Tuesday, June 30, 2009

VW challenge – track test

Class B and C cars.
by Pierre Martins

What? Me, in a front wheel drive race car?

header02 I missed the whole noddy car front wheel drive thing by a decade or two. See, I grew up at a time when Bobby Olthoff was throwing the big Galaxie around Kyalami with Koos Swanepoel and Basil van Rooyen snapping at his heels in their Lotus Cortinas. Yes, I’m that old, but I can tell you there were no such things as front wheel drive race cars back then. Well, not that I can recall, anyway.

IMG_3529 So I have to admit I was a tad apprehensive when asked to do this test. Spoke to VW Challenge Class B competitor Stuart Mack and he gave me just one single bit of advice - “Make sure you’re on the gas even when you’re not on the gas”.

Erm, okay Stu, I’ll be sure to try that…

He was however, more helpful in providing me with good information regarding the Goldwagen VW Challenge series for this article. The series started out as the GTI Challenge around ‘86. The first race cars were people’s road going Golfs with bolt in roll cages and stickers that were pulled off before going to work on Monday. There were Mk1 GTis racing against Mk2 GTis, CSLs and even a few 16-valve jobbies, with the odd red, yellow, or blue Citi Golf in the mix. The formula worked well and the fields soon grew, with the cars becoming more race car like as the years went by.

In the middle to late nineties the top flight class became a battle of local VW tuning shops with cars from Erasmusrand Motors doing battle with SAC and the like. Back then the cars ran on full slicks and were insanely quick, but there were still classes for guys with stock and slightly worked GTis with road tyres, and even a class for bone stock 1600cc cars. So almost all tastes and budgets were catered for.

Even though a few 16-valve race motors were tried, the 8-valve VW power plant proved to be more reliable and cheaper to run and is still the engine of choice in VW Challenge today. When the first generation Polo's were released an EFI option was added to the trusty 8-valve motor and phased into the series. Over the spread of a season the side draughts and K-jet motors made way for the newer type motors that catered for the new Bosch MP9 EFI system. These heads and inlet manifolds are still being used today, but engine control systems are open to any locally made system. Today, all cars that race in Goldwagen VW Challenge have to be front wheel drive VW products that were/are officially sold by VW South Africa, and they have to run the "normal" 8-Valve VW U-flow motor. The series is dominated by Citi Golfs but Mk2', Mk3 and Mk4 Golfs as well as Polos make up the grid.

As for tyres, VW Challenge switched to Dunlop Semi-slicks about 5 years ago and they became “control tyres” for all the classes. In 2007 the VW Challenge was asked to join the Pro-Tour series. With limited TV coverage in 2006 swelling the grids to around 40 cars this was a real boost for the series. The two seasons that VW Challenge spent as part of the Pro-Tour have done wonders for both the VW Challenge and the Pro-Tour. With some grids of over sixty cars and bumper to bumper racing throughout the field, VW Challenge has been a huge draw-card for the Tour over the past 2 years. 2009 sees Goldwagen VW Challenge stay with the Pro-Tour and more of the same magic racing is evident.

IMG_3497 I race a Porsche in the Altech GT Challenge in Pro-Tour, so I don’t get much time to watch the other races on race day, but I do follow the VW Challenge races religiously on TV and I can vouch for two things – a.) The racing is ferocious in Goldwagen VW Challenge all through the field and in every race. There is no such thing as a boring Goldwagen VW Challenge race. b.) There are some bloody good drivers in VW Challenge. Well known names have raced in VW Challenge and have gone on to bigger and better things, like current Class T National Production Car Champion Greame Nathan, and Mazda MPS Pilot Heinz Bose, but I reckon most of the top flight drivers in VW Challenge have what it takes in the skills department to cut it in Production Car racing at national level.

Goldwagen VW Challenge is split into four classes:

Class C - The feeder class. This class is meant for those just starting out in racing, to cut their teeth and build a car that they can easily convert to a higher class. They have to use normal road going shocks and springs, a stock 1.6 EFI motor, just like a Citi Golf Velociti. The brakes are upped to the same size as the class B cars to make upgrading to class B easier, and besides, bigger brakes on a Citi Golf is never a bad thing.

Class C cars produce +/- 65kw and the minimum weight limit is 920kg car & driver. Lap times around Zwartkops for class C cars are in the 1'19" zone.

Class B - Dubbed the hooligan class by many, this is the class of the up and coming youngsters as well as anyone who is not well in the head. The racing in this class is always top notch and super competitive, but always fair as the budgets in class B do not allow for expensive repair bills. These cars run stock 1.8 motors but are allowed to run a 288 degree cam. Suspension is class A specification, coil-overs with the same brakes as class C. Class B is usually the biggest class at race meetings.

Class B cars produce +/- 80kw with a minimum weight limit of 1000kg, car & driver. Class B cars lap Zwartkops around 1'16".

Class P - When the Polo was launched in SA, VW Motorsport started the VW Cup. These cars were replaced with the current Polo a few years ago and therefore had nowhere to race, so VW Challenge made a class P for them. They run in the same spec they did when they were VW Cup cars, and some of the newer shape Polos are filtering into the class as well. These cars run stock 2.0l motors with 288 degree cams and pukka VW motorsport brakes and suspension.

Class P cars make +/- 82kw, minimum weight 1025kg, car & driver, with Zwartkops lap times in the 1'15"s.

Class A - The big bangers. These are the quickest cars in VW Challenge and have full coil over suspension as well as massive 280mm brakes. This class is allowed to run either 1.8 or 2.0l motors, both of them in very high states of tune. Cylinder head gas flowing is allowed and cam duration is limited to a max of 300. This is the quickest class and the biggest budget. The cars look and sound and go like real race cars.

Class A cars make +/- 95kw, weigh 1050kg car & driver and lap Zwartkops in 1'14".

Budget wise it all depends on the class, but some of the running costs are the same over all the classes. Only 2 new tyres are allowed per car per race. These tyres are around R700 each. A set of competition brake pads will last you all season, R1500. The engines and gearboxes are usually very strong, so failures from these parts are relatively uncommon. Most guys run on a race to race budget of around R3500, with class C costing around R2.5k per race meeting, depending on who’s telling the story.

Be that as it may, VW Challenge offers amazingly good bang for the buck!

So what are they like to drive?

DSC_0673 The cars for this test were supplied by Guilio Sabattini Auto Stylists in the shape of Philip Croeser’s class B car, and his wife Elna’s class C car.

Talking to them beforehand I realised the setup on these little front wheel drive jobbies were not at all like the race cars I’m used to. Rear springs were almost three times stiffer than the fronts. They run rear tyre pressures at over 3-bar, with the fronts below 2-bar, crazy! With their tyre rules, new tyres generally go on the front, old stuffed ones on the rear. The rear wheel track width is a lot less than the front and the rear anti roll bar is stiffer than a 17 year old snot-nose at a high school social.

The reason for all that is to try and overcome the under-steer that VW engineered into the chassis of these cars for normal everyday road use. Most VW Challenge guys deliberately make the rear end very loose, so the rear either slides or steers on lift-off to aid turn-in. The front tyres have to do all the steering, braking & power delivery and you obviously don’t want the rear end fighting the front.

DSC_0681 The weird setup started making sense to me, but I was a little surprised by how nervous these cars were in a straight line. Geesh, it was hard work just keeping the damn things pointed in the right direction down the straights, and the nervousness got worse under braking. I learned afterwards that they run stupid toe out in the rear to make the cars turn in better. It kinda worked, I guess. I didn’t need much steering lock at all to make the car point in, and both these cars did change direction very quickly.

Once I had it turned in the fun started. The only way to keep the car from spinning out was using drive from the front wheels to pull the car through corners. Cornering became a process of turning in and getting back on the power with determination, or the rear end kept wanting to overtake the front. The more sideways I got, the more power was needed. Stu was spot on when he said stay on the gas even when you’re not on the gas. Things worked totally opposite to the rear wheel drive cars I grew up with.

DSC_0676 I also found that in places where the car under-steered, just a small lift off the gas would bring the nose back in, but I also sensed that if I had to jump off the gas completely the ass would snap around as quick as a politician changes his mind.

All in all, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this test. I can see why the VW Challenge guys are so passionate about these cars. They are huge fun to drive once you get your mind around the dynamics of a small front wheel drive hatch. When I went out in the class B car I thought the rear end was broken at first, but the more I pushed the nicer the car became. The more powerful class B car also felt ‘looser’ than the Class C car. I guess the class C car would be quite benign compared to a VW Challenge class A car.

On a final note I’ll vouch for the fact that as small as these cars are, they offer a pretty wild ride and you have to be precise with your driving, but you also have to wring their necks to get the best from them.

Ain’t that exactly what you’ve always wanted from a race car?

Special thanks to:

Philip & Elna Croeser for making their cars available for this test.
Stuart Mack for providing info and helping to put this article together.

Find out more about Goldwagen VW Challenge:

VW Challenge.co.za – Official web site.
Calendar – 2009.
Results & Standings – xls file.
Pro-Tour.co.za – VW Challenge page on the Pro-Tour site.


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