British motor racing circuits have witnessed laps by many strange cars over the years, driven by some quite unconventional owners. One day a madman brought a brand new Rolls-Royce Dawn convertible to the famous Brands Hatch Circuit. That madman was me.
Having driven most of the current Rolls-Royce models, I felt confident that they were capable of lapping a racing circuit at a decent pace given a modicum of restraint and a fine helping of gentle weight transfer management.
Too many Rolls-Royce owners treat their charges as luxury taxicabs, ferrying people around urban areas, never going on road trips, and never driving them quickly around corners. I was determined to show what these cars are really capable of, but the one stumbling block was the factory test fleet insurance policy.
For obvious reasons Rolls-Royce test cars are far less numerous than those of other luxury marques, and because of their high monetary value the insurance conditions covering their loan are extremely well defined and not for the faint of heart. Venturing onto a motor racing circuit would automatically void the insurance policy.
I had nightmares of close calls with Radicals and Caterhams, and visions of crawling away from a smouldering pile of expensive wreckage and slitting my wrists immediately thereafter. The alternative scenario of paying R-R Motorcars back for the destroyed car would see my family in hock until the year 2219!
Jokes aside, the insurance issue seemed to be an insurmountable challenge. Nevertheless, I persevered and maintained steady pressure on the very friendly PR staff at the company’s Goodwood HQ. Privately I was slowly losing all hope.
And then a very, very private event emerged out of the blue, one that would give me the opportunity to pilot a Rolls-Royce around a race track. I realised that some sort of solution to my dilemma might potentially be in the offing, and all that remained was to choose a completely unsuitable circuit, book a place on a track day, and wait.
I picked Brands Hatch, as I knew the naysayers would be most likely to tell me with a satisfied smirk that a Rolls-Royce simply would not make it round here at speed.
I was determined to prove them wrong, and having picked up the matt black Dawn Black Badge convertible from the Goodwood factory, I gingerly conducted it north and then east towards Brands Hatch through monstrous traffic jams, most of them existing for no visible reason. Apparently British drivers spend a lot of time upholding the reputation of the M25 London orbital motorway as the infamous ‘jam doughnut’.
The Dawn remained cool and aloof throughout the short but arduous journey eastwards from Surrey into Kent, its plush cabin soaked in classical music that helped to calm my blood pressure. Meanwhile the fuel gauge laid testimony to the fact that the big, silent engine under the long prow was alive and well and on the self imposed drinking binge that traffic jams tend to encourage.
Glances from the occupants of other cars conveyed a mixture of envy and amusement, but here was more proof that Rolls-Royce cars fail to stoke aggression in the way that some flashy, sleek supercars do. Good for me though, and I arrived at my hotel unruffled, a key objective of the Grand Touring ethos into which this car was born.
The next morning my progress was followed by dozens of eyes as I drove the Iced Black Diamond (the official name for this matt black hue) Rolls-Royce Dawn into the paddock. It was obvious that onlookers assumed I was a plutocrat whose trackday mount and support team were housed in one of the pit lane garages.
Thus their jaws dropped when I slipped the big convertible into the line of vehicles waiting to be noise-tested. Most of them did not realise just how quiet this car was at idle, and just how well I could overhear their snide comments.
Noise testing, the bane of many a sportscar at Britain’s decibel-sensitive racetracks was a mere formality for the Rolls-Royce. The two orange-clad marshals, both known to me by sight, laughed their heads off as they applied the correct sticker to my windshield. So I was good to go, at least in theory.
At this point it should be explained that the Black Badge was introduced by Rolls-Royce in late 2017 in response to some owners approaching the aftermarket tuners for visual and even technical changes to give their cars a more sporting overtone.
The factory deemed many of these conversions as unbefitting and embarked on a bold in-house programme called Black Badge that includes more power and torque, slighter firmer suspension, unique alloy wheels, paintwork options, and more sporting interior trim. And as with every Rolls-Royce commission each car is uniquely bespoke.
Despite the promise of more focused driving dynamics I still had no idea how this behemoth in a sports jacket would behave on the Brand Hatch’s deceptively simple Indy Loop.
The Dawn’s 2,560kg kerb weight, propelled by an output Rolls-Royce Motor Cars would once have described as “adequate”, but today proudly announces as over 600hp with 840Nm of torque, smelled like trouble for the gentle art of direction change and braking.
And I did not want to even think about the £400,000 (or SGD$682,608 accurate as of 6th September 2019 ) price tag as I carefully guided the Spirit of Ecstasy topped long matt black prow towards the end of the pit lane line-up assembling for the obligatory sighting laps.
The maiden lap began slowly, but things suddenly became exciting when a historic racing Mustang suffered an engine problem at the exit of Clearways. Now there was just a Lotus and an MG TF ahead, and from my lofty perch it seemed like I was following them in a double-decker bus!
Finding the optimal turn-in point for the challenging Paddock Hill Bend is crucial. This maximum effort sweeping downhill right-hander with its late apex is the last place you want to lose a battle with the laws of physics as Nigel Mansell found out twice during the 1998 Brands Hatch round of the BTCC!
The big machine actually seemed quite good through here. You feel the avoirdupois for sure, but if you turn in smoothly on the race line then roll, pitch and weight transfer can be persuaded to work together in some semblance of harmony.
The first session over I returned to the pit garage in good spirits, and spent the next twenty minutes answering questions from fellow drivers. “Are you crazy?” “Is the matt finish a vinyl wrap?” and “That's brave, mate!” among the memorable comments.
When the time came to go out on track again, an intense buzzing sound resonated off the garage walls as four-cylinder Caterhams, Hondas and Lotuses began to zip around the circuit in tight groups.
Helmet on, gloves on, a quick look left and we are once again at the start line in the pit lane. A grey-haired marshal ascertains that the towing eyelet is firmly screwed into the opening in the front bumper, checks my wristbands and then waves me on.
I bury my right foot into the thick Lambswool carpet, and the black Rolls-Royce leaps forward. The factory claims a rapid 4.9 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint, but as few think of a Rolls-Royce in such ‘common’ terms, when it lifts its skirt and blasts out of the pit lane the onlookers are visibly surprised by its turn of speed.
The experience looks and feels so very different from the racing cars I normally pilot around here. With no roll cage above my head I feel strangely vulnerable, but at the same time I am amazed by the field of view from the magnificently finished cabin. The word ‘surreal’ only begins to describe the sensation of listening to Sousa Marches at full volume whilst on track.
Out of respect for the brakes, tyres, the Rolls-Royce Motor Cars insurance underwriter, and the fact that this car is my transport home I limit my stints to three laps per session.
In the earlier sessions it felt right to give way to the lighter cars (and a very much faster and well-driven GT3RS), but as I gradually found the measure of the Dawn’s abilities I gained more and more confidence.
All those young people, weaned on electronic games, who have never driven a car with good steering tend to mistake greater steering effort for feel. The Dawn’s steering may be light, but it is also beautifully weighted, and conveys the effect of the forces acting on the front wheels with real precision.
To its credit once the Dawn Black Badge takes its set in a bend the adopted roll angle, while not inconsiderable, is far from the ‘destroyer in a force 10 gale’ degree of lean associated with Rolls-Royces of yore. And while the single chamber air suspension also does not attempt to totally disguise forward weight transfer under braking, the anchors feel responsive and strong, the left pedal only beginning to soften as the onslaught of these fast laps comes to an end.
The journey towards mastering both the weight and enormous power on tap is truly exhilarating in itself, and is also addictive. I will never forget the sight of a Caterham alongside me on the main straight, its driver’s disdain at being slowly out-dragged by my big, black bolide clearly visible. Similarly, the joy of being able to negotiate the Surtees and McLaren corners with one smooth sweep of the tiller brings with it a unique form of motoring satisfaction.
Granted a Rolls-Royce cannot be driven like a proper lightweight trackday weapon, but simultaneously no specialist sportscar can offer the same waftability factor on the way to and from the circuit.
Elated to have attained my objective with both car and driver remaining unscathed, I remove my helmet and shoot my cuffs. Slowly coming off my adrenalin high I leave Brands Hatch to begin my relaxed one and a half hour drive back to Goodwood, no longer flustered by the scrum on the M25.
The front tyres need replacing, the rears do not, and the brakes still work perfectly. Importantly, absolutely nothing went wrong on track, and not so much as a stone chip has dared sully the perfect finish of the matt black paintwork. My conclusion; Rolls-Royce owners should get out there and drive their cars more. They're worth it.