Holden sets Nurburgring lap record
I'm standing beside the famed Nurburgring circuit in Germany as rays of late-afternoon sun pierce the lush forest surrounding the world's most famous - and most gruelling - racetrack.
Back home, the sun is about to rise for the Anzac Day dawn service, and the serendipitous nature of the moment suddenly alarms me.
Just a second ago, I watched an Australian icon disappear into the German wilderness with the kind of bravado that forged the foundations of our Anzac spirit - and it was on a mission to defend Australia's pride.
As its exhaust note fades through the forest like the end of the Last Post, a hush descends on the group of Aussies surrounding me beside the track.
The silence lasts for more than eight minutes, which feels like an eternity.
The serenity is finally broken by an alarming crackle of static over the two-way radio, and with it confirmation that the mission has been achieved. The crowd erupts into euphoria, back-slapping and heaving a massive sigh of relief.
That mission was Holden attempting to set a lap record for a ute around the torturous 20-kilometre stretch of tarmac that is the Nurburgring.
It wasn't a difficult feat to achieve considering the pick-up-style trucks are about as common as dragons in Europe these days, but Holden's latest VF Commodore SS-V Ute - in full-house Redline spec - isn't your run-of-the-mill hay hauler any more either.
It is reckoned only two other utes have ever been timed around the circuit - a Dodge Ram SRT, powered by an 8.0-litre V10 from the Viper, and late last year, a Ford F-150 SVT Raptor, which is in essence a road-going Baja-style truck with a massive 6.2-litre supercharged V8.
The Raptor was driven by US drifting and rallycross legend Tanner Foust, and stopped the clock at slightly more than nine minutes, 40 seconds.
Before arriving at the Nurburgring, Holden estimated the SS-V Redline - even with its less-powerful 270kW 6.0-litre naturally aspirated V8 - could cut an entire minute off that mark.
The idea started, like many, as a pipedream among some of Holden's engineers in February, just as they were completing the final stages of the VF Commodore's development program. It piqued the interest of the company's corporate affairs team, which thought it was a cracker way of getting publicity, and it rapidly accelerated into a marketing campaign and TV commercial.
It just so happened there was a pre-production SS-V Redline ute already in Europe that had just completed its final fuel economy and ESP calibration testing at the Idiada proving ground in northern Spain. This conveniently made it easier for Holden's bosses to sign off on the project almost immediately. But with only a narrow window before the ute was to be shipped back to Australia, or crushed in Spain, it meant the team - led by chassis development engineer Rob Trubiani, corporate affairs manager Sean Poppitt and marketing manager Kristian Aquilina - had only six weeks to piece together all their respective parts.
Trubiani wasn't Holden's first choice when it came to the lap-record attempt, as Aquilina had intended to get a big-name international driver for the TV commercial, but as the only engineer in Holden to be certified to drive at the Nurburgring track, he was always going to help set up the car's record bid. When calendar clashes, sponsor clashes, and no doubt financial clashes precluded any of the international stars from doing it, Trubiani ended up with the weight of the company's hopes on his shoulders.
Unlike some other car makers, Holden was adamant its SS-V was to set the record in full production trim. There were no trick tyres, parts or engine upgrades, but Trubiani could adjust the suspension and wheel alignment settings within the tolerances allowed by the factory parts.
He had just one mechanic, Nurburgring tragic Michael ''Turbo'' Cutajar, a box of spare parts (''We could bang out the panels, but there aren't any Commodores in Europe to steal the suspension bits from,'' Trubiani says) and three sets of tyres to help him set the record. And only two 15-minute sessions - enough for one fast lap each time - at the end of consecutive days to nail the mark.
''No pressure then,'' the Holden man told Drive the day before his first record attempt.
Luckily, Trubiani had four days on the track during the industry pool time - special days strictly allocated to car manufacturers to test out prototype machines - to dial himself and the car into the intricacies of the circuit.
But dodging slewing Ssangyongs and lurching Land Rovers while keeping an eye in his rear-view mirror for mega-quick Mercedes SLS prototypes never gave him a clear indication of whether the 8:40min target was beatable, let alone achievable.
At one moment, Trubiani thought he might not even make the start line.
''We had a close call with a prototype Audi,'' he says. ''I came up behind him on the main straight and we ended up running side by side through the kink at about 250km/h. We kissed cars and he pushed me into the dirt on the exit. That got my heart rate going.''
His first record attempt, under grey skies and with cold-track conditions, netted an 8:21 lap. Trubiani was stoked - he had beaten his initial estimates by more than 20 seconds.
But, like most engineers - and race drivers - he knew there were improvements to be made, both within himself and with the car.
So did former Holden boss, and now General Motors North America's head honcho Mark Reuss, who slipped behind the wheel of the ute for a few quick laps during the day. ''I was very impressed with the lap-time number,'' he tells Drive. ''I initially thought if it could get under 8:30, that would be a pretty significant achievement, but I think he can get even more out of it. You watch - there will be two seconds off that, it will be an 8:19.''
What Reuss didn't know at the time was that a Jaguar XK R-S GT prototype had blown its engine all over the track at the end of the day. And, as Trubiani lined up for his final record attempt, he didn't know what to expect. How much oil was on the track? Where was it? When should he back off?
With an impressive - and record - time already in the bag, he had nothing to lose. So he grabbed the ute by the scruff of its neck on the first super-fast section of the track, getting it airborne at more than 200km/h on the famous Flugplatz jump, sliding it through the downhill Fuchsrohre section and launching it off the kerbs between Hohe Acht and the Plantzgarten.
It was a corker of a lap, Trubiani says, but then the track started to get slippery.
''As I turned into the second karussell, I saw all the sand (put down to soak up the oil) and thought this is not going to end well,'' he says.
''I nailed the throttle at the apex of the corner, and the car just popped out.
''I had another moment coming into the last corner, so I nailed the brakes, backed her in and made it through fully sideways. It was epic.
''But we definitely lost time in that last section. I know we could have run faster.''
Even still, the crackled message that came through on the two-way radio confirmed he had lowered the benchmark to 8:19.47, a shade quicker than the more powerful Chevrolet Camaro that shares the Commodore's underpinnings and which coincidentally was also developed by Trubiani.
''I'm pumped - that's an awesome result well beyond our expectations,'' he beams. And as the sun sets on the Nurburgring, the Anzac spirit is shining down on Germany once again.
Engine: 6.0-litre V8 petrol
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Fuel use: 11.8L/100km
WHAT IS SO SPECIAL ABOUT NURBURGRING?
The Nurburgring is considered the most demanding and dangerous circuit in the world.
It was built in 1927 as Germany's first permanent racetrack and as a testing facility for the burgeoning German automobile industry, partly funded by the government.
The undulating countryside in the Eifel Mountains region, between Cologne and Frankfurt, lent itself perfectly to creating the extremely challenging 20-kilometre layout with more than 170 corners and an elevation change of more than 300 metres.
Car makers have been using it for more than 70 years to evaluate new products and have, in the past decade, established a high-tech industrial park next to the circuit.
Since then, Nurburgring lap records have become a benchmark for car makers to brag about.
WHO IS ROB TRUBIANI?
Despite having his name in the Nurburgring record books, Rob Trubiani is far from famous. He's not a professional race-car driver. He's never raced a car at all.
The 37-year-old, known to colleagues as No.4, is a Holden tragic and has been the company's lead chassis development engineer for the past seven years.
It is a job he dreamt of doing since he was nine when his father, who also worked at Holden, drove home in a prototype VK Commodore.
''I opened the glovebox and found the engineering book in there,'' Trubiani says. ''I sat in the car and read it from cover to cover and then read it again. From that moment on, I knew it was the job I wanted to do.''
He has led chassis development on the VE Commodore, Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac G8 GXP and, most recently, the VF Commodore. He is the only Holden engineer who is a certified Nurburgring test driver, and one of only about 25 in General Motors' network.