Updated: August 29, 2014
Driving a real sports car on a real race track is always a special kind of experience and a unique adventure. This year, I was lucky enough to find myself at Grobnik, a car-and-bike racetrack in northwestern Croatia. The car? A beautifully decalled Renault Clio Cup 2013, a one-make racing car with a 1.6-liter 210 HP turbo-charged engine and a six-speed sequential gearbox. Neat, if you consider the fact you get no driving assistance whatsoever, no power steering, no ABS, no ESP, no exhaust filtering, bare interior. However, you do get buckets, rollcage, a helmet with a built-in headset for communication, and yes, tons of unbridled 120dB engine noise.
Being an enthusiast and no stranger to cars with a significant scoop of muscle, I knew the track day would be different from a drive in a typical hot hatch, it's just that I underestimated how much different. Fun ensues, as you will soon discover. Anyhow, this article is not just a boring report, or a quick video clip. It's a whole story, and I suggest you stick and read all the little bits, and then watch the driving action. Let's roll. Cage. Joke. Hihi.
Welcome to Grobnik
The name of the track demands respect. Literally translated, it reads Undertaker, or one who makes caskets and/or tombstones. Indeed, it is a demanding 4.2-km track with a whole bunch of nasty curves, a bumpy surface and a proven record of killing bike racers. For cars, it's less of an issue, but if I can trust the words of my instructor, a 14-year professional driver from Slovenia, this track is more demanding than Imola.
It was raining heavily - unexpectedly - but this turned out to be a great twist of luck. There were numerous slots reserved for bike racing, and they all got canceled. Likewise, an Austrian team with its 450 HP Alpha Romeo car also decided not to drive that day, which meant I had the entire track for myself! And my significant other, who also wanted a go round Grobnik, which makes her one of the few, very rare female participants interested in blasting in a Renault Clip Cup, or any sports car, on a track, pretty much anywhere, anyplace. Much respect was given that day. Now, you expect, I'm gonna show you a fair lady driving and whatnot, and that would boost the views massively, but no, that ain't gonna happen this time.
While in the pit, the car's team spent a lot of time pondering what tires to use for the drive. They put on the slicks, then figured out it was too wet and changed them, then it cleared and only got mildly dump, which made them change the tires again, and yet again. In the end, we used the rain set, but it kept drizzling and pattering during the entire session. Working wipers in the Clio Cup is not quite as simple as an ordinary car, as you will later find out in the video.
Wet however does not mean cold. It was rather hot, and there's no air conditioning in the car. You do have air vents, but we could not use them, as they feed air from a roof nacelle, which collects rain when there's rain, so the cabin, in addition to being cramped and ultra-noisy, was also hot. Speaking of the noise, the engine and the exhaust system have no muffling whatsoever, so you get unrefined explosions inside. Loud enough so that you cannot hear the co-driver, unless you use the helmet-to-helmet communication set. The turbo noise is also tremendous. From outside, it sounds like a small jet. Inside, it's physically demanding.
Renault Clio Cup is a beast. There's no other word to describe it. Stylish, slightly reminiscent of the production car that serves as the template for the one-off racing version. And this is where all similarities end. The racer comes with its own set of modifications, which transform it entirely into a completely different animal.
Sitting inside gives you a good perception of your world. The windscreen is half-obscured by the racing team decal, which is good, because it focuses your view down on the track and minimizes sun glare. Speaking of decals, the next time you see this specific car, the paintjob and the insignia might be completely changed to match the relevant track day, race, sponsor, event, or whatnot. But I was told this very car was driven by a variety of professional Slovenian and Croatian drivers. It's not an example used to milk easy money off enthusiastic plebeians. It's the real deal.
The cage means you have to climb in feet first, and it's tricky if you're a man and not very limber. You sit down, and the mechanics fit the chair based on your anatomy. It's a permanent fix, with bolts fitted from underneath and whatnot. Then, with the helmet, you ever so gently bump the roofline. A five-point harness completes the picture of gentle claustrophobia - to make a poignant point, one of the straps goes over your groin, tightly. The steering wheel sits higher up, with solid medal paddles for shifting gears. There's a small digital screen that reads your data, with the gear and RPM as the chief ones, naturally, and the tiny speedometer in the bottom left corner. Hint, you just can't look at it while racing. That's why they fit a smartphone with GPS to the windscreen, for telemetry and whatnot.
How it all went
First time, round the track, in this car, in wet conditions. What do you think how it went? Well, it went fairly OK overall, I have to say. I did a total of roughly 45 minutes of driving, in three 15 minute sets, with a short break in between the first and the second session. The first one to familiarize with the track, the second to give it a hard go, and the third to realize that it's just too demanding, and that your concentration drops exponentially, and it's time to go back into the pit, and thank everyone for their hard work.
Sounds crazy. But 15 minutes of giving the maximum on the track feels like three or four hours of solid driving, or running a big bunch of kilometers. You come out sweating, thirsty, weak, tired, panting. It's a demanding physical exercise, and you have to be prepared, physically and mentally. With time and skill, of course, you get more and more proficient, but the first few rides are brutal. I am totally glad that I had the humbleness and fortitude to choose Renault Clio Cup rather than Porsche 911 or Audi R8. Just imagine the amount of effort and scare there. At least the small Renault can be safely driven near the edge of its capacity, while the big brutes are simply too powerful. Again, we're not talking road versions. Nopey.
The ignition is a three-step process. Punch one button, then another, then start the car. It coughs and rattles a little before the engine comes alive, with a fiery, deafening rattle. The RPM wavers up and down, because there's no fancy electronics to control everything. Just as it should be. A taste of proper primitive.
I stalled the car a few times when trying to pull off. You need a lot of throttle to keep it running, and the clutch is basically a safety button used for the first and the reverse only, so you do not downshift too much and destroy the gearbox and the engine. But you sure can't be gentle, like I was trying to do. Anyhow, that was my first sin.
Then, during the first set, I spun out once. A tricky corner, the instructor said, go in the third, I went in the fourth, and the end result was, I botched it. Then, the window net on my left came loose during one of the laps, so I had to slow down and improvise a little until I had it clipped back into place. Then, back in the game.
Rain came and went, making me use the wipers, then not use them, and the instructor and I juggled a bit with the wiper button. It's a tricky one, really. A short press invokes the wipers just once. Press up to three seconds, it will clear the water off but then switch off once you release the button. Keep pressing for a little longer than that, and the wipers will remain working until you switch them off with a similar three-second action. This means moving your thumb off the steering wheel, hunting the correct button, and applying the necessary pressure, through corners, at speed. Or suchlike.
Gear changes come with a nasty back kick. The noise and vibrations are absolutely staggering. Thunder, la la la la la la la! Our helmet-to-helmet communications system was not working perfectly, and there were a few times we did not understand each other, so we had to yell and repeat the words. This added to the wild, raw feel of the ride. But it also tolled more of my mental mustard.
I also tried to use the heel-and-toe approach during braking, to maintain somewhat higher RPM, but the instructor did not like that, and he asked me twice to move my right foot more to the center when braking. I kindly obliged, and then I obliged again. It probably makes sense. Then, the better I drove, the more the instructor timed the braking later into my turns. At first, he'd call it at 300 meters in, then 200 meters, and then my average speed went up and up.
I managed to improve my time significantly between the first and second session. I shortened my best lap record by a whole seven seconds in the latter round compared to the starting 15-minute run. If that nifty smartphone racing-data application can be trusted, were I to drive in perfectly dry conditions and do all my slaloming, braking and whatnot with total grace, my virtual lap time would be something like 1:44, which is a pretty neat time for the Clio Cup at Grobnik. But that means driving perfectly all the time and not just bits and pieces of each lap. For what it matters, I clocked about 190 km/h in a straight line.
I could feel getting better and better - as well as spot my own mistakes. And if you watch the side mirrors carefully, you can see me getting closer to the apex each time, in those corners where it makes sense. A measure of education and self improvement, if you will. It also gives me pleasure, in an OCD kind of way. Go figure. Or better yet, don't.
This is what you want, right. It's roughly 15 minutes of HD action, filmed with a Go Pro camera suspended from the roof of the vehicle. You get an excellent view of the mirrors, so you can check how closely I was kissing the apex, and improving, as well as check out the bobbing of my big helmeted head and the hand work. Not the naughty kind, mind. You might also be able to decipher some of the gibberish between me and the instructor. Anyhow, the video sums all of the lovely words above.
This was one hell of an experience. I can watch my own clip over and over, and listen to the magical thunder slash turbo whistle sound of that engine. It's not that I was phenomenal or exceptional in any way. I did a whole bunch of mistakes out there, but I felt them as they happened, in real time, and I learned from them. Most importantly, I had such a tremendous amount of fun. This is a dream come true, and now, I need to find more cars and other race tracks, to make the dream realize itself a few more times.
Anyhow, I hope you found this article slash report slash noob blog post sharing interesting. As always, I am sure, there will be some astute heads out there who will dislike the performance, no matter what, and be sure to point out how their customized homemade car does x10 better in their hands. No doubt. Let's avoid that if we can. Just try to focus on the sheer pleasure of speed, revs and an attempt to make those laps smoother, faster and better looking, one after another. That is all, folks.