In a category where pole position is often decided by hundredths – not tenths – of seconds, having your ducks in a row is a crucial part of the game. Bringing an entirely new, untried and unproven duck to plonk on said row is not a trick you get away with too often. But Volvo Polestar Racing has made more than a few new fans already after its maiden outing in the cauldron of V8 Supercar racing.
In many ways, the now-annual pre-season test day – held mid-February at Sydney Motorsport Park – is a vital marker on the team’s timeline. With the doors of the facility thrown open for the day, the fans respond in their droves – and seeing the S60 Polestars in action for the first time is undoubtedly high on the agenda of things to witness.
Down in garage 18, Garry Rogers greets us in his indomitable, no-nonsense fashion; “pleased to see you, but just make sure you stay out of the way. It’ll be pretty busy in here!” he says with a smile. The two cars – one for second-year driver Scott McLaughlin, and the second for V8 Supercar debutant, Swede Robert Dahlgren – are complete and sit quietly, resplendent in a simple, yet striking livery of Polestar blue and Valvoline decals. The GRM team, about 10 strong, are relaxed yet busy; the weather is simply appalling, and this will be a stern test of not just the new Volvo 5.0-litre V8 engine, but of the pair of brand-new chassis, as well.
With the season-opening Clipsal 500 only two weeks hence, every lap the team can crank out today will be absolutely invaluable. Team manager Dean ‘Cowboy’ Cowling checks his watch and calls “Ten minutes, everyone!”, and #34 car of Dahlgren is the first to crank into raucous life. The 34-year-old walks calmly in from the transporter and greets me with a handshake and a smile. “This is my first time in this car. To start in the wet… it’s going to be interesting,” he says. “It snows where I come from, so we go sideways all the time!”
His aims for the day are pretty simple; “Get the hang of the car and the track, and start to find the maximum of the car, because that’s what I’m going to bring to Clipsal,” he says. “One day’s preparation? Plenty!” smiles the man who’s been a factory Polestar driver since 2004. And with that, he straps into his new office, and he’s pushed out into the pit lane to meet his destiny.
Rogers watches him drive down the lane. “I tell you, I wouldn’t have done this with another bunch of guys,” he says reflectively. “They’ve all done an outstanding job. The guys from Polestar, too. It’s been great. We’ve had to find some common ground, sure, but we’re a long way down the road.”
Once out of the car, the drivers are already working well together. It’s an interesting dynamic; the irrepressible young Kiwi phenomenon and the older, wiser Swede sit side by side watching in-car footage from the previous session, McLaughlin pointing out areas of the circuit where Dahlgren might better manage the teeming conditions. McLaughlin’s first impressions of the S60 are understandably tempered by the weather, but he’s nonetheless impressed. “What’s the main difference? The engine note!” he smiles. “It’s hard to get a read in these kind of conditions, but so far, so good.”
A young man in a new GRM shirt stands at the back of the garage and manages to attract the attention of Rogers for a moment, who obligingly signs it for him. Ben Longland isn’t a stereotypical GRM fan, though; he’s a Volvo Australia technician from Brisbane who’s extended his stay just to come to the test day. Interestingly, he wasn’t a V8 Supercar fan at all – not until Volvo announced that it would join the fray. “I’ll be watching with interest,” he tells us. “It’s fantastic that Volvo’s back in the sport.” It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by other fans across the day, and backed up by Rogers himself. “We’ve got a strong fan base, and they’re a pretty loyal bunch,” says Rogers, “and not one of them has had a bad word to say to us about [running the Volvo S60 Polestar].”
On track, things are progressing well. Robert’s engineer Manuel ‘Lewis’ Sanchez is running the new boy through a brace of chassis changes to get him up to speed with the nuances of the tricky V8 Supercar chassis. “He’s coming along great,” Sanchez says. “He’s already offering meaningful input into the car that has helped us, and his feedback is good. Today is not the perfect test day, because conditions are changing and the tyre sets aren’t great, but he’s doing a great job.”
There’s a temporary setback just before lunch, when the power-steering systems in both cars cause dramas within a lap of each other, but both machines are recovered to the garage in short order. Robert’s car is fixed, quickly, but Scott is garage-bound for a little while longer while spares are sourced.
The narrow-angle B8444S V8 engines, though, are proving both strong and willing. The engine note is a low, urgent, primal wail that adds another layer of aural texture to the other four marques pounding the pavement in the drying conditions. “We’d prefer it to be a hotter, dryer day, to be honest,” says Cowling. “It puts more load onto components and more heat through the engine. We’re still getting things done, though.
There’s no massive advantage or disadvantage with the Polestar-built engine; the parity nature of the category fundamentally rules it out. All powerplants are to weigh 200kg, while a rule in relation to crankshaft height essentially dictates where the engine must sit in relation to the car’s weight distribution. Polestar’s engine man, Mattias Evensson, believes there are still gains to be made. “It’s one thing running flat out, and we’re doing that okay, but it’s another thing to get the transition points on the throttle correct to make the car more drivable,” he explains. “That’s what we’re working on today.” Laptops are plugged in every time the cars tour back into the lane, and both drivers keep their engineers in the loop with what the S60 is doing on-track. Both engines will end up with almost 200 laps on them by the close of the day.
As the day draws to a close, the track is relatively dry, and the times start to tumble. It’s almost irrelevant to take the times too seriously, given the conditions, but these guys are racers, after all, and the clock defines their very job. Robert finished the day 17th in the 25-car field, in front of more fancied rivals – and in front of his young, race-winning teammate, who was two places back. Importantly, the times were within striking distance of the top ten and, with two weeks of hard work between today and the first round of the championship on the streets of Adelaide, the Volvo S60 Polestars are set to give a good account of themselves.