Christmas car-rolls: A tale of two race cars

Tuesday December 19 2017

The race-prepped double-cab Toyota Hilux has been noticeably modified and picks pace like it has been launched off a rubber band sling.

The race-prepped double-cab Toyota Hilux has been noticeably modified and picks pace like it has been launched off a rubber band sling. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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We draw the year near to a close and for the penultimate article, we let our hair down a little.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and what tingly tidings I bring you today – forget consumer advice or sensible car reviews; this time we once again engage the anorak mode like we did in an epic Sunday morning battle five years ago and drive around in two performance instruments built with the sole purpose of connecting two geographical coordinates on a map in the least time possible – more or less. The approaches are different but the outcomes are broadly similar. Let us do them in ascending order of size...

Volkswagen golf GTi race version: The yellow thing

There is nothing but sauce; raw sauce. I grabbed this thing and I wrung this thing, and the thing went skrrrah! Papaklakla! Skiddiky klaklah! And then kum kum krrrum kum! Psssh! There is a lot of noise, not just in volume but in variety as well.

There is the tinny moan from the engine itself, which transforms into an angry roar when the turbo comes into play, after which the wastegate whines and sniffs a few times before the dump valve sneezes and chuffs on lift-off.

The Volkswagen GTi is a car begging to be shifted by hand and not by a 32-bit processor.

The Volkswagen GTi is a car begging to be shifted by hand and not by a 32-bit processor. PHOTO | COURTESY

The front tyres are having their work cut out, both channelling torque to hardpack and responding to orders from the tiny flat-bottomed steering. There is a lot going on every time you drive around in it. “How are you faring on in there, man?” my cameraman asked.

I wish I could say man’s not hot, but man was extremely hot. Start with the December midday sunlight that could fry an egg on a carbon spoiler.

Then on to the HVAC system that has been completely uninstalled and the entire dashboard covered over with black felt, right down to the centre console, and the plastic windows that have been welded shut, with a small pigeon-hole cut into the driver’s side to prevent suffocation as you go skiddiky kla kla! in a leafy suburb.

The seats, too, are black. Heat soak is real. Sweat beaded on my forehead, trickled down my temples and bridge of my nose before turning into a raging torrent that flooded down the collar of my polo shirt and soaked it through. Perspiration things.

Luckily I had no jacket to take off, because then I’d have nowhere to put it. There is no back seat, so that would mean tossing it into the passenger seat, which brings to the fore yet another aspect of the drive: the brakes. They’re good; they’re really good.

At one point I went skrrrah! on the throttle then chanced upon a hitherto unseen speed bump — the bright midday sunlight can play tricks on a driver’s optics, I tell you — which meant I had to either stand on the brakes or risk busting a shock absorber and/or splitting a lip on the sleeping policeman.

Now, I don’t have the money to replace a fully built race car whole or even in parts, so the decision was fairly straightforward: drop anchor.

So I did... and promptly slid right from under the racing harness and clean off the driver’s seat, most of my body ending up in the footwell next to the pedals. This has never happened to me before.

I was driving a Volkswagen Golf, but not a Golf as you know it. Let me put things in perspective.

Opposite the Galleria Shopping Mall there exists a Volkswagen specialist who thinks he knows what he is doing. I had to verify the basis of this self-confidence – and have consequently been making unannounced visits that put the “prompt” in “impromptu”.

Either he wised up to my subterfuge or he can smell a ride-seeking lowlife from afar because he eventually capitulated to my passive-aggressive umpiring and said I could drive his race car, provided I don’t stray too far with it.

Well, I didn’t stray too far with it, but then he didn’t say anything about mileage limitations or fuel consumption. I ended up driving in many circles and up and down through a hot afternoon that almost left me dehydrated. Thanks for the drive, Eddie. Now I want to try your other car.

The (Race) car

I will eschew going into a list of the specific modifications done to the car but the general idea was to build a full-on racecar, and this Volkswagen mechanic has done it. It is a pukka racer viable for anything from a time trial to hill climb to a touring car championship.

The VW race car  and its stripped out interior with a felt covered dashboard. PHOTO | COURTESY

The VW race car and its stripped out interior with a felt covered dashboard. PHOTO | COURTESY

It is a busy drive, but then again the builder knew exactly what he was doing when he went in. It bites and gnaws at the tarmac like the hungry Rabbit that it is (The Golf is also called a Rabbit in some markets) and bobs and weaves like a hare participating in a hot pursuit against a foxhound.

There is torque steer, there is brake steer (indeliberate, but try braking hard on a loose surface with cut slicks and tell me if you won’t “steer”), there is conventional steering, and the rack ratio is quick enough to circumvent the need to ever go beyond half a turn of lock despite the severity of the corner at hand.

Palms at quarter to three and never let go of the wheel, because this car stirs a lot on anything less than mirror-smooth tarmac. Being a front-wheel drive, this is a car that can be steered with the throttle.

The gearbox is the standard Golf double-clutch auto with manual override, which I somehow could not access, strangely enough, so I stuck to the PRND slot. This is a car begging to be shifted by hand and not by a 32-bit processor.

However, the programming in the gearbox has been customised by the man himself and is one of the finest automatics bar none, particularly given the role it has been tasked with.

It will hold revs all the way up at more than 30 per cent throttle, which is the threshold beyond which it “assumes” you are trying to outrun an Evo or something. Below 30 per cent and it short-shifts all the way to top gear before you even reach 60km/h.

The short shifts are almost amusing in their rushed seamlessness in a quest for economy and noiselessness, a vain quest because this is a race car and race cars are built for neither economy nor discretion.

The downshifts are beautiful; they happen early just the way I like them, and there is rev-matching that sounds exactly like a heel-and-toe would. It’s like this car was built specifically for me.


Toyota Hilux: Gun metal

The three-spoke, suède-rimmed steering wheel is small like the Golf’s, and like the Golf’s, sits quite close to your chest.

The three-spoke, suède-rimmed steering wheel is small like the Golf’s, and like the Golf’s, sits quite close to your chest. PHOTO | COURTESY

Toyota Kenya had a shindig a week ago where they introduced their new GD engine to the motoring press, and I’m glad to say that it works fine.

Compared to the outgoing KD engine, torque and power went up, emissions and consumption went down. Good, heart-warming stuff that I will discuss in more detail in a more serious article at a more convenient date, because right now I am looking at a race-prepped Hilux double-cab and there is word going around that I might be allowed to drive it. I rub my hands with giddy glee...

It is what they call a “route opener”; a kind of automotive hors d’oeuvre that rally organisers use to sweep the stages prior to the competition and probably to also get the excitement going in the eagerly awaiting crowds.

The modifications here are not as extensive as the ones in the Golf but they are still palpable, visible and audible. The tailgate has been deleted, and two spare tyres added. The bodywork is decaled and the suspension replaced with rally-specific gas shocks.

The interior has not been stripped (whew!) but I’m not sure how much of it is still functional. The regular seats are gone, as are the seatbelts, replaced by race seats and four-point harnesses. The three-spoke, suède-rimmed steering wheel is small like the Golf’s, and like the Golf’s, sits quite close to your chest.

I don’t fail to notice a sticker on the right side of the steering wheel that declares ABS has been deactivated in this car. Engine work, apparently, is limited to an ECU tune, but the fluttery whooshing noises coming from the turbo convince me that it is not a factory-spec device.

The exhaust, too, doesn’t sound anywhere near standard; it sounds like mine would if there was a massive leak somewhere upstream of the backbox. It is raspy.

I am offered shotgun position in the car under the helmsmanship of Toyota’s equivalent Stig, and I must say giggles of giddy glee are hard to suppress as he manhandles the truck through the technical off-road course that Toyota Kenya has set up for our use.

Whereas we had to use all the techy gubbins like 4WD, low range and diff-locks in the boggo Hilux and Fortuner demonstrators, in this pre-runner you simply use brute force, like kum kum krrrum kum! Stomp over and through the bumps and ruts at wide-open throttle and be circumspect with the ABS-less stoppers lest you get the car more sideways than can be effectively recovered.

The drive is exciting, but erm... not to sound like a wet blanket, but I have been driven in a works GT3-class Nissan GTR race car in the US, the same vehicle used in international endurance races and that experience cannot be easily trumped.

The drive ends and I exit stage left to wander around aimlessly, highlight reels of that off-road attack playing on infinite loop inside my mind-brain when I’m brought back to the present when they ask me if I would like to have a go at the Baja-esque trailblazer. Would I?

Is water wet?

Once in the driver’s seat I have decisions to make. Go all out and risk breaking the car (I can be brutal when the situation demands it) or feather it all the way through and have my observant passengers - with ToyoStig now riding shotgun as a supervisor – fall asleep by the time I hit third gear.

The absence of ABS casts a shadow on my self-confidence and I picture myself degenerating into a whopper of a tank slapping knot that I might not unravel properly.

When you are walking on thin ice you might as well tap dance, so pot luck is selected as the modus operandi. Dip the clutch (nice and oily-smooth, just like it is in the standard car), snick the lever into first, declutch, gas it a little and we trundle away from the staging area.

Apart from the form-hugging seat and the small, velvety circle I’m using as a tiller, I can’t say there is any difference here from what you buy off the showroom floor.

That is because I’m driving at walking pace, so we need to turn up the wick to create noticeable disparity. After I make a left turn there is a 200-metre straight with a wide dip in the middle followed by six right, then hairpin right onto tarmac. It is on this 200 metre straight that I open the taps and the race Hilux shows me what it is. And a monster is what it is.

Like a rally car it picks pace like it has been launched off a rubber band sling, and the rorty exhaust note accentuates the sensation of horizontal free fall. I can see ToyoStig on my port side tensing up and clutching the dashboard (muahahaha!), while a panicky noise comes from the back seat from somebody who thought they could film the drive (and failed).

The long travel suspension and rally tyres mean rocks and ditches are nothing more than obvious Scrabble entries in a particularly boring game, they’re not the life-threatening obstacles they would be in, say, a yellow Golf. The hairpin right comes up really quick and I ease off, in a dilemma.

I could go the whole rally way and rip a handbrake turn, or I could slow all the way down and take it without any slip in the tyres. It is a really tight turn and there are fences and buildings and human beings in the vicinity, so if that handbrake turn fails, the collateral damage could get substantial.

Also, I have never done a handbrake turn in a 4WD pickup, I’m not sure I want to pop my cherry with a company car. I don’t trust their c-of-g’s. So gently through the turn we creep, in first, before I hit the clutch, hit the gear, hit the gas and I’m gone: thundering down a 300-mettr straight tarmac section back the way we came. I am starting to get in the zone.

After the tarmac we get into the rough, the technical challenge and I peg my throttle work to around 50 per cent . To me it might not seem like much and I really am afraid of breaking something expensive on the car, but for my passengers it is consternation and constant wonder whether I have a total grip on things.

On the finish section, I might have a full grip on things but the tyres do not. They lose grip somewhat and the car starts getting subtly sideways, predictably and gently so, something that constant sawing at the wheel cannot fail to cure.

I am getting intimate with the car and pushing it faster, the slides getting bigger, and the sawing at the wheel getting more pronounced, which means my passengers are getting more nervous and grabbing tighter at anything that can be grabbed in the interior.

When I come to the end of my lap I consider asking for a second one but I #Resist the temptation. Some things are best taken in small doses. Like other people’s race cars.