Ready to race: Volkswagen Vento TC4-A Racecar first drive review
Driven a racecar before?" I shake my head side to side, allowing the helmet to hit each of the blades on my head restraint. He smiles, "Okay, the Volkswagen Vento TC4-A is a little different from a road car."
He runs me through the start-up sequence. Press the blue button to start up the battery system. Press the large red Ignition button to prime the ignition. Press the Start button to... Wow, that's noisy!
"Okay. This is a sequential shift race gearbox with a strain gauge. You use the clutch lever mounted on the gear lever only to select neutral, go into first and to shift into reverse. All other gear changes, yank the lever back for upshifts, forward for downshifts. Don't hesitate, the race gearbox can handle it. Got it? Have fun!" The final instructions are shouted to me over the din of the engine.
In the interlude between the doors closing and the pit lane exit signal going green, I notice how much I'm sweating - and I'm not even wearing a race suit today. The six-point harness is as tight as the hug before you leave your loved one behind. And the car is hot inside. It is, despite its red colour, a rather good solar cooker.
Racecars were never meant to be places of luxury. As is in evidence from the spartan interiors of the Vento TC4-A. One racing bucket seat, a rollcage and plenty of space all the way till the end. Lighter means faster!
Volkswagen Motorsport took a road-going Vento sedan and created this racecar. Visually, you can see that the driver's door has a door pad, primarily because of the door handle and the manual window winder. The other doors are hollow, although they do still run glass windows because the TC4-A class has a high-ish minimum weight - to keep costs in check and allow more manufacturers to easily create racecars. The dashboard is just about there, but the meters, the centre console, all feature racecar essentials rather than creature comforts. Behind your race bucket - there's only one seat - is a massive roll cage and empty space that runs all the way back to the boot lid. The body is stock, more or less, the tail lights actually work but the headlights are empty.
I asked Sirish Vissa, head Volkswagen Motorsport India, what all had been done. He said that the whole car is seam-welded for longevity. A street car has the minimum of spot welds it needs, to stay together over its street life. A racecar with its additional stresses and performance, in a year or two, will crack those welds. So they welded all the seams on the Vento TC4-A through and through. They strip out all insulation - hence the noise and the heat. If the weight limit is low, you'll also get plastic windows. Then comes the installation of the roll cage, the OMP racing seat and six-point harness. Finally, there's the tiny steering wheel.
Mechanicals? Vissa says the 1.8-litre TSI engine they use, has proven to be an extremely robust racing platform, working happily with just one oil change and service per season. The turbo runs a restrictor plate as per the class regulations and allows the engine to make 215PS. 250PS would be possible without the regulatory requirement. There's a minimum of engine work but the gearbox is a race gearbox from French company 3MO. MoTec supplies all the electronics, including gearbox electronics.
The electronics are important because not only does it bring telemetry and the sequential shifter, but given our fuel quality, it also allows the Turbo to run as hard as it can without damage.
By the time, Vissa closes the door and gives me a thumbs up as the pit lane goes green, I feel like I've sweated enough water to drown small islands. Go time!
I pick up a needlessly high amount of revs and slowly release the clutch. It is considered normal to stall a racecar once or twice before you learn how to get rolling, but I'm quite thrilled that I managed not to.
I start to get on the gas after Turn One to start heating the slicks and realise that I'm going to love the gearbox. It wants you to stay on the gas pedal as hard as you can while yanking the lever back. It's a heavier movement than you think but a short throw. There's a loud boom as the gearbox delivers a rapid shift up. And the car roars forward beautifully. Paddle shifters suddenly look very Gen Y - this is the real deal.
Over the next few laps, I would learn that shifting a little bit short of the redline is good for momentum and pace, and you don't want the revs to drop below 4,000rpm. Keep it in that space and progress is surprisingly rapid. It does make over 200PS and with me in it, it weighs maybe 1,150kg, so acceleration was never going to be a problem. Vissa says that the heavier Turbo Vento almost matches the significantly lighter Ameo for pace, which makes VW Motorsport very happy indeed.
Plenty of buttons needed to start this car up!
Braking from about 205kmph at the end of the long long long long straight into Turn Four, you see the wheel-filling steel front brakes in action. The car takes no strain, but the racing harness does - I am 85kg, not a featherweight like the ever-smiling Karthik Tharani who usually races this car. In fact, he's racing this the very next day, so I'd better not be too bashful.
I turn the steering wheel and manage to get both inside wheels on the kerb. The Vento is so sharp! Back on the gas and the car smoothly delivers the power and arrows towards the next turn.
Outside, there's a strong roar issuing into the warm air. Inside, there's warm air issuing into the all-pervasive roar. I think I should've worn my ear plugs.
But what a noise! What a lovely, lovely song! The roar ebbs as you ease off for the chicanes, rises again as you feed the power back in. It's wonderful.
A few laps later, I'm getting confident. I enter the long corner at BIC, Turn 10-11, find the first apex easily and power up for the more or less straight run towards the second part of the turn.
I come in very hot, turn the wheel and realise that I'm going a little too fast. So instead of feathering the throttle as usual, I go for the brakes. Gentle tap. Shit.
I'm in a spin. Sorry Karthik, Sirish, Rayo, Manush... runs through my head before I realise that I'm bang in the middle of the track, far from gravel or tarmac runoff areas. Phew. I must admit I have spun here before so I know what to do. Just as the car comes to a stop, I get the clutch in... and stall the engine anyway.
Drat. I'm convinced the chaps in race control are laughing their butts off.
Anyway. I get going again and after a quick pit stop to confirm a thorough lack of damage, I manage to put in a few more laps.
I really do like the Vento TC4-A. It turns in sharply and there's always more grip than you think. I have to relearn to not slow for the chicanes because I've tested more motorcycles at the BIC than cars.
The Vento is a beauty. It's a sharp car and if you aren't smooth with it, it can feel a bit nervous too. But I slow for the corner entries and come back on the throttle as smoothly as I can. This, it seems to like. I manage to get within 10-15 seconds of the racer boys, which I find, um, very thrilling.
It roars happily round and round until I can go no more. I'm surprised at how much energy racecars need. Even in a relatively mild racecar like this, you're running hot temps, high heart rates (150bpm from a resting 52, walking 70!), and you're also running a series of huge smiles. It's sharp, fast, responsive and just edgy enough to keep you on your toes. It's fantastic!
Sirish Vissa notes the spring in my step and tells me, "You can get one you know!"
What? Volkswagen Motorsport is offering this (and the Polo rally car, plus the Ameo race car) to anyone who wants one. They'll be street-illegal of course, but you can start at about Rs 25 lakh for the basic racecar and build it up all that way to Rs 50 lakh for a car with the race gearbox and electronics. "Supercar owners go through lakhs of rupees in brake pads and tyres in one weekend. I think the race-spec Vento would be far more cost-effective. It's not that expensive to buy, it only needs a set of slicks each weekend, not expensive from MRF. Even if you add the cost of trailering it to a track, track charges and the annual service - which is all it needs - this is fast, it'll keep you on your toes and learning, and it's not that expensive to acquire. And I think it's genuinely challenging and fun to put fast laps with!" says Vissa.
I'm buying. At least the argument. Because I really did like the Vento TC4-A. It's nervous enough to make you feel like you're driving something special. But it's easy enough and realistic enough to feel like something you could do with your money. I also think Shumi A+ would look better on the rear quarter glass - I'm an aesthete.
But Sirish, I do have a few more doubts about the Vento TC4-A that I need to double-check. How many more laps do you think I can get
Images: Akshay Jadhav
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