The Ed returns to rallying after four years. Terrifies the daylights out of our hapless motorsport ed
Conquering fear piloting a VW Polo R2 rally car at the Popular Rally
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU FELT FEAR? Raw fear that chews you from deep within the pit of your stomach. The kind that wakes you in the middle of the night in cold sweats, a tremble in the hand, a quiver in the voice. The kind that gives you the runs.
It’s the third time I’m on the pot. It’s 5 in the morning, our motorsport editor Aniruddha is banging on the door, and I’m praying the rally will get cancelled. I can’t remember the last time I was this nervous; this scared. But I am not man enough to admit to Anu that fear has gripped my bowels.
Aniruddha is not your typical co-driver. He enjoys driving as much as I do, starting in the INRC with an Esteem, winning the 1600 championship in the Baleno before we got together to form Team Slideways Industries (don’t ask about the name) and debut the Polo in Indian rallying. We both took a step back from active rallying four years ago, though Anu continues to manage Slideways’ arrive-and-drive programs and the rally schools with Gaurav Gill. On a whim he navigated for me on the Desert Storm two years ago but the speeds of the Gypsy are a tenth of what they are in the INRC. And when I couldn’t find a co-driver after accepting Volkswagen Motorsports’ invite to drive their R2 Polo at the Popular Rally, at the very last minute he agreed to kick off his driving shoes. Big mistake, as we’d come to realise.
Anu trusts my driving. Trusts me not to break his bones. But… I don’t trust myself. A week prior to the Popular rally, I tested the R2 Polo and my brain struggled to keep pace with the car. I heroically managed to both brake too early and yet nearly understeer into the paddy fields. And worse, in the years I’ve been away, the driving standard of the INRC has improved massively — my old friend Bikku Babu (who started rallying before I started writing on cars, and still continues!) was quicker and 200 per cent more committed in his Group N Polo.
Maybe that’s what I’m really afraid of. Not wrapping ourselves round a tree but dragging our reputation through the mud. Of not just getting whupped by the all-conquering Mahindras in the INRC 1 category I’m entered in but getting pasted by the cars in the INRC 2 and 3 categories. Maybe I am too old for this. “Get out!” screams Anu.
Time to wash up and get going.
So what does the R2 Polo have that my Group N car did not? To start with this is a high-po motorsportspec engine that bumps power up to 160bhp (from just under 100). Running the Motec ECU, the global
I AM NOT MAN ENOUGH TO ADMIT THAT FEAR HAS GRIPPED MY BOWELS
standard for motorsport engine management systems, the motor also has race cams that give it an angry, hectic, impatient idle; straining on its leash, waiting to get a move on. My namesake Sirish Vissa, the boss of VW Motorsport in India and his team have worked on this motor from its initial spec to get more low down torque but you still have to scream the engine, take it to its redline everywhere, to get the most out of it. At 3-4000rpm there’s nothing really. You have to work it hard; really, really hard. Oh, and it is loud. So loud I can’t hear myself think.
The gearbox though, to me that is what’s so dramatically different between the R2 and Group N Polos. The sequential box is kind of like your motorcycle gearbox — gears arranged sequentially so you only need the clutch to shift into first and launch; rest of the time, be it up or down the ’box, you don’t use the clutch at all. That’s why it’s also called a crash box, the gears crash into each other, quite violently I must add, and doing all this at the redline — 7800rpm with this engine — requires leaving every last bit of mechanical sympathy at home. That the gearbox can take such a pounding is just incredible, that’s why they’re incredibly expensive too — in the region of `8 lakh. The shifts are super quick. It’s also incredibly painful to drive at low speeds, jerking violently, the clutch having barely any travel and the noise from the straight cut teeth overpowering even that of the engine. Gives you a splitting headache, and I can tell you for days after the rally the drone and buzz of the gearbox kept ringing in my head.
The Sadev gearbox is similar to the one on the Ameo Cup cars except there’s an electronic actuator that does the actual work of shifting the gears, the driver only has to tap the paddles behind the steering wheel. It makes shifting easier and also prevents the driver from destroying the gearbox by shifting like a lunatic. Rally drivers are supposed to be better though. On the R2 Polo there’s a big lever up high, right next to the hand brake lever — pull to go up, push to do down — just like Colin McRae in those innumerable videos of his WRC Focus. I must mention, it is a firm pull and a really hard push, so much so that by the end of the rally my palms were throbbing (the right from gripping the steering with all my might).
To make it stop as quickly as it goes, there are upgraded brakes on the front while the rear drums have been swapped out for discs. And finally there’s the suspension, the R2 also running Reigers but with more travel permitted by the revised geometry.
In theory this should make it better over the bumps but Sirish Vissa reminds me that this is a customer sport program, not a full VW works team. My car is running gravel spec dampers, not stiffer tarmac dampers, and we don’t have an anti-roll bar which is why you will see massive body roll that you rarely ever see on a rally car.
The bloody driving shoes
Dawn is just breaking as we get to Parc Ferme, I have a coffee from Mahindra’s generous hospitality, and again get the runs. But it all disappears as the technical delegate stops Anu from entering Parc Ferme. Because he isn’t driving, Anu isn’t wearing his FIA-spec shoes, except in the years we have been away FIA-spec shoes have become mandatory for co-drivers also. It’s our fault really, we should have read up on the rules, especially when it comes to safety equipment. Now usually we are let off with a warning but this time the technical delegate refuses to budge. Time ticks away. Our start time comes and goes. Our car is sitting there, idling angrily, awaiting its co-driver. We beg. We plead. We make calls. It’s like my prayers have been answered, I don’t have to start the rally, but I can’t after all the prep, after all the really hard work the VW Motorsport boys have put into prepping our car and getting us to the start line, something like FIA shoes is going to end our rally before it even starts. It beggars disbelief. This cannot be happening to us!
Meanwhile a ruckus is beginning as more codrivers wearing sport shoes are stopped from getting to their cars. When officials realise 8-10 cars won’t start the rally they relent. We check out 20 minutes late. Anu asks me why we’re driving, 20 minutes late means the penalties will put us behind even the Gypsys. But we’ve come too far to go home with our tail between our legs. All the fears, all the worries, they’re now gone. 10-9-8, countdown to the start of the stage, my hands aren’t even trembling. What have we to lose?
A race track in the forest
Race tracks have run offs. Make a mistake and you have gravel traps and tyre barriers. In a rally there are trees, cliffs and drops. A gravel rally at least has some room for error, you can throw it sideways to scrub off some speed, and in any case it is slower. A tarmac rally is fast and unforgiving. Always in the hills, means one mistake and you’re down in the
RACE TRACKS HAVE RUN OFFS. IN A RALLY THERE ARE TREES AND CLIFFS. ONE MISTAKE AND YOU’RE DOWN IN THE VALLEY
valley. To get the best handling out of the car it’s set up as low and as stiff as it can go, and that means you have to be super, super committed over all the bumps of the road — attack it head on, hold on tight, keep it pinned even when it goes crazy airborne.
How do you set quick times on a rally? By making good notes during the recce (where we drive the roads before the event in road cars and legal speeds and mark out the angle, severity, nature and nuance of every single corner) and then listening to (and trusting) your co-driver when he calls the corner. This while all your grey cells are trying to focus on driving as fast as possible, catching the tail that’s taking off over the bumps, and not crashing. It’s the single most difficult thing for a rally driver — driving to the notes, setting up the car for the corner before you’ve even seen it. It’s why Kimi Raikkonen could only do flash-in-the-pan times when he tried his hand at rallying.
I’m looking and driving, visually confirming the degree and nature of the corner before attacking, a sin in rallying. My foot is getting off the gas before every corner, confidence lifts as we call it. I’m not committing to the corner before I can see it. I don’t have the confidence — both in Anu and in myself.
I can imagine this being mildly terrifying for Anu too. Later on he admits he never though the R2 would be as quick and he struggles to keep up, frequently getting lost on the notes. It’s not easy. We both have a new found respect for co-drivers and what they do. The corners come so quickly the co-driver doesn’t have the time to look up and see where he is, he has to feel the turns through his backside and give the next call, all the time mindful that there’s no room for error. One wrong call and you’re going down.
Special Stage 8
While not pussy-footing, I don’t think I’m doing justice to the potential of the car. Two stages done and there’s a re-group before the third stage because a school bus has to be let through. We have time to check our rival’s time. Hot damn! Not too shabby! I’ve always had a starting problem, my first stage has always been slow as I get my eye in and I’m 6th on SS1 but claw back a significant chunk of time on the short SS2 to go 4th fastest. Star of the rally thus far are the local boys Younus Ilyas in the INRC 2-class Cedia and Bikku in his Polo. They’re even quicker than Gaurav Gill in his Mahindra!
Gaurav is of course being careful, he has to win
this rally to win the championship, but he too gets the wake up call and on SS3 pumps all of us. I’m now growing in confidence, Anu is calling his notes better, and I’m putting into use a trick Gill gave me (in confidence, sorry). What I’m also getting my head round to is turning the car on the brakes. Brake at precisely the right time, use the weight transferred on the nose and consequent added grip on the front tyre to make a quick change of direction, get the light rear end to come round and nail the throttle on the apex. Turning on the brakes is easy enough on a race track (well not so easy, but you get the drift) where you repeat the same corner over and over again, but it is massively difficult on a rally where every corner is different in every single aspect.
Of course others also have grown in confidence and I’m 7th, 18 seconds behind Gill. Next stage is even worse, I’m 9th, 30 seconds behind Gill. It’s a shit time that will haunt me when the rally is done and dusted.
Anu tries to calm me down, reminding me I’m driving after 4 years, against guys who have been rallying nonstop for years. But who cares? I’m slow. The clock doesn’t lie. Shut up and drive, Sirish! SS5, I’m second fastest, 3 seconds behind Gill. SS6, second fastest.
SS7, again second fastest.
SS8, fastest. FASTEST! My first overall fastest stage time. I’m quicker than Gill. Bragging rights don’t get any better. If this ends up being my last rally, what a way to retire!
Also, phew, I can still drive fast.
The last time I did these stages up in the tea estates of Kuttikanam was the 2010 round of the INRC. It was the first time the team put Reiger dampers on my Cedia and psychologically that did wonders for my confidence. At the end of the day I was fastest in my class, for the first time ever. And on day 2, the first stage, I went off, only the strength of tea bushes preventing me from flying down a couple of hundred feet to the river below.
It’s playing on my mind. The conditions are similar. Cold, early morning light, damp tarmac. I’m second in INRC 1, splitting the two Mahindras, and they can’t be too happy about a journo coming from nowhere spoiling their podium party. They’ve slapped on tarmac tyres on Ghosh’s XUV 500, in an obvious attempt to eat into my 27-second lead. In the overall standings I’m fourth, 8 seconds behind Karna Kadur who is being co-driven by my old rally wife, Nikhil Pai. My obvious target are those 8 seconds; Nikhil reminds me of where we went off 8 years ago.
I go off. Not at the same corner, but not too far either. Except this time I don’t need spectators to pull me back on the road — I reverse out and carry on. 9 seconds are lost to Karna who is flying. But we are quicker than Ghosh.
Stupid, Sirish. Overall podium, gone. Now we have to be careful about Ghosh on his tarmac tyres.
Last stage. I don’t know what got into me. I send it. Anu has to tell me to take it easy in the stage. I’m overdriving the car. And then on one of the dirt patches I get into an almighty tank slapper. The film
roll on the opening spread, that’s from our Go Pro. Anu’s, ‘there goes our rally, there goes our prize money’ look. Or it is raw fear. You decide.
I caught it. Over those 3 stages I lost 16 seconds to Karna but increased my lead over Ghosh. If I hadn’t messed up one stage, SS4, I’d have been third. Then again, if my aunt had balls she’d be my uncle.
The men in blue
In this era of massive cost cutting at the Volkswagen Group, in India as it is all over the world, it’s a miracle the Indian motorsport program has survived — and it’s testament to the really good work these guys have been doing. Of course the department hasn’t gone unscathed and from the heyday when they started the Polo Cup program the motorsport premises, head counts and fleets have shrunk. But… but!… VW continues with the only factory motorsport set up in India. Their Ameo Cup cars remain the benchmark tin-top racers; the best single-make series India has ever seen not just in terms of speed, but in quality of the cars, equipment and the level playing field offered to budding racers. As for rallying it was never meant to be a factory program, and VW only stepped into it six years ago on my pushing (sorry for being so immodest) to support our Team Slideways Industries Polos with parts and equipment. That quickly spread to helping out the entire grid, support which rallying never had from any Indian manufacturer, and that naturally led to the Polo becoming the most popular car in Indian rallying. Rallying was always meant to be a customer sport. And the R2 Polo will now be offered to customers for 2019, with the option of the (torqueladen) 1.2 TSI turbo-petrol in place of the 1.6 NA engine I drove.
And to allay fears, the R2 Polo is not fragile! It’s the best built rally car I’ve driven, but that’s to be expected for something built by Volkswagen compared to privateer outfits. What I must point out is that it is strong. For whatever reason, over the past few years, the privately entered R2 Polo was never on the money. At the Popular Rally I pushed it hard, over-drove it in many places, abused the gearbox and nothing went wrong. In service we made some setup tweaks and slapped on fresh MRF rally rubber, but that was that.
The Polo R2 is also quick. So quick in fact that after the Popular Rally (organised superbly by Southern Adventures, it has to be said) Mahindra have decided to retire the XUV 500 from the INRC and introduce the XUV 300 for the 2019 season. And it’s not just me who pushed Gill and his Mahindra, in fact the drive of the rally was by Younus Ilyas whose Race Concepts-tuned Cedia was just as quick as my Polo (Joel Joseph is a phenomenal tuner!) but who drove with even more skill and commitment to finish second overall behind Gill.
So the final stage, the SSS. I make a few mistakes, run wide in two corners, but the car is so quick I still set the fastest stage time. I finish the rally second in INRC 1, have two fastest stage times to my name, and am drenched in champagne on the podium by Gaurav Gill who now calls me SS8.
Now what was I so scared of? ⌧
THE R2 POLO IS NOT FRAGILE! I PUSHED IT HARD, OVER-DROVE IT, ABUSED THE GEARBOX AND NOTHING WENT WRONG
Opposite page: Southern Adventures, organisers of the Popular Rally, put on a great show for the ceremonial start in Kochi; the Ed at the press conference with works Mahindra drivers Gill and Ghosh. Above: Committment in the R2 Polo
Left, from top: Ed Sirish takes delivery of his rally car from VW Motorsport boss, Sirish!; it was a tarmac rally but with a fair few patches of gravel that you had to be really careful over; who says Indian rallying doesn’t get spectators?
Right, L-R: VW PR lead Adhish Alawani, Eds Sirish and Aniruddha, Motorsport boss Sirish Vissa, race engineer Manush S Rowaine, technicians Suraj Gond, Rushab Jajal, team manager Karan AM, Mohammad Salman and consultant John Pettah
Top: Gill drenches the Ed on the podium, warns him not to make a big deal of SS8. Facing page, top: Making a big deal of the two fastest stage times! Facing page, below: Popular Rally is among the best organised, most competitor-friendly and scenic events on the calendar
Top: Still smiles after a weekend together in a rally car.Left: Tall lever is the handbrake. Next to it is the sequential box control, clasp ahead on it is the safety to prevent accidental engagement of neutral or reverse