Exclusive! Toyota Etios Motor Racing car first drive
"A Toyota! you're going to race a Toyota? " questioned a friend incredulously when I casually mentioned my plans for the week. Not his fault actually, very few know that Toyota's racing heritage is as rich as that of anyone from Italy, Germany or even Finland, that white speck at the top of the atlas which has produced the finest rally drivers to date. What even fewer will know is that Toyota were once considered magicians when it came to racing cars and that until around three years ago, they were one of the most closely watched racing teams in Formula One. Many of you won't even know that there was a time when Toyota dominated the world rally scene winning several rallies and championship across the globe. And only those who passionately follow the automotive world will have heard of TRD, or Toyota Racing Development.
TRD is to Toyota what the M division is to BMW or AMG is to Mercedes. There was in fact a time not so long ago when the world was smaller and knowledge had a wider reach and you'd often see a TRD sticker adorning the rear bumper of imported Corollas, Celicas and even Supras. That sticker had meaning and today I am standing in front of what is a paradigm shift for Toyota in terms of their philosophy and it has the same sticker plastered on almost every surface. Things are about to get exciting, very exciting!
The Etios Motor Racing or EMR race car is based on the Etios sedan which was launched in India around a year and six months ago. This race car however has been in development for just a little around 6 months and it's making it's debut test session here at Chennai. After the race engineers, former rally champion and now ace tuner Leelakrishnan, national rally champion Naren Kumar and Japanese GT champion Tsutchiya have concluded their testing I am going to get a go in it. It's an exclusive moment, and one of the biggest in Indian Motorsport history. It's the second professional race series to be introduced in as many years and it brings a lot of hope to young racers who want to make a career out of racing.
So what is the EMR race car like to drive. First off the Etios sedan is the donor car, engine and all. This being a stock car category most of the major components such as the engine, transmission and chassis are the same. Not even a bolt has been replaced, even the ECU is stock without any reprogramming. Yet this is a race car and it needs a certain amount of modification to make it compatible to driving on a race track. So the stock suspension has been replaced with a race suspension, the wheels are lighter aluminum alloy bits and the interiors have been stripped bare. There is a single race seat with a four point harness, a roll cage,a fire extinguisher and a 3-spoke sports Momo steering wheel. That is all that's immediately visible to the naked eye, what you won't notice are the electronic gauges on the dashboard until you strap yourself into the seat.
Ignition requires a turn of the key, there isn't a starter to thumb. And when the engine cranks up it's gratifying to hear a mild thrum, the exhaust is loud, it gets louder too as you wind up the revs and it should make the cars a lot more interesting to listen to when 25 of them take to the grid next year. Slip into first and the transmission feels smooth, it's a manual with optimum shift quality and maximum benefits can only be gained when you shift just a nick before the red line. This being Chennai, the pit lane exit curves alongside the first corner or C1. I meet the track a hundred metres short of C2, a right hander but rather than giving it the beans I try and get a measure of how quicker the steering feels to turn in now that the weight of the car has dropped down by another 30 odd kilos. This isn't an official figure by the way, Toyota is still keeping all this very hush hush, so it's just me guessing that's what all the sound deadening carpets, paneling, and seats would weigh.
I also stomp on the brake pedal to get an idea of how much force is generated and how quickly, the brakes are also one other area that have been modified in the interest of safety with more grippier brake pads and stronger brake shoes. All the pedals incidentally, the accelerator, clutch and brake have also changed to a larger drilled aluminum set. Anyways the brakes feel sharp and progressive though I do think a bit more bite would allow harder and later braking.
The Tyres are MRF slicks and they are grippy, the rubber working optimally in the sweltering Chennai heat. Track surface temperatures are around 55 degrees and it's ideal for traction. So I pile on the pressure, whack the throttle to the floor and ok while I have sat in cars that literally feel like a hammer moving through my gut, the Etios feels like a schoolbus compared to most of them. Don't get me wrong, this car is linear in its delivery, powerful but smooth, the car jumps forward eagerly but with none of the viciousness associated with powerful race cars. This is still the 90 horsepower engine you can buy from any showroom. It behaves similarly too, just that the little lesser body weight makes it more agile though you really won't make out the difference in performance.
The next few corners pass by not in a blur but progressively. The engine's linearity is further enhanced by its nature. Its torquey and third gear easily sees me build enough speed through the corners without falling out of the powerband. Soon I am flying through the corners, aided by the accurate dynamics. This car is easy, it's simple and manageable and that will be one of its biggest draws, especially for the newbies to racing. It allows you to explore your abilities as a race car driver. It is fast enough to give you a scare, but it's agility, steering precision and textbook handling makes understanding this car and what it's doing easy.
Part of this confidence is provided by the very competent suspension setup, the dampers and springs are stiff, probably too stiff for C1 at Chennai. The long right handed sweeper taken at full bore has a jink near its apex which throws most cars off their intended line. In a highly stiff car the kick is even more pronounced, inconsistent and unpredictable and the Etios just leaps clear off the racing line. It's going to be a tricky situation in a race, we will see some incidents. Without it however there will be no racing, just ceremonial parades that will allow whoever posted the fastest time in qualifying to take the lead and win. The same suspension setup will be a massive boon when tackling the much larger F1 circuit in New Delhi and its longer faster sweeping corners. The Kari Motor Speedway at Coimbatore will read an entirely different story too.
The series is looking interesting. It's going to be the attraction it deserves to be and it's going to help a new generation of drivers find their racing feet in a world of Motorsport. Bring it on Toyota, bring it on!
For more information on the Toyota Etios Motor Racing series, logon to www.toyotaetiosmotorracing.in
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