Words by Benjamin Gracias/ Photography courtesy VW Motorsport
To prepare for your first race is one thing; to be in the race seat, watch your hands grip the steering, the sea of race cars filling up the view from the windshield is wholly another. The cacophony of twenty Ameo Cup cars revving up drowns the sound of your own car. In the distance you can see the start lights sequence go off. Time seems to slow down as you wait for the amber lights to turn green.
It has been the culmination of two days of practice and getting to know what the Ameo cup car is all about (Read about it here) that has led me to this moment. But let’s move the clock back by eighteen hours. Ready? Go.
There is a 20-minute briefing before qualifying where we are given a safety brief by the FMSCI officials who monitor every FMSCI-approved motorsport event. That done, we get 15 minutes to get our cars ready for qualifying, after which the pit lane is open for 5 minutes in which all 22 cars must be out on the track. Once on track, my only focus was nailing the first corner at Kari as that one corner will determine your lap times. Get that corner wrong and it is a cascading effect.
Nail turn one and two and carry a straight line through turns 4-5 before braking hard for Turn 6. Cut the kerb on turn 6-7 and your outside wheels are airborne momentarily, making you feel like a hero. The last set of corners, especially the gravel-strewn bowl, had the car oversteer and I realised the best way was to enter the corner slow and induce oversteer, which allows you to hold the inside line for the most of the corner. My time for qualifying was 1.13.600 minutes, which put me 17th on the grid.
The first of the fifteen lap race will have us in formation as per qualifying, after which we have to do a lap and get back to our respective formations. No sooner have we parked on the grid than the start light sequence begins to go off. I am yet to activate launch control! A botched up launch where I inadvertently shift to second gear has a couple of drivers overtake me.
During the first few laps, I realise that some of the drivers are taking it easy and braking too early in corners. Seeing an opportunity, I overtake a few drivers, and that is such an aphrodisiac. This new found confidence has me push the car and this leads to my downfall. I tail the car in front of me and see an opening at Corner one of the main straight. All set, I take the inside line and am accelerating into the corner when the bloke in front decides to cut across.
A momentary vision flashes across which include a T-boned car, damaged front end and massive repair bills. Instinctively, I go hard on the brakes but with the speed I am carrying, the car drifts straight into a sand trap that is known to swallow cars. That’s it. Race one is over for me. The safety car is called out and as I begin my long walk of shame, I vow to play it safe in the next race. My car is already in the pit area by the time I reach and has mechanics checking the underbody for damage. Luckily there is none and the car is cleared for Race two, which is in two hours.
Race two, for me, had all the drama fit for a Bollywood potboiler. Exiting the briefing room, with 15 minutes to spare, I walk towards my car to see half a dozen mechanics around my car. It turns out, while we were in briefing, someone inadvertently set off the fire suppression system in my car. My cars interiors and engine bay were covered with foam. Race over for me, I thought to myself.
But Sirish had another plan for me. Quickly, a spare car was arranged and the tyres from my damaged car were swapped with the new one, during which the rear tyres are also swapped with the front ones. My initials, too, were transferred to the new car. With 5 minutes to go, I was being strapped into a new car which I had never driven before.
The anxiety was replaced with a sense of calm as I waited for the lights to turn green. A perfect launch had me rocket forward and overtake two cars from the outside line. The first corner was filled with cars where everyone seemed to exercise caution. I saw an opening on the inside and dove right in, cleanly overtaking four cars in the process.
As the race progressed I overtook a couple more cars and settled into a comfortable rhythm making a good distance between myself and the car behind me. The two cars in front were locked in a dogfight, trading places ever so often. I decided to play it safe and hung at the back waiting for an opportunity should it ever present itself. It never did and I simply focussed on my lines, maintaining 1.12 minute lap times till I saw the chequered flag at the start line.
I started the race hoping to be in the top 15. Considering that, I was elated to know I placed 11th. In Race two, as I was blitzing down the main straight, it struck me. Here I am, racing in a proper race car. Living what is at the top of a bucket list for many. A bucket list that isn’t out of reach if you have the money to spare. What could be a week’s vacation in Europe could get you a seat inside India’s fastest touring cars, for a full season.
This race also created a lot of misconceptions. A lot of us think it is easy to race and win. Trust me, you are not even close, and unless you have a God-given talent, it is very hard to crack the top 5. The top 5 here were in a league of their own and have been racing for the past 7-8 years. At the start of the weekend, there were moments on the track that made me feel so out of depth, being unable to extract the true potential of the bar.
But over the weekend I believe I was able to overcome it and by the end of Race two, I was less than two seconds off the fastest time set by the leader. It is another matter that there were nine competitors between us but that’s how fierce the competition is. The weekend definitely made me a better driver and gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience a race first-hand. Something that should be in your bucket list if you love cars.