Ever harboured dreams of driving a Formula 1 car? A tiny New Zealand company can make that dream a reality with its ultimate track car
The real and surreal worlds are separated by a simple farm fence. In the real world, the work trucks and tourist vans trundle by at infrequent intervals. On my side of the fence in the utterly surreal world, the 503kW 3.8-litre Cosworth V8 screams its fury again and again, propelling the 589kg race car down the short straight with a visceral urgency I’ve never before experienced. Every now and again, a real-world car disgorges its bewildered contents to stand on the side of the road and gawp at what looks and sounds for all the world like a Formula 1 car ripping around the otherwise silent New Zealand countryside.
I’ve had some ridiculous experiences in my career, but this takes the cake. Having blasted beyond 300km/h literally hundreds of times in the last two decades, I’m certainly not new to speed, but never before has acceleration seemed so vivid and all encompassing. Or so instant and never ending.
I’ve ridden a fully lit Bugatti Chiron to its first-stage speed limiter, smashing into the electronic barrier at 382km/h, but never have I experienced such explosive, oh-my-god shove. Not even a big sports bike can make your stomach drop like the Rodin FZed.
In fact, the big Bug and something like a Yamaha R1 are good bookends of performance in which to frame the FZed. An R1 is powered by a 998cc four-cylinder engine that produces 147kW at 13,500rpm. With a wet weight of 200kg, the sports bike boasts a power-to-weight ratio of 735kW per tonne. You don’t have to be a whizz at physics to know that a number like that means enormous accelerative potential. Of course, light weight isn’t the only way to skin the acceleration cat. The big-boned Bugatti proves as much with its 1995kg propelled by an 1103kW quad-turbocharged W16 engine, gifting the French hypercar with a power-to-weight ratio of 553kW per tonne.
The Rodin FZed, however, combines a big power output (503kW at 9600rpm) with a tiny weight (589kg wet) for a power-to-weight ratio of 854kW per tonne. Not even Aston Martin’s upcoming Valkyrie can match that number – its 865kW output reduces to a mere 824kW per tonne when you factor in the 1050kg target weight. To find a car with a greater power-to-weight ratio than the Rodin FZed, you have to look to LMP1 or, indeed, Formula 1. Let all of those numbers wash over you and sink in.
While we let those figures rattle around for a while, it’s worth pausing to give some background on Rodin Cars and the FZed. With ambitions to sell just 50 cars per year, Rodin Cars might be tiny in the global automotive sphere, but its story is big and complex. Over these pages, I’ve done my best to paint the full picture of the company, its background and its ambitious future, but I feel like I’ve just scratched the impeccably finished surface.
Rodin Cars is the brain child of Australian ex-pat David Dicker, and is based on 1450 acres of lush green South Island countryside, around 150km north of Christchurch. It’s proper Lord of the Rings country and the nearest hotel is a 45-minute drive away in the tiny resort town of Hanmer Springs – population 900.
The 1450 acres features two test tracks totalling six kilometres. Like everything about Rodin, the test tracks were designed and built in house with heavy equipment purchased specifically for the task.
Once beyond the unmarked farm gate, I’m bundled into a Kia Carnival and taken for a tour of the tracks, the first of which fills me with dread – its crests and hollows make it feel like a hill climb, and it certainly doesn’t look like anywhere I want to test a powerful road car, let alone a serious open wheeler. Thankfully, the second circuit is open and sits on a flat parcel of land that affords excellent visibility. In a more familiar environment such as a fast road car or even a GT race car, I’d prefer a circuit with some camber and undulations, but it’s the perfect nursery slope for my first foray into the upper reaches of Formula cars.
What is concerning is that the weak late-autumn sun isn’t burning off the overnight rain and several parts of the circuit are damp, while others are punctuated with ominously dark pools of standing water. I’m not overly concerned however, as today I’m only due to drive the company’s McLaren 570 GT4 race car before graduating to a Formula 3 open wheeler. Only if I prove not to be a complete muppet will I be granted seat time in the FZed, and that’s not expected until tomorrow which is forecast to be dry.
After a round of introductions that include company owner, David Dicker and several of the development engineers, I meet Mark Williamson, racing driver, Rodin Cars development driver and my driving coach for the next two days. Mark’s calm nature puts me at ease but a minute into the small talk he asks about my open-wheel experience. I scratch around on the back on my hand for the four previous occasions in which I’ve driven an open wheeler, and two of those were in low-grip, no-aero Formula Fords.
Mark and I chat beside the McLaren, but it’s hard not to keep peering over the F3 to the menacing FZed on the far side of the surgically clean pit garage. Like on the F3, tyre warmers are wrapped around its chubby side-walled slicks and tubes are plugged into various openings to pre-heat oil to get the 3.8-litre engine ready to fire in two hours’ time.
The Rodin FZed project began life as one of Dany Bahar’s overly ambitious fantasies during his brief time running Lotus. The idea was to build a track car as close as possible to a Formula 1 car, and it even came with full factory support to run at tracks around the world. Owners even had the option of driver training by former F1 star Jean Alesi. Unfortunately, the Type 125 died like many of Bahar’s Lotus dreams, but Rodin’s David Dicker rescued and refined it after being offered the project via email in early 2016.
As a Lotus, the car weighed 640kg and its Cosworth engine produced 477kW. The team at Rodin Cars went through the Type 125 with a fresh set of eyes and pulled an incredible 51kg from the car, all while finding another 26kW from the engine. Much of the weight saving comes from systematically replacing many of the original aluminium parts with 3D-printed titanium items.
After a nervous pee, I suit up and head out on wets in the McLaren. We punch around learning the circuit and clearing some of the water. A quick pit for slicks and we’re out again for another 20 laps or so. Mark’s happy enough with what he’s seen from the passenger seat and the data stream, so I’m dropped into the F3 which I promptly stall as I try to balance the hand clutch against the peaky delivery of the engine. You can read more about the McLaren and Formula 3 experience on page 73, but confidence builds in the damp conditions until I arrive at a left-hand sweeper carrying a fraction too much pace and I throw the F3 down the road in an enormous high-speed spin, coming to rest with the back tyres on the grass.
I’m embarrassed by the spin in the F3 car, but everyone shrugs it off, and David tries to put me at ease by admitting, “I’ve spun on every corner and even put the Ferrari Challenge car through the fence. You barely left the road.” I’m still wiping grass off my helmet when Mark gestures to the FZed and says, “We’d like to get you out for a session this afternoon. You okay with that?”
It’s the strangest thing to be asked whether you’d like to drive a car that’s as close to a Formula 1 racer as you’re ever going to get. Stranger still when you’ve just spun the training car. My head nods yes because my throat has dried and I can’t unstick my tongue from the roof of my mouth.
After the Formula 3 car, the open cockpit of the FZed isn’t entirely alien, but the driving position and visibility out have nothing in common with the McLaren or any other closed cockpit race car that I’ve driven. After I’ve wriggled my extra-large feet into the FZed’s nose cone, I register that my toes are just below shoulder height. Thankfully there’s plenty of room for my slight, marathon runner’s frame and with fuel and me on board, the FZed sneaks under 650kg by a single kilogram. Of the few people who’ve driven the car, Mark suggests that I’m the lightest.
The belts are cinched tight and I sink even lower into the chassis to the point that I can barely see the tops of the front slicks. For reference for how low you sit in the FZed, check out the profile shot (page 77) and note that the top of the rear wing sits just 960mm off the ground – my eyes are probably no more than 60cm off the tarmac and certainly lower than if I were sitting upright driving a kart.
The steering wheel is locked onto its collar and I’m pushed out of the pit box and into the late afternoon sun. 3D printed in titanium, the wheel is a thing of beauty, but its clutch and shift paddles are tiny and it’s the one aspect of the car that I don’t immediately gel with. I work the paddle with my middle finger, trying to gauge the bite point of the triple-plate carbon clutch but I’m just guessing.
I give a tentative thumbs up and the Rodin is fired into life. The sound and vibration are all consuming and I feel like I’m part of the combustion process. The V8 idles at 3100rpm but the engineers ask me to hold the revs at 4000 while the temps come up. While certainly more linear than the engine in the F3 car, a toe twitch too much dials in an additional 3000rpm, not the 900 that I’ve been asked to provide.
With the tyre blankets off and the track temperature just 12 degrees, it’s a balance to let the engine warm through enough while also not letting the pre-warmed 90 degrees leech out of the tyres. Mark gives me the nod and I begin the steering wheel ballet. Left middle finger squeezes the clutch in, while the right thumb presses the neutral button on the front of the wheel and the right index finger thumps the pneumatically shifted six-speed straight-cut gearbox into first. There’s about 25mm of clutch travel and I’ve been told that the FZed will creep away with minimal throttle. I’ve dialled in about 5000rpm so as soon as the clutch bites, the fat rear Avon slicks burst into wheelspin and I lurch out onto the circuit. Just like Schumacher leaving a pit stop…
The first few laps are a balance of driving fast enough to maintain temperature and pressure in the pre-warmed tyres, while trying to warm the brakes so that the dead pedal comes alive with retardation. Even at half throttle, the engine feels ferocious. After a few laps, Mark suggests that I can start to push and within half a lap I can feel the FZed ‘switch on’. Every aspect of it comes alive with the brakes, tyres, engine and aero all urging more speed from me.
After the grumpiness of the F3 car, the FZed’s screaming engine is surprisingly tractable and its chassis less sensitive to bumps and camber changes.
The FZed punches out of the long, late-apex hairpin in second gear with such urgency that it’s an effort to stop the screaming Cosworth from head butting the 10,500rpm limiter. On later laps with confidence in the aerodynamic and mechanical grip building, I find myself having to grab third gear while still unwinding lock on the corner exit. A mid-corner upshift isn’t something many cars tolerate, but the FZed is so well behaved that there’s the merest of hint of interruption to the drive before the engine devours third and then fourth gear. The well of power seems bottomless and FZed is deep into sixth gear before the kink about two-thirds the way down the 900-metre straight.
At low speed, the steering is light, lighter certainly than that of the F3, but even through this tiny kink, my forearms tense with the effort.
I’ve probably driven aero cars on fewer than 20 occasions and I always struggle to feel the hand of god pressing down, but I’m pretty good at judging when it bleeds away as speeds fall. At the end of the straight and not long after you’ve smashed the brake pedal, you can sense the aero load lightening, which in turn requires an easing of brake pressure in order not to pinch an inside tyre.
But this isn’t an issue as, once they are warm, the brake feedback is pure. Yes, the pedal pressure is high, but you really can modulate the brakes at lower speeds and you can sense the friction of the carbon pads biting the carbon rotors. Though I’d been warned not to, I trailed the brakes into one sweeper and felt the rear mobilise for just the briefest of moments. Unlike the knife-edged Formula 3 car, the FZed proved forgiving to such liberties, as it did when I accidently tapped the shift paddle into first for the hairpin. That I’ve thrown a stab of opposite lock at a car such as the FZed and survived without a spin will stay with me for some time.
In terms of ultimate track performance, where does the FZed sit? In its early life as a Lotus project, former Formula 1 driver Jean Alesi, suggested that it offered a similarly physical driving experience as a mid-1990s Formula 1 car, but that its ultimate lap pace was much nearer a 2010 F1 car (it’s loosely based on 2008/9-era F1 regulations).
The Rodin test track has a handful of decent corners, including a sequence of high-speed direction changes and the FZed attacks this part of the circuit like a Scalextric car. It’s not aero or mechanical grip that proves to be the limiting factor, but rather my under-developed neck muscles (that will ache for days afterwards).
Despite the physicality of the driving experience, the FZed proves to be remarkably easy to operate and provides such pure feedback that you’re actually learning how to drive better and faster with each lap, rather than merely hanging on until you’re called into the pits. And beyond the speed, the FZed is actually fun to drive, not something that I thought would be possible with such sky-high limits. It’s also friendly enough and provides such clarity through its feedback that you’re constantly searching for pace. Driving the FZed is like a high-speed game of chess. It’s as cerebral as it is physical, and you’re constantly judging whether a different approach to one section of track will affect the next sequence.
After two days and multiple sessions, I’m exhausted and exhilarated. I’m filled with admiration for David Dicker and the scope of his ambitions at Rodin Cars. To paraphrase the great Ayrton Senna, who would recognise the speed and driving style of the FZed, this is pure driving.
By Jesse Taylor
Photography by Nathan Duff