Hurtling around the Vallelunga circuit in the 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR.    Picture: VOLKSWAGEN MOTORSPORT
Hurtling around the Vallelunga circuit in the 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTi TCR. Picture: VOLKSWAGEN MOTORSPORT

It’s unusually cold at Vallelunga and not ideal for testing a front-drive racing car on slick tyres. In fact, warns Volkswagen Motorsport’s resident legend, Hans-Joachim Stück, it’s like driving a racing car at the front and a shopping trolley at the back.

There is no traction control, no skid control and no ABS to save you from the hockey pucks attached to the rear axle. There’s just aerodynamics and the Golf GTi TCR’s inherent grip, coupled with your own prudence.

You might not have heard of TCR (touring car racing). Its format has championships across the world. In 2016 more than 450 cars took part in 230 races worldwide in 23 championships, with the brands including Seat, Audi, Opel, Honda, Hyundai, Alfa Romeo, Kia, Peugeot, Ford and Subaru.

Which is probably why last week the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) became the World Touring Car Cup, adopting all the TCR regulations but losing the FIA championship status the WTCC has had up to now. It also means the end of the factory teams, because the regulations will only allow the manufacturers to provide technical support to private teams.

All the cars are front-wheel drive, all of their turbocharged engines range from 1,750cc to 2,000cc and they all weigh at least 1,285kg.

Getting a bit of advice from the legend Hans-Joachim Stück.    Picture: VOLKSWAGEN MOTORSPORT
Getting a bit of advice from the legend Hans-Joachim Stück. Picture: VOLKSWAGEN MOTORSPORT

And then they begin to go about their work in different ways. For Volkswagen, it means slipping the all-wheel drive Golf R’s engine into a front-driver, with the 2018 cars getting a jump in power from 243kW to 257kW at 6,200r/min. There’s torque, too, with the 1,984cc motor delivering 420Nm of it at just 2,500r/min.

The rest is as it looks, with the car dipped in aerodynamic icing to make it glued down in high-speed corners and a mechanical limited slip differential helping the boots to punch out of the low-speed stuff.

Volkswagen has already built more than 50 TCR Golf GTis — or rather its Catalan offshoot Seat has.

The Golf is a neat unit inside, outfitted with a proper set of pedals, a big red button, a clip-on multifunction steering wheel and a fully digital dash.

The cars are fun, loud and, in these conditions, tricky to drive. There are faster racing cars out there, because the GTi only hits 100km/h in 5.2 seconds and reaches up to 258km/h, but that doesn’t matter in a crowd of cars with similar straight-line pace.

The GTi doesn’t sound like a GTi when you fire it up. It doesn’t sound like the Golf R either. It sounds like an animal all its own — deep, rich and very loud.

The aerodynamics force the car down onto the black stuff.  Picture: VOLKSWAGEN MOTORSPORT
The aerodynamics force the car down onto the black stuff. Picture: VOLKSWAGEN MOTORSPORT

Even on a frigid day, it doesn’t flit up and down the tachometer’s circumference. It just blips once and settles directly into a raucous, computer-controlled hum that sounds like you’ve woken up inside a beehive.

The first of Vallelunga’s many hairpins shows just how tough the course is, with the rear brakes pinching and half spinning the car, even with the brake balance having been adjusted by racing legend Benny Leuchter himself before we climbed in.

But after a couple of laps, with a bit of temperature in the rears, there is a lot to appreciate about the quirky racer.

First, there’s the stability and security in high-speed bends. Even the lumps and camber changes don’t bother it as it punches through at a full bellow, the adjustable suspension rocking firmly while the body remains admirably flat.

It’s actually in the low-speed stuff that it gets tricky. Like most front-drive racers, it’s critical to shelve usual race-bred techniques and brake in a straight line. Try to trail-brake into the apex and those Michelin icicles attached to the rear hubs will just slide wide.

But the front end remains a trusty friend, and fast. It can brake deeply down from high speed, with more than enough feedback to judge the braking down to the point of lock-up.

The trick is it has bags of torque and using it keeps the front tyres alive in longer races. That, and braking in a straight line and remaining calm to the apex before trying to muscle some drive out of it again.

The TCR cars look like proper racing cars that are fairly cheap, well-built and easy to maintain. And they’re all about as fast as one another, so it’s a chance for their drivers to shine. Or not.

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