UNITED STATES—It was just past noon at Willow Springs International Raceway. The event, Motor Press Guild’s Track Days, was beginning to wind down. The sweltering heat was now chasing even the most fanatical automotive journalists into the refreshment hanger. I knew it was now or never. I knew this was my chance to find out just how much I could learn about the new Lexus RC-F from just a mere three laps on Big Willow, the “big boy track” (i.e. professional circuit) at Willow Springs.
As far as previous knowledge goes, I didn’t have much to draw from. Sure, there was plenty of unsubstantiated speculation going around that the new performance coupe from Lexus couldn’t possibly be better than the BMW M4. But this is such a common presumption made by many predisposed journalists that I largely ignore such clichéd sentiments at this point. And, curiously enough, BMW was absent from this event, precluding our ability to even compare the two rivals.
“Hmmmmmm,” I wonder. “Surely BMW wasn’t scared its M-tuned 4-series coupe would struggle to carry the torch.”
If so, it would not be a completely unfounded concern. After all, both Cadillac and Lexus were now building successful competitors to the 3-series. Are the king’s days on the throne numbered?
I put my helmet on and make my way over to the Infrared Lexus RC-F. Upon entry, I immediately find the cockpit to be more inspired than anything in its class with its prominent LCD tachometer paying homage to the now discontinued Lexus LF-A. This particular RC-F was fitted with the Performance package, which meant it came with loads of carbon fiber paneling and a button marked “TVD” on the center console.
“What’s this button do?” I ask Lexus rep., Brian Alexander.
“That’s the Torque Vectoring Differential”
He continues to explain to me that the car comes standard with a Torsen rear diff, but the TVD was an optional extra. It had three settings: Normal, Slalom, and Track. I, naturally, choose “Track”. Lastly, Brian suggests I dial in Sport S+ mode on the console mounted drive settings dial. I comply without really grilling him on the various parameters that would be affected.
As I enter the track, my focus is razor sharp. I’ve successfully erased from my mind of any concerns I might have had regarding my ability to retain the lessons learned from the previous day’s qualifying run. I pretty much have the track to myself at this point. I can take my time if I like to reacquaint myself with each and every turn. Speaking of turns, I immediately notice how much more I prefer the weighting of the RC-F’s steering over that of the last BMW M4 I drove. Cautiously, I keep the transmission in automatic mode to make sure I’m not overwhelmed with things to do while I’m rediscovering the ideal line through the course.
Okay, now we’re going to open it up a bit. The first straight away should see triple digit speeds. Should I see the rear wing deploy, I remind myself not to freak out, not like another journalist who panicked, thinking the trunk had popped open when he peaked in the rear view mirror of the Jaguar F-Type he was pushing hard through the second straight away.
Now my confidence is established, and not a moment too soon as I notice the BMW Performance Driving School M3 in my rear view mirror. Now I have to push it hard. I’m not going to be the one to hold up the professional racecar driver and his journalist passenger. How would that look to everyone else? I am a journalist, but I have my pride to consider. I floor it. Whoops! I slam on the brakes. I still haven’t figured out turn five between Budweiser Balcony and Monroe Ridge. Now he’s right on my tail. I have no choice but to let him pass on Wing’s Leg, the designated passing zone. Oh well. So I’m not going to beat the pro. But, I feel that, in the hands of a pro, the RC-F could take the BMW M3 or M4.
Say what you will about its imperfections. I overheard one journalist complain that the 8-speed direct-shift automatic needs some polishing. He didn’t like how the throttle blip on downshifts could momentarily disrupt the weight transfer under braking in fully automatic mode. He had a point. Things would probably be a whole lot smoother, albeit slower, if the torque converter unlocked during the act of rev matching. I have a hunch that turning the drive mode dial back from “Sport S+” to “Sport S” would call for more subtle shift engagements, but, again, I didn’t get a chance to test this theory during my three-lap run. Choosing “M” or manual mode would be the ideal way to wrest full control of shift timing from the computers, but, as the complaining journalist admitted, we journalists are far from professional drivers. The fewer things we have to remember to do on a racetrack, the better.
Ex Top Gear presenter, Jeremy Clarkson would probably come up with some clever simile concerning the aggressive electronic nannies. “It’s as if you were forced to sign over custody of the driving experience to a back-seat driving ex-wife”, he’d say. And maybe he’d have a point. Of course these nannies (the VDIM system) can be completely defeated in a way some cars in this class prevent, but he’d just find some reason why it’s “just too complicated to turn everything off.” It isn’t. And in any event, a journalist is never going to get anywhere near the limits of the system when it’s set to “Expert” mode.
But the simple fact of the matter is I never yearned for another go in the last M4 I drove the way I’m yearning for another lap in the RC-F. I almost can’t explain it. That interior… The howl of that V-8… That interior… That steering feel… That interior… I want one.