South Africa

What it's like to drive an Oettinger Polo Cup car

The sun is beating down on Zwartkops Raceway. Talk about the heat of excitement — I’ve just strapped myself into an Oettinger Polo Cup racecar, for a few (equally hot) laps courtesy of Volkswagen Motorsport!

This MSA-sanctioned national racing series has produced some of South Africa’s fastest drivers in its 23-year existence and continues to showcase the best up and coming talent in local motorsport. Brothers Kelvin and Sheldon van der Linde are both past Polo Cup champions and are now very successful drivers in Europe.

With the flick of a toggle switch, the Motec digital dash and switch panel light up. Graeme Nathan of Graeme Nathan Motorsport prepares the car and instructs me on the start-up procedure. I press the Start/Stop button on the panel and the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine from a Volkswagen Polo GTI fires up with a loud growl from the custom exhaust system.

The power assisted steering is light, but very direct. The locally produced SAX suspension and standardised spring rates means the car is stiff and any undulation on the track surface translates to a correction needed with the suede covered OMP steering wheel. The car hops and skips in certain corners, and can be twitchy on corner entry if one isn’t careful. The Falken slicks grip exceptionally well and it takes a few laps to realise just how much grip they offer.

I soon settle into a rhythm and do consistent lap times to within 0.1s of each other. It’s actually quite an easy car to drive, but getting that little bit extra out of it is tricky. As a package, this car and series is a true challenge to any young driver with hopes of making it big in motorsport.

The next round of the Oettinger Polo Cup championship takes place at Red Star Raceway outside Delmas on Saturday, 25 September, with a field of 25 cars.

The engine sends its power to the front wheels through a six-speed manual transmission sourced from a VW Golf VII GTI (an option we do not get in the South African market). This adds to the driver-focused race series. Power is regulated to around 150kW at 0.6 bar boost via a Motec fuel management system. There is a push-to-pass system which adds 20kW by upping the boost pressure to 0.8 bar at the push of a button on the steering wheel. There is a limited amount of times a driver can use this function in a race, so it forms part of the driver’s race strategy. All the Polo Cup cars subscribe to a certain set of regulations and rules and are for all intents and purposes, equal.

The track is a familiar place to me, but I need to familiarise myself with the Polo Cup car. Once the 17-inch Falken slick tyres are warmed up I work my way up to a semi-decent pace around the circuit. Power delivery is extremely linear from low down in the rev range, all the way to the rev limiter. Turbo lag is also basically non-existent. One has to be careful with throttle inputs — progressively feeding power is better than just mashing the accelerator. Since the car runs an open differential, there is the ever-present danger of wheelspin when one is too aggressive too soon, robbing one of valuable time. Often, the first fifteen out of 25 cars on the grid are within one second of each others' qualifying time.

The gearbox is incredibly easy with a short throw and a well-spaced H-gate. Big 312mm brake discs fitted with purpose-made racing brake pads by Ferodo inspires confidence from the first time one jumps onto the brake pedal into a hard braking zone. There is no ABS system to help with lock-up, so it’s up to the driver to ensure optimal braking force. Thanks to the Tilton pedal box, nailing the heel-toe technique on downshifts is extremely easy.

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