This was the third year in a row that we have used NCM Motorsports Park for the track portion of PCOTY, and the second year in a row that I have used the West Course layout to set our laptimes. Why use the West course, instead of the Full or Grand Full layouts? It’s simple: Using a shorter track makes it possible to get the testing done in less time, and it reduces the possibility that I will ruin one of the timed laps by making a mistake in a particular corner.
But there are reasons to use NCM West beyond the simple ones. The longer track layouts tend to favor higher-horsepower cars–the “C” in “NCM” is for “Corvette”, dontcha know–and Turn 16 on the Grand Full course can be tricky in 600--horsepower vehicles equipped with street-legal tires. Using the West course by itself makes these laptimes less of a dyno test and more of an all-around measurement.
Come with me as I take you on a lap of NCM West. We’ll use data from our five fastest cars to show where each one shines–and where they suffer.
As we pass the start/finish line to start our fast lap, the McLaren 720S is way out front. It’s doing 108 mph compared to 106.6 for the Huracan, 104.3 for the AMG GT R, 103.6 for the Porsche GT3, and 97.2 for the Camaro ZL1. Why’s the Camaro so slow? Simple: it has massive frontal area and plenty of actual downforce from the wings.
Turn 1A and 1B form the “Mulsanne Chicane.” You throw the car across the first curb, putting the right two wheels high in the air. Then you hit the next curb under a little bit of braking to make the car turn left. If you hit that curb too hard, you’ll lose time or spin. The sooner you can get back under power on the way out of 1B, the better off you are. The Camaro is best in the chicane by a full 2 mph over the McLaren. All that mass and tire width means you can just steamroller the curbs. The 911 is worst of the bunch because you have to respect the weight of the engine behind you as you hit the second curb.
The run up to the T2/T3 combination belongs to the Lamborghini Huracan, thanks to AWD exit traction and a little bit of aero help even at the modest 59.7 mph exit speed from Turn 1B. If you were to put the finish line right here, the Lambo would be in first place and the 911 would be in last. On the way out of T3, the McLaren struggles for grip while the AMG GT R surges ahead courtesy of that super-trick traction control. Our 720S tester came with P Zero Corsa tires, which simply don’t have the grip of the P Zero Trofeos, Goodyear F1 Supercars, or Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires fitted to the other supercar-level contenders.
Down the back straight through T4, the cars separate into three classes. Way out in front you have the McLaren, which tops out at 139.2 mph. Behind it, the AMG hits 134.8 and the Lamborghini manages 133. Then there’s another substantial gap to the 911 at 128.6 and the Camaro at 126.1. If we put the start/finish line here, the McLaren would be the winner, followed closely by the AMG.
Turn Five is a fast decreasing-radius right-hander that rewards bravery. But not too much bravery. The GT3 doesn’t like the brake zone, which has some pavement wobbles in it that cause a bit of classic 911-style nose-bobbing. The AMG, Lamborghini, and Camaro eat it up, with the AMG posting the highest sustained g figure of well over 1.2g at about 105mph. But it’s still anybody’s race between the AMG, McLaren, and Lamborghini. The Camaro and 911 are now about a second and a half back; the gap that the GT3 opened on the ZL1 completely disappears by the end of T5.
Turn 6 is a sharp right hander. You hit the curb hard on the way in then run out to the dirt past the exit curb to the left before setting up to run downhill and off-camber through 7. It’s really tempting to overdrive T6 and over-slow for T7. For one brief shining moment between T6 and T7, the Lamborghini pulls ahead for one last show of dominance before the mighty AMG GT R stamps its authority on the proceedings on the downhill run through 7. No other car feels quite as settled on this traction-limited section of the track, and the GT R easily pulls 1.256g on the way down a hill. Utterly amazing. And from the driver’s seat, there’s no drama at all. Meanwhile, the McLaren is spinning its back tires at the exit of T6, and the Camaro is driving away from the 911. You need to be careful with the 911’s rear weight bias on the downhill. It would be very easy to slide the car too much.
The AMG uses its traction control to get over T8, which is a blind left-hander that goes uphill then goes off-camber again. The Lamborghini can’t match it for exit acceleration, and although both it and the McLaren catch up a bit on the way to the sharp hairpin at T10, it’s now the AMG’s race to lose. Meanwhile, the 911 is making up ground on the Camaro, thanks to plenty of traction from the rear-mounted engine and less aero drag. At the braking zone for T10, the McLaren is doing 109.7 mph and the Camaro can barely manage 99.4.
Turns 11 and 12 form the “Deception” complex. You start to the left side of 11 then try to make it up and over the blind hill of 12 without spinning. This where the ability to soak up curbs makes a huge difference, and sure enough the McLaren monsters it at 78.3 mph halfway up the hill compared to the AMG at 76.4 and the Lambo at 73.9. The suspension on the Performante is just a bit too stiff to be happy here. Over the top of the T12 hill, the GT R uses traction control to put a gap on everybody else. The Camaro is closest; the 911 is five mph back as the driver struggles to keep the engine behind him.
The final corner is a short hairpin and the AMG makes the cleanest exit at 39.7 mph. The ZL1 is at 37.5 thanks to the 305-width front tires that really shine in low-speed turns. The 911 matches it thanks to the rear-engine traction advantage. The Lamborghini needs just a fraction of a second to straighten out on the exit. And holding up the back at 32.9 mph we have the McLaren 720, which can’t keep the back wheels from spinning on exit.
From the exit of T14 it’s a drag race to the start/finish. The McLaren gains over eight-tenths of a second on the AMG despite starting the back straight at a significant speed disadvantage. And the 911 is clawing back precious tenths on the ZL1. At the end, however, it’s AMG in first place, followed closely by the Lamborghini and the McLaren. There’s more than two seconds back to the ZL1, which is just a few hundredths ahead of the GT3.
With Trofeo tires, the 720S would have been very much in the hunt for fast lap, although it was much harder to get a consistent time from the McLaren than it was to knock out three nearly identical laps in the user-friendly, uber-stable AMG GT R.
Which one was most fun to drive? It’s a toss-up. The Performante was the most thrilling because you could feel the aero working and the naturally-aspirated V-10 lends unbeatable drama to the proceedings. The ZL1 felt the most like a proper race car, complete with six-speed manual transmission and close-to-neutral balance on the fastest corners. The AMG was by far the easiest one in which to go quickly, thanks to the modest aero grip and the wicked traction control. I have to respect the McLaren’s perfect seating position and prodigious power; the upcoming 720LT should blow everybody’s mind. The 911 GT3 was a lot of fun to run around NCM, particularly when compared to the 911 Turbo S that we had in last year’s PCOTY. If you’re a Porsche loyalist, you’ll be very satisfied by this traditional rear-engine, RWD, manual-transmission car.
Given more time behind the wheel, I would have pushed the Lamborghini a bit harder in the fast turns and I would have explored the limit’s of the 911’s midcorner speed a bit more. I also might have tried dialing just a bit less traction control into the GT R to see if I could get out of the Turn 10 hairpin even faster. But if I was allowed to choose one of these cars for a full day on track, I think it would have to be the Camaro ZL1 1LE. It’s responsive, interactive, rewarding, and more fun than any street-legal car has a right to be. And that’s before you consider the price, which is half of the next-cheapest contender. Track rats, the line forms at your Chevrolet dealer right about… now.