I'm having a dream. Or is it a nightmare? I'm hurtling down the start-finish straight at the Lausitzring in the eerie half-light of early winter. There's something chasing me. I can't quite tell what it is though. I have a vague feeling that there are a pair of gleaming eyes glowering at me menacingly. There's a face (can you call that a face?) that seems like it started out as a jack-o-lantern, but was then hacked away at with a katana, leaving behind just the sinister bare minimum. Whichever way I turn, I can just about catch a fleeting glimpse of this creature. And then suddenly, with a loud roar, and a gust of wind, it's gone right past me and vanished into the distance.
You've got to love that face. Even if it scares you just a little bit!
I snap out of my reverie when someone pulls rather harshly at my seat harness in an attempt to ensure that I'm belted into position. Given that what I'm being strapped into happens to be a tidy little piece of machinery called the KTM X-Bow, these flights of fancy are warranted. Indeed, if it wasn't for the searing pain in my left thumb (I somehow managed to get my thumbnail caught in my glove when fiddling with the switchgear and upon tugging said glove off my hand had half my nail come off with it, leaving a rather bloody mess behind), I'd still imagine I was daydreaming.
You see, when the X-Bow was first launched in 2008, it caught everybody's attention. Not merely because it was the first four-wheeled weapon in KTM's otherwise two-wheels-only stable. But also because of the way it looked. It had the same sort of effect one would imagine Cheryl Blossom, reddish-orange tresses cascading off her shoulders, had when she first walked into Riverdale, putting to shame the blondes and brunettes that Archie and Gang were used to. Of course, standing in the pitlane at the Lausitzring, finally staring at the X-Bow in the metal, I'm struck by just how fierce it looks. It's like a piece of extremely sharp Japanese origami - black carbon fibre chassis peeking out from in between folds of orange body panels. In fact I'm convinced that if Han Solo ever wanted to give the Millenium Falcon a facelift, he'd fly it straight to Mattighofen and ask to speak to Gerard Kiska.
The 6-speed gearshift is the most roadcar-like feature you'll spot in the otherwise all-carbon fibre interior of the X-Bow
Climb inside the X-Bow and you're reminded at once of its racecar-for-the-road statement of purpose. The X-Bow, even the Clubsport version that I drove, is spartan. As are the R (which has 300PS, 60PS over the standard X-Bow) and RR (the 'you can get as many horses as you ask for' model) versions. And that just adds to the racecar experience that you've signed up for. The one rather nifty touch that makes the KTM a one-size fits all machine is the fact that it isn't just the steering wheel that's adjustable. The pedals are on a platform that slides back and forth too. It's only the GT spec X-Bow that gets some amount of creature comforts - a windscreen, side windows, a wind deflector, a fabric top, a spruced-up heating system, a centre console and some sort of luggage system too. Although, seeing as I'm at a racetrack about to have a go in the car that's been used in every single edition of the Race of Champions since 2008, luggage is the
last thing on my mind. There's only one thing left to do... Start the engine.
And it's here, in my very first step towards getting the X-Bow going, that I'm entirely flummoxed. I appear to have forgotten the procedure that had been listed out to me by one of the instructors at the Lausitzring Driving Academy before we headed towards the cars. It's all too many buttons suddenly, and I'm sitting there convinced that I'll be the only person in the world who got to the racetrack, but couldn't take the X-Bow out for a spin, because, well, I'd forgotten how to start it. Fortunately for me though, someone comes by and helps me out. The order is, after pressing the clutch and brake, jabbing the Stop Button on the centre console first, then the Start Button also on the centre console, followed by the Mode Button on the steering wheel. At which point the display unit on the centrally mounted instrument pod should flash those three glorious words you'll be eagerly awaiting - Ready To Race. And then, you press the Start Button once again and listen as the 1984cc, turbocharged Audi engine comes to life.
Of course, since this elaborate procedure has been put in place to ensure that not just anybody can start your X-Bow and run off with it, or, worse, crash it, this can be pardoned. And I'm feeling rather forgiving too, given that I'm now rumbling down the pitlane about to put the X-Bow, yes that same machine that helped Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel to six consecutive ROC Nations Cup crowns, through its paces. But there's another little hoop to jump through before I can begin to try and understand what a machine that weighs just under 800kg can do, when it has 240PS waiting to be unleashed. There's a braking and slalom section that I'm made to go through to help me get acclimatised to the X-Bow. Dennis Retera, one of the drivers who raced an X-Bow in the 2008 FIA GT4 championship and also tested the machine extensively before its launch tells me that this is standard procedure. In fact, even customers who buy the X-Bow have to undergo a day of training before they get to take it home. It's to really impress upon them that they've bought a very fast - zero to 100kmph in 3.9 seconds - and very light car that has absolutely no electronic drivers aids whatsoever. There's no one to go crying to when things go wrong. You're really on your own in this one.
The three lovely words that flash on the display unit before you floor it!
A couple of laps later, my initiation is complete, and we begin doing proper laps of the circuit. It's only when I gather speed in the X-Bow, especially down the main straight, that I find myself having to really hang onto the steering wheel. I catch sight of 178kmph on the digital speedo once. But when I feel like I'm going faster, I can't take my eyes off the track lest I miss a braking point and plough straight into the barriers. Gulp. The car feels like it's buffeting about too. Which means I am nowhere as precise as I am meant to be. There are cones handily placed around the track to help us follow the ideal line, and, after I miss three, my instructor's voice crackles over the radio telling me to buck up. So I focus my attention on getting to each apex. And here's when the X-Bow starts to put me in my place.
The first lesson I get are from the brakes. The Brembos are hard to use. If you're too easy on them, you'll find yourself having to press down on them progressively and continuously for a long time. Which means you'll miss your braking point. Which means you'll muck up your entry into the corner. Of course, this is just on the racetrack. The consequences on open roads can be much worse. The trick is then to ignore how darned hard the brakes are and give them a sharp, fast, powerful jab that will slow your X-Bow down and have your head bob forward all at once, which is oddly satisfying. Of course, if you're too hard on the brakes, you run the risk of locking them, which, I'm told after being looked at up and down, I simply don't have the strength to do. Offended though I might be, turns out that it's true.Another lesson comes from the steering wheel. There's no assistance here, which means that you need to really use your muscles to point it where you want to go. Always keeping my hands at 9 and 3 o' clock on the steering wheel the way my instructor wants me to, becomes difficult. So I resort to just heaving the thing any old way I can, so long as I am pointing it in the right direction. My arms and shoulders begin to feel like I've had one of the most intense crossfit sessions of my life. But it gets better at higher speeds and tossing the X-Bow into the first corner after the long main straight, and hitting the apex spot-on, is a particularly grin-inducing moment. The X-Bow really is just such a lot of fun.
The X-Bow demands that you pay attention, especially at the racetrack
If you get things right, slot into the right gear (the H-patterned 6-speed shifter is the most relatable and roadcar-like feature it has) at the right part of the track, press the accelerator down firmly and gather up speed nicely, you really will feel like you're getting a proper racecar experience. It isn't just the fact that the wind's slapping you on the face a good bit, allowing the biting cold through your overalls and the four layers you're wearing under it. And it isn't just that you're so close to the ground. But you're cocooned in this beautifulcarbon fibre tub. Your neck's moving from side to side with every corner you tackle. Your head is just about held in place by the racing headrest that allows you to sit vertically while stopping you from viewing the world completely horizontally. And suddenly everything looks beautiful. Even when that McLaren P1 passes you on the back straight.
One thing that I need to keep reminding myself, is that the X-Bow demands attention every single second. Which means there's really no space to daydream. The car I'm driving has road tyres (Conti Sport Contacts), which I'm told make it a little more unpredictable. Plus it is rear mid-engined, rear-wheel drive and extremely light in the front which mean if you're not careful, it can snap at you like an orange sunbathing alligator when you least expect it. Slicks, apparently, will allow for more grip, and more downforce, making the car even more stable on track. But since I have no slicks and since I need to make the most of this razor-edged hand of cards that I've been dealt, I try my best to live up to the standards of precision that my instructor is demanding of me. I go closer to the apex and even start riding those kerbs a little. And I'm surprised that there is no jarring sensation that I have been expecting. The car's suspension, which you can see peeking out between those body panels, does a fine job keeping out bumps.
Apparently it's fun to pull donuts in the X-Bow, as one instructor showed us, while telling us not to try it ourselves!
Before I know it though, three 20-minute stints that seem like five-minute ones, are up. Damn relativity. I've never been more dismayed to see a chequered flag ever. But I obediently head into the pitlane and park my X-Bow there. I contemplate pocketing the key from the slot in the centre console, but decide the better of it. And when my otherwise grim instructor smiles, pats me on the back, gives me a thumbs up and says I did well, I begin to feel rather pleased. Ah, what a fine job you've done," I think to myself. And then...... I'm a passenger, strapped into the seat next to aforementioned instructor. Hurtling down the start-finish straight in the eerie half light of early winter. Nothing's chasing me. Because we're going too darned fast for anything to keep up. He's in fifth gear and I can see the rev-limiter flashing before I'm dealt a solid blow in my stomach and am pitched forward as he brakes hard at the 50m board. I'm then tossed about from side to side like a little rag doll as he dispenses with the rest of the circuit very, very fast, fighting the X-Bow into every single corner. It's like a karate master practising his katas. He's a black belt. And I'm still a white. Maybe a yellow. But what I really want is that bright beautiful shade of Austrian orange.