I’ve been fortunate to race and win in Ginettas and Radicals in my adventures for CAR at home, but this is a whole different, international, ball game. For one weekend, I’m racing with the big boys, even though not all of them are big, or boys. By rights, I should finish last. But it would be nice not to.
Clapping eyes on ‘my’ TT Cup car for the first time is quite a thrill. It might have started life as a regular TTS plucked from the production line, but this looks more mouth-wateringly purposeful than any TT I’ve seen before. The cambered wheels are pushed so far from the body they’re like outriggers. A jutting carbon splitter and giant rear wing karate-chop the air, and the road car’s kitsch fuel filler cap now covers a socket for the inbuilt air jacks. Under the bonnet the production 2.0-litre TFSI four-cylinder engine remains virtually unchanged, with around 3o6bhp heading to the front wheels only – no quattro drive here. Gears are taken care of by the road car’s six-speed twin-clutch S-tronic gearbox, and there’s an electronically controlled limited-slip diff with three modes, toggled from one of many buttons on the steering wheel. ‘Start off on the most aggressive setting,’ the car’s mechanic Christian Aut advises, ‘then turn it down as the tyres wear, or if it’s raining.’
The road car’s leather-gaitered gear lever looks incongruous in the otherwise stripped-bare interior. Touch the dashboard moulding and it flexes forlornly without a centre console to support it. The four-pot turbo engine sounds smooth and burbly in the TTS road car, but rumbles like a truck in the Cup racer.
At first the whole car feels a bit truck-like, too, oddly inert and clumsy. Front-wheel-drive racing cars are curious creatures; the front slicks heat up quickly but the rears stay icy cold at first, making early laps something of an adventure. The Cup’s driver-coach Marco Werner (another three-time Le Mans winner) suggests keeping the traction control switched off for the early laps, so that if the rear tyres let go it’s possible to pull the car straight with a bootful of throttle. Once the tyres are warm, though, the TT comes alive. It’s incredible just how hard you can punch the brake pedal, especially as the Cup cars feature ABS. As Werner points out, ABS actually limits braking performance rather than enhances it, and it takes skill to work the system to your advantage, knowing when to ease off. Compared to other racing cars, it feels odd, the TT shimmying on its toes as the system does its thing.
As I feel my way around, I try to remember Marco’s advice from the briefing; how you must wait until the tyres have come fully up to pressure before hitting the substantial ‘banana’ kerbs at full pelt, turn in early to the final section to ride the inside kerb with the inner wheels unloaded… My only previous experience of Hockenheim was on an ancient PlayStation game, and it’s an intensely atmospheric place in real life, fringed by thick forest and the towering grandstand structures that lend the Stadium complex its name.
‘When I raced here before the circuit was redesigned, it was a very special feeling coming into the Stadium from the old forest section,’ says Werner. ‘Alone in the trees, slipstreaming at full speed, and then suddenly there’s light, noise, crowds…’
Fast-forward to the end of qualifying and I’m still trying to get my head around the car and the circuit, and as predicted I’ve qualified at the back, hut by an encouragingly small margin. Benoit Treluyer wanders over to compare notes in pare ferme (and I plant another pinch on my increasingly bruised arm). ‘I got to the Stadium in the practice session and thought it was a different corner – whoah!- sideways across the gravel,’ he laughs. You’d like Benoit. I ask him if he’s driven the TT Cup car before. ‘No, no, the only time I’ve driven a front-wheel-drive car was a Renault R5, in a field, when I was 12. I’ve never been to Hockenheim before. [He still qualified seventh.] The main reason I came here was to see the World Rallycross,’ he jokes, conspiratorially.
Ah, yes. Not only are we on the same bill as the DTM, but the WRX too. They’re the rowdy neighbours at the other end of the paddock, their hose-down awnings a neat counterpoint to the DTM’s corporate gloss. Together with the rest of the TT Cup drivers and helpers, we’re based in the Audi Race Lounge for the weekend, a transportable structure of metal and glass, with a balcony overlooking the first corner and a bottomless supply of food and drink served by elegant waiting staff. That €12ok entry fee is starting to add up. And there’s a separate unit for the Audi DTM team and its guests. ‘Last year it was bigger,’ a team-member tells me. ‘There was another floor.’
Time for race one of TT Cup 2017. HANS device pinning my shoulders into the seat, noise-blocking radio earpieces making me feel as if my head’s underwater, mechanic Christian latches the window net into place (designed to keep errant arms inside in a crash) and jettisons the car from its air jacks with a hiss and a thump. Heading to the grid through a throng of cameramen and curious DTM fans, my heart rate ought to be off the charts but I’m oddly calm. I’m just a journalist, after all, so if l finish last it doesn’t matter – and if l don’t I’ll have exceeded expectations.
As the lights wink into place on the Formula 1 start gantry, I engage launch control: left foot on the brake plus right foot flat on the throttle, subtract left foot when the lights go out. This is it. The opening laps are a blur of caught cold-tyre slides, latching onto the cars ahead and picking up some positions as a few of them run wide. I’m fully expecting the pack to gradually stretch into the distance, but halfway through the race I’m still with them. I’m not last. I can do this. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.
Then there’s a safety car to recover a stricken TT after a tangle at the infamous hairpin. It squeezes the field together like a concertina and I make a decent fist of the restart (Marco Werner gave the class a lesson on that very subject earlier in the day), but I change down one gear too many on the paddles into turn 2, then the system shifts up two at once as it catches up with my panicked pull on the other paddle – just as we enter the never-ending flat-out Parabolika curve. I’m a sitting duck for the blue TT behind, which streams past with its ‘push-to-pass’ engaged. That’s a 30bhp shot of power that lasts for 15 seconds, triggered by a button on the steering wheel. Each driver gets 17 P2PS to use during a race, with LED digits in the side window letting the crowds know how many they’ve got left. It’s as valuable a strategic tool for defending as it is for overtaking, and when it’s active a bright blue light glows in the windscreen to let the driver ahead know they’ve a fight on their hands.
In the dying laps the situation’s reversed and I pull out of the blue car’s slipstream to dive past into the hairpin, only for them to repass on the run to the next corner. I’d later find out it’s Fabian Vettel, who’s picked up a black flag for an earlier skirmish. He peels into the pitlane, allowing me to gradually close on ninth-placed Finlay Hutchison until the flag falls. Top 10!