Our weather services are notoriously inept. This is especially true when it comes to predicting rain. In fact, things are so bad, almost no one checks the local weather anymore. At the track this year, however, we did get a weather prediction, and it turned out to be right. But it wasn’t from the weathermen and women. It was from one of our staff, who earlier in the week had witnessed a similar weather pattern at the Madras Motor Race Track (MMRT). The prediction was quite simple. Searing heat in the late morning and early afternoon, well above 40deg C, followed by stiff winds, black clouds and a heavy downpour towards the evening. And that’s exactly what happened. Luckily, we were well prepared and started nice and early.
As ever, the track evolves every year, with improvements in some areas and wear and tear in others. The surface at the track was probably in the best shape we’ve seen it in years – grippy, not dusty off line, and the authorities had even mended some of the kerbs.
So, in general, the track felt nice and quick. But then we found that we could not take the run-up to the back straight flat out in some of the faster cars, as the kerbs and apexes from C3 onwards had become more bumpy. While earlier these were level enough to be taken without lifting, even in the faster cars, this year, Narain had to really ‘drive’ each of the left-right-left kerbs. And just how much throttle he could use depended on how well each car rode the bumps. This is the reason why this year the top speeds, right after the straight (before C4), suffered on some cars.
Our approach and methodology over the years has been identical. The cars are run absolutely stock, without any changes made to them. We do bump the tyre pressures up by 4psi, but apart from that, absolutely nothing.
Narain’s starts off with a half lap to get a feel of the car, one hot lap, a cool-down lap and then another timed one. He only does a third timed lap if he’s made a mistake or is sure he can find a lot more time. Would he go faster still if he had half a dozen more laps? Absolutely. The tyres wouldn’t be at their best, and we’d have to cool the engines, gearboxes and brakes down, so we’d run out of time. But go faster he would, for sure. Each lap is also done with the ESP or stability control totally switched off. Anything less and he’s a bit uncomfortable. “I’m not sure what the car will do or when the stability control will kick in,” he says, “so I’m much more at ease with it off.”
To start with, we didn’t have too many fast but affordable cars. But the Baleno RS proved to be quite a star. With its sportier setup and new Boosterjet engine, it was quick. The Polo GTI was pretty effective too; it does have 180hp under the hood. Then came BMW’s new 530d, a luxury diesel car that put in an impressive time, and the S60 Polestar and C 43 AMG – the direct competitors from Volvo and Merc, despite the discrepancy in the price. We also had Merc’s SLC 43 AMG, the latest Porsche 911 Carrera, Ford’s Mustang, the updated and improved Audi RS7 Performance with that crazy twin-turbo V8, and Nissan’s latest GT-R. VW’s Ameo Cup car was the track-based car we tested this year. A friend also brought along his Porsche 911 GT3 RS. Yeah, the RS.
Along with a description of what each car felt like on the track and comments from Narain, we’ve provided you with a track rating for each car. It’s important to note that this differs from our ratings for the road, because a track is much tighter and the driving environment is different from that of a regular road. Apart from lap times, there’s also plenty of data to digest – entry and exit speeds, max speeds and even split times to help you compare – all taken from our trusty and cutting-edge Vbox satellite-based timing gear. And since we’re on the topic of numbers, the year marks the 100th car (103 to be precise) we’ve tested. Same track, same driver, and same piece of ballast – me.
Just occasionally, some cars surprised us with the time they did.
Maruti Baleno RS
Track rating 8/10
Nice and sharp handling, and a strong engine, I’m pretty surprised, I really like it.
The Baleno RS is a big step up on the regular car. It has a nicer steering, a stiffened chassis, updated springs and sharper handling as a result. Narain was pleasantly surprised, “It’s much better to drive than the regular Baleno. Its turbo-petrol engine pulls well in the mid-range and they’ve done a super job with the chassis. It even gets sideways nicely for a front-wheel-drive car.” It’s nearly 5sec quicker than the regular Baleno and 2sec faster than the softly sprung Abarth Punto. The max speed is almost identical to the Abarth at 140.38kph. This car should be more popular.
BMW 530d M Sport
Track rating 7/10
It rolls a bit in corners, but it still put in a quick time; and the diesel engine is very strong.
The new 5-series is bigger, more comfortable and smoother. And it is faster too. Though it rolled around quite a bit on the track, it put in a time that is 5sec faster than the outgoing car. Audi’s S5 Sportback with its 333hp is only half a second faster! It’s a bit too soft for any serious track driving, according to Narain, but it is quick in a straight line as pretty much any sedan. “There’s a lot of feel in the steering, the brakes are good and the gearbox is a pleasure to use.” And its top speed down the straight was only 1kph slower than the Polestar. Now, considering this thing is a diesel, that’s amazing.
Track rating 8/10
Strong engine and the fastest we’ve been in a front-wheel-drive production car around here.
Narain is immediately impressed: “The GTI is every bit as quick as I thought it would be. And the engine is seriously strong and it makes this light car quick.” And the numbers backup his subjective feel. It is a full 4km an hour faster than its most direct rival, the Cooper S, at the fastest part of the circuit, and the dual-clutch gearbox and strong brakes help exploit that fantastic power-to-weight ratio. The VW GTI hops around a bit on kerbs and the dynamics aren’t great, but as an effective track toll, it works superbly. All you have to do is point and squirt; the little VW is quite a giant killer.
Volvo S60 Polestar
Track rating 7/10
Muscular power delivery and brutally effective brakes make it very effective.
The Polestar is based on Volvo’s middle-aged S60, and this shows. Everything feels heavy and solid. And the manner in which it goes around the track, and how its engine makes power make it feel a bit old school too. Still, performance is strong, Narain liked the heavy steering and the muscular engine and “the brakes are pretty phenomenal.” Big wheels conceal huge rotors and big discs; this allows you to carry a lot of speed into corners, without overcooking it. What also works well is that the strong engine and the all-wheel-drive system pull you out of corners smartly.
Mercedes-AMG C 43
Track rating 7/10
The turbo motor likes to be revved and handling is neat and tidy, so it’s quick and fun.
Four-wheel drive and a 367hp twin-turbo V6 for AMG’s junior-spec C-class. Initially it feels sporty and very much at home. And unless you are really sliding it, you can’t tell it’s an all-wheel drive. “It has a very positive steering, so the initial turn-in and the amount of speed you can carry to the apex is quite high. But when the rear steps out, the 4Matic comes into effect,” he says. This isn’t very nice as it pulls the car straight again and you lose time. And once hot, the gearbox keeps slipping out of manual which affects time. This is why we think it could have gone a second or two faster quite easily.
Porsche 911 Carrera 3.0
Track rating 9/10
What an engine. Wish the car was running perfectly, it would have been very quick.
The Porsche’s flat-six turbo engine and PDK gearbox is a thing of wonder. It has both, tremendous punch and willingness to rev; keep your foot down and that continuous stream of power just blows you away. So once you are pointing straight, you are shot out of corners as if exiting the barrel of a cannon. “On the track, you don’t feel any turbo lag, none at all, and performance is very strong,” said Narain. “But there is something wrong with this particular car’s rear axle. It doesn’t allow me to put my foot down without spinning. So despite doing a 2m01 lap, it’s not representative. It should’ve been much faster.”
Mercedes-AMG SLC 43
Track rating 5/10
Strong engine, but nervous handling is a downer. Not great on the track.
Another junior AMG and yet another good time – 2.00min dead. But again, the Chennai heat made it go into limp mode, so it could have been faster still. It’s not a driver’s car though. “It’s more suited to being driven with the roof down at a brisk pace, rather than chasing lap times. The extremely short wheelbase and lack of chassis rigidity makes it nervous and skittish when the rear is on the move, and then, in addition, the rear hops and skips,” Narain wasn’t too happy. The engine, however, is strong and once the car settles down, it powers out of corners nicely.
Ford Mustang GT
Track rating 8/10
Lots of pace, great brakes. It feels heavy but is quite balanced in corners.
A big surprise, and a pleasant one at that. First up, the Mustang put in a quick time, a sub- 2min lap. Not many of us expected this. The strong top-end of the engine helps. It winds hard all the way to the redline and some of its exit speeds are as good as the four-wheel-drive RS7 Performance. And the Ford is only rear-wheel drive, so traction is strong. “The dynamics are actually a strong point and the brakes are just super. Earlier American cars used to be all about straight line; but the chassis engineers have done a good job,” said a smiling Narain after his laps. “I think it’s a very good package.”
Audi RS7 Performance
Track rating 7/10
It’s brutally fast on the straights, and even drives a bit better than the earlier one.
“Dynamically, it’s a clear step forward from the previous RS7, and it’s around a second and a something faster on the racetrack, which is quite a lot.” And that from Narain, pretty much sums it up. But how can we forget the crazy performance? “On the straight, this car feels even faster than the previous one, and it moves from point A to point B so quickly, it makes up for the time that it lost around corners.” So, eventually, you have a good lap time. It certainly isn’t the most finessed of performers, but the brutal and effective performance has an appeal of its own.
Volkswagen Ameo Cup car
Track rating 9/10
A good learner car for the first level of professional racing. It’s pretty and fun too.
The Ameo Cup car is a bomb. It is 20sec a lap quicker than the Polo GT (2m16.50s) and even 10sec up on the GTI, which it shares an engine with. This makes it faster than a Jaguar F-Type R, a BMW M5 and even a Porsche Cayman S. But then it would be; it is a race car with a roll cage, sequential gearbox, stiffened suspension and special slick tyres. “They’ve put a lot of understeer into the car for the young drivers, and it won’t let you get to a point where these front-wheel-drive track cars can snap.” So, even though you have to push through the understeer to get a good time, overall, it’s an excellent package.
Track rating 9/10
Marginally softer and slower in corners, and you don’t feel the G-forces build as earlier.
Nissan’s GT-R held the record on this track for many years. But this facelifted and retuned car doesn’t feel quite as hardcore. The ride doesn’t rattle your fillings, and because this car is a bit softer, some of its dynamic character is missing.
So it wasn’t as quick into some corners and wasn’t as fast going out of many either. “It still has a phenomenally strong engine, gearbox and four-wheel-drive system, but it’s not nearly as keen.” It is around a second and something slower. What also affected performance were the knackered tyres.
Porsche GT3 RS
Wow! It did a sub-1:50 lap. That’s quick,and we could have gone faster still.
Our guest entry this year was none other than a GT3 RS. Of course, it broke the lap record, but Narain wasn’t even really trying. Yes, he switched the ESP off, and we hit 199.34kph. But the RS broke the record on lap one! “I could have found more time, but this is already a landmark; it’s the first production car here under 1m50sec,” said an elated Narain. “The extra aero aids actually work; you can feel the extra downforce helping in faster corners.” What a fantastic chassis; 140kph at the exit of C1; only the track cars we’ve tested have been faster through that fast, fast section.
Behind the scenes
The heat really got to everyone this time. The photographers and camera men who took the brunt of it were actually the best prepared. They had bandanas, hats and scarves; many of them looking like they were dressed for an expedition across the Sahara. And, believe it or not, we ran out of water and had to be resupplied. But, thankfully, we had an air-conditioned office to ourselves this time, and that’s where Rahul sat, checking and compiling all the Vbox data as it came in.
Then came the dark clouds, wind and lashing rain. The cameramen were now all about keeping the equipment dry. This was also the first time we didn’t have unrestricted access to the pit lane. The MMRC is in the process of constructing an all-new building above the pits, and each individual garage will now be much larger and in line with those at international tracks. Even the iconic steel gate to the pit lane was being cut out with a blowtorch as we were timing the cars. Wish we’d taken some pictures; the good old MMRT is unlikely to ‘feel’ the same again.