"That's the advantage of motorsport. We are always looking at out-of-the-box solutions" says Sirish Vissa about motorsport in the pandemic
Volkswagen has been participating in the Indian motorsport scene very actively for a long time now. Starting from the Polo Cup, Vento Cup, Ameo Cup, and now back to Polo Cup again, Volkwagen has always shown a commitment to Indian motorsport, giving Indian talent a world-class tin-top car to race with. However, with the arrival of the pandemic, a lot of businesses had to evolve to survive and Volkswagen Motorsport was one of them. But, they still managed to keep their high standards in the events they participated in. So, we sat down with Sirish Vissa, Head of Volkswagen Motorsport India to understand how they tackled the challenges of the pandemic and still come out stronger than ever and also get an insight to the VW Polo Championship.
Akaash Bhadra: What were the challenges that you had to undertake to organise the Polo Cup during the pandemic?
Sirish Vissa: Let's say there are quite a few things. For us, ultimately everything revolves around safety. Safety of my team, my family, and the safety of every single driver. How do we ensure that we are taking the right precautions for all of this? The team has already been sorted because the company policy is that we've already got vaccinations provided by the organisation. Both first and second. So all of us, except for one or two people who actually had COVID, have already gotten both doses. So that's the first step. So now we know that the team is relatively safe. So then how do we ensure that all the drivers are safe to travel? If you notice this year, we were supposed to start in Coimbatore. But, at the last minute, we changed from Coimbatore to Chennai. The reason is that there were some issues in Coimbatore and the track actually was sealed due to COVID protocol violation or whatever.
I can't comment on the track aspect of it, but whatever, the track was not available to us because of some issue related to COVID. We had two options at that point in time. Either delay or go back. Or we say, forget about that, we move everything to Chennai, where we have things more under control, and we can run a safe event.
So that's the first thing. The second thing was, in terms of the track itself and COVID protocols, what are they doing to enforce all of them? If you look inside the Volkswagen pits or garages, every single person usually has a mask on and we are fairly far apart. But of course, the guys working on the car don't have that luxury of being six feet apart. So one thing we always do is ensure the first thing, everybody is masked up. Second thing is that we have all gone through repeated COVID tests. We have a partnership with Apollo Hospitals. In fact, all of us already got our COVID tests done today so that we can travel back, whether it's tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, or the day after that.
We are basically being very proactive in terms of testing, in terms of vaccination, in terms of active means to protect each and every single person. Ultimately, the event is secondary. People's safety is primary for us as a company. We value our employees. That's one of the biggest core points of our ethos.Then we actually got down to the racing itself and running the event, COVID itself presented a lot of challenges. So the first thing is, because of the COVID pandemic, the bottom line has been squeezed across the board. So by us we mean, all our suppliers, for all our partners. So how do we make things and how do we do things in a more cost-effective manner?
This is something for which all of us have to work together. So we are looking at how we can actively save costs in terms of the way we have running these events? How can we do things differently to reduce the cost to the company, firstly? Secondly, how do we give more value to our partners who are supporting us by offsetting expenses? For example, MRF is our biggest sponsor and tyre partner. They also have had their own challenges. So we had to think out of the box a little bit. Normally, in our championship, we pride ourselves on being even across the board. The drivers normally have six tires for two race weekends. So the six tires are usually the same. All of them, one compound, one construction. It's simple for the drivers. MRF had an issue where they were under pressure from their top bosses. So, how can we do things differently? What can we do to make it a little more spectacular? So, in the last race weekend, we had three different compounds of tires available to the drivers. So you had one pair of soft, one pair of the medium, one pair of hard. So it was interesting to see the change due to the constraint.
This was because all of us were under pressure from management expressing that we cannot be throwing money away. So we have to be wise with the penny. Then we came up with the solution on how we can make it more interesting and utilise all resources. So, we did this and it was, let's say, challenging for the drivers because now there's an additional dimension or strategy that they need to work on. But we got through the phase. Same thing with MMSC who organises all of the racing. They're under tremendous pressure as well. It's a lot of money that they have to expend to post an event like this. So, how do we make sure that we do it all together? How do we ensure that we are protecting not only ourselves but protecting their investments as well? So many different moving parts to this that we are reacting on a minute-to-minute basis.
AB: So basically the challenges did come, but then you guys innovated your ways out of it.
SV: For sure! That's the advantage of motorsport. We are always looking at out-of-the-box solutions. And that's not only something we strive for because there are no simple answers for a lot of our problems. They're very complex, but it's how you deal with complexity. You can either say, okay, this is super complex and I'm unable to deal with it and walk away. Or, you can say, this is super complex, but what are the critical aspects that I need to worry about with this complex picture so that it still works out?
AB: What were the objectives that you were trying to achieve with the VW Polo Championship?
SV: Look, our one-make championship, whether it is the original Polo Cup or the previous Ameo Cup, for us the key is that we want to give young budding talent in India, a platform for them to grow and develop their motorsport careers. That's the core ethos as to why we do what we do and the way we run the championship. This is why we ensure fairness across the board, whether it's tyres, cars, whatever. Because it's our way of sort of giving back to India. We are one of the major manufacturers to come in, right. And for us, being a car manufacturer that has an extremely dynamic product. As the DNA is fun to drive, you know, robustness and safety. How do we showcase these things? What better place than a racetrack? That's where it started. But as it went on, we realised that we are actually providing a valuable platform for motorsport to grow in India. We play a key role in it. If you look at the track today, you have quite a lot of different championships happening, quite a lot of classes running. But the biggest presence is Volkswagen. We probably have one of the strongest grids. In terms of the technology of the cars, it is comparable to anything else internationally. In terms of the way we run the championship, we are definitely miles above everyone else. And we do take our jobs very seriously and our contribution to motorsport very seriously. This is the racing side.
In addition to this, we are also involved in rallying. In fact, Wednesday, I will be driving along with a couple of my guys up to Vizag for The Indian National Rally Championship that's happening. So we are always trying to support our customers, support drivers, to try and bring them up. We have, for example, one of the cars in the ITC class. Then there is the IJTC and there is the Superstock class. And that's the pecking order in the Saloon cars racing category. Then there's our Polo Cup championship, which is completely separate and not part of this normal progression. So in IJTC we've got a customer who is running a Polo. So the customer bought a car, and we delivered the car. Deal's done! but it doesn't work that way with what we do. So every session, if you notice, you'll see my guys going back over there, asking them, "Hey, how's everything going? Do you guys need any help? Do you need any advice? What can we do to help you go faster?" And the reason they do that isn't something that I'm asking them to do. They do it, they do it willingly out of their own sort of initiative. We value our customers. So we need to ensure that they get value out of their investment. And so they do that. And when I get a chance, of course, when I have a couple of minutes, I walk out, we talk about, "Okay, what are you guys trying in terms of the setup of the car? What are you struggling with? If I was you, I would try this, this, this." Because, I've been involved with the sport for quite a long time, compared to a lot of the other people. So, yeah, it's kind of a part of what we are doing. We are contributing to the sport in a big way.
AB: My next question, To a person who wouldn’t know what motorsport is all about, how would you explain to them the difference between the road-going Polo and the Polo used in the VW Cup?
SV: That's actually a very straightforward question. It's surprising. Okay. Basically, every motorsport car shares the same DNA as a Polo, you or I can buy it from the dealership. The chassis of those cars is exactly the same as what we use on the race car. What is different is that we have some technical regulations that the FMSCI, which is the Federation of Motor Sport Club of India, they are the organising body that sanctions and looks after motorsport and governs motorsport in India. Yeah. So they have a set of safety regulations that we have to follow. They have a set of technical regulations that we have to follow. In terms that you can modify this, you can't modify that. Other than these changes, which are mostly related to safety, the actual car is exactly the same.
The Polo Cup car, however, which varies is that you and I can go to the dealership and buy a one-litre (Polo) today. But, what we are running in the race car is a 1.8-litre, which is the engine out of the GTI. Because that is the hottest hatch in the market. So why not pick the hottest engine in the market? Right? So the engine is out of the GTI, but otherwise, everything else is very closely related to the road car.
AB: What was VW’s experience from the Virtual Polo Cup racing last year? And do you think it somehow fits into the motorsport world?
SV: Yes. I would say there are two aspects to this. The gaming that we used to have back when I was growing up, there was a game in the arcade called 'Pole Position'. That shows you how old I am. So it was really a Formula One car that you were driving and, you know, whatever, no feedback, no nothing. You are just avoiding obstacles and going around the course. Simple. That's what gaming, in terms of driving, used to be.
Today, however, when the game is on, when I say game pun intended, the situation is completely different. What tools that the drivers have available to them today, in terms of games, really I would say are light years ahead of what we normally would consider games. The driving dynamics of the cars are very similar to a race car. The only thing missing is the actual feeling of the G-forces and the bumps and the rumbles on your body. Other than that, what they are running today in Gran Turismo Sport or Froza or whatever, across various platforms, they have incredible physics models for the cars. So when we ran the virtual championship, we did it out of necessity. We didn't want to lose touch with motorsport and the audience that we have.
However, we had a limitation, we couldn't run physical events because of the pandemic. So we actually worked together with the team from IReSports and we recreated the Polo Cup cars virtually. The guys who have driven the car virtually, are quite happy with the dynamics. And as they say that the feedback that they get from that car in the game is very similar to what they get from the real car. So that was a unique experience. And I mean, if you look at it today, every single racing car driver is using a simulator. They are using the same game as a platform where they're driving. The only difference is the rig that they have which has forced feedback and the pedals, the steering wheel, different pedals where you actually have force application. Next are the screens. F1 nearly has six screens and all that rubbish. But otherwise, they are all using this as a tool of developing themselves, one and two, for testing car setups. So it is a tool that is not going away. It's here to stay and we are glad that, you know what we started out to meet our original needs has blossomed into something more. Now guys are using that to practice tracks.
AB: Why do you think VW is one of the few organisations that actively participate in Indian Motorsports?
SV: Hahaha! That's a million-dollar question. You know what, honestly, we see value in what we do. We see value in it because it is a way of emphasising the core DNA of the brand and it's also a way for us to give back to India. If you stopped Volkswagen Motorsport today, you would lose 70 per cent of the rally grid because they wouldn't have support and you would lose over 50 per cent of the racing side. So, it is a way for us not only to showcase products and showcase our brand values, but it's also a way for us to give back to the community, give back to India. You've got a billion plus people, you mean tell me that we don't have the next Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen or Michael Schumacher or whoever you follow in India? We do. It's just that we haven't found them. And the reason we haven't found them is they don't have a platform and infrastructure to be able to show their talent, demonstrate the talent and build on that talent.
Yes, I know that there are limitations. We don't reach out to everybody. We have so many things that we would love to do more. But, we are one brand, which is a small portion of this huge, Indian car market and we are doing this (motorsport). Why isn't everybody else doing more?
AB: Is electrified racing close in the future? If yes, what are the challenges that you might be facing?
SV: Okay, I would say the first thing we have to look at is safety. The minute you talk about electric motorsport today, you're using lithium-based batteries. In normal operating conditions, they're safe, relatively safe. But the minute that you're putting them in a motorsport environment where you are stressing them to the limit, you lose those safety markers. So the minute you start talking about electric racing, you have to worry about safety. One, if a battery pack sets itself on fire, you can't put it out. So you don't have marshals that are capable or have the training to deal with it. And then you would need to have access to infrastructure that will be able to take the car that's burning and dump it inside, say a pool of water to put the flames out because you have to eliminate all sources of oxygen, but even then, it doesn't work so easily. So until we solve the safety issues, it doesn't make sense. We would never do it. The second point is if you look at the track today, the MMRT, we have such unreliable supply of power that they ended up running events on the diesel generator, because they need to have stable power to run all the computer systems, to run, for example, the entire of the pit lane and all the other infrastructure needed, whether it is the compressors and the tire changers and all that.
So when you have a situation like that, where you have an underlying supply of power, and you have now a racing championship that is dependent on this power to be able to run, it's a non-starter. But as India moves forward in the mobility space, that is something that we would look at.
AB: How was this year’s participation for the Polo Cup? How did you attract more participants?
SV: Honestly, participation has been excellent! This is probably the biggest grid we've had. And the second part of that is we haven't done anything differently. I think that thanks to the pandemic, everybody's been cooped up and isolated at home. Now, they really wanted to get out and do something well, that's part of it probably. And I know, we know it's the same with me is that I want to do all the things that I really would like to do in my life instead of the things that I only have to do in my life. So it's a big difference. So, everybody's come out. We actually have another, something like six or eight drivers who wanted to race with us, but we didn't have cars. So if I had another six cars, you know, you would see 28 cars on the grid.
AB: Where do you think motorsport in India is when compared to the global standards?
SV: Unfortunately is not a very pretty answer. You need to look at motorsport in relation to the earning power of people. So if I was in the US and I was earning a hundred thousand dollars, which is not that bad for a mid-level manager, with a reasonable amount of experience. I can afford to go off and do karting, race motorcycles, even race cars on weekends without any drama. If I was earning a hundred thousand rupees, I wouldn't be able to afford any of that. So that's the big hurdle. The second aspect is the accessibility of motorsport. If you look at cricket or football, you can pretty much play that anywhere. All your investment to do that is either a cricket bat and a ball or a football, that's it. And space is available. You don't need any special pitch lists, nothing. Your apartment parking lot is good enough. However, when you talk about motorsport now, suddenly you need to be at a track, whether a go-kart track or a racetrack. How many do we have in India? Not many, not enough. The second thing is the minute I want to do that, because of the way things are international, there are so many different rules and regulations in terms of safety.
To give you an idea, if you look at a racing seat and the set of seatbelts, they start looking at 60-70,000 rupees. Just seat and seat belts. Then you start talking with a roll cage, maybe anywhere from 50,000 to a lakh and half, depending on who's doing it. All of this. Now the problem is if you want to do this on your regular road car, once you do all of this, you can't use it on the road anymore. So that means that you need to have a second car that you use to do all of that. Again, that puts you in a different bracket financially, to be able to afford it. That's the problem, right? Until we bridge that gap, it's very difficult. But that's part A of it. I would say part B of it is that, um, we haven't promoted motorsport enough, even cricket. It was only when the IPL came along, that it got the boost.
Before, it was a matter of national pride to play and represent your country. Yeah, you made money. You were paid maybe a couple of lakhs or a few lakhs, but you weren't paid crores. But today, because of the IPL, as a player, you can make crores in your income, not including endorsements. That's the step we need to make in motorsport. We are now looking at a five-day international type motorsport over here, playing for the Indian national team where you get literally nothing out of it. We need to make it an IPL type sport. And until we do that, you can't commercialise it. That's the biggest thing. And I think every sport, or every type of motorsport can learn from NASCAR. They know how to commercialise the sport. Nobody else does it as they do. And until we learn that, I mean, we will always be struggling.
AB: Who is your favourite on the grid? Or who stands out on the grid in your eyes?
SV: I don't have a favourite. But I am partial to Diana Pundole because she's the only woman driver on the grid. And not only that, but it's her work ethic. What I appreciate about what she's doing is that, all through the pandemic, every chance she got, she used to come out to the track over here, and drive cars, the Polos and Ventos. She used to rent them and drive and drive and drive. It's the same work ethic that she brings into what she's doing in our championship. So she was up and she found me this morning at 8 am when I got to the track and said,'' Hey, I need to go over data with you". That I appreciate, it's that work ethic. And the fact that she's the lone lady driver in this male-dominated sport. And I think it's amazing because, you know, it needs incredible amounts of mental strength to deal with the fact that, you know, you've got all this testosterone everywhere that you need to learn how to ignore and get on with your job and find a way of putting all the noise in the background.
AB: What is the cost of participation in the Polo Cup Championship?
SV: That's easy. It's nine and a half lakhs for the season plus a two and a half lakh damage deposit, which is refundable. And the cool thing is in that nine and a half lakh, you also get a racing suit that is yours to take home. But the best part is that that nine and a half lakhs cover the car, the fuel, the tires, the regular maintenance, the technicians, the driver coaches, everything! The only thing you need to do is pay for yourself to fly in, fly out, or drive in, drive out, and stay. It is an incredible value. You can't get that kind of value anywhere else for the kind of car that we have.
AB: So, my final question to you is, what pleases you more? A road race or a rally race?
SV: Woah! That's a difficult question. Look, my background is in racing. So there's a different approach in terms of mentality when it comes to racing and rallying. So when you're on a track, it is the same. There might be light grip variations as temperatures change, weather changes, whatever. But the track is the track. You got C1, C2, C3, and so on. Rallying is a completely different ballgame. You don't get to go around and see where you're going to be driving until you do the recce. You have one chance, which is going through the two loops that you do have in recce, where you have to sit with your co-driver and decide, okay, this corner, I can do it flat out in the fourth gear. And the next one, I think it's going to be a second gear corner. So, I need to position my car here. I need to avoid this rock or this bump. I need to do this, whatever. It's a completely different challenge. And then, the prep is all in the pace notings that we prepare. You get the pace notes right, driving is easy. You get the pace notes wrong and you are completely screwed. You are in trouble because now you have to watch where the road is going to drive to get the maximum performance out of the car. And no matter what you do, you will never be able to equal somebody who has done their job, pace noting correctly.
Whereas racing on a circuit, it's completely different. It's the same for everybody. And now if I've gone around the track 2000 times, you've only gone around 10 times, I have an advantage. Whereas in rallying, both of us are in the same playing field. Yeah, we are on equal ground. Now it all depends on how much you work to get the pace noting right and how much work I put in to get the pace notes right.
AB: So, which one just edges out for you?
SV: I feel they are just different experiences. I am a huge fan of Michèle Mouton. I have been following her from the time, I don't know what, I must have been 10 years old. So, I have always loved rallying. But racing is something else. I've been involved in racing for so long. But my all-time favourite is still endurance racing. I mean, I think eight-lap racing is gone like this, no fun. There needs to be more of a strategic challenge. And endurance racing for me, I mean to this day, despite the fact that I haven't been to a lot more in, I don't know, 10 years, 12 years or something like that, the minute Le Mans 24 hours is on, I have got livestream going, I've got timing and scoring going, I have three, four screens going, and I'm up for 24 hours.