Notes From A Track Day at Sepang

By James Wong

I was looking forward to the day when I could finally bring my car to the track. I eventually did just recently, and the setting could not have been any better – a whole 3 hours on Malaysia’s F1 circuit at Sepang, just me and my car and the scorching tarmac.

I couldn’t have learnt any more about my car anywhere else but on the track. Driving fast on a public road is fine, but to really test the limits of your vehicle, it only makes sense to bring it to a dedicated race circuit. It is just irresponsible to be practising your skills on the road, because there are also people who are using the road purely for commuting, and, of course, you would be endangering their lives if you were driving flat-out. On the track, there are procedures to follow and guidelines to make sure you wouldn’t crash into your fellow track buddies, and best of all there are no speed limits, no police stops or speed guns. Here, it’s all about going as fast as possible on the circuit specially planned to test your skills. Which is just about bliss for any car lover.

Even though I am merely an auto enthusiast as opposed to anyone with real racing experience, I would say that I went home rather dissatisfied with my car. Don’t get me wrong – the VW GTI is a great car. But as I found out, it is a sporty car rather than an all-out sports car. I used to scoff at people who literally avoid front-wheel drive vehicles like the plague, but after some actual track time, I now very much start to understand their perspective.

On the track, you can acutely feel how the FWD layout is slowing you down. You cannot gather as much speed as you would like entering into a corner, because the car is just going to understeer and you will be going off-pace. You would have to depress the brake pedal to kill speed to almost what feels like a crawl, before you can turn in properly. And don’t get on the power too soon than what is necessary – you just won’t be able to put that power down in a controlled fashion. Make sure the car is straight (or at least somewhat straight) before you start to gain speed again.

I did this for a few times and my timing did improve, but there is a point you reach when you no longer can improve your timing by cutting your mistakes down. From here on out, it’s about the inherent characteristics of the car itself, and front wheel drive vehicles unfortunately don’t do that well on the track. I was reading a few issues of EVO Magazine and looked at their recorded timings for the fastest cars on the Bedford Autodrome – front wheel drivers just couldn’t break into the top-tier of the list.

There are the finest FWD cars on the road which are built to maximise what they can do. Cars like the Megane R26.R or the Civic Type-R are perfect examples. But in my opinion, that’s about as far as FWD cars can go.

The VW GTI, of course, didn’t exactly match up to the Renault or Honda. It has a wonderful 2.0-litre turbocharged engine that is great for low-end torque that allows you to surf in the wave of effortless muscle as you go about the roads. But on the track, this engine surfaced a few findings quickly. Firstly, the turbocharger is working overtime to give you the boost you want on the track, so it tends to be overworked rather quickly – leading to a loss of power after only a few laps as the engine is overheated. It will only get worse and worse later into the day as the turbocharger is worked hard with little chance for it to cool off. This inconsistent power delivery is not ideal for the track, where you would strive to improve your timed laps with more experience but consequently get limited by your car. Maybe it was because I had some things done to the engine (ECU, exhaust) which required an upgrade to the cooling systems as well, which I did not do, that led to the power loss. Nonetheless, a naturally-aspirated engine wouldn’t suffer as much of a power loss as compared to a turbocharged lump.

The DSG transmission on the car, on the other hand, worked brilliantly on the track and felt more at home hitting home the perfect shifts on Sepang than on the road. The open road presented numerous situations of stop-and-go, sudden throttle lift-off and application and this occasionally put the gearbox into a state of confusion, rewarding the driver with some jerkiness in the process. With the better, less hesitant signals that the driver gives to the car on the track, the DSG works with the driver and flows superbly with every blipped downshift and perfect upshift. However, I cannot help but feel that driving a manual car on the track is a whole different experience altogether. I think I would need a whole track session to get familiarised with driving a stick-shift on the track because you would have to execute your shifts as cleanly as possible, do a heel-and-toe when slowing down and make sure you are in the right gear for every corner. With an automatic, you just shift from your paddle shifters, which allows you to concentrate on the driving aspect better, but removes a layer of involvement.

Right now, several weeks after bringing my car to the track, I can see why the GTI is so highly-acclaimed for being a road car. It has excellent on-road manners and provides the right amount of power that makes it fun to zip around the roads. You cannot feel the FWD layout so much, plainly because there are so few situations where you can actually bring your car to that stage. That is why it does not really matter that much for the road. But now, I am more certain as to what I want from a sports car and a road car. There is little sense in mixing both, but, maybe it’s just me. I do not like to accept any compromises. Which car do you think can excel both on the road and track? Post your comments, I’d like to hear them.

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Author: James Wong

The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

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