Master Blaster

With 1200kg and 700bhp, the GT1 Viper eats straights and slingshots out of corners. But what’s it like going into them? Andrew Frankel straps in and blasts around Paul Ricard

Fear is an odd thing. Creeps up on you just when you’re not expecting it. From the moment Chrysler rang to invite me to Paul Ricard to drive its 700bhp Viper GTS-R GT1 sports-racing car to the moment it and I rumbled out of the pits, i felt no fear.

Looking back it seems silly now. This was, after all not simply the most powerful car n all sports car racing but also the most powerful I’d driven, boasting perhaps 70 bhp more than the McLaren F1 GTR racer. And that had frightened me witless at the time. Yet here I was, trundling down the pit straight on cold slicks, with cold carbon brakes and no more than a sense of considerable anticipation for what was to come.

I think it must have been the ORECA race team, which runs the Vipers for Chrysler, that did it.When I drove the McLaren it was five weeks before LeMans, and Ray Ballm’s F1 was favourite to win. The track was damp and the team understandably edgy and anxious. Now, the sun shone and there was a distinct end-of-term atmosphere in the pits at Paul Picard.The cars had completed their tour of duty, finished with commendable sixth and eighth places at Nogaro against the might of the McLarens and Porsches, and were to be sold off before the next season.

The mechanics joked, resident ORECA driving hero Olivier Beretta spent the day happily scaring the wits out of anyone stupid enough to climb into a car with him while I stooged about waiting my turn. They even let someone who’d never driven a racing car before climb aboard and try his Iuck, and when the time came to pull him out of the barriers with which he had inevitably collided, still the smiles did not flicker.

Climbing aboard the GTS-R was a moment I had lost sleep looking forward to. Being too tall, fat and talentless ever to make much sense in a single ‘seater, my interests have always been slanted towards those racing cars which offer ma a better than-evens chance of squeezing aboard. And a hugely powerful 8-liter, front-engined, rear-drive monster on one of the most challenging and famous circuits in the world filled more criteria for automotive utopia than just about an other in my experience.

When my turn came, I found the cabin of the Viper immediately to my liking. The driving position is sensible and roomy, all the information you need is flashed up on LCD display in front of you and all functions are controlled by a large box sitting adjacent to the transmission tunnel to your right. Flick switches for both fuel pumps, power to the electronics, cooling for the rear diff, fans for the back brakes, ignition on and hit the big starter button.

Even the bang of the V10 engine and its ear bending idle didn’t scare me and my sense of security was further enhanced by the childishly light power steering and the triple place carbon clutch, as progressive as that in any racing car I have driven.

Signs of trouble didn’t appear until I tried to brake for the first corner. Beretta had warned me to drive down the straight with my left foot on the brake but I had forgotten and now I was driving a 1200kg, 700bhp racing car with the decelerative potential of a Penny Farthing. Thankfully the large chicken I employ to look after my interests after I’ve abandoned them made sure I’d doubled the usual braking distances, and Viper and I struggled into the corner where I made the next mistake and applied too much power too early for the still-cold tyres. We survived that one, too, with al but my hitherto unquestioned lack of fear, intact.

Now I felt the fear, as the endless Mistral straight opened out and I found myself throwing gear after gear at the Viper unquenchable thirst for speed. Until now I’d taken the ORECA team’s tales of driving past McLarens on the straight only to be overtaken under braking slightly in jest. Not anymore. With a medium downforce configuration and gear ratios designed to bring its potential maximum speed of rather more than 220mph down to about 180mph. It felt savagely fast, so that you felt the horizon was being pulled towards you. Only when I selected sixth and around 160mph and settled down for the haul up the terrifying fifth-gear curve at the end of the straight did the acceleration rate noticeably abate.

My first few laps were a sorry litany of missed apexes and missed gears. For a reason I have yet to fathom, I had completely underestimated the level of commitment this Viper required. When I returned to the pits, they were still smiling but suggested I sat down and thought about it for a bit before climbing aboard once more.

The next time round, I gave it the respect it required and deserved, warmed it up properly and eased myself gently into the experience.

It felt like an entirely different car. Where once it had felt wild and ragged, now it was secure, friendly and forgiving. The acceleration no longer felt intimidating, just exhilarating, and in the really fast corners, when the aerodynamics not only provided pure downforce but also trimmed the balance of the car, it was close to magical.

Through it all, though, I never came properly to terms with those brakes. There seemed to be several problems, not the least of which was that they had 1200kg of rampant Viper to control. They never felt able to match the acceleration potential and I am sure that they were responsible for much of the time lost to the lighter, more agile, Porsches and McLarens.

In addition, I could not get used to the dead feel of the pedal or the speed with which they would both lose and gain heat. You could find yourself standing ever harder on the pedal and waiting for something to happen; then, in a trice, you’d be on the point of locking up the tyres.

The gearbox, too, was far from ideal. It’s an adaptation of the road car ‘box and loses time to a proper, sequential race unit with every shift, even those which find the gear you’re looking for.

In the main, though, the Viper GTS-R was exactly the car I’d hoped it would be. Monstrously fast yet responsive to a firm hand and a stout heart, it fitted my idea of a proper sports-racing car to perfection, unlike the quasi-prototype racers that will continue to fill the grids this year. It is because of such rule-bending cars that Chrysler has chosen to abandon its GT1 programme for the forthcoming season. But do not fear: they will be back, competing at the front of the GT2 class rather than in the mid-field, where they are sure to be as quick. noisy and good to watch as ever.