LET’S RACE…

Fast cars zooming by…The smell of petrol in the air… Bunch of us from the media driving stock VW Ameo’s on the track… A track which has become synonymous with racing history in India. 18 drivers going hell for rubber in one of the best racing championships. Me getting access to drive the ITC VW Vento on track! If this feels like a dream every petrol head has, it sure was… A dream where I did all these things… Well, I didn’t race in the championships, but did everything else… So, without any further ado…

Thursday morning started in a spectacular way. 6 in the morning, I arrived at the Buddh International Circuit, India’s only F1 track in Greater Noida. We were invited by Volkswagen India to drive their stock Ameo’s on the track. This would give us a first-hand experience of the handling and performance of these vehicles, in an arena where you push the cars to the edge.

After the customary safety briefing by Rayomand Banajee and Karthik Tharani Singh, the two mentors/trainers of the VW Racing programme, we headed to the track.

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Paired in groups of 2 per car, we were to follow the lead cars being driven by Rayo and Karthik. I was paired with a very good friend, Ashish Jha a well-known print and TV journalist. Our lead car was being driven by Karthik. At the end of 2 laps the drivers would interchange places within the Ameo. Ashish took driving honours at the start. He has raced professionally long back which was evident in the way he kept pace with Karthik. Then came my turn. I was very lucky to have someone like Ashish who gave me a crash course in learning the racing lines. He was giving me instructions on when to brake, get on the throttle, turning hard into corners. By lap 3, I could see a marked improvement in following the racing lines.

By the time we finished, my smile refused to leave my face. Post our drive, we were taken for taxi drives in the VW Ameo cup cars by Rayo, Karthik and Sirish Vissa, Head Volkswagen Motorsport India. This was a complete contrast to our earlier drive, giving us a total perspective on how versatile and fast the Ameo can be.

This weekend was the final race weekend of the VW Ameo Cup 2018. The title was a foregone conclusion, barring a horrible and practically impossible result for the leader Dhruv Mohite. Dhruv had impressed all season and this weekend didn’t look any different. VW Motorsport India had invited 2 well known motoring journalists Dhruv Behl editor/publisher autoX and Cyrus Dhabhar Car & Bike Show, NDTV India to race during this weekend. Dhruv is undoubtedly the fastest driver amongst the automotive media fraternity in India. They were going to 3 free practice sessions and from session 1 the drivers went for it.

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Dhruv Mohite was setting the fastest times which wasn’t a surprise. The real surprise came from Dhruv Behl’s timings… He was just a second off Dhruv Mohite’s timings. Considering this was the 1st time he had tested and driven this car it was a phenomenal result. But those who know Dhruv’s Behl’s racing history know in the past he has started from the last place on the grid and landed up on the podium. Now the drivers had to contend with a journalist apart from their own. This was building up to an exciting qualifying session on Saturday.

DAY 2 started off with me riding around the pits on Ducati motorcycles. Yes you read it right! Apart from the excitement of the VW Ameo cup cars there was a Ducati Hypermotard, 848 Evo and Multistrada at the track. These belonged to Sirish Vissa Head, VW Motorsport India, Adhish Alawani Head Corporate Communications VW Motorsport India and Aaron Mendonza a sailor by profession. Adhish and Aaron along with a 3rd friend had ridden their Ducati’s from Pune to Delhi!

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This afternoon I was going to drive the VW ITC Vento around BIC! When I got into the Vento and started it…woaah!, This car was loud. Driving out of the pits and onto an empty track, well the fun had just begun. The education of learning the racing lines was very helpful (Thank you Ashish 🙂 ).

The ITC Volkswagen Vento race car is powered by a 1.8-litre TSI engine, mated to a 3MO sequential gearbox with a manual gearshift lever. Driving this on the track is challenging and exciting at the same time. The Vento has been designed to participate in the Indian Touring Championships. Thus the whole setup of the car is different from the Ameo Cup car. Its’s lighter than the Ameo the suspension is set up differently. Lap 1 in this car was all about learning the limits to which I could drive the car…

Lap 2 onwards I got more confident and comfortable, reflecting in the improvement in lap times (nowhere close to the times being set by the professional racers!) The few laps I drove the Vento around the BIC was enough to convince me, that this is what I am going to buy in the future for track days…

On discussing this with Sirish, he told me this is exactly what they want. They are looking to sell this car to prospective customers who want to buy a race car for track days. This is a first of sorts, as no other car track racing programme in India offers such an opportunity. If anyone is interested, please get in touch with Volkswagen Motorsport for the Vento. Believe me, you will not want to stop driving this car, that’s how good the Vento is!

By the time we headed to the hotel nothing could wipe the look of satisfaction off my face…

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THE AMEO CUP

Saturday arrived with a bang. For the 1st time in my life, I sat pillion on a superbike. Riding to the track on Adhish’s 848 Evo was one mad experience… Most people at the track felt I was crazy! Today’s agenda was the last practice of the season and then qualifying. The practice session went according to script, with the favourites clocking good times.

Post lunch when qualifying started all the predictions went out of the window. Pratik Sonawane drove like a man possessed. He was in the form of his life, reflected in the lap time he set. He set a time of 2:21:595 a good 0.6 seconds faster than favourite Dhruv Mohite. Dhruv Behl took the 3rd place on the grid, which wasn’t surprising, considering the pace he set in practice.

Would Pratik Sonawane upset Dhruv Mohite? Will Dhruv Behl be good enough to get on the podium. These questions and more were discussed over dinner and late into the night. The day finally arrived. Sunday was a packed race day. Apart from the 2 Ameo Cup races, there were 2-wheeler races as well.

The atmosphere in the pits was a mix of tension, uncertainty and anxiety for the drivers. The support crew and mechanics were happy at a successful season coming to an end. There was a substantial level of crowd support. This was very heartening to see. Motorsports is probably one of the most exciting sports to watch anywhere in the world.

India is still playing catch up, which is surprising as at one time race weekends attracted crowds in the thousands in the decades 70’s till the early 90’s…

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Race 1 started half an hour behind schedule. But the moment they went on their sighting lap, you could see these guys meant business. All the camaraderie in the pits was forgotten. Now it was each man/woman for himself/herself… The race started.

By lap 1 the pre-race script was thrown out of the window. Dhruv Mohite was immediately in the lead. However, later in the first lap he had an incident with Pratik Sonawane which pushed him down the order. This gave Dhruv Behl a chance to take the lead, followed by Pratik Sonawane and Saurav Bandyopadhyay. On the last corner of Lap 1 Arefeen Raafi Ahmed had an incident that caused the Safety Car to come out. Since, Arefeen’s car was stranded at the last corner so, the race had to be red flagged and restarted. Shortly after the restart, Shubhomoy Ball went off the third corner that forced the Safety Car to come back in again. Unfortunately for everyone concerned the rest of Race 1 was held under Safety Car. The top three drivers stayed in the same order till the chequered flag with the Safety Car going back into the pits only on the last lap.

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A mention here for Saurav Bandyopadhyay who had just recovered from dengue. He had missed most of the free practice sessions earlier in the week. This didn’t stop him from taking the third position. Hats off to his resilience and passion for racing.

Race 2 started off with Jeet in the pole position, Dhruv Mohite in the second position and Anmol Singh in the third position. On the second lap of the race Akshay Bhivshet and Tauhid Anwar spun off in the first corner bringing out the Safety Car. Unlike the first race though, the Safety Car went back in after two laps and the drivers got back on to race pace. On the fifth lap, Affan challenged Anmol for the third position, got past him and held his position till the last lap. Anmol didn’t give up till the end and made his move on Affan on the last lap to clinch the final spot on the podium.

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With Dhruv Mohite finishing second in the race, he secured enough points to win the Ameo Cup 2018 title with a strong lead over Saurav Bandyopadhyay. The battle for the second position in the final standings was a tight one between Saurav and Jeet, with Jeet having to settle in third position overall. The Junior star of the Ameo Cup 2018 was Shubhomoy Ball who showed terrific dedication throughout the season. With a gap of over 92 points in the final standings of the Junior category, it was a clear win for Shubhomoy.

Sirish and his team had once again run a fantastic season. The Ameo Cup is one of the finest in the country and doing so much to unearth racing talent in India. Now it was time for the after party and celebrations.

Driving various cars on tracks, racing Ducati’s, it was one crazy adrenaline fuelled adventure. A big thank you to everyone at Volkswagen Motor Sport for inviting me for this event. Can’t wait for the next season of the Ameo Cup to start…

See you at the VW Ameo Cup in 2019…

Between the Lines

I think I need to author a procrastinator’s handbook because I add so many reminders to my devices and recall things without the reminders. I am afraid the reminder will go off any minute like it’s a real breathing organism. Just like I was constantly worried I didn’t give my ‘2 piece’ article on my 1st stint at track school to Sanjeev (of Rotormouth fame).
What irony eh! Where here it is!

Having tasted motorcycling like a lion cub tastes blood, I was suddenly that person with ‘eyes are bigger than the stomach’ syndrome at the buffet – the buffet in question being everything motorcycling. I wanted to try different styles of bikes, ride every terrain, wear every gear, mess with every template and just dig my paws into it all till I figured what I fancied and what didn’t fancy me back. Track experience, up until a year ago, was something I admired from a distance but didn’t think was possible. I imagined it to be something for the media or elite exclusive or that one needed some serious pizazz in the bank to show up at track school – like that frumpy 1st timer at a huge fashion show.

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Eventually, social media played a key role in nudging me to consider exploring one. It was showcased as cost effective, gear and equipment were arranged if you didn’t have either and it was all in a controlled, safe and learning environment with abled trainers. I went about doing my research, called folks, asked 50000 questions and simultaneously saved ₹₹.

Without naming names, I was keen on attending 1 particular school. Saved the dates and the money for it. Unfortunately, that $%&@ named corporate slavery showed her manipulative face now and again and I didn’t make it to any of the trainings. The good thing about track school is they are all 1- or 2-day programs (L1 and/or L2) over weekends and happen frequently. The usual suspect venues are Kari Motor Speedway (Coimbatore), MMRT (Chennai) or BIC (Noida). There are more tracks in India but these 3 stood out. I would love an opportunity or at least a run at BIC but costs go higher and I definitely wanted to have more experience under my belt to truly tear that track up on a ~1000cc bike.

Somehow, I managed to make time and money for 1 school at the advent of the monsoon season (won an insta-contest for 30% off the whole fee). I was sure that if I didn’t start now this resolution would move to 2019. Unfortunately, said school did not accept my helmet for training even though other academies did. I poured over the FMSCI rule book for the 1st time and it did not have a clause for my helmet. But I respect all academies and when it comes to safety its foolish to argue. So, I let it pass and soon enough through a friendly nudge I signed up at Rajini Academy of Competitive Racing (RACR) for an L1 session. It fit my tiny pockets but was just for a day. Rented the suit and bike from them. Invested in a pretty decent pair of track boots, stole some gloves and got my helmet all set up. Then came the wait for 15 July 2018 at Kari MS.

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I flew in a day earlier, settled in and tried to rest as much as possible. Made a few friends as we all stayed within walking radius of each other and figured a ride together to the speedway the following morning. Folks came all the way from the north and I was able to put faces to the names who had pinged me on WhatsApp once we all signed up and were added to a group a month prior. I was tad nervous but not as wrecked as I imagined myself to be. We skipped breakfast and that was mistake #1. To be fair nothing was available at 6am and the route to the track had not woken up. Last thing I wanted was to go riding dead hungry. As people poured in, we all registered, got our gear, paid the final amount and started becoming a noisy bunch. If you rent a suit, you wont always get the best fitted one and certainly not a sparkly one. Hence, setting the reader’s expectation right. There was gear from BBG, Furygan and Taichi to name a few. We all pretty much fit in. I found my 1st experience with a 1-piece racing suit to be a challenge. It was heavy, bulky and not ‘fit’ although pretty manageable. It did its job. I carried wicking material inners. Even though the day started out cool and breezy, the suit got difficult to keep on as the day progressed. I was fidgety, and the suit felt clingy as morning turned to evening. Let’s just say, thank god it wasn’t summer, and it takes some conditioning to get used to – for me at least. The rest of the gear was perfect.

Walking on the track was a great experience. I finished my registration early and spent my spare hour staring at the track, looking at the bikes (150cc categories), just recceing the space I was to spend the majority part of my day. A trio that had ridden down from Bangalore the night before on their KTMs became fast friends and were super kind enough to make a breakfast run and get us idlis from a local joint. God bless them souls. We all connected and figured out the noobs versus the veterans. Most folks had just come for the experience whilst many asked questions about how to get to the racing bit. I directed all such questions to the RACR team and when asked if I was getting into racing (which apparently seemed like an obvious reason to invest in track sessions), I simply said I had no idea – which is indeed true. Never say never!

 

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The sessions started with introductions to self, team, trainers and the track. We were divided into batches of ~10 or less and assigned instructors. The noobs were separated from those who were back for repeat doses and those who rented bikes versus using their own. A total of 5 classroom sessions followed by 5 track sessions were planned to alternate each other. Basically, classroom instructions, get on track, apply it, get back to the pits, gather your feedback, get into the session again, learn something new and repeat. I won’t break down each session and describe it because it takes away from the actual learning one goes for. But to sum up MY experience here goes:

I started nervous on the track. 1st round involved getting used to bike (Honda 150), the suit (BBG) and mentally regurgitating the instructions. I watched for the instructor, stayed back as much as possible and let the others zoom past me. I was adamant about going slow and easy and not looking to become a total squid in the 1st round. To be honest, I just didn’t want to fall at C3 and C4 (track speak for corners). Through conversations with friends’ months ago, I was quickly able to determine the crosses that indicated entry, exit and apex of the turns and that made me smile under the lid. After round 1, the one and only totally expected feedback was to get my speeds up and increase pace. At this point I informed the instructor that corners were always a problem for me and THAT is exactly what I wanted to focus most on. He was receptive. As the day progressed, with each restriction and instruction, my confidence grew, and I looked forward to getting on the track. I did noticeably 1 or 2 lesser laps than my batchmates. That didn’t bother me at all. Learning and getting my technique right was what mattered. The instructor too figured what I was up to and didn’t push me which I greatly appreciated. Rather he watched out for what I was doing right and was super encouraging when I got corners and technique on point. I noted that at each session after a bunch of laps with the boys, he would fall back a wee bit and give me a thumbs up sign. A positive visual cue works wonders and that just made me pick things up faster.

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We had a lunch break in between (included in the package) wherein we all feverishly discussed our excitement and experiences. I had a brief connect with my instructor who wanted to understand my riding experience and my day so far. I enjoyed the neutral and relatively calm atmosphere. Nothing felt judgemental, pressured or wanting to make me run away. I just kept looking forward to more. The 2nd half of the day moved faster than the morning. It was at that point I realized that 1 day was just not enough – this was my cue to take up a 2-day training in the future. It would be remarkable to test muscle memory from the day before not to mention get additional time on track. This point forward I was less afraid of speeds and had established C8 as my favorite. I did have a near miss at C7 (almost ran off track but managed to recover myself well) and scraped my boots at C8 – this meant I leant enough but also, I needed to correct my footing. During the 3rd or 4th session we did body positioning basics. In theory I was convinced to be failing it, but in practical it was easy. This session highlighted the 1 neglected aspect of my personal self over the past year–health and fitness which were grossly overshadowed by work. Getting on the bike and riding it is just a fraction of the work. What is undermined is sharp vision, good reflexes, a strong core and awareness of your muscles and how to make them work smart. Let the bike work too; its not a stupid machine and engineering counts for something. Together both make for an undeniably smooth flow. I tried it and it felt beautiful. I think I was mentally lost after a few rounds cuz the laps became easier and more natural session 3 onwards. The trainings were fun, interactive and full of laughter. There was a bit of rain but thankfully the track dried up in time and we did 1 or 2 sessions on semi-wet tracks.

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All in all, it was one of the most productive weekends ever. I am always always looking to learn something or gain an experience. I did both on this Sunday. I started with “I’ll just do this 1 track day” and ended up with a plan for an encore. Made some amazing new pals with varied experience and backgrounds. Not to mention our youngest batch mate Kavin (instagram: @kavin_9310) – all of 13 years old asked a zillion questions like a sponge and put us all to shame on the track. Of course, once done, we all looked forward to our certificates and ‘graduating’ the session, making elaborate plans to meet again and hounding the poor fotog Akhil for our “imaginatively” MotoGPesque pictures. I tried speaking to as many folks as possible in this time just to connect and was more relaxed at 6pm than I was at 6am. I know for certain that my next stint will be a more enjoyable one. Rajni was humble, approachable and very organized. He spent most of his time training the aspiring batches and those who had prior track experience (understandably so). But I have to mention that during my 1st gear check, my boot zipper wouldn’t go all the way up over the leather. Rajni sir personally zipped it up for me and that made an impression on me 😊 There was gear and bike check prior to EVERY track session. The helmet clasps, gloves, boots even my braid was checked and tucked in. One wouldn’t feel lost in the crowd is what I gathered.

If one hasn’t done a track session and always wondered how it felt, DO IT SOON. We now have academies, accomplished instructors and the infrastructure to fulfil those wishes. I wish I had done it sooner or all of these opportunities were available a few years ago. Most of the instructors have radiated out of long standing parent schools who’ve been around the block and produced the best of the pool we have AND designed the learning modules. If time and cost aren’t a factor, 1 can even consider the enviable CSS. Heck the biggest question I ask myself is why the $%^@& did it take me so long to start riding. Well… #neversaynever! 😉