It happens in every job. In the beginning, it all starts out the same; you’re full of beans and everything is exciting – hell, even a sudden change of wind is enough to get you aroused. Sooner or later, though, you reach a point where you feel you’ve explored the edge of your profession and seen it all, and then you settle into transacting business a few feet away from there. You constantly crave the excitement, but because of the nature of the occupation, you have to come to terms with the fact that it takes an exorbitant amount to get your juices flowing. It would really take something big to bring back that Clinton-with-a-new-intern feeling again.
But just when I thought I had surfed the crest of the industry and danced on the edge, I found myself strapped into the carbon fiber Recaro seat of a group N rally car built by the expert hands of those folks at Motor Image, the exclusive dealer of those rally bred, fire breathing Subaru cars, driven by six-time Indonesian National Rally Champion, Rifat Sungkar, thinking to myself that this is perhaps the last place I would like to spend my hangover. You want to talk about a rude awakening? This guy managed to yank me straight out of my comfort zone by the very root of my short and curlies, and gave me a moment I’ll never forget. Yes, my eyes are watering just flashing back to it now…
The irony of it all was that the event was staged in Singapore; a place where even just walking briskly could set off a speed camera. If it weren’t for the esteemed – ahem – company I was going to be keeping over the three day trip, including “King Bling” himself, Motoring editor, Dong Magsajo, I would have politely declined, preferring to watch the paint dry in my study instead, or worse, spending an hour and a half watching the overtaking-less snorefest that Bernie Ecclestone tried to pass off as this year’s Monaco Grand Prix.
Don’t get me wrong – Singapore is a great place, but it’s hardly the hub of automotive passion now, is it? I’ve been to bat mitzvahs that are wilder. But that was all about to change.
What was meant to be a simple press launch of Motor Image’s new rally team, which by press standards usually means strapping yourself to a dinner table and listening to speeches longer than the Singapore Strait, was turned sideways when Glen Tan, Subaru’s young and dynamic leader invited journalists from the eight countries that he distributes the Subaru brand to, to get a front row seat to arguably the most exciting form of motor sports in the world.
“We wanted to showcase the capabilities of our local talent by building a car that could compete against the best in the entire region,” Glen Tan, group chief executive of MotorImage said to us over a spicy Singaporean dinner. “What? Are you serious? I think you may have eaten too much of that humble pie, Glen,” I reacted, as I reminded him that they dominated their first ever race by clinching 1st and 3rd place in New Zealand last May 13.
Good, but not enough for this perfectionist.
But still, I’m skeptical. Not about the company, or Glen, but about the event. I’ve been to more of these “co-drives” than I care to remember and more often than not, you are usually left scrounging for compliments, just to make the driver feel better about his efforts. In many ways it’s just patronizing. I know it’s nothing personal, but nowadays, car companies tend to border on the “safe-but-we’ll-make-up-for-it-in-the-lifestyle-portion-of-the-trip” sort of thing. Fine if you like shopping, too bad if you happen to feel anything at all about driving.
And to top it all off, my adrenaline had been totally squeezed dry during our flight from Manila to Singapore when our plane flew through a tornado and dropped a hundred feet sending me totally airborne and other passengers screaming. Twice.
I’m strapped in and give the obligatory “thumbs up” for the cameras. It’s like being told the same joke for the umpteenth time and trying to make your laugh look genuine. Rifat calls up first gear on his Subaru WRX STi, taunting over 500newton meters of earth moving torque. He stabs the throttle, pinning me into my seat with the force of one and a half times my own body weight. A smile spreads instantly across my face and is held in place by pure G force.
He rows through the gears almost as fast as you could call it. It is not a high revving engine, nor does it need to be. Maximum power is kept percolating anywhere from 1,900rpm up to about 4,500rpm, making each gear shift feel like a kidney punch. The gear ratios are short, too, making sure every last drop of precious fuel burnt does so when the engine is at its most potent. He pulls the hand brake just as we enter the first series of curves. His side window now becomes his windscreen and I can almost see our own taillights through it. Even more amazing is that the width of the road we’re drifting through is less than one and a half times the length of the car.
The downhill pass opens up into a wide open space that is free of traffic islands, allowing Rifat to hit sixth gear. Everything is blurred, but I’m placing our speed from anywhere north of 160 kp/h. There’s a 90 degree left hander coming up framed by huge sidewalks and overgrown weeds. Rifat yanks the steering wheel and turns right. The wrong way! I see a snapshot of that waiver they made me sign as soon as I notice these big trees filling up the windscreen. He flicks the wheel left and we are now floating across the searing tarmac in what has been dubbed as “The Scandinavian Drift”.
The tortured Falken tires skate over the surface while Rifat balances the car with an armful of opposite lock. They bite just as the two front wheels brush the apex and throw us out of the corner like a cat that just spotted a hungry Rotweiler. We leap out and barely get straight before Rifat throws us the other direction. All four wheels are spinning at twice our road speed, filling up the wheel arches with thick white smoke.
The foliage flies past the side windows and magnifies the speed. I can see another small opening between two traffic islands coming up. Rifat comes down through the gears with a dazzling display of foot work and pulls the handbrake again, sending us sideways through it into a giant skid pad. This would be impressive enough on any racetrack, but in this former military base that has been neglected over the years, each tight road bleeds into each other blindly – the overgrown shrubbery serving as nature’s walls, giving you the exhilarating feeling of racing through a forest.
You cannot see the next turns, yet Rifat enters each one with total commitment and seemingly no room for error. If you have ever been to Naval Mag in Subic, you’ll have a clearer picture. We head for the center of the skid pad and once again, Rifat pulls the overused handbrake. He sends us into a perfect spin and feathers the power fluently, maintaining the perfect axis and completing four of the best donuts you will ever see outside of a Krispy Kreme store.
About five minutes into this sideways festival, I realize I haven’t stopped clapping since we took off – except for that one terrifying moment just before the Scandinavian drift, of course. It is as aroused as you can get by a car and about the only thing that can hit your lateral g-spot without getting arrested in this very strict island state.
I have been fortunate enough to ride with Formula One drivers, two-time Carrera cup champions and a string of other extremely accomplished drivers, yet none have left quite as good an impression on me as this. I was blown away. Rifat’s car control was out of this world; and the car? Well… you can ask Cody Crocker’s competitors about that. As Rifat’s team mate as well as the defending champion of the Asia Pacific Rally Championship and the winner of the last round in New Zealand in his Motor Image Subaru STi, I’ll bet you they’ll say it’s the machine more than the man.
I’d say it was the bond between both.
Yeah, that’s right. James and I are both converts. Rally is the bomb! More on that in a future issue. Right now, here are some of your Backseat Driver reactions from last week…
To the MMDA: Could you please apprehend buses along EDSA that occupy the outermost lane? There are already wo yellow lanes are devoted for their use alone, right? – 09185088095 (Right!)
Please educate those smoke-belching testers that the dark exhaust from AUVs is not carbon monoxide, and that more of such comes from cars. – 09202664571
Should the air pressure of a vehicle’s front tires be the same as that of the rear? – 09179876627 (Under normal driving conditions, yes.)
Speak out, be heard and keep those text messages coming in. To say your piece and become a “Backseat Driver”, text PHILSTAR<space>FB<space> MOTORING<space>YOUR MESSAGE and send to 2840 if you’re a Globe or Touch Mobile subscriber or 334 if you’re a Smart or Talk ’n Text subscriber or 2840 if you’re a Sun Cellular subscriber. Please keep your messages down to a manageable 160 characters. You may send a series of comments using the same parameters.)