After years of perfecting my lap behind a screen, I finally got to get out on track and find out what it's like in the real world
First, here’s a confession: I'm no stranger to race tracks. I can run rings around the office boys when we go karting (LOL – Asst. Ed), and I’ve even driven at the Nurburgring, twice! But to be honest the latter was more about the experience, less about my near 10 minute long laptime and karting is very different from driving a car on a proper track. So, while I’m not a stranger to a race track per se, I haven’t really had any experience of pushing a car on a racetrack. So, when we took three Tatas — the Altroz, Nexon and Harrier to the MMRT, I made sure to hop in next to the Ed every chance I got and learn my way around the track from the passenger seat. A fair few hours of show and tell by the Ed, and even getting to drive around (albeit at 40kmph), I was feeling quite confident.
“Can I take the Altroz for a lap?” I asked the boss, totally expecting him to decline. But to my surprise he was more than willing to let me drive and told me to take along our resident rally driver Annirudhha Ranganekar as a tutor. Anu did the outlap, told me what to do and then swapped seats with me. I put the clutch in, slotted into first and dumped it for a spirited start, went too hot into the first corner and the second, and understeered into the third corner as well. Screeches from my first lap could be heard as far as the International Space Station. It felt super fast — way beyond the limits of grip, slamming home the gears and wrestling the wheel. You could play some rock music in the background and it would go perfectly in tune with my mindset at the time.
Anu jumped back into the driver’s seat, did another lap, And if my performance matched with Metallica's ‘Ride The Lightning’, Anu was more in tune with ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles. I couldn’t hear a complaint from the tyres, the gear shifts were butter smooth and he probably could be munching on a sandwich, such was the lack of intensity. But if you brought out the stopwatch, you’d see that Anu was (MUCH) faster than me. What feels fast is, more often than not, slower. Anu told me to be as gentle as possible with the car, perfect the technique and then build up the speed.
I hopped back into the driver’s seat, and this time Anu guided me through every step of the lap, where to turn in, where to brake and how much throttle to feed in. While I was hammering the first lap from the experience I’d had from racing games, this one was banking on only Anu’s advice. I reduced the on/off throttle inputs, smoothened out my steering and fine tuned the lines around the track. I was still slamming the gears though – it feels cooler. Slowly, I got faster. We weren’t timing our laps, but the screeching was less and at some point Anu stopped giving me instructions and I was able to put in clean laps on my own! The Altroz's sorted dynamics and approachable powertrain surely helps in this regard too. I soon got a fair idea of the layout, figured out where to turn in but to be honest I was still messing up braking points.
Not tyre pressures, although Anu can feel those too. But pressure from the Ed sitting next to me. We went out for a couple of laps in the Nexon and I surely messed up half the laps just trying to impress the boss. “If I drive this well, maybe he’ll let me drive a Lamborghini the next time”, I thought while understeering out of C2. The boss was more hands-on with the tutoring. Quite literally – he grabbed the ‘wheel to tell me to reduce the steering angle, both on the entry and the exit of the corners. He also helped me look where I wanted to go, and get on the throttle earlier. “That was good”, he said when we rolled back into the pits, I was over the moon! Sure I was no Ayrton Senna, but I put in clean laps, didn’t mess up too much and that’s all you should expect from your first outing on a track.
There’s a lot to learn for me still — consistency and focus. Focus is perhaps the most important thing on track. If you get the focus right, you’ll be more consistent and that’s when you can start shaving off seconds from your laptime. But the most important thing is fun. Remember that you’re not trying to win a championship. You’re here to make yourself a better driver, and you can have some laughs along the way.
If you’ve never driven hard on a track before, and are scared to go out because you might embarrass yourself, go ahead. As a petrolhead, a track day is one thing you shouldn’t miss out on! It doesn’t matter if your car isn’t fast, the Altroz and Nexon aren’t exactly thoroughbred racecars. It is a lot more about the experience, getting onto the limits of grip, feeling the shift in weight as you make inputs. It’s not something a video game can replicate and it is something you should feel. Knowing what to do at the limit on a track will also help make you a safer driver on the road.
The Buddh International Circuit has had open track days for a while now, and the MMRT has recently introduced open track days starting at Rs 4500 for a half day session. I urge you to take your car (or bike) to the very next one. It is the perfect time to do so too — not much traffic on the roads, and the trackdays won’t be at their most crowded. You might even catch me right next to you, possibly understeering onto the grass.