“Just come over and do the program, don’t think about anything else for now”. Akbar Ebrahim’s words were still ringing in my ears. I was in flurry of excitement- finally getting to have a go in an open-wheel race car and see what I’ve really got. It was a welcome departure from arguing about my exploits lapping the Suzuka Circuit on Gran Turismo 5 while comparing times with similarly anorak friends of mine- if I may add.
A single-seater is THE purest form of driving experience one can get- regardless of the powertrain/chassis level. The experience just cannot be compared to anything including exotics. The feedback, the noise, the no-nonsense, unaided, pure-blooded steering and braking package- no PS or boosters to make things easy. You just have to take the thing by the scruff of its neck and show who the boss is, otherwise it will just spit you out into the scenery.
My ride for the two day program was a Formula Swift, and as the name suggests- it is powered by a 1.3-litre G-series Maruti Swift engine. The powertrain is mostly stock, barring a free-flow filter and exhaust system. So around 90 horses, give or take a few- since the engines have seen loads of race abuse along with track day duties. However, it’s not the power at play here, but the weight- lack of it, rather. The sub-500kg kerb weight hands the car a respectable power-to-weight ratio, and more importantly- short braking distances and high cornering speeds aided by track-spec grooved JK tyres.
First lesson of day revolved around getting used to a race car- things need to be done differently when compared to street driving. Starting with braking- undoubtedly the Holy Grail of racing. On the road, common sense dictates than you squeeze the brake pedal gently to begin with, getting progressively harder as the braking distance reduces. On the track, it needs to be the other way around, also partially due to the lack of a brake booster. One has to really hit the pedal hard upon arriving at the braking marker, and ease off subsequently depending on the corner. “Being gentle won’t work- you’ll be off sightseeing over the countryside before you know it!” said Akbar, driving his point home.
Next thing was the steering, which though unassisted is extremely responsive thanks to the direct linkage (no rack and pinion here). This means you don’t need more than half turn of lock to get around the track even through the tightest corners- since the aim is to take each corner as straight, with as less turning force, as possible. Here again, things are done differently than what normal street sense dictates. The start of the turn-in needs to be smooth and gentle, and turning force needs to be added progressively thereafter. This is referred to as rate of turn. The objective here is to ensure that the angle of the front wheels doesn’t change dramatically, as it will result in understeer and loss of speed. Smoothness is the key with steering work. On the street we tend to turn in early, partially because of the time required to wind and unwind the steering lock which ranges from 2.5 to 3 turns lock-to-lock for an average road car.
Thereafter we were strapped into the cars, for the first time and instructed a familarisation drill. We had to make our way out of the Kari Motor Speedway pits, take a U-turn at the pit exit, head down the straight and make another U-turn into the pit entry. This was intended to accustom ourselves with the gearbox (which is a regular H-pattern like the road-going Swift), while learning to synchronise the upshifts and downshifts with clutch release. While negotiating the tight U-turns, we were exposed to the turn-in rate of the car and forced to work on turn-in points to avoid entry-understeer while throttle work was required to avert exit-oversteer.
The next step was learning how to blip, or the toe-heel technique. I was somewhat familiar with the art, thanks to a couple of trackdays and an overdose of Japanese touge videos where drivers race flat out downhill, kamikaze-style. It essentially involves blipping the throttle to match revs to the lower gear, while braking at the same time. The pedal-box on my car wasn’t adjusted to my feet, so it was initially a bit difficult as the throttle tend to stick accidently even after I was off it, since the two pedals were too close for my feet size and my wide (compared to racing boots) Puma Driftcats weren’t helping either. I remember someone telling me they were racing shoes. Well, story for another day.
After getting a hang of blipping in a constricted area, it was time for high speed straight-line braking and getting the toe-heel right is a big contributor to the stability under high-speed braking. In competition, racers brake at under 80 meters while topping out well over 160 kph in the Formula Swift, downshift two gears before making the right-handed C1 at KMS. There is really no room for error here, as too much or too little braking force will lead to a time loss or an off-track excursion respectively. To start with, our brake marker was placed at a conservative 150 meters, which was moved forward each lap, ultimately ending at the 100 meter mark.
Approaching the marker for the first time, kept telling myself- concentrate, keep it pinned. Don’t lift-off yet, the cone is far, still far. Oh I should lift-off now, I’m not gonna make it. No, not yet. The cone goes past. NOW!
I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I had hammered the centre pedal as hard as I could dare, toe-n-heeled my way down the gearbox successfully, which was now stuck in second and proceeded to crawl through C1. I immediately understood what Akbar had meant when he spoke about brake force. The brake force was too much for the distance I was braking at. So I either reduce that, or the distance. The latter was really a no-brainer. The next time I came around, I saw the cone moved further up, but I was still relaxed, knowing well I had ample distance. During the course of the next couple of laps, the cone reached the 100 meter marker- and then the real seriousness of the situation kicked in. I had to do everything right at the 100 meter mark to make it through the corner- there was no breathing room anymore. Each time thereafter, a sigh of relief fogged my helmet’s visor as I made it past the apex of C1 in one piece with all four wheels on the tarmac.
All this while during the braking exercise, I was familiarizing myself with the track as well as we went around the entire circuit each time. I noticed that the F-Swift was always ready to do it sideways- something which isn’t normally associated with open-wheelers but rally cars. As I pitted the car at the end of the session, I stepped out and proceeded to notice its construction which led to its peculiar dynamics. The wheelbase for starters, is extremely short and the drivetrain is placed directly over the rear wheels, rather than in front of them- leading to a precariously rear-heavy weight distribution. A proper single-seater has the engine placed longitudinally in the middle of the driver and the rear axle, but since this car is built to a budget- the engine is linked to the wheels in the same way as a stock car. Imagine the whole engine/transmission assembly of the road-going Swift sitting backwards, and you’ll get the picture of how it is mounted on the F-Swift. Add the grooved non-slick tyres to the equation and you see why the car doesn’t have grip out of the corners despite its comparatively low power output. Some slicks should really help the handling cause- the Formula Rolon front slicks, for instance. JK, are you listening?
Now squeeze the throttle a little early and enthusiastically at corner exit and you are greeted with the rear-end breaking away. What next? Counter steer? Hell no! That’s for rally drivers, I told myself. The instinct, however, is too strong to ignore and a dab of opposite lock seemed to set things right. I confront Akbar with this issue and he confirmed that the dynamics of the car indeed require you to drive sideways if you intend to drive it fast. I was flabbergasted! Sideways in a Formula car? He though added, that oversteer can also be reined in with throttle work which is something more hard to apply since countersteering kicks in as a primary instinct. Modulating throttle when oversteer kicks in will reduce the time lost, although I found that it often resulted in snap-understeer if too much throttle was lifted off at a time. My day ended with a spin through the fast chicane, as I still had no clue about the turn-in points for corners. Not the best way to end the day- I was a little shaken but consciously tried to drive the incident out of my mind and ensure that I went into day two without any mental hiccups.
Day two saw me getting into a different car and it was like start of day one all over again. I had zero confidence to begin with, and promptly started braking at the 150 meter mark for C1. It took 5 to 6 laps to regain the previous day’s confidence level with the new car and subsequently was back to braking at 100 meters. Phew!
The fast chicane had really become my Achilles’ heel. Every time I approached it, somehow the image of me spinning off flashed repeatedly in my mind and I proceeded to literally crawl through it. I had tackled the same corner in the Polo Cup racer a couple of weeks ago, going in with just a lift-off and yet it never felt as challenging. I guess that’s what having your bottom a couple of inches off the ground does. The bumpiness of the corner was magnified in way that made the Polo experience seem like a comfortable joyride. Never before I had felt this terrified behind the wheel.
To make matters worse, my exit out of C2 had been continuously improving which meant I was arriving at the chicane with higher speeds each time around. I just had to dab the brake before turning in and the car felt completely bonkers through the transition. During the debrief, I inform Akbar, who has been keeping tabs on me through the session, about this problem and he in turn tells me not to brake. What? I would be off into the tyre wall sideways! He proceeded to tell me to lift-off earlier instead, and break the braking habit. Sounded convincing enough!
Getting back into the car, the lift-off technique was working well- I was able to carry more speed into the chicane and I slowly started to delay my liftoff point as well. Two laps later, wham- another spin. The car stayed on track though- partially maybe because I was too slow, but my confidence levels plummeted south- like mercury dropping in Leh in winters. What in the world was I doing wrong? I decided to go out for a lap with Sarosh Hataria in his car and he proceeded to tell me the way he tackles the track. I was most curious about the chicane and upon arriving there, as he showed me the turn-in point- I instantly knew where I was off. I was lining up the car way later than it was supposed to be done and resultantly the transition was too rapid and unstable, which was unsettling the car- like I found out during my two excursions. I asked him about lifting off, and he was like- what? Lift-off? No man, this flat in third- even in the wet!
I felt my stomach sinking. Flat in third? It was somehow impossible to imagine, keeping the way my car was behaving in mind. But then, I was giving it too little time to turn-in, compared to what Sarosh showed me. So it was indeed an elementary mistake- an early turn-in works for a very few types of corners- and this was one of them. In order to straight line the chicane- an early turn-in is desirable. Damn! Why didn’t I think of this before?
I wanted to go out and put in a couple of laps putting my new found knowledge to test, but sadly rain-gods played spoilsport and we had to wrap up for the day. However, Akbar seemed content with my improvements and generously asked me to come back and drive in the F-Swift class for the JK NRC season. So I’ll be on the grid from round three, scheduled in Coimbatore and hopefully improve myself even more before the season is out- that’s my only challenge. Akbar said, “If you can get within one second of a racing driver’s time in the same car- it would be very impressive for someone coming from a non-racing background”.
I just can’t wait to see how well I can compete- with my own self!
Meco Motorsport offers beginners’ as well as advanced level of racing programs - a worthy investment even if you’re not planning to race professionally but want to learn basic car control and evolve into a well-rounded driver. You can reach Akbar Ebrahim at +919841040600 to check when the next edition of the program is scheduled.