After years of attending several driving schools – including BMW’s own M School – we decided to look at what the competition is offering and headed over to Lexus for their own Performance Driving School program.
The F, in Lexus nomenclature, stands for Fuji Speedway, home of the Lexus testing facility. It could also stand for “F***, these guys are serious.”
For much of the Japanese brand’s existence they’ve been known as a luxury car manufacturer – a purveyor of stylish, comfortable and tech-laden autos that represented excellent value to the buyer who didn’t find lateral grip nor a throaty exhaust anywhere on a list of priorities. In the 27 years since the inception of Lexus, the Germans have continued to build upon a formula combining luxury and sports car-level performance to create the reputations of BMW M GmbH, Audi’s Quattro GmbH, and Mercedes-Benz’s acquisition of AMG. All of these groups represent big horsepower, luxurious interiors and, typically, sedans and coupes that will set a buyer’s hair and wallet on fire. Territory that was relatively unknown to Lexus as they had no rivaling sub-brand with sporting intentions until the 2007 launch of the F Sport line.
Lexus was putting the Germans on notice.
While slow to generate a significant baseline of models like BMW M or Merc’s AMG line, the F Sport line has generated a halo car in the V10-powered LFA and a handful of V8-powered bruisers in the IS F, GS F and RC F accompanied by the F Sport package consisting of upgraded aero kits and suspension tweaks for the remainder of the Lexus family. While most of the Lexus F cars are still in their first generation; their future plans could not be more clear: accelerate past the Germans and leave them disoriented with the wail of a 5.0-liter V8.
That potential future brings me to Palm Beach International Raceway on a hazy and humid Saturday morning just before 8AM for the one of the first sessions of the Lexus Performance Driving School. Walking into the pavilion for the safety instructions for the day I am flanked by Lexus GS F sedans and RC F coupes on either side of me and the an RC F GT3 racecar mock-up and a sensual LC500 coupe prototype to welcome entrants. The message is clear: today is about serious speed.
Entering the pavilion, I registered and stood in the back while a crowded room of 50+ participants comprised of BMW and Porsche drivers, Lexus owners and paying car enthusiasts picked at a light breakfast while listening to instructors lay out the rules for safety and the itinerary for the half day: a trip to the skid pad for wet-weather performance driving, ABS braking and accident avoidance techniques, lead-follow hot laps, and autocross were all on the menu. Before we were excused, Lexus brought out the living motorsport legend Scott Pruett, a driver for the Lexus RC F GT3 next season in the Weathertech Championship’s GTD class, to discuss his affiliation with the Lexus performance brand and what 2017 will mean for freshly-minted team. Pruett is all-in with the Lexus racing program for next year and ready to introduce the F Sport performance to American racing fans by taking on the likes of BMW M6’s, Lamborghini Huracans, Audi R8’s and anything else the competition can throw at it.
After breaking into small groups to tackle each of the courses. We were to be only the second class of the Lexus Performance Driving School. Our group eagerly scurried into the parking lot for their group assignments.
The Lexus Performance Driving School is a brand new program rolled out as a vehicle (pun intended) to educate current Lexus customers as well as those of German rivals to the sporting intentions of the F Sport product line. Specifically, the exercises are designed to highlight the abilities of the F Sport line in high-speed braking and maneuvering, suspension refinement around a tight circuit and the oomph of a high-revving V8 down a long ribbon of asphalt. While rivals like BMW already have a permanent driving school (at the Performance Driving Center in Spartanburg or in Thermal, CA) Lexus is debuting this program in Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and California to gauge reception and, based on the results, see where the program may develop further.
In Florida, it took me first through a high-speed braking exercise through a row of cones to simulate the need to engage the Brembo brakes of an RC350 at a full ABS-engaging stop followed by turning under ABS braking. The instructors, positioned at each station, would then direct our group through a slalom course before we switched drivers. Thanks to in-car radios, the instructors were able to give real-time feedback to drivers allowing for corrective actions to find (or sometime curtail) the limits of our abilities. As we started out the morning in the comparatively sedate RC350 and IS350 F Sports, the instructors upped the ante by switching our group over to a gaggle of fully loaded RC Fs for our stint on the freshly soaked skid pad.
The name of the exercise was fairly straightforward but the execution was anything but. Within a multi-car length in circumference circle of cones sat a smaller circle of cones. The exercise called for drivers to enter the outer ring and attempt to engage rear wheel slippage, lose traction then pause our inputs, regain control and recover the big coupe from the skid. Simple, right? Anything but when you’re trying to 467-hp with all driver aids and the trick torque-vectoring differential (Lexus’ TVD system) switched off. Every few seconds around the tiny circuit, our group would hear the distinct brap from the thunderous quad-exhaust of the RC F followed by a visual of the RC F in a pirouette into a line of cones. It turns out that, with that much power and low traction – it does not take much speed to induce a slide that will take all of the driver’s talent to quickly recover. I am proud to say I am one of the few who never managed to spin the mighty RC F though my seat time in Monticello at the RC F launch may have given me an unfair advantage!
Moving from two doors to four in the next exercise, our group strapped into the relatively new GS F, Lexus’s largest F series car, for the autocross portion of the day. After a recon lap with instructors around a small but technical go-kart track, we were allotted two hot recon laps on our own before a third and final session to set our best lap time. Loading up into the heavily bolstered red leather seats of a silver GSF, I set off in search of justifying my own ego with a top 3 lap time as my target. Standing on the throttle, I was off with a roar as the rear tires bit and the V8 rocketed me toward the first corner before a quick lift and a few flicks took me down through the first slalom. Moving to the middle of the circuit the GS F, despite its 4,000lbs weight, could move with grace. The grip levels up front and the ease by which I could steer with the throttle at the rear when exiting sharp turns was impressive and a welcome surprise. So long as I kept my eyes up and quick hands on the wheel the GS F was predictable and easy to reign in if I ever pushed my luck in a corner. After another slalom course at the end I was hard on the massive Brembo brakes sporting orange calipers to close out my lap in the “pit box.” My time was just over 59 seconds around the course. I felt satisfied until I saw that the fastest time was 4 seconds quicker. Clearly I didn’t find all of the potential buried within the GS F!
Our final event of the day saw a mix of both the RC F and GS F utilized to reach the high speeds around the full road course of Palm Beach Raceway. As such, beyond a few sweeping corners, we would execute lead-follow exercises whereby the lead car would indicate a pass, pull off the main racing line on the straight and allow the pursuing cars to accelerate by. On most of the laps, the GSF was seeing 130mph+ speeds on the back straight. When I relinquished the driver’s seat to my passenger, I stepped out for photos. As I set up to snap a few panning shots as the line of cars raced by, the noise of the fleet of big displacement V8’s reminded me more of the snarls of the Daytona 500 than a GTD car entered in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Has the term “Japanese muscle car” been trademarked yet?
After a quick awards ceremony for fastest lap and a number of lucky participants getting laps with Scott Pruett in both the GS F and LC500 prototype, the day had come to a close.
While one-page surveys were left on the table at the end of the session, the laughter, smiles and backslapping were a better gauge of the success of the first ever Lexus Performance Driving School. Personally, I enjoyed it immensely and I hope this translates into a permanent installation of the Lexus Performance Driving similar to BMW’s own program now featured in both South Carolina and the new California facility. Beyond pushing the limits of Lexus F series cars, the lessons learned are something any driver should be taught. Well, maybe the autocross course is purely for fun?
Equally, I hope Lexus continue to push the F Sport cars to the forefront of the portfolio. I stand by my review of the RC F in that I love how different it looks and feels compared to the German offerings. If I were going for a track day, the M4 would likely be my weapon of choice but if I want a fast, unique GT car that I can drive to work and go out and romp on the way to a client lunch then the RC F is my choice. Equally, the performance of the GS F cannot be ignored. A hot lap with Scott Pruett showed me the high thresholds for grip and I came away surprised at the ease by which I could chuck it around a miniscule go-kart track.
Looking even further ahead, I’m very excited to see the Lexus RC F GT3 take on the GTD category of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship under the F Performance team. The category is perfect for Lexus competing against Porsches, BMW’s, Audi’s, Lamborghini and a number of other “race what we sell” customer cars. Pruett, a man who knows a thing or two about race cars, shows Lexus is serious in its intentions.
The achingly gorgeous LC500 coupe is a story in and of itself. If they do not change a single thing on the “prototype” demoed for us they have a hit on their hands.
With all of this fresh on my mind, I climbed back into my BMW 3 Series at the end of the day and the serious attitude is what stuck with me most. Lexus is serious about the F Sport line and the future looks fantastic with a capital F.