Opinion: Psyching Up For Polo Cup

Opinion: Psyching Up For Polo Cup

Psychology was one of my majors at university, so it was there that I was introduced to Sigmund Freud’s structural model of “id”, “ego” and “superego”. We all tend to throw the “ego” term around a lot, and generally understand it to refer to our self-esteem and often to mean that someone has an inflated sense of self-worth.

But in Freud’s definition, our “ego” is the proverbial middle ground: it tries to balance the desires of our instinctual “id”, with our con- science, or “superego”. Where our “superego” can stop us from doing things our untamed “id” may want us to do, our “ego” is essentially the organised, realistic part of each of us that mediates between the two.

By the time you read this article, my self-esteem is set to take a knock. Why? Because I am racing in the final round of the national Engen VW Polo Cup Series at Zwartkops this weekend.

For 17 years, this one-make championship has provided some of the most exciting, close-quarter racing on our circuits. With engines leased from VW Motorsport and strict technical regulations to ensure the cars are essentially the same, the teams only have a limited number of tweaks they can make, so it’s the driver who is the star.

Michael Stephen, Graeme Nathan, Tschops Sipuka, Gennaro Bonafede and Iain Pepper are just a few of the big names in South African motorsport who have come through this “master class” for young race drivers.

Racing in this country may well be in a sad state, but where other formulas are struggling to produce full fields and competitive racing to get the spectators fired up, the VW Polo Cup is on point. In fact, this series has taken local champions and turned them into international stars.

Guys like Kelvin van der Linde, Jordan Pepper and Jeffrey Kruger are not only competing in major international race series like the ADAC GT Masters, Scirocco Cup, VW Castrol Cup and Polo R Cup, they are winning — races and championships — and rewriting the record books.

And thanks to these champions — as well as Jayde Kruger, who won the British Formula Ford Championship — South Africa is back on the international motor racing scene. And so, about this weekend. Even though I grew up in a family that has produced one of our country’s best in Michael Briggs, I only got into racing late in life.

Although I have had some success in the various series I have competed in, this is racing on another level — and I’ll be shown no mercy by these drivers. Most of them are not even legally allowed to operate a vehicle on public roads; they know no fear and certainly can’t spell consequence, yet what they can do is drive … fast. Now do you understand why I am checking my ego at the entrance to Zwartkops Raceway?

To make matters even more challenging, the Polo Vivo racing car is extremely difficult to drive: you almost need to be a Jedi to master the skill. But how is that possible? Considering that the Polo and Vivo are consistently in the top five in vehicle sales each month, which means that many of you have tried one out at some stage, you know how easy they are to drive.

But in race trim, the cars are a whole different story. To give you some perspective, in an episode of GT LapZ on Ignition TV, Gugu Zulu took an Audi R8 V10 around Zwartkops in a time of 1.13,6. Sheldon van der Linde can get his Polo Vivo around the circuit in 1.12,9. Granted, the R8 wasn’t a stripped-down racing car, but it does have tons more shove, fantastic brakes and all-wheel drive. On the other hand, the top-heavy Polo was certainly never designed as a thoroughbred racer.

What makes Sheldon’s time even more impressive, though, is that these racing cars are essentially running on the same underpinnings as the road-going version — that’s what helps keep the series affordable. Now the natural tendency of any front-wheel drive car is to understeer — that’s where the nose of the car pushes wide and you run out of road — and the only way to counter it, or to get the nose to turn in, is to set it up really loosely in the rear.

Without a limited slip differential to maximise traction and pull you out of the corners, your relationship with the accelerator is also a critical one. Unless you have done a few laps in a Polo Vivo, you will never fully appreciate just how good the competitors really are. So, essentially, I will be strapped into a super-twitchy runabout that pitches, rolls then hops in the corners, doesn’t stop very well, needs me to pump the brake pedal with my left foot before braking if I want any feel, has narrow 15-inch slicks that are fantastic for about three of the 12 laps, all while learning the real meaning of “rubbing is racing” from a determined bunch of kids… brilliant!

And that is exactly why the series is a crowd favourite, not only producing the most exciting racing, but a generation of young drivers with exceptional skills and well- honed race craft, ready for international success. The mediation between my “id” and “superego” is finally over: my ego has ruled that I am not allowed to finish last in qualifying.

Marius Roberts is the anchor for Ignition GT