Nine-time 24hrs champion gives the current crop some tips
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That’s an exciting looking Golf. This is the Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR. Not the road-going hot hatch, but its influence, a TCR-spec touring car that’s eligible to compete in tin-top racing series around the world. In short, TCR has transformed the way touring car competitions operate, simplifying the regulations to keep the cars cheap and accessible. All things being relative, of course; this GTI TCR starts at €95,000 euros (circa £85,000). A lot for a Golf, but not much for a racecar. So cheap’s sorted. What about accessible? It’s very much Golf beneath the skin. TCR regulations keep cars close to those you buy on the road, with a 2,000cc cap on engine size. So this has a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo like any other mk7 Golf GTI, only tuned up to nearly 350bhp, over 100bhp more than the cheapest GTI on sale. It’s still front-wheel drive and uses the same locking-diff technology to manage all that power through only the foremost axle.
Performance is improved upon the TCR road car – 0-62mph is half a second down, at 5.2secs – and at 1,285kg it also weighs over 100kg less, which probably doesn’t seem like much when you consider the interior’s stripped out and there’s none of the luxury. But there’s more of the stuff that matters in motorsport; more telemetry, more roll cage and considerably more bodywork. Just look at those arches! Keeping accessibility as a priority, you also have two choices of gearbox. Cheapest, at that €95k entry point, is a TCR with a DSG paddleshifter just like you get in road-going VWs. Pay €115k and you’ll upgrade to a proper six-speed sequential gearbox, one requiring not only more talent, but more maintenance too. The DSG can last up to 14,000 miles without replacement, whereas the sequential needs a complete overhaul every 2,000-4,000 miles. Should I care? Well, TCR cars are eligible for short circuit races and endurance events, like the Nürburgring 24 Hours, and the DSG is advisable if you’re targeting the latter. Which might help give it credibility if you’re worried choosing a racecar that can genuinely be left in auto mode if you wish (some drivers do, too) counts as some sort of ‘chickening out’. It’s the DSG car we’ve driven here, and boy does that accessibility play out when you actually experience the GTI TCR. It’s easy to feel the weight of intimidation in a pit garage, as a HANS device is slotted around your neck and a helmet clamped onto your head before you splay your legs clumsily over the roll cage, hoping you don’t look as out of your depth as you desperately feel. Then you spot the same gear lever as a Golf diesel, snick it down into D, and pull away with more noise and ferocity but no less difficulty than any other two-pedalled VW on sale. Of course, there are signs this is a serious racer – the button-resplendent suede steering wheel, the heavy, unassisted brake pedal, a low-slung driving position that pops your eye level in the bottom third of the windscreen (if you’re a shorty like me, anyway) – but you’re not fighting a set of controls that need a racing licence to comprehend. It’s genuinely as easy to drive as any other GTI.
Seriously? Well, as long as the tyres have some heat in them. When cold, the rear end can be a wee bit snappy if you overlap braking and steering into a corner – the kind of stuff a heavier road car with stability systems rarely troubles you with – but once there’s a bit of warmth at all four corners, you feel something approaching invincible. That gives it some tangible relation to the road car, albeit with all slack and hesitation taken out. Flick the wheel, the TCR follows your lead instantly. The brakes are superb – it takes one corner to acclimatise to how much harder you have to push the pedal, and in a short stint in the car, at least, it feels supremely satisfying – but if you still manage to overcook your entry speed, this is a forgiving car. Anything approaching understeer is corrected so easily with a lift of the throttle, the alacrity of the turn-in barely fathomable if you’re using a car with number plates as your benchmark. It’s all helped by the very unintimidating amount of power. Does that mean it’s not quick? While patently not a slow car, it’s not outrageously, head-swimmingly fast, so your entry speeds into corners are never going to be the kind to get you into serious trouble. It’s still a big step on from even a Golf R road car, but it doesn’t live on some kind of otherworldly plain that needs serious gumption to access. Which is the whole car to a tee, really. I assume the sequential gearbox adds the extra layer of depth that’ll be necessary to test experienced racers (as would adjusting the set-up to be a wee bit livelier); calling me a ‘novice’ would be over complimentary and yet I felt comfortable in this DSG car, struggling to think of anything sub-£100k that would deliver quite as much satisfaction with so little jeopardy. Besides other TCR cars, of course. The regulations are reasonably tight, particularly those regarding buying and servicing costs, so any of the vast array of TCR-regulation racers on sale doubtless deliver a similar balance of awe and approachability – a Honda Civic Type R, Hyundai i30N, Peugeot 308 GTI, and countless others all follow the same recipe and compete in the same championships. Even within the VW Group, there are minor rivalries thanks to TCR Audi RS3s and Cupra Leons. A few laps of Portimao on my own in this Golf was big fun… racing amongst a grid of these things must be spectacular.
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