2020 Lexus GS F Track Review at Laguna Seca
Road Beat Archive, February 18, 2020
What BMW could Learn from Lexus
Words by Mitchell Weitzman
“Hey, you were keeping up with that Porsche!” This was not the sole exclamation of bewilderment that the big yellow Lexus received at Laguna Seca. In fact, this Lexus GS F wasn’t just keeping up with, but overtaking the many Porsches, BMWs, and Audis on track. Their hands must’ve been tired by the end of the day from waving us by…But really, when is the last time a BMW driver moved over and signaled you by?
Let’s set the scene here. First, the car. What is it? A 2020 Lexus GS F. This is not the same Lexus associated with Pensioners or a recently promoted accountant. No, this is a different kind of Lexus, one that wears its thumping heart on its sleeve and with the lungs of a distance runner. A five liter V8 does the business upfront, producing 467 horsepower at a lofty 7,000 RPM. An 8-speed automatic does the shifting, either automatically or by the use of the paddles behind the wheel. There’s a torque vectoring differential out back to put power to the asphalt, and brakes the size of a large Round Table pizza to reign you in. This GS F also happens to be yellow, because why not? The GS F isn’t just a sedan that went to the weight room to bulk up, though, it also regularly visits the Pilates class for agility, and then the UFC gym for tactical warfare.
Now, the track. Weather Tech Raceway Laguna Seca is one of the most storied race tracks in the entire world, being renowned for its famous Corkscrew. Located between Salinas and Monterey, California, the weather is perfect nearly every day. Temperatures barely crested 60 degrees throughout the day and the sun showered down on the magnetic, metallic yellow paint of the Lexus. Laguna Seca has severe elevation changes, making it a challenge for many. The Corkscrew drops 4 stories in a second. Turn 1 is a left kink at over 100 MPH that you can’t see the other side of, followed by heavy braking, downhill, to the Andretti hairpin at only 40 MPH. To say that this track is a thorough test of a car’s all-rounded ability is an undersell.
The track event was organized by SpeedSF, a group committed to allowing drivers to experience their cars at a higher level across Northern California. Some are there to be competitive with lap times in higher classes, and others are beginners learning the ropes and rigors of track driving. Yes, there were casualties, including a Honda S2000 that reduced its overall length by 25 percent (driver okay). An Acura blew a large puff of blue smoke out its exhaust before disappearing for the day. There are dangers, but it’s about driving at a level that you are comfortable with. There are 5 groups to choose, from beginner to advanced with a lap time requirement, with rules set in a drivers’ meeting to ensure safety. Professional instruction is also available.
Besides the aforementioned Porsches, there were, wait, you guessed it, more Porsches, then a few McLarens, Ferrari 488 Pistas, a sea of Honda S2000s, BMW M3s, Mustangs, and an Ariel Atom even. Our Lexus was the only large sedan present. Remember how, about 15 years ago, half of every new Lexus sold wore that garish shade of beige-gold? Not anymore. This is a proper gold. The paddock quickly filled with nearly 100 cars. Some of them trailered in, even. Torque wrenches were spotted everywhere. Roll cages and large spoilers straight from the Fast and the Furious prop catalogue were common. While it’s practice to fit your track car with more aggressive tires, aftermarket coilover suspension and the like, the Lexus was exactly how you’d find it on the showroom.
Now, let’s take you on a lap around Laguna Seca.
Front straight. Throttle pinned. The shift lights flash as you hit 7,000 RPM, the V8 power plant emitting a sonic boom as you pull the paddle for third. The straight becomes a valley of sound, akin to a circa 1972 Deep Purple concert, echoing across the pit wall to the grandstands and back again.
You cross the start/finish line at a hair under 100 MPH, right in the middle of the track. Immediately is the turn 1 kink. Look at a track map, it looks like the straight bends slightly left. Not true. It’s a turn. And it’s bloody blind. Instinct is to lift, but lifting relieves weight off the rear, in other words making it light. I once saw a Bugatti Veyron doing demo laps a Laguna when new. The driver lifted abruptly for 1; He spun off the track at about 140 MPH. I pull the throttle back to 50%, and slowly aim the car to left side , just clipping the portion of asphalt that connects to the pit-lane exit. Now you see the steep downhill run to Turn 2, the Andretti Hairpin. The speedo is showing 118 and needs to be reading 45 in less than 5 seconds. The brake markers show 3, 2, 1, but those are for IMSA GT cars. I apply the brakes at the imaginary number 4 and the Lexus slows up considerably, the large brakes proving their worth. The pedal feel is firm and consistent with confidence, with no dead space nor too grabby. As you brake, you aim the car for the middle of the track, keeping the wheel as straight as possible to avoid any upset, reeling off downshifts as you do so.
Trail braking works here as it helps turn the car. The front will want to push wide (understeer in racing speak) from the carried speed, but that’s okay. Let the nose drift a little wide as you smoothly release the brakes and once the nose careens inward, ease onto the throttle in second gear and once the left front Michelin Pilot Super Sport touches the inside curb for the apex, shift up into third, keep the throttle pinned, and steer it out wide, be sure to unwind the wheel to the outside curb.
Turn 3 is next, a near 90 degree right hander. From the exit of two to the turn-in point for three is a straight shot, requiring minimal steering input. Let 3rd run to just about the limiter and you can brake comfortably deep. 3 is tricky to find the exact apex point. Instinct is to turn early, but be patient for that split second past reason and then turn in. Clip the inside curb and then throttle it out to the outside curb. Pull the paddle for 4th, cross under the bridge and turn 4 awaits, a fast right sweeper. I like to keep it in fourth, but you could go down to the upper reaches of 3rd in the Lexus. Hit the brakes on the outside set of curbs and turn in as the brake is released to help the car rotate then immediately come onto the throttle first gently, then progressing quickly to full-bore and it let the car sail out to outside curb. It’s real easy to touch the dirt here on exit, so the steering requires considerable input on the drive towards to the exit when at speed.
The turn 4-5 straight allows you crack triple-digits again and serves as a great passing zone. Line yourself up on far right side of track for this uphill let-hander that doesn’t seem to end. Be patient with the throttle and turn-in point and look for the end of long corner. You can have the gas planted once you touch the nose on the inside curb and unwind the wheel to drive it out. Careful here, though, up the straight: There’s a sound booth. Laguna Seca on most track days has a 90 DB noise limit. The Lexus was probably not a violator, but we wanted to play it safe. A short shift into fourth and then fifth and then once past the microphone, drop back into life. 6 is the favorite of many people. Tricky to learn, but then easy to replicate. The approaching straight is uphill, but right at the entry where the brake markers stand, the it dips back downhill. The apex has a noticeable compression, and it’s easy for lowered cars to potentially scrape here as the suspension unloads itself, then compresses fully at the dip. First few laps I was hitting the apex at an indicated 69, but later in the day, that number increased to over 75. It’s an absolute thrill ride bombing through 6 at such speed. There is, however, a large ‘sausage’ curb on the far inside that you DON’T want to hit - you might break something.
The Rahal Straight is next, a long and steep uphill battle. Even the 467 horse V8 seems almost underpowered here. Turn 7 is a slight kink with a right had side curb you want to graze. We brake before the ‘3’ marker and it’s hard on the brakes and down to third gear because this is the Corkscrew. Technically turns 8a and 8b, this is the reason many come to Laguna. It’s like going down several stories of a building in about a second. Set yourself up for the dead middle of the track and once you have the car hauled down to under 50, look for the inside green curb. Turn in and hit that with your left front tire. Now, we have to go right. If we go too far, we will jump the curb or cut the corner, either of which aren’t ideal. The moment the cars nose starts to descend, that’s when we turn the wheel to the right and the exit apex curb comes into view, being blind before. Touch that and then it’s throttle-on towards 9. It’s common to see racing drivers hug the inside of 9 throughout, while others enter it real wide, but I prefer the middle lane. It’s easy to upset the car here as 9 is fast with a lot of camber. You can stay in third or use 4th gear for this corner, but I preferred the taller ratio for more adjustability. Braking into the corner and then releasing the brakes can cause oversteer, so best to be smooth with steering inputs and pedal control.
Trail brake a little and then gently ease off them and once you have control of the nose, direct it inside to the left and hard with the throttle steadily increasing. It’s a very late apex, but once you have it, drive it all the way out to the other side of the track and then cross back over to the left side for turn 10, another quick chute with camber. Nothing too tricky here, just hit the inside curb and then let it unwind on exit. Last corner is next, turn 11. We’re braking before the markers again to bring the 2 ton Lexus down from 100 to 40. It’s a sharp, acute angle, so you have to turn sharper and also later than you’d think for a good exit. I was able to provoke some oversteer here a few times in 2nd gear by being too generous with the throttle. Shift up into third, fourth and back over the line for another go. That’s a lap around Laguna Seca.
What’s most remarkable about the gargantuan Lexus is just how easy it is to drive, and quickly. What’s more, it’s not just easy, but enjoyable. In certain cases, easy can mean detached, disengaging, and, well, boring (15 Lexus ring a bell?), but that’s not the MO here. The chassis is nigh infallible, begging for more power. Composure remains strong as you push on harder. Do the tires eventually give up? Yes, but only naturally; Spikiness is not of the GS F’s nature. Instead, there’s wide bandwidth of consistence and predictability. Certain rivals have behaved manners on the road, but fall apart when pushed to their extremes. The Lexus welcomes it with a fury of iconic V8 rumble and tire smoke if provoked.
The steering is precise, with feedback that actually alerts you to what’s happening through the front tires, something so dearly missed in most new cars. Understeer is minimal for a front-engined car of this mass, and is totally predictable. The transition to neutrality and then oversteer have asmooth progression. Gearshifts are not instantaneous like that of a dual clutch ‘box, but still happens quick enough to not make you think about it while also being smoother in normal everyday driving. The brakes never faded, providing strong pedal feel throughout the day. Could you brake deeper into the corners? Sure, of course, but we didn’t want to toast them in the pursuit of a lap time. Michelin Super Sports are universally praised by many, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. By the end of a 20 minute lapping session, they did lose a little grip at the front as the air pressures and temperatures rose, but that’s completely normal.
Easily, the closest rival to the GS F is the BMW M5, an iconoclast of a sports sedan if there ever was one. While an M5 has more recently moved the game on in terms of outright performance (it does have well over 100 more horsepower), I think the GS F has it licked in terms of overall feel. The current M5 also costs a whopping $30,000 more.
Compared then to the outgoing F10 M5 that the GS F originally debuted against, the Bavarian seems a meandering imposter to what made M cars so great to begin with. Laughable steering, lack of body control, and an uncharismatic (though powerful) engine, the whole experience is one of waywardness confounded by its inane desire to appeal to a wider audience. It’s less of a sports sedan and more of just a really fast sedan. The new M5 fixes almost all of that, but that $30,000 difference is impossible to overlook.
How about the M550i, then. Price for price, the BMW M550i costs about the same as the Lexus. It, too, has a missile of an engine and easily trumps the Lexus on a straight, but again, it’s no sports sedan, suffering from an acute (or obtuse?) lack of nerves. Nice car, fast, but big, heavy, and lifeless. The GS F is a tesseract in contrast - full of dimension.
Back to the enthusiast at the beginning, “Hey, you were keeping up with that Porsche!” Why so surprised? Because a lot of people just plaint don’t know that Lexus happens to build such rollicking driver’s cars. Currently, Lexus has the RC F (a two-door coupe), the LC 500 (a BEAUTIFUL GT continent crusher), and this GS F. All share the same N/A 5.0 V8 between them for a unique identity among a contemporary field of forced induction. Power is great and all, but the response, noise, and tactility is dearly missed among some newer engines. The Lexus reminds us, in a nostalgic euphoria, the joys of natural aspiration. Both Lexus and parent company Toyota are committed to building more driver-focused cars, and the under-the-radar GS F shows just that.
Track days happen every weekend across the country. Some do this almost every weekend, even. That’s the way of some car enthusiasts, as exploring the capabilities of a car can be an intoxicating addiction. Also, the track is far safer than the street. Many owners and drivers constantly change out parts on their track builds in pursuit of a perfect driving experience. This isn’t a cheap hobby, but for those that feel that emotional connection, nothing can replace it. SpeedSF will be back at Laguna Seca on April 11-12. Go to SpeedSF.com to learn more and register.
A late 3-time Formula 1 champion perhaps said it best of why we race in the pursuit of something more. “I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. I was way over the limit but still able to find even more. It frightened me because I realized I was well beyond my conscious understanding” - Ayrton Senna