Despite the fact that progress in the Indian motorsport has been woefully slow, Volkswagen’s commitment, since it arrived on the scene is 2010, has been laudable. With enormous success in global programmes like the Dakar, WRC and particularly one-make cups, the fact that Wolfsburg decided to bring its expertise to India was great news for the sport.
Let’s go back a bit. Until VW’s entry, there was no way an amateur enthusiastic from a non-motorsport background could go racing without breaking the bank. Building a fast, reliable race car was a black art known only to a handful. The amount of time, blood, sweat, tears and bucks you needed to invest to go racing tin-tops would make even the most persistent and passionate enthusiasts cry in agony.
With such entry barriers, it was obvious that racing was a restricted bastion – having a legacy and financial backing were prerequisites and it was as elitist as a sport could ever be. Unlike other sports, motor racing is extremely equipment-centric and you could be as quick as Ayrton Senna but you still wouldn’t have half a chance if your car could only lap 2.5sec off the pace.
Over time, this lack of democracy dissuaded fresh talent from stepping into the sport. There were a few who were brave enough to challenge it, but it was impossible to consistently keep up the momentum without having to sell your house and everything within it. For example, if you were determined to win, you were expected to fork out between Rs 30 lakh and Rs 40 lakh for a full season in the Indian Touring Car Championship! The fact that one could go racing in Europe for that kind of money shows how messed up the ecosystem was.
Having entered India in 2007, the Volkswagen Group didn’t take long to realise the gap, given its expertise in running Customer Sport programmes through VW and its other brands Audi, Seat, Porsche and Lamborghini. Like most global brands, they believed in the ‘race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ adage and designed a ‘made-for-India’ racing series in 2010 with their first world car at the time – the Polo.
It was the first manufacturer-backed racing programme which allowed young drivers to compete in world-class equipment at an extremely reasonable cost (around Rs 2.5 lakh for a full season in 2010!). The emphasis was on all drivers getting the same equipment in a professional ‘arrive and drive’ setup. From initial selections to the championship finale – the size of the wallet played no role in determining
Over the years, VW has continuously invested in upgrading its equipment levels. In 2010, the series started out with a Polo powered by a 1.6-litre TDI mated to a six-speed manual gearbox. Before the Polo Cup, the idea of an oil-burning race car would have seemed quite ridiculous.
The series got its first upgrade in 2012, coinciding with the shifting emphasis to petrol and Volkswagen bringing its award-winning TSI motors to its portfolio. The next three seasons were run on 1.4-TSI-powered Polos running the turbo-supercharger combo, making 182.5hp. Mated to a six-speed DSG and a limited-slip differential, the overall balance and handling capabilities were upgraded as well.
The Polo TSI ran for three seasons before a switch was made to the Vento in 2015, equipped with the same TSI-DSG drivetrain. Despite the added weight, the boffins at VW Motorsport India managed to extract more lap time out of the package thanks to some suspension work, better weight distribution and aerodynamics. The following year marked perhaps the most significant change in the history of the series – Volkswagen switched from JK Tyre to MRF as the spec rubber for the Cup cars.
It was no secret that JK’s racing slicks were a large bottleneck when it came to extracting more performance out of the package. Over the years, several comparative tests with brands like Dunlop revealed a difference of over 4sec per lap around the 3.7km Chennai circuit. The opening race of the 2016 season at 2.1km-long Kari Speedway saw drivers find a staggering three-plus seconds a lap compared to the previous year on JK Tyre!
The much-needed change in tyre supplier and MRF’s commitment to continuous development gave VW a huge boost of motivation to step up the game, confident that MRF would reciprocate the effort.
And the result is here at Kari Motor Speedway for us to sample – the Ameo Cup car. Volkswagen took its first made-for-India product as a base and turned it into the most hardcore tin-top racer built in India. Headline specs – a 1.8-litre TSI motor, borrowed from the Polo GTI, putting out 207.8hp, mated to a straight-cut six-speed transmission made by French racing specialists 3MO Performance, who also supply to various WRC and Touring Car teams.
Behind the wheel
To understand the amount of progress made by VW over the years, it would be only fair to go back in time and experience that progression before jumping into the Ameo. They were kind enough to bring all its previous Cup cars for us to sample, and we didn’t need a second invitation!
The Polo TDI was built for the 2010 season but was still in excellent race-ready shape. Getting strapped into a race car after a long time meant there were some nerves, but things settled down quickly after I ambled it out of the pitlane. Having raced it in one-off races in 2010 and 2011 season, I knew what to expect and within a couple of laps, it was like being on autopilot. Obviously there was one massive difference – the last time I drove, the Polo TDI was on JK tyres, while today it was shod with MRF rubber.
Devoid of trick racing-ABS and a front-heavy distribution thanks to the big diesel, the Polo TDI was notorious for its ‘jiggle’ under high-speed braking. While it still exhibited some of that, it wasn’t hairy at all. Through the slow corners, aplenty at Kari, the front-end protested if you carried too much speed into
the apex but it was all surprisingly drama free. When I got the trail-braking right (rarely!), the rear would come around, helping you get the front-wheels straightened out – resulting in a quicker exit.
Unfortunately, the usually pristine Kari Speedway was in a bad shape during our test, the last sector coming on to the long straight was lined with fine gravel, and there was absolutely no way of getting representative lap times.
After many fun laps, it was time to switch to the TSI-powered Polo. As I smashed the throttle coming out of the pitlane, now feeling quite comfortable, the additional grunt was apparent, even though it wasn’t pin-you-back-in-your-seat quick. However, the biggest difference was the overall balance – it felt like a completely different car altogether with the lighter TSI unit upfront. The six-speed DSG also helped along with a race-spec limited slip differential (LSD), which meant the turn-in was quick and the Polo TSI was more clinical with the way it went about its business. This also meant that you couldn’t do many mid-corner changes and indulge in trail-braking antics.
Despite the extra 51hp and a wider spread of torque, you could get on to the throttle much earlier thanks to the LSD managing torque distribution. Compared to the wild stallion TDI, the Polo TSI felt like you were on a nice Sunday morning drive while setting quicker lap times.
Getting well acquainted with the strengths of the TSI drivetrain was going to come in handy as we stepped up to the big brother Vento. With the added weight, one would think it would be slower in terms of overall performance but it’s quicker thanks to better weight distribution, aerodynamics and tweaks to the exhaust and also more confidence-inspiring – the key for young drivers to unlock more pace.
Wasting no time in putting the pedal to the metal (literally, as there are no mats or deadening material in race cars), the TSI motor emitted a glorious soundtrack – thanks to a full open downpipe (the Polo TSI ran a cat-con). The Vento was extremely poised as expected and I could hustle it around straightaway. The fact that I had done a lot of laps before I jumped in helped, but the balance seemed just perfect. However, I also had my only spin of the day in the Vento – through the notorious gravel-lined final corner. It filled you with confidence and egged you onto push harder – until you ran out of talent. Clinical, in every sense of the word!
After the build-up, it was finally time for the real McCoy – the Ameo Cup car. There was a quick briefing required before I could go out and with good reason. While Polo and Vento were road cars with production drivetrains, the Ameo is far more race-focussed; there is a Motec standalone ECU and power control unit running the show, necessitating some procedures.
There is no key to turn the engine over, so the ignition and data acquisition modules need to be switched on. Hold the starter button for two seconds, with the foot clutch depressed until the 1.8 TSI snarls into life. Why a clutch? Being a straight-cut sequential gearbox (not a DSG), the clutch is needed to get off the line and slot reverse if needed. Once on the move, gears are shifted through paddles behind the steering. Why not a stick shift then? To prevent over-enthusiast drivers from hammering their way down the gearbox and raking up huge engine damage bills!
So, with all briefings and pre-flight checks (as I’d call them) complete, it was time to head out. Brimming with confidence thanks to my rediscovered car control abilities, I went out of the pits full steam, braked into turn one as always, and before I knew it, was facing the wrong way stopped in the middle of the circuit.
In hindsight, I knew something was wrong the moment I turned in – the steering felt unnaturally light. Embarrassed, I decided to head back into the pits to ensure everything was okay. Getting around the circuit at an easy pace, I realised that the car felt better as corners ticked away – and that’s when it hit me. This is a hardcore race car, so it needs to be treated with extra respect. Warm up the tyres, brakes, gearbox slowly before giving it the beans.
Since the car felt better, I decided to carry on, and on the second lap, the brakes had more bite, the turn-in was crisper and the steering didn’t feel as light because I was carrying the right amount of speed through the corner. There was almost no body roll, which meant it was extremely twitchy, but, thankfully, some mild understeer was all you got at the limit. The constant whine of the straight-cut gearbox and gunshot upshifts meant I was grinning in no time.
Having experienced race tracks all over the world, Coimbatore’s Kari Speedway still remains a unique layout. It is only 2.1km long, and the main straight makes up 800-plus metres of that. It ends up cramming in 14 corners into 1.3km – making it a real point and squirt affair.
While the DSG gearbox coupled with the wide spread of torque in TSI motors meant that the car felt tractable enough to putter in third gear even around the slowest sections, the sequential box had far more race-focussed gearing – which meant extremely tall first and second gears. So you were often left struggling to find the right gears for the low-speed stop and go corners.
Stopping was not at all a problem though, with the large 334mm disc brakes up front, taken from the Golf R32, completely filling up the 17-inch alloys. They are assisted by an extra-sensitive race-calibrated ABS which meant you could brake really late without having to worry about lockups. The massive amount of gravel in certain parts of the track did mess up the system at times, with the ABS cutting in too aggressively and hampering retardation after the initial application.
Given the Ameo’s unquestionable superiority in terms of the overall package, I was expecting quicker lap times compared to the Vento, but it just wasn’t happening. I was consistently about a second slower than my best time in the larger sedan. I knew that the Ameo had significantly extra pace – after all, it has been tested to be over 4sec quicker than the Vento at the Madras circuit.
The fact was that, not being a racing driver, I was unable to tap into that extra performance without looking at comparative data and understanding where I could make up more time. Hopefully, we will get a chance to do that over a proper race weekend (Volkswagen, are you listening?). But I think for an out-of-the-box novice driver, the Vento Cup car was far more confidence-inspiring and easy to exploit.
I can’t but feel envious of the drivers slated to compete in the 2017 Ameo Cup season which kicks off in July. This is their best shot at experiencing and understanding world-class tin-top racing on home ground. All we’d say is use it well!
Heart of the matter
The 1.8 TSI motor is one of the toughest engines in the world and there are very few drivetrains that would match in terms of horsepower potential. The block can easily withstand 507hp with uprated internals, and even the bone stock engine can do 305hp with an uprated turbo. Volkswagen India is already running a standalone engine management system from Motec, which allows enormous control over fuelling and timing – two critical components of an engine’s performance and reliability.
On paper, it may look like the Ameo Cup car makes only 10hp more than the standard unit in the Polo GTI, but it is much more than that. The road-going GTI makes 192hp on 97 octane fuel (minimum recommended), while the race unit makes 10hp more on 91 octane fuel to allow enough tolerance, given the variance in fuel quality available at different race venues, especially the Buddh circuit in Greater Noida.
According to VW Motorsport India head Sirish Vissa, the package is easily scalable in terms of horsepower as well. “If we can get better fuel, we can always do more. With the existing setup, without adding any hardware, we can go over 250hp. But the car becomes a lot more sensitive to the fuel that we put in. If we want to look at more power, it is very easy because a lot of work has been done on the dynamometer, so we’ve got a lot of different versions and maps we can go to. If we really need to go crazy, all we need to look at is upgrading the turbo and we can go well over 300hp without any drama.”
QA SIRISH VISSA, Head, VW Motorsport India
As a manufacturer, what is the motivation for Volkswagen to continually invest in motorsport?
For us, it is a part of our commitment to motorsport in India. What we run in India is what is known as the customer’s programme globally, which means, while most of the costs of the programme are borne by us, a lot of it is offset by driver fees, sponsorships, and so on. In this way, it’s easier to justify to the management that the programme is feasible.
Given that it’s such a niche area, how do you think that investments in motorsport here can be recovered in terms of marketing?
You’re right that motorsport in India when it comes to the number of participants and events, is very niche compared to anywhere else in the world. But motorsport is a way to build and emotionalise the brand. For instance, the Polo GT has been around for a while and it’s still selling well. If you look at it from the Indian perspective, not many would have bought the car for the price.
But because Polo and brand VW have been ingrained into the minds of the people as being sporty, thanks to the Polo Cup, the Polo GT and our participation in rallying, it cements the underlying idea that the car is worth it.
In terms of the equipment, the Vento Cup was just two seasons old and we were not expecting an upgrade. So, what prompted the switch?
Some of the equipment we used in the Vento Cup had seen a few seasons. For us, it is very important that whatever we do it has the reliability that’s expected of us. And that’s what we expect from ourselves. A lot of development for the Vento drivetrain was done in Germany in 2011. We ran the series from 2012. So, five years of using the same drivetrain meant pushing the boundaries when it came to reliability.
And the timing was perfect because last year we launched the Ameo; why not project it on our latest offering? The initial criticism was that it was underpowered, so it made sense that we use it as a base and project the car in a better light than its perception in the market.
Coming to the drivers who have been part of the programme – which are the names that stand out? Also, why do you think that no one has been able to climb the tin-top racing ladder?
What I am particularly proud of is that someone like Kartik Tharani, who wasn’t a standout in his first year, came back to win the championship. It is fantastic to see a young driver not just learn driving but also doing tyre development which is very tricky and requires a lot of attention to detail. In terms of going up the ladder, unfortunately, in India we do not have big league racing. In Asia, it is growing with TCR Asia and others. Until we started off with MRF, we were more geared to ensuring that every car was exactly the same; we weren’t worried about the actual feel of the tyre. So, for a driver, to jump into a car on a higher level, when they don’t have a clear feel of what a racing slick actually does, it’s hard to come to grips with the car because everyone else has been using proper tyres.
However, because of MRF and our approach, we don’t have that as a problem anymore. So, now the jump from this (Ameo Cup) to the TCR car is not a night and day change. The guys who are coming from this, if they actually take the time to do their homework, will be much better equipped than anybody else has been in the past.