Saturday 16th July, it’s 8:50pm in China, which is the scheduled departure time for my Air China flight from Beijing to Delhi. I think to myself, ‘I need this flight to be on time,’ as I look out of the window and ignore flashes of lightning in the sky. As if on cue, the Captain comes on the PA system and informs us that Air Traffic Control has cancelled all departures for at least the next hour-and-a-half on account of a sudden thunderstorm. Great!
You see, I have to be in Coimbatore by 1pm the next afternoon for a media race in the Volkswagen Polo R Cup. And to achieve that, I’m scheduled to take an Air India flight at 7am, only a few hours after I land, which goes via Mumbai and touches down in Coimbatore by 11am. Well, that’s the plan anyway! The weather in Beijing means that we land in Delhi at 3am. The weather in Mumbai means that the onward flight to Coimbatore is also late. We finally touch down at Coimbatore airport just past noon on Sunday.
The only way now to make it in time for the race is to convince the taxi driver that his Indica is a fitting prelude to the Polo Cup car. Thankfully, he obliges, and shows me just what he and his chariot can do. Needless to say, it’s the first time I’ve seen north of 120km/h on the speedo of a taxi Tata Indica – thanks to which we make it to the Kari Motor Speedway in record time. We reach the track exactly at 1pm, as I frantically search for the Cup car that’s been awaiting my arrival all weekend. You see, my colleagues from the media have been in Coimbatore since Friday – for practice and qualifying. All of which I’ve missed of course.
As I suit up and sign the requisite forms – handing over my life and wellbeing to the capable hands of the Volkswagen crew – I see VW Sirocco Cup driver, Aditya Patel, drive into the pits in my car. He’s been out on track, scaring the living daylights out of unsuspecting spectators by giving them rides around the track in the passenger seat. But, ominously, he’s shaking his head to a mechanic – now that can’t be a good sign! Whatever the problem is, it obviously can’t be solved in the few minutes we have left to line up for the race – so the hunt is on for a replacement car.
A near identical Polo R Cup car arrives, and barely comes to a stop before the super efficient mechanics jack it up and begin replacing the wheels. I attempt, and fail, to mount a video camera on the roll cage to catch a glimpse, in HD, of the ensuing chaos. I’m instructed to get in the driver’s seat, and get it adjusted properly before heading out on track. The overnight flight, current time zone, and multiple uncomfortable hours spent on several aircrafts is all catching up with me as I do my best to keep pace with the action around me.
Of course, having missed qualifying, I line up 10th and last. On pole is Bertrand D’Souza from Overdrive, in second is Saptarshi Shukla from Autocar. And lining up behind them are Siddhraj Singh from Auto India, Rohin Nagrani from BS Motoring, Adhish Alawani from Car, Debabrata Sarkar from Top Gear, Pushan Das from Auto Bild, Priyadarshan Bawikar from ZigWheels, and Sukhwant Basra from the Hindustan Times.
Now, normally, regardless of the circumstance, I’m most relaxed when in the driver’s seat of a car – some people meditate, some do yoga, I go for a drive when I need to relax. But, this time, sitting at the end of the field I was feeling eerily uneasy, as I got a sense of the daunting task that lay ahead of me – which is to say, only eight laps in which to get accustomed to the conditions, learn the track, and make up positions.
I try and calm myself as we set off for an installation lap before the start of the race. Being at the back of the grid means that as soon as I line up once again, the lights are off and the race is on. The car in front of me gets off to a slow start so I have to drive around him to get past – with merely inches between the pit wall on one side and another Polo Cup car on the other. I manage to make up four positions before the first corner, where I have to pull out of an attempted move down the inside of two other competitors. The rest of the lap is without incident as I try and plan my next move. The final sequence of corners is named the Micky Mouse complex for its confusingly flowing corners that snake right and then left. No matter how much I try over the course of these eight laps, I just can’t seem to find the right line through this complex. Nevertheless, I manage to use the aerodynamic tow of the car in front to get a run down to the first corner once again, which is a sweeping right hander, where I make a lunge down the inside under braking and make up another place.
Over the course of the lap, I attempt to catch the (now) four cars in front, but I’m struggling for pace. The minute I change from second to third, the engine seems to momentarily fall asleep. Plus, the on-board display isn’t working so I can’t see the redline – or my lap times for reference. Moreover, finding the ideal braking points is proving difficult because of the unpredictable brakes. It’s either all of the above, or the fact that the Red Bull I had before the start isn’t doing its job. I finally get behind the duelling foursome at the front, when Rishi from Autocar, who’s been hounding Bert from Overdrive all race, overcooks it into C1 and spins right in the middle of the track. Rohin from BS, who’s right behind him, takes avoiding action and almost goes off track. Adhish from Car drives around the back of Rishi, who’s facing the wrong way, while I do my best to avoid going into the stationary Polo head on while diving down the inside.
It works, and suddenly I find myself in second place. Adhish is all over the back of my car, but now it’s time to ignore him and go after Bert. But it’s not to be! I’m locking up at every corner, missing the apex, and defending from the VW that’s looming large in my mirrors. The only place on the track that I can really create some distance from the car behind is through a fast sweeping third gear chicane that requires you to carry speed through the corner. But Adhish always catches me in the braking zone for the next chicane. And that’s how it stays as we do another couple of laps before the chequered flag drops on a very short, but eventful, race.
I have to say that I was very impressed with the raciness and driving ability of all the guys. Moreover, it was a great idea to host a media race, and full credit goes to Volkswagen for providing almost a dozen cars specifically for this purpose. They’ve taken saloon car racing in the country to a whole new level, and it provides an amazing opportunity for young, up and coming Indian racers. Thanks Volkswagen – and could we do it again during the next race weekend? PLEASE!