Track test: Golf GTi

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Champion Golf

The epitome of the “hot hatchback” classes has won the 1989 UniRoyal Production Saloon Car Championship. Prepared by Britain’s best known Audi-VW specialists, GTi Engineering of Silverstone, the 16v Golf GTi of Silver Shield franchise holder Roger Jones won its class in 12 of 14 qualifying rounds and is the subject of our track test this month.

Since there are two production racing championships in Britain and they are set to go different regulatory ways in 1990, it was a significant championship win for Volkswagen, especially as the Astra GTE 16v has proved dominant in the more liberally tuned Group A category. The General Motors Astra/Kadett is obviously set to make a considerable impact on production racing, when a team with the credentials of GTi Engineering begins to support the Vauxhall cause.

Winning national and international titles is important to support the credibility of the Golf in the showroom, where it generates plenty of profitable United Kingdom business. Since 1977, when the 8v Golf GTi officially and unofficially began to trickle into Britain, 80,246 examples have been sold up to the end of August 1989. About 10% of those were the convertible which remains in “Mk 1” clothes and rather more, some 9490, of the 16v GTi, the most expensive UK Golf which was introduced in 1986. To support these significant sales rates, the British arm of Volkswagen Motorsport, and its Product Manager Nigel Walker, ensured that the 16v Golf was sold to bona fide racing teams at a reduced cost, reflecting an absence of luxury items like the sunroof and power steering, forming the basis of a saloon that will be built from bare metal.

The car will be rebuilt to the millimetric precision of an RAC Production Car Specification Sheet that has to be produced for comparison purposes at scrutineering. That sounds rather grand, but the form tends to be riddled with simple typing and communication errors that can generate disqualificadons. Both the team and the RAC scrutineer must know the foibles of human error in an increasingly professional branch of motor sport.

For example, the drawings of the intake plenum chamber for the Golf 16v, revised shortly after the model arrived on the British market (just 220 were registered in 1986) appear to have been transposed on the RAC sheet. An important move from 235mm to 256mm increased front disc brake diameters for 1989 model year Golf I6v models also failed to be correctly amended on the form for much of the racing season. By contrast the production running change to an even lower suspension ride height, one supported by six coils of the springs in place of seven, was noted, as was the alternative of a washable gauze air filter element to the original paper element.

On such fine points the effectiveness of a production racing car is decided, but you still need a remarkable balance between preparation, on-circuit team skills and a driver who will probably have extensive experience, not just in general racing terms, but specifically in front-drive saloons.

Key human elements were former GP motorcycle racer Martin Sharpe, who manages the team at the circuit, and 41 year old “Jones the driver”, who has finished in the top three of the Renault 5 and MG Metro one-make series. Thus he accrued the kind of close racing experience of front-drive that contributed so much to a 1988 record of 12 class wins in Golf GTis and runner-up position in the two British production racing championships. Tending the car from Silver Shield were Simon Porter and Paul Hetherington while field support from GTi Engineering comes in the form of engineering director, Roger Abbey-Taylor.

The result of all these human endeavours is a 16v Golf recognisably true to its production roots but seconds a lap more suitable for circuit duties. Power is one ingredient that is officially underplayed by GTi Engineering, but the standard 139 bhp at 6100 rpm is certainly augmented, along with a vast improvement in mid-range torque in favour of ultimate bhp. Roger Abbey-Taylor says “We do not quote the power and torque figures for this engine, but you can take it that the side exhaust is functional, adding 5-7 bhp in our Zandvoort experience. On average, we say there is another 15 bhp at the flywheel.”

In action at speeds up to 130 mph on Silverstone GP circuit, or a maximum of 115 mph on the twisty Silverstone ‘national’ modification to the original club layout, I can simply report that it consumed racing turbo Metros in a straight line. The GTi Engineering choice of two engines was credited with 165 to 170 bhp by insiders. It is not the quickest production racing GTi around in a straight line, but the power spread and unusual, adaptable suspension with Bridgestone RE 71 tyres and Roger Jones guidance are more important than the last 5 bhp.

What can be “unusual” about production saloon car suspension? Against all the low riding rivals around them GTi elected to run almost standard suspension ride heights. The team consensus appeared to be: “Volkswagen spent millions on developing that strut front end and torsion bar, trailing arm rear. Who are we to say they are wrong? Besides, it is not unknown for a saloon car to be bumped over kerbs, so you need some effective suspension travel.” What the GTi equipe naturally omit is that bump stop rubber settings, a choice of Leda or Bilstein shock absorbers and the ability to fine tune the system’s presentation of 61 x 14 inch alloy and 185/60 R Bridgestone to tarmac, do allow a winning edge to appear. As stated, I tried the car twice, and can confirm that its stable behaviour around the GP circuit allowed me to average 87.9 mph versus a likely qualifying pace of 90 mph.

When I tried the same GTi, 10 days later, it had an alternative engine (better midrange) and was ready for the shorter Silverstone layout, Brands Hatch and the like. The suspension had a deliberate bias toward twitchy, nervous response. The GTi had lost its straight stability and would turn into a corner with minimal effort, prompted by a released throttle as much as the steering.

The point about saloon car kerb utilisation was also forcefully made. The national Silverstone layout has a section of tight third and second gear twists from what used to be Club Straight out towards the bridge and thence back to a reinstated Woodcote chicane. On a very slippery day Roger Jones was above the 1m 30s mark that divides an average time from the 1m 29.2s record. He then reappeared, modified his line to brush two wheels clean over one obstructive protrusion, and returned 1m 29.4 seconds.

I was allowed to try the same technique and, providing you had the rhythm correctly assessed, the Golf just exaggerated its normal rear wheel airborne stance into such a light cornering weight on the unladen wheels that they literally glided over the kerb. Driven thus, long travel suspension absorbed any minimal impact without the slightest disturbance to line or the driver’s heartbeat.

I am not advocating the four-wheel flights through Russell complex that clip one leading Honda CRX competitor’s Snetterton times beneath those of a 290 bhp Cosworth Sierra. I am highlighting the point that there is a little more finesse to saloon car racing driver and suspension technique than may be suspected from pictorial study of the frequently high flying contestants. Both GTi preparation and the people connected with this 16v are quietly professional, so the garish black and yellow colour scheme comes as a shock. Swaddled in Luke harness and OMP seating, surrounded by Spec Fab roll cage and clasping an Italvolanti steering wheel, the view ahead is dominated by largely standard instrumentation (including 90% functional computer) and the loss of the upper windscreen to an advertising banner.

The transmission is standard and the gear change quality is rubbery, but cooperative. “We do have to keep an eye on the clutch for wear”, say the team. I was told to use no more than 7400 rpm and found that three auxiliary guages for water temperature, oil pressure and temperature, read exactly as predicted.

The exhaust is naturally snappier than the standard car, adding to the impression of acceleration in a car that weighs 900 kg rather than a showroom 960 kg. Another attribute is the solid feedback of both car and engine. I borrowed a standard Golf 16v over a weekend and the big difference is in the feeling of unending power, for there is little of the usual 3000-4500 rpm weakness and yet it will climb on beyond 6000 rpm with gusto. In fact maximum speed on the shorter circuit came up at 7000 rpm in fourth with an eagerness to continue gathering engine rpm.

Obviously the GP circuit gave most rein to the latter ability, registering some 6500 rpm and equivalent to some 132 mph on the Hangar straight, and only 2 mph less on the run from Abbey to the Woodcote bridge complex. The latter section is a truly severe test of both braking and 60 mph cornering power in a front-drive machine. For second gear and a wide arc are prescribed on the turn in after that 130 mph section: too much throttle and you simply get wheel spin, understeer and more understeer.

The brakes, derived from the units found on the middleweight Passat, are a match for the track performance. I would recommend owners of older road cars to follow suit.

Just like its showroom sisters, the competition GTi is hard to criticise for more than details. I would have liked more feedback through the steering and the cost of campaigning a 14 race season at £50,000 is daunting, even if that includes purchase of a competition specification GTi. But a winning formula, racing or showroom, is never cheap. JW

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