The green gas guzzler

Volkswagen’s new alternative-fuelled racer is a gas-powered Scirocco that’s already proved its worth at the Nürburgring.
Time for us to get behind the wheel…
By Ed Foster

The handsome Volkswagen Scirocco was launched in 2008, but before the road car was presented to the masses VW decided to entice younger drivers by proving its sporting prowess in the Nürburgring 24 Hours. With 235,000 spectators, mostly aged between 18 and 40, it had a lot to lose. But the risk paid off – the Scirocco GT24s recorded a one-two class finish and an 11th place overall. VW’s board members must have been rubbing their hands in glee…

Such a stunning debut does present a problem, though – what do you do as a follow-up? The Scirocco was unlikely to manage a higher-placed finish at the ’Ring thanks to the pace of various Porsche RSRs, so Volkswagen decided to modify the GT24, but not in the usual sense… The German manufacturer chose to go ‘green’ at the ‘Green Hell’.

Many manufacturers have built alternative-fuelled cars – Honda has even produced a hydrogen-powered machine – but there’s limited reward if the technology can’t be used on the road. VW has already built a CNG-powered (compressed natural gas) Passat for the road, but if you live in Britain you may well wonder where CNG can be found – how many petrol stations near you stock a 98-99 per cent methane gas? Well, as usual, Germany is one step ahead. It’s possible to run a CNG car like any other there. As a result the CNG-powered Passat is only available in Germany.

Fast-forward to the 2009 Nürburgring 24 Hours: this time Volkswagen fielded three petrol-powered Sciroccos and two Scirocco GT24-CNG racers. One class win might have been enough in ’08, but two class victories was the target this time. One in SPT3 (don’t ask how the classes are named) and one in AT (for alternative-fuelled cars).

The turbocharged 2-litre, four-cylinder engine in the GT24-CNG is sourced from an Audi A3, and in order for it to run CNG the injectors are modified before VW takes delivery. As a result the engine produces slightly less power (278bhp to the petrol’s 310bhp), but the drivers were unfazed by this deficit. “When you’re racing the difference is pretty small, it’s almost the same car,” says Jimmy Johansson, who drove one of the petrol cars to first in class.

Konrad Paule, race engineer for CNG car No 115 at the ’Ring, admits the engine modifications were not the main concern: “The problem was getting used to the system. It’s a very different way of storing energy and you have to get huge amounts of gas through all the components and valves. With the petrol engine there’s been years of development, but the gas thing is still new.”

New it may be, but both cars ran faultlessly and finished one-two in the AT class and 17th and 101st overall. More impressive was that the five gearboxes and clutches for both the petrol and CNG cars – lifted straight from the road car with only 1.7kg shaved off the 80kg weight – survived without a single problem.

VW has proven that TDI technology can win the Paris-Dakar, claiming an historic one-two this year. But with the Scirocco it needed simply to prove that the CNG car was as quick as its petrol-powered sister, and in qualifying one of the CNG cars did place higher than its petrol equivalent. In the race the CNG cars couldn’t stay with their petrol cousins, but the point had been made. Alternative fuels are a viable option. A point in their favour was that it took less time to refuel the CNG car. VW made sure the team had specially dried gas which could be pumped into two huge 44kg tanks, one in the boot and the other on the passenger side of the car.

One of those tanks had been removed when we were asked to test the GT24-CNG at Oschersleben, but otherwise the car was still in Nürburgring spec. If you were designing a perfect endurance racer, the Scirocco wouldn’t be far off the mark. The steering is extremely light – almost too light for a limited number of laps – and there’s no clutch pedal, so no embarrassing stalls on the way out of the pits. The DSG ’box works just as it does in the road car, with paddles behind the steering wheel. And there’s no way you can over-rev the engine, because if you try and change down prematurely the computer just says ‘no’.

The Scirocco, like all front-wheel-drive cars, understeers a little but is still extremely predictable. The only problem I encountered was how much pressure to apply to the brakes. After 10 laps I was still braking too early for most corners and couldn’t fathom why I was running out of Tarmac. A ride beside Johansson later in the day confirmed that you need a leg of steel to make full use of the braking.

And as for the power source? If I were a seasoned pro, no doubt I would have noticed the power deficit and perhaps the noise difference, but to an amateur racer – let alone a road car driver – the GT24-CNG feels just like a petrol car. There’s plenty of power and, thankfully, the noise from the exhaust is almost the same.

VW has a long history in motor racing, but not on a large scale. Its motor sport technical director Andreas Lautner admits that the Scirocco project has taken priority over the company’s Formula 3 and Paris-Dakar TDI campaigns, especially now that KTM and Mitsubishi have withdrawn from the desert enduro. Although VW doesn’t have the facilities or support to build customer racers, it is hoping to return to the Nürburgring in 2010. “At the moment the Scirocco makes the most sense to go racing with,” says Lautner. “But where we go from here is difficult to say – we have no green light from our board, although we are presenting various packages to them, one of which is to push for a top-10 finish [in the 24 Hours]. I have some ideas of how to do this, but I can’t really speak about them now.”

Asked whether the car’s power could be easily increased to 300bhp, he replies, “Three hundred? About 400!” That might be a little optimistic, as more power would only accentuate the understeer, as stated by Johansson. But it looks like the Scirocco GT24-CNGs will be at the ’Ring in 2010 – and they’ll be even faster.

The Scirocco road car is a perfect base for a racing version with its wheels right at each corner, and it’s great to see VW getting more heavily involved in motor sport. All credit to the manufacturer for making CNG technology work seamlessly on its cars’ debut. After all, green technologies are set to play an ever larger part in motor racing, and if they can be made to work as well as their petrol equivalents, as is the case with the Scirocco GT24-CNG, then the future is not only green but also very bright.