What's the difference between the road and racing versions of the Polo GTI?

Waldo Swiegers gets behind the wheel of a racer purpose-built for the Oettinger Polo Cup to find out

29 November 2020 - 00:00
By Waldo Swiegers
The racing-version of the Polo GTI next to its road-version.
Image: Waldo Swiegers The racing-version of the Polo GTI next to its road-version.

Two examples of the popular Volkswagen Polo GTI are parked next to each other. One, a comfortable, rapid road-going version; the other a purpose-built racer for the Oettinger Polo Cup.

It's not every day you get to see the latter up close, let alone drive one. But here I am at Zwartkops Raceway about to do just that, after some careful arrangements with the custodians of the vehicle, Volkswagen Motorsport and Graeme Nathan Motorsport.

The Oettinger Polo Cup is a national race series sanctioned by Motorsport SA (MSA). The series has been running for more than 23 years and has always relied on an adapted Volkswagen Polo of the day as its basis.

The cars have a specified set of rules and technical regulations to adhere to. With everyone having the exact same hardware, only limited changes such as wheel alignment and tyre pressures are allowed to be made by each team.

This is why the racing is so close: the entire field of 25 cars qualify at speeds within 1.5 seconds of each other at most tracks. It brings the driving element to the forefront and only the best young drivers in SA rise to the top in this competitive series.

The recent international success of South African drivers such as brothers Kelvin and Sheldon van der Linde and Jordan Pepper and his sister Tasmin can to some extent be attributed to their championship-winning performances in the Polo Cup series.

The road and race Polos are much the same beneath the skin, but the race version has been stripped out and is void of all the creature comforts the road car boasts. The plush interior makes way for a bare essentials layout featuring a Motec switch panel and digital dash. A Tilton pedal setup gives the driver more control with direct engagement - no brake boosters or ABS here. A full roll cage and necessary FIA-approved seat and harness is more functional than comfortable.

One very apparent difference is the manual gearbox in the race car. The road-going version uses Volkswagen's tried-and-tested dual-clutch gearbox, while the racing version uses a six-speed manual gearbox from a Golf VII GTI.

The engine is the standard 2.0-litre turbocharged mill as found in the road car. The boost levels have been adjusted down to 0.6 bar, but power output remains roughly the same at 150kW thanks to the Motec engine management optimising for performance instead of economy.

The stripped-down racing version of the Polo GTI.
Image: Waldo Swiegers The stripped-down racing version of the Polo GTI.
The plush interior of the road-version Polo GTI.
Image: Waldo Swiegers The plush interior of the road-version Polo GTI.

With a "push-to-pass" button on the steering wheel, boost is raised to 0.8 bar, which raises power to 170kW for 10 seconds. There is a limited number of times a driver can use this in a race, so strategy comes into play as well.

Out on the track, the Polo Cup car is light on its proverbial feet. The 17-inch rims are shod with 215-wide Falken slick racing tyres - standard for everyone competing. The tyres offer immense amounts of grip and take some getting used to. The locally built "made-for-Polo Cup" SAX suspension is firm, and combined with specific spring rates it requires the driver to distribute the car's weight with some finesse through corners.

The open differential means wheelspin coming out of corners with one side of the suspension loaded up is a real threat if caution is not applied to the accelerator. One has to be very smooth on inputs with the car. Smooth is fast, and it is definitely true in this case.

The electric power steering is direct and light. The brakes work extremely well, but with the absence of an ABS system it's up to the driver to feel where maximum braking force is before a lock-up occurs. The beautifully spaced Tilton pedals make heel-and-toeing an absolute pleasure into corners, and the Polo Cup-specific Ferodo brake pads stand up to a fair amount of abuse without any issue.

After a few laps in the driver's seat, I understand why this series is so popular.

The success of the series throughout the years is testament to a winning formula. It is the premier race series for young drivers to show off their skills and use as a springboard to greater things in their racing careers.

With the continued support of Volkswagen Motorsport's efforts to discover local talent, the drivers who excel in the Polo Cup are sure to have a bright future in motorsport — locally or abroad.