Steve McQueen’s iconic line in the movie Le Mans goes, “Racing is life. Everything else is just waiting.” And I’d been waiting a long, long time. Sure, I’ve been part of the odd go-karting slugfest with the guys from the office, but nothing that required me to slip into a full-on race suit, strap on racing boots and sit through a session just on the type of flags used at a race track. I’m at the recently updated MMRT and I’m here to play pro racer for the weekend. Volkswagen is hosting an Ameo Cup round for the media, so the grid is full of familiar faces from our small fraternity. It’s a mixed bag when talking race experience though. Some are discussing racing lines, while
others are figuring out the track layout. I’m part of the latter bunch.
The Ameo Cup car is no toy. It’s a serious racing machine with a functional rear spoiler, racing slicks, and a track-spec suspension setup. And… it’s powered by a 205hp, 1.8-litre turbo-petrol that’s mated to a six-speed sequential gearbox. I can barely contort my way through the roll cage and I can’t say the racing seat is a match for the comfy chairs on the road-going Ameo either. Claustrophobia hits good and proper when the six-point harness is tightened. Thankfully, we are amidst the week-long winter in Chennai, so it’s more slow burn than blast furnace in the car.
Race champ and VW Motorsport’s driver coach Rayomand Banajee advises us to use the Friday practice to get comfy with the car and learn the track layout. But as soon as I’m past the green light at the pit-lane exit, I feel like an energetic dog let off its leash, and just go for it. The car sounds hardcore, is nicely grippy in the bends and has some seriously good brakes on call, too. My gut tells me I’m doing alright. I finish Practice 1 in P2, just a tenth off Carwale’s (and ex-Autocar India’s) Ameya Dandekar’s time. I start wondering if it’s too late to take up racing professionally…
I take more risks in Practice 2 and my cleanest laps net me a time half a second quicker than my Practice 1 best; but then it all starts going wrong. I’m penalised for missing the chequered flag that signals the end of the session (rookie mistake, I promise!), and coming in a lap too late. The penalty? I’m to miss the start of my qualifying session. Disaster! The only thing to do is to drive hard and try to make my way past whoever I can to get a proper hot lap in. I manage an overtake or two, but after trailing Top Gear’s Ashok George, impatience kicks in. I’m on the inside of C2, a slowish 90-degree right hander, and I think he’s gone wide – but mid-way through the manoeuvre, he turns in and there’s contact. His car spins on the grass and I know I’ve damaged my car’s steering. As I roll into the pit lane, I’m also informed I’ve been summoned by the stewards who are investigating my little adventure. I’m given the verbal equivalent of a rap on my knuckles and I’m let off with a warning. My best qualifying lap time is a full 4sec off my best in practice, putting me seventh on the grid. Abhik Das from Auto Today, Ameya and Anosh Khumbatta from Car India are the three fastest drivers of the day.
Sunday is the big day – it’s race day; and everyone’s eyes tell the same story – everyone is in it to win it. Warm-up lap done with, it’s showtime. The five lights go out… aaand I’ve botched up my start. I’m a moment too late with my launch and I’ve already lost a position before the first corner. This is becoming embarrassing. Then, one car runs wide and I move up the order. Another car goes off a lap later and another position opens up. By lap 3 of 8, I’ve found my groove and make a lunge down the inside of a rival and get by. That thrill of an overtake… it’s a major endorphin release. I’m running in fifth position, now and chasing Ameya, who’s desperate to fight his way up the order after losing two positions following a short-but-costly off-track excursion, early on. He’s making uncharacteristic mistakes, allowing me to chip away at his lead. Soon enough, we also catch up with Anosh who is running third. I’m a prime spectator to the dogfight ahead and the action just intensifies on the last lap. On the third from last corner, the pressure gets to Anosh, he slips up and gifts P3 and P4 to Ameya and me – but it isn’t over, yet. Ameya bungles up the very last corner of the race allowing me to give it a last go.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the room and finish just four-tenths behind him at the finish line. Abhik won the race by a massive margin from Ashok who had a quiet race to P2. I don’t have any silverware to show for the weekend but, still – what an experience! This simply has got to be something to do on every petrolhead’s bucket list.
The good thing is Volkswagen has made it possible for just about anyone to have a fair shot at making it to the programme. The grid for the 2018 season is already locked; but keep an ear and eye out for VW’s announcement for selections towards the end of the year. Who knows, you could just be India’s next racing star.
As for me, it’s back to a life of waiting.
The 2018 Ameo Cup commences in June, at the Kari Motor Speedway in Coimbatore.