By: Charles Molefe
It’s not often I get an e-mail that says, Charles, please call me when you have a minute, well, not from anyone of great influence in the motoring industry.
Ladies and gentlemen, we all have certain bucket list items that we occasionally get to check off and achieve in this rat race called life. Ever since I stepped foot on a racetrack, I knew that one day I would have to go through the experience of putting a capable machine through its paces.
This opportunity to check the box came in the form of a High-performance driving course, hosted by the Volkswagen driving academy. My initial reaction when I received the invite was, of course, jubilation. Here I was in the office doing the chicken dance, already anticipating what I will be doing to that poor vehicle around the Zwartkops raceway.
It was very difficult to contain my excitement, colours were brighter, food tasted better and everything just seemed as though I was in a Utopian state of mind.
So here we were, the day of reckoning, the day I put my fears behind me and check one more item off my bucket list. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the friendly members of the Volkswagen driving academy team.
After smothering our faces, courtesy of Volkswagen, off we went into the boardroom, my initial thoughts were, oh no, a dreary and boring theoretical session that is about to take up most of my track time, to my surprise, the theoretical session is vital, you are taught a number of aspects of vehicle control, types of skids that you may encounter and how the technology in the Volkswagen vehicles helps the driver maintain absolute control.
ESP – Electronic stability programme
ABS – Anti-lock Brake System
EBD – Electronic Brake-force Distribution
The words mentioned above are just a snippet of the technology you are exposed to, I would say the greatest lesson is how sprung and unsprung mass can drastically affect a vehicle’s road holding character.
This was now my time to shine, I was ready to take this so-called beast around the infamous Zwartkops Raceway, the first time around was with my instructor, Kuda, a very talented man behind the wheel, around the first corner I thought this is it, this is how I go out, goodbye cruel world, what followed was a huge shunt of g force pinning me to the door like a Pitbull on its victim, when I eventually opened my eyes, we were already hurtling down the straight aiming for our next braking point, once again, a shove of g force had me clasping at the passenger seat, hoping to anchor myself.
A short gaze to the rear-view mirror enabled me to catch a glimpse of Kuda’s wry smile, this man was literally enjoying hurling me around like a little rag doll in a tumble dryer.
After completing the lap, it was time to ease things down, get a few pointers on how clinical we have to be to tackle this circuit.
As I got out of the GTI, I had what one can describe as shaky legs. Once I had established my footing it was time for me to take notes and create an imaginary ride as I took in all that I had learned.
After a couple of minutes, it was now my turn to give the car a go on the track, I jumped in, adjusted the seat accordingly and placed my hands at 14:45 for optimal feel and grip of the leather-clad wheel. Seatbelt check, mirror, checks and off I went.
As we passed the first pit line, I heard, now, floor it, I obliged, heading for turn 1 at a rapid speed, hard on the brakes then smoothly turned into turn 2, once we were into 2 it seemed as though a voice from above was shouting, squeeze that throttle for me squeeze, squeeze, squeeze and eventually I was flat, fast approaching turn 3 at roughly 140km/h, just before taking turn 3 there was a cone that the instructors had placed, this was used as an indication of when to turn in for 3. At this moment, copious amounts of adrenaline were being pumped, the heart beating like a tin can drum and the mind trained on kissing the apex perfectly.
Turn 4 is arguably the most critical, as the run up to turn 5 can be conquered on how much speed you maintain out of 4. As you approach turn 5 there is a cell phone mast that you can use to align yourself for the perfect turn in, however, don’t be fooled, turn 5 is a little more sedate but challenging, if you carry too much speed, you’ll understeer, but, getting it right will literally slingshot you into turn 6 and have you flying through turn 7 and approaching turn 8 rather rapidly.
Another exciting aspect of the day was time spent on the skidpan, for eons I have always wanted to get myself a try on the skid pan, in this session we were introduced to wet road handling and a number of encounters you may face whilst on the road. Once again, it would be very silly of me to fault the GTI, it handled the low grip surface with high precision, even when you think you have lost all control, the car is always a step ahead and will literally guarantee your safe passage to your destination.
Our last challenge was arguably the most fun, GYMKHANA, if you have ever seen a bloke by the name of Ken Block you will have a good image of what happened next.
This time we were pitted against the clock and each other, needless to say, our first attempt was dismal, I got lost halfway around the track, it must have been my best James May impersonation to date.
Once the practice lap was done it was time to go out DSG blazing, the result was pretty impressive, a third-place finish, this was more than satisfying, considering I was pipped by two seasoned journalists, I know with more time and experience I’ll be holding that 1st place spot.
My experience at the Volkswagen Academy was nothing short of brilliant, if you are an individual who wants to learn more about the different aspects of safety, performance and equipping yourself with “lifetime” skills, you are not going to get a better option from anyone else, not at that price anyway.
This experience is one that has made me a far superior driver than I was previously, I am now a more confident and most importantly a safer driver.
Thank you to Volkswagen South Africa for the lovely day and a special mention to Siyanga Madikizela for providing me with the opportunity to experience their awesome and highly capable, Golf GTI.