We get to drive Volkswagen Motorsport India’s latest racer, as well as see it get put together.
Bear with the brief history lesson about Volkswagen Motorsport India’s (VWMI) single-make touring car series so far. It just serves to show how far we have come from the days of the Polo Cup car to the latest Ameo Cup racing car. I use the word ‘racing’ for the latter because a big step has been taken in that direction with this machine. I have seen and experienced enough of the latest offering to make that distinction after having driven three out of five of VW’s five one-make cars that have raced here since 2010.
It was also an added bonus to be allowed to visit Volkswagen India’s plant in Chakan, Maharashtra – where the cars are built in the company’s motorsport division – and see how the Ameo Cup car is put together.
A season budget is Rs.8.5 lakh for the Junior drivers aged 16 to 26 with zero to eight races worth of experience, Pro (16-26 with eight races over the last 5 years) and Master (26 and over, race experience not mattering). And Rs.14.5 lakh for foreign drivers. On top of this a damage deposit of Rs.2 lakh needs to be deposited to VWMI before each race weekend.
That is a steep price to pay in order to race what is the most advanced touring car in India. So I feel as much info as possible about the racing program should help you decide if signing on the dotted line is worth it.
How we got here
The Polo Cup in 2010 was touted going beyond just using motorsport to market road going cars. With the participation of Ashwin Sundar and later – far more successfully too – of Aditya Patel first in the Polo Cup and then the Scirocco R Cup, India’s Polo Cup was used to send the title winning driver to compete in Europe in the Scirocco R Cup. Provided, of course, that part of the budget requirement could be met by said driver as VW wanted competitors in India to get used to the process of finding sponsorship.
Soon, however, it was found that Patel was an exception on account of his extensive experience of racing in single seat racing, which included the Formula BMW Asia series. For drivers who didn’t venture beyond India, going from a car that was in essence a stripped-down Polo with race seats and steering wheel, didn’t do enough to prepare them for the Scirocco R Cup car or for how well prepared their competitors were.
Not to mention the process of finding sponsorship proved challenging for drivers here, even with VW partnering with JK Tyre, giving them access to the company’s extensive media reach and promotional know-how.
The 2010 Polo Cup champion, Sailesh Bolisetti, clearly struggled but VW persisted with a slight upgrade as the Polo Cup became the Polo R Cup for 2011. The talented Vishnu Prasad won the title but was unable to take part in the 2012 Scirocco R Cup due to a lack of sponsorship on his part, sending Oshan Kothadiya – the 2011 runner-up - to try his luck instead. An upgrade was planned to reduce the gap between what was available to race in India and the Scirocco R Cup.
The Polo Cup turned into the Polo R Cup, the main hook of the series was the increased speed due to different parts across VW’s product range being put into the car. A DSG gearbox and a 1.4-litre, 4-cylinder TSI engine producing 180bhp (an increase of 50bhp) led to a marked increase in speed. That led to the fitting of a rear spoiler for some rear-end stability.
However, the fortunes never changed for the drivers graduating and trying their luck at racing in the Scirocco R Cup, which folded after the 2014 season. This meant that the Indian series was more of a marketing exercise for Volkswagen, who continued the formula with a different car in 2015 as the Vento Cup was born. A bigger car meant more weight for the drivers to manage under braking but the longer wheelbase and rear overhang meant more stability in the corners. However, there was always the nagging feeling that the car was being held back from its true potential due to the racing slicks provided by JK Tyre.
That changed last year when VW switched to a tyre supply deal with MRF and the extra grip provided by its slick tyres meant a drop in lap times of up to 3.5 seconds. And that was just at Coimbatore’s Kari Motor Speedway (KMS).
It was the same track where I had previously tested the 2015 Vento Cup car so showing up to try out the Ameo Cup car – said to be another 3 seconds faster than the MRF-shod Vento that I never got to drive – would allow me to experience a fairly big shift in what VW has to offer.
Sum of its parts
I had been looking forward to it ever since I had visited the Chakan plant where VW India’s manager for communication, Adhish Alawani, guided me through the building process.
The first thing that struck me, just by looking at the body shell - that came off the assembly line and delivered to what looked like a small aircraft hangar – was how compact it was. This car would definitely be more responsive to lateral movement. Which means a more ‘pointy’ car that would rotate faster on its axis when needed to by the driver in tighter corners. The wheelbase is eight centimeters less than the Vento and there almost no rear overhang – the car was built to avail of the sub-four meter tax break.
While the shell – complete with roll-cage - was strengthened with extra welding points beyond VWs standard for road cars in order to provide further safety, the engine was being prepared to be fitted into the shell once it was primed and painted. In order to save time, processes are done parallel to each other in four different parts of the shop floor.
One part has the priming and painting chamber, another where the basic panels are fitted on to the shell, another where the shell is fitted out with the wiring, sub-assembly, brakes and suspension and the final one where the engine prepared.
It is a process that leads to the car being put together in less than a day after all the required parts come into the factory.
Seeing this process made me appreciate the effort made by Volkswagen in having a motorsport department of its own and training its employees to the proficiency level to put together and maintain a car as sophisticated as this. Not to mention an appreciation of the effort of the technical team itself, as the car was tested.
From the point of the test mule first turning a wheel to the final design being agreed upon, VW Motorsport India decided to beyond just a few tweaks to a road-going Ameo.
Gone is the DSG gearbox used since 2012, and in its place is a 6-speed sequential gearbox built specifically for motorsport by 3MO. An electro-magnetic actuator connected to paddles means lightning quick gear changes as compared to the road car based DSG box. But because the Ameo Cup car will still be used in anger by those looking to get a start in racing, the gearbox has fail-safes to stop a driver from shifting down too many gears, which would cause a gearbox failure.
All that mileage in testing – around 7,000km – has led to the engine and gearbox being mapped, i.e. set to perform within a set of values based on how the car is driven to give optimum performance. You see, the car is still not at its absolute limit in terms of performance and gear ratios and engine revs will be preset before the start of the season to be used no matter which circuit the series goes to.
The 1,798cc, turbocharged in-line 4-cylinder engine from the GTI is tuned to produce 202bhp (a 22bhp increase from the Vento Cup car) at 6,100rpm and 320Nm of torque (50 more than in the GTI) available from 3,200 to 4,600rpm. The torque figures are worth noting here as it plays into my experience of driving the car and trying to extract as much performance from it as possible.
At a weight of just 1,150kg, this much performance would feel like a lot of fun even if the car had been electronically set to allow a novice driver to learn how to drive it fast.
MRF 200/605-R17 tyres on 7.5J x 17 inch rims were the other aspect worth looking forward to. Having heard from those who drove both the JK Tyre and MRF shod Vento, I could look forward to the kind of grip under braking that gives one confidence to push and brake later than they dare.
Speaking of brakes, 334mm ventilated discs with uprated calipers at the front and 232mm discs with uprated calipers at the rear, paired to such a compact car would also open my eyes to a new realm of performance. As would the Sachs racing clutch mated to the racing gearbox and the limited slip differential.
Finally after having pored over the spec sheets and having spent a day seeing the car put together I was ready to get behind the wheel and give it a go.
However, I wouldn’t have all of the 15-turn, 2.1km circuit to play with as the disease of a deteriorating track surface right after resurfacing reared its ugly head. I had last seen it affect a round of the MMSC MRF National Racing Championship last year at the Madras Motor Race Track near Sriperumbudur. At the KMS, it left the last two corners looking like a rallycross surface, sure to put anyone who tried to drive a slick-shod racing car on it into the barrier.
Former multiple national karting and racing champion Rayomand Banajee gave us the lowdown during the driver’s briefing, suggesting us to take things easy to start with. Following a walk-around of the car with the Ameo Cup car project’s technical head Ranjit Penmesta, I took Rayo’s advice to take it easy a bit too literally!
On the karting loop of the circuit that was available to us – lead test driver Karthik Tharani Singh lapping it in around 44 seconds – I took every corner at least one gear higher than they should have been.
I could feel right away how aggressive the shift of the gearbox was and the transmission whine along with the fast revving engine. The torque seemed more than adequate even in third gear going into the first corner that followed a straight that dropped downhill towards the braking point.
Pretty soon all I was doing was letting cars past me as the best time I could manage in the first driving session of the day was 54.9 seconds.
Both Rayo and the lead engineer looked at me mystified as to why I was going so slow and inquired why I was dragging my feet so much. My debrief – if one could call it that – was treated with amusement by Rayo but also understanding. The telemetry showed I was some two thousand revs short of the engine’s top end speed because of misreading the new display system.
The final step in seeing what the car was really capable of was going for a taxi ride with one of India’s most accomplished circuit racing drivers – Karthik Tharani Singh – who was also the lead test driver for the Ameo Cup car.
Seeing how much he could rev the engine, how late he could brake and how early he could come on the throttle prepared me for the second driving session. After dropping the clutch - it is needed to get the car moving from standstill – and heading out I dropped a gear lower in the corners where Rayo had instructed me to while still taking it easy on the throttle.
Until I rounded the final right-hand hairpin before coming to the start-finish straight. I stopped worrying about any other car on track and just put my foot down, watching for the lights to tell me when to shift as the revs rose till the redline of 6,250rpm. Braking hard around 15 meters before the 50-meter board and dropping from fifth to second I felt like I was finally using the car as it should be and it rewarded me with extremely predictable and steady braking as the car scrubbed off speed while I slowly came off the brakes until just after the apex. Gradually getting on to the power the car squirted to the next turn as the speeds rose but the grip from the tyres gave me the confidence to keep pushing.
Within just five laps I had managed a time of 47.4 seconds. A full 7.5 seconds faster than my previous best effort. And the car would give me more too if I pushed more and cleaned up my steering and throttle inputs. Now imagine getting to do this for four race weekends over 12 races. The asking price is steep and there is no clear path to racing beyond it, but with the upgrades, you can experience a fair bit of what is available outside of India right here. Worth a shot if you can afford it, I guess.