Lift off the throttle mid-corner and the back steps out. Tap the brakes and the back steps out some more. Need even more yaw? There’s always the fly-off handbrake.
This Group N Volkswagen Polo 1.6 petrol is set up to go sideways with little provocation. The Reiger suspension up front is set a few clicks softer than the Reigers at the back. That way, this front-wheel-drive car’s front tyres have more bite (which it needs, to resist understeer) and the rear is livelier than a Lambo on Red Bull.
If you’re driving this Polo rally car the way it is supposed to be driven, you won’t need more than a quarter turn of the steering wheel for most turns; you steer on the throttle and the brakes – the brakes to set up the angle of attack for a corner (include a dab of handbrake for tighter corners), and the throttle to straighten out oversteer and pull you out of it.
Today, this car is running the standard ECU, and that means about 85bhp at the wheels versus the claimed 100bhp RaceDynamics competition ECU that it runs when it’s flying down a rally stage in anger. We’re not running that ECU today because it needs 97-octane to run properly, and Pune is out of 97.
The Slideways Industries rally Polo isn’t making the monster power your imagination assumes it does because it isn’t permitted to. The Group N regulations of the Indian National Rally Championship (INRC) allow very limited modifications to the car. Most of the car – everything from the dashboard to the internals of the engine – has to be similar to the production car. This is how Group N keeps costs down and competition up.
What’s different then is the garage sale the team held with the car’s creature comforts. There’s absolutely no form of sound-deadening material on the inside, no rear seats and the front seats are full rally-spec, lightweight OMP buckets with four-point harnesses. This lightening offsets the weight of the FIA-approved roll-cage, the sump and fuel tank guards, the strengthened suspension lower arms and fire extinguisher. After all the mods, the rally Polo weighs in the region of 1,100kg – about the same as a road-going Polo 1.6.
Slideways started prepping and rallying the Group N Polo in 2013 and the car, driven by Evo magazine’s editor Sirish Chandran, wonthe 1,600cc class in its debut rally. In fact, the team’s accolades include six class wins and 16 podium finishes in their class in their debut season. The chaps who rally this car say it is quite strong, and that they only end up breaking bumpers and fasteners.
Heat of the moment
It’s hot in the cabin – my eyes are stinging from the sweat pouring down my forehead and the harness has the embrace of a bear hug. There’s no air-conditioning and I can’t see much over the dashboard – the racing buckets are much closer to the floor than the standard seats; anything to lower the centre of gravity.
The noise from the custom exhaust is the sound of ripping metal. The sound in the cabin is of pebbles and mud pelting the underside as the JK Ultima XRG rally tyres grapple with gravel for traction. Redline! Grab second gear! Redline! Slam into third on the conventional H-pattern gearbox. More pelting stones, more ripping metal. It is obscenely loud.
From years of driving road cars, the natural instinct is to slow down for craters. In this car, the first 10 minutes are spent re-coding my brain to keep the throttle pinned, no matter what – the Reigers are up to taking the punishment. The faster you go, the more the suspension loads up and does what it’s supposed to do. The faster you go, the more comfortable it gets.
Butt cheeks clench at the first corner. The brakes are un-servoed so that they don’t lock up easily on gravel, but no one told me that. Push harder! Leg muscles! COME ON! WORK! The rear steps out. The Polo’s electrically assisted steering makes it easy to catch. Nose points into corner, back on full power, straighten out and let the Quaife limited-slip differential drag the car through and towards the next corner. I’m driving sloppily.
The real pros try and keep the car as straight as possible. The real pros go sideways into the corner so they can get on the power as early as possible. The real pros complain that the electric steering doesn’t have enough feedback. But I’m not a pro and I’m glad that the steering is also swallowing kickback from the rough bullock-cart track.
I’m also not going to push someone else’s rally car to its limits the first day I drive it.
What I am going to do, though, is declare how much fun this car is. What an adrenaline rush it must be to drive one of these in a proper competitive rally. And this is just the Group N car. The WRC Polo R with its all-wheel drive, turbocharged 300bhp must be on a whole different plane. But then again, my driving skills would have to be on another plane to drive it as well.
The Group N Polo feels like a fun way to learn the tricks of the trade and Slideways Industries has a customer rally programme in place if you’re interested (see box). If you sign up, here’s a bit of advice in Colin McRae’s words: If in doubt, flat out.
You can do it
Slideways Industries will sell you a brand new, fully prepped, factory-supported Polo for approximately Rs 16 lakh. You then have to pay to enter rallies and, of course, bear the costs of the service team and anything you damage along the way. Alternatively, they will sell you a used Rally Polo for Rs 12 lakh.
Slideways also runs an ‘arrive-and-drive’ program where you rent a Polo rally car for competition. You pay Rs 1.3 lakh per rally; and Rs 5 lakh as deposit – anything you damage will be deducted from this. The team will, if needed, find you a co-driver, provide rally training and tuition (at a track near Pune or Coimbatore), handle all licenses, documentation, logistics, car transport, hotel stay, recce cars, service at the rallies, hospitality, media and PR support. The cars can also be rented for Autocross events.
The car in the picture is the Polo R WRC. Unlike the INRC Group N car, the Polo R only has to resemble the production car. So under its hood is a 1.6-litre turbo-charged, intercooled four-cylinder petrol engine making 315bhp and 43.3kgm of torque.
This power is sent to whatever surface the car is on via a permanent four-wheel-drive system that has limited slip differentials on the front and rear axle through a six-speed sequential gearbox. The car is homologated to a minimum weight of 1200kg and that means it does 0-100kph in 3.9sec!