VW Motorsport has been kind enough to indulge us on more than one occasion in the past. Well, they did so again. And we returned the favour by swiping some silverware – again!
The best weekends are racing weekends! No, not when there’s F1 or MotoGP on the telly, but when you actually get the chance to dust off that racing suit and don a helmet yourself. Fortunately, I had just such a weekend in the first week of October.
Over the years, we’ve tried to make it a bit of a tradition here at AutoX to weasel our way into a proper race of some kind to coincide with our anniversary issue. In the past, I’ve had the pleasure of racing in the Polo Cup and the Vento Cup, as well as the MRF Formula 1600 series. And, if I’m honest, there’s nothing quite like strapping yourself into a race car and dicing for position with other like-minded lunatics on a racetrack. It’s totally primal, and it pushes your boundaries every time. In fact, nothing improves driving skill faster and more effectively than racing. So, perhaps it should become a regular part of the driver’s test. On second thought, perhaps not.
On another note, there’s been a bit of a debate in India over the years about whether or not racing is actually a sport. Naturally, as a fan of the ‘sport’ for decades, I obviously think it is. But, even if I take a step back and attempt to look at it objectively, a couple of things stand out. Firstly, as a competitor, you need a certain amount of God-given talent if you’re going to succeed in the ‘sport.’ You need absolute, single-minded dedication, and you also need the time, money and resources to be able to hone your craft. Plus, you need to be very fit to have any shot at succeeding at the top level. All of which makes it sound a lot like a traditional sport. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the word ‘Sport’ actually appears right after ‘Motor.’ But let’s not dwell on this any further, let’s get back to our sojourn in the fast lane.
A proper race car
With the inception of the Polo Cup eight years ago, VW brought in a level of professionalism that didn’t previously exist in Indian motorsport. The cars are beautifully built, immaculately finished and provide the perfect platform for budding racers. I can attest to this, having raced both the Polo Cup and the Vento Cup race cars in the past. But this Ameo was a different animal. While the Polo and Vento both felt like they were derived from the road car – with only some minor modifications – the Ameo feels like a proper race car. Firstly, it gets the awesome 1.8-litre TSI motor from the Polo GTI. And, in this application, produces even more power – just in excess of 200 horses. The motor now comes mated to a sequential six-speed racing gearbox, which is controlled via paddles behind a small and very racy three-spoke OMP steering wheel. You sit – strapped into the racing bucket courtesy of a six-point harness – facing a small digital screen that gives you all information you can imagine, right from boost levels to oil pressure. A rather conspicuous red button sits in the middle of the dashboard that activates the on-board fire extinguisher system. Hopefully, I won’t need to find out how it works.
This is the final race weekend of the season, and the VW Motorsport team has made the trek from their home base in Pune to the BIC in Greater Noida. Under the circumstances, I don’t want to get in the way of the championship, but I do want to be competitive and in the thick of the action. My namesake, 20-year-old Dhruv Mohite, was leading the championship going into the weekend – he clinched it easily in the end. He has his own karting track in Kolhapur, and has a decade-plus of racing experience.
The weekend consisted of a few sessions of unofficial practise on Thursday and Friday – since most of the competitors hadn’t raced at the BIC before – qualifying on Saturday and two races on Sunday.
As I headed out for the first session, I realised that it had been almost a year since I’d been out on track at the BIC. Fortunately, I took to it like a fish to water. It took a session or two, though, to get used to the tyres, brakes, gearbox and figure out the right braking points. The key with these front wheel drive cars is to get the front end to bite – which is to say eliminate understeer, allowing you to power out of corners. Of course, the limited slip differential goes a long way in aiding this process. The driver has the option of adjusting the front anti-roll bar, as well as setting his or her own tyre pressures – and you’ll be amazed at what small tweaks such as these make to the handling of the car over the course of one lap, not to mention a full race distance.
I was forced to miss a couple of practise sessions because, well, I do have a day job in addition to playing racer for the weekend. Nevertheless, I felt pretty confident going into qualifying. The key would be to find a clear lap right in the beginning, while the tyres are at their best. But I didn’t quite maximise my first couple of laps. In fact, it was my last lap of the 15-minute session that was my fastest – and it put me third on the gird for the first 8-lap race. Not ideal, but not terrible either.
Race to the top step
For me, the start of a race is the most exciting. No, make that nerve wracking. The exciting bit comes once the lights actually turn green – after which you’re operating purely on instinct. Before that, the nerves are in overdrive. Fortunately, I managed to activate launch control properly and got a decent start – keeping me in third on the back straight. Dhruv, who started from second, got the jump on Pratik Sonawane – who had qualified on pole. As we went through the chicane at turns 5 and 6, Pratik made an optimistic lunge down the inside of Dhruv and the two touched – giving me the chance to dive down the inside and into the lead.
I managed to build a pretty decent lead over the course of the next lap-and-a-half – after which the Safety Car came out because one of the competitors had barrel rolled three times at the last corner. Because of the severity of the accident, the race was red flagged – which meant that we had to line up on the grid once again. Fortunately, the driver – Arefeen Raafi Ahmed from Bangladesh – was okay. Once his car was cleared, the race restarted. I got a clean start and managed to stay in the lead. But, the safety car came out again after another lap – this time because someone had beached it in the gravel trap on the exit of turn three.
By the time the safety car lights went out – indicating that it would be heading into the pits, and racing could resume – it was already the last lap. So, it was just a question of timing the restart so that no one could get the jump on me to the finish line. And there it was, my first victory! I’ve had the pleasure of being on the podium a couple of times in the past, but never on the top step. Every time I come in second or third, my kids chide me about missing out on the top spot. Well, not this time – even if I didn’t really feel like I had earned it.
For the second race, I would be starting in eighth place – since the top-eight positions of the finishing order of race one were reversed for race two, in an effort to liven up the racing. Well, that is certainly did! My aim was to stay out to trouble, and make up as many places as I could. I was getting greedy for another podium position. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans…
I managed another good start, and made my way up to sixth place by the end of the first lap. While I was planning my next move, the safety car came out again – the result of a pretty massive shunt at the first corner. I could feel myself getting restless, as we were losing time behind the safety car. In the melee that followed the end of the safety car period, I got shunted from behind and lost a place. Fortunately, I managed to take back the position at the next corner, so I could focus on the race ahead of me. At the parabolica, 25-year-old Siddharth Mehdiratta took a defensive line into the corner ahead of me. I got a better exit, smelled blood and put my car alongside his at the exit. He didn’t give me any room, so I had to use the runoff on the outside of the corner. Now, what I should have done is backed off and cut across to the other side of the track.
What I did instead was attempt to squeeze my way back onto the track without backing off – thinking that he would give me enough room since we were still alongside. He didn’t, and we touched. I had forced the issue, and was left to limp back to the pitlane with a puncture, while Siddharth had to retire. I did apologize for my part in the incident after the stewards insisted on showing us the video footage, but – what can I say – sometimes the red mist of racing clouds your judgement and the adrenaline gets the better of you.
Within the span of just a couple of hours, I had experienced the highs and lows of racing – it’s a true rollercoaster after all, on and off track. I was happy for the win of course, but more than that was I was disappointed in myself for allowing an incident to spoil my race – not to mention that of a championship contender. After all, I’ve always prided myself on being able to race hard, but clean.
The grey hair on my beard had allowed me to walk away with a trophy against much younger competition in race one, but it couldn’t prevent me from incident in race two. Still more to learn I suppose… I hope this doesn’t mean that my annual invite from VW Motorsport stands cancelled? At any rate, thanks for running a truly professional series – and thanks for letting me compete against your budding racers and feel young again.
Ranjit Varma, VW Motorsport’s chief engineer, looking over my shoulder – as he does through the race weekend to ensure that my car is always set up perfectly, not to mention ensuring that all other 20 cars are up to speed as well.
That’s me looking delighted that Sirish Vissa, Head of VW Motorsport, has been kind enough to put my name on the side of one of his cars for the weekend.
Dhruv Mohite being crowned 2018 VW Ameo Cup champion