…