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.

Crash ’box

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


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


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? ⌧


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

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