Seasoned road tester and friend of Double Apex, Adrian Burford recounts the most memorable incident he’s had while testing. Additionally, he shares a story from another member of this very specialised field in Testing Times Part One.
Testing Times: Part One
Road testing isn’t dissimilar to war. Similarly, it is sometimes described as 99 per cent boredom and one per cent sheer terror.
The accepted idea of road testing – as a magazine journalist, anyway – is of trying to peel the tyres off wildly desirable performance cars, with little or no regard for wear and tear. And truth be told, there is some fun to be had as far as burning rubber goes. However, the real point of a road test is to give the consumer a fair and accurate, segment-specific overview. A set of 80 – 120 km/h flexibility runs in a Sentra Debut falls under the 99 per cent boredom heading.
Penning a good road test always brought me deep satisfaction. Yet, they don’t stick in one’s mind as vividly as hitting a guinea fowl at a true 210 km/h. (It punched a hole the size of a golf ball clean through the windscreen of a Ford Falcon.) Or running out of road in a C32 AMG at the end of a standing kilometre run at Gerotek.
The most memorable
For this story – which by now you will rightfully surmise has a working title along the lines of “not so great but nonetheless memorable moments when road-testing” – I’ve asked a couple of experienced testers to help out with their most memorable moment….
They are Citizen Motoring correspondent and all-around petrolhead Mark Jones, veteran motoring scribe Denis Droppa, and “serious” tester Jakes Jacobs, who spent years at the SABS validating truck braking systems for local compliance before leaving to start his own business, National Automotive Laboratory. Much of his work now comes from the SABS, validating truck braking systems for local compliance…
Flight AMGC32 cleared for take-off
Many years ago Mercedes-Benz SA commissioned me to provide independent high-altitude performance figures for the C32 AMG, of which there were two in the country at the time. When they retrieved their performance sedan from Gerotek a few days after delivering it to me, it was missing a left front corner and a number of airbags had deployed. In essence, it was toast.
According to the test data, I arrived at Gerotek’s skidpan at about 205 km/h. The funny thing was, my routine always consisted of doing my first standing kilometre run away from the ‘pan – west to east. For some inexplicable reason, that morning I made my first run east/west – ending on the skidpan rather than going into the teardrop-shaped loop at the other end. Big mistake.
Winter’s cold grip
I don’t like to look for excuses, but it is important to understand the reasons why something happened. It was July, and a light breeze was blowing, and it had been a cold and dewy night. The skidpan was bone dry as far as water from the sprinkler system was concerned (for those who have wondered about this for two over two decades), and the conclusion I’ve reached was that as the dew landed, it froze instantly thanks to the breeze, and turned into a thin sheen of ice.
When I got on the brakes immediately after passing my marker board, nothing happened. I pressed harder and still nothing. Already, the amount of wiggle room was disappearing fast.
Easy as… or not
The idea when finishing a run at Gerotek is to scrub off speed in a straight line and then ease off the stoppers and turn right and follow the outside of the painted doughnut. This works well, as the arc is huge and the surface extremely coarse, so reducing speed can seem dramatic at first but it soon becomes straightforward.
But, I suppose, I panicked. Instead of keeping it straight for longer, I tried to execute the turn earlier. The car didn’t respond well, but I was able to change course slightly, but this then led me onto the painted (and much slicker) part of the ‘pan.
The car continued at almost unabated pace diagonally and I now had full right lock applied and I was wondering where – not if – I was going to hit the berm… and hit it I did. The impact, at about 30 degrees to the perpendicular, ripped the left front wheel clean off the car, which then continued over the berm, corkscrewing and barrel-rolling through the air.
It landed upside down in a conveniently placed Rhus, which broke my fall. The car descended rapidly through the branches and came to rest upside down.
I extricated myself from the wreckage gingerly, unhurt apart from a cut thumb. I vividly remember, as I unclipped the belt (but with my hand against the roof where the glass sunroof used to be) and manoeuvred around sagging airbags, shards of glass and remnants of a laptop, the message in the LCD display inside the speedometer. It read: check left side headlight – suspected bulb failure. Of course, the warning system was blissfully unaware that the car no longer had a left front corner at all.
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Stop ‘n’ Go penalty
Jakes Jacobs’ story also happened at Gerotek, but that’s where the similarities end. He was driving a Mercedes-Benz truck, replete with a fully-laden (56-ton) trailer, and the front brakes had been disconnected. This is the standard procedure he says and adds it is all a part of figuring out whether the individual systems are adequate when used in isolation. His test took place on the three-kilometre banked oval.
Jakes picks up the story:
“I went out and around the western end and was checking settings on the test equipment, looking across to the laptop and getting organised for the first stop, which would be on the northern straight, opposite the pits. I always do a proper sighting lap but for some reason this time I didn’t.
Jakes believes he was doing about 60/70 km/h at the time: “…and exiting the curve I glanced up and saw something in the far distance. I didn’t think much of it and carried on. At that sort of speed, a vehicle basically steers itself around the oval which is wider than a three-lane highway. So there’s no need to watch the road – after all, I had it all to myself.”
“When I next looked up, I froze. What I had seen in the distance was now much closer and I could see it was a person, lying in the middle of the road, asleep. I was probably doing 80 by now so stopping without fronts wasn’t an option and I swerved violently. I heard a thud and while my attention was focussed on getting back under control – a double lane change is not what a semi-trailer is designed for – I thought at the very least I had gone over his legs.”
Drama and consternation followed but in the interest of cutting a long story short, the slumbering individual turned out to be a vagrant. He had wandered into the facility through the surrounding koppies and decided (in an inebriated state, apparently) that the best place to have a nap was in the middle lane of the oval.
Drunk as a skunk
Once apprehended he was escorted – uninjured – off the premises and politely asked not to return. And if he did, to rather find a handy tree under which to sleep off his babelas.
“The fact that he was unharmed was a miracle and I expected carnage when I got back to the scene. But it turned out the noise I heard was the sound of a tyre going over his shoes – he had positioned them just below his feet, probably planning on slipping straight back into them when he woke – so it was a very near miss!” concludes Jacobs.
Stay tuned for part two of the series!