The skill required to steer a fast moving racing car just enough so that it takes the corner at just that right point looks so easy on TV. It takes about a minute in the real deal to figure that TV lies.
Despite two decades of driving experience and loads of bragging rights of nailing far bigger cars on the curves of the high Himalaya, your correspondent was all in knots trying to come to grip with the sinuous 2.2km race track at Coimbatore.The folks at Volkswagen are going their usual way of promoting their brand in markets that they get excited about — by racing. The Polo Cup is run in Superman versions of the Clark Kent street model. The company offered assorted press fellas a chance to race their cars sans any liability. The opportunity to wreck a racing car and walk away without any damages to one’s wallet is a carrot difficult to resist. I decided to go chomping.
I quickly realised that racing drivers like Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok — polite good mama’s-boy types from South India — are actually sadistic freaks. The four-point seatbelt in the racing car allows for little room to wiggle. Ensconced in a fire-proof dungaree, a helmet on top of a balaclava and racing gloves, sweat is a natural response. As is reaching out for the ac switch. Ooopsey! They throw out all such creature comforts to make the cars leaner. If you also don’t like being tied up and baked, you’ll be tempted to believe that Narain and Karun must love such abuse for them to be making a career out of it. Oh, and the windows better be kept most of the way up for better aerodynamics.
Once one has come to terms with the claustrophobic seating — even the headrest curves around on the sides to restrain movement — things begin to get trickier. The car responds with incredible alacrity to each caress of the steering and tap of the brake. However, both of these in tandem prove to be a dance impossible for a rookie to groove to. Plenty of skid marks and one heady spin later, there is firm realisation that those inches and microseconds count for a great deal out on track. Till now it had been just a fact — read enough but realized far too little.
Get onto the brakes a few yards late and you will miss the correct entry point for a corner, taper off the gas and the revs aren’t there to power out hard enough. Each of the one minute 22 seconds spent negotiating the track were on the edge of the seat; one’s hardly managed one before the next hassle rushes up. Since I was about four seconds off the pace it’s all the hastier for actual drivers.
Hey, get moving!
Having qualified at the back of the grid, the strategy was pretty simple — ram everybody in the first corner and try and get ahead in the ensuing milieu. The brainchild of India’s racing pioneer and matured over suitable amounts of whiskey, it sounded like the perfect plan. The only hitch was in the execution.
Dazzled by the glare of East European pit skin and the onerous back and forth to get the perfect position on the grid slot, yours truly missed the start lights. But true to strategy one still went full-out into the first corner. As the ABS came on to aid steering the merrily locked wheels, it was a rude shock that the bumper to bumper jostle of the race track was just so grating. When the first of two guys I had managed to get ahead of banged into me from behind and then rammed me on the side to careen ahead, he also ran down any chance of my staying with the pack. The next target was to avoid being lapped and try and play catch up.
What an idea!
The JK Tyre Indian Racing Championship is in its 14th edition this year. Till last year when the VW Polo Cup was launched, it was not possible to say that all drivers compete on a common platform. Teams tweaked within the parameter of the rules — and some way beyond regulations — to give their drivers an extra edge.
The Polo Cup, however, allows for driver skill to come to the fore. All the cars are made and maintained by the factory. At five lakh a seat (with two lakh extra for accidental damage), the series offers India’s safest entry-level driving option. Driver clinics, emphasis on fitness and media relations along with a seat in the Sirocco Cup in Germany for the winner makes this event all the more interesting.
In the span of just two seasons, VW has quietly managed to wrest the pioneer advantage that Maruti had in Indian motorsports. While the market leader has displayed remarkable disdain at building on its relationship with the sport by putting in factory backed cars, VW’s efforts have excited interest in Toyota and Audi. Representatives of both companies have visited the Coimbatore race track and Indian drivers may well have the opportunity to choose between three manufacturer backed racing series in the near future.
The era of clap-trap single seaters powered by Maruti engines seems to be coming to a deserving end.
The writer's trip was sponsored by VW