April 19, 2012
In 2008, Volkswagen of America took the bold step of launching its own single-make series for, of all things, its diesel Jetta model. For three seasons, the Jetta TDI Cup produced great racing and an inexpensive entry-level option for young drivers who were looking for a way into sedan, GT, and sports car racing. As part of the program VW put the competitors, all between the ages of 18 and 25, through a regime of physical fitness and high-level driver training carried out by the dedicated series coach, Jan Heylen.
The Belgian-born racer, who has a huge amount of experience in F3, F3000, Indy Lights, and Champ Car (pictured below), and currently competes in GT and prototype racing in the American Le Mans Series and Grand Am, has very fond memories of his time developing the TDI Cup car. Heylen began by explaining VW’s strategy. “The whole idea was to keep the car as ‘stock’ as possible, but we did a lot of development work over 3-4 years and we really had the car dialed in.” In fact, about 70% of the 2009 Jetta TDI Cup car, used for three seasons, was stock, the additional 30% being made up of those essential parts required to turn a street car into a racing car.
The car, a front-wheel-drive turbo diesel, was without doubt a challenge for young drivers, many of whom had little racing experience, let alone experience of racing a car driven by the wheels in front of them. Understanding the set-up of the car was therefore absolutely crucial.
Heylen was quick to point out the importance of this knowledge with the Jetta. “Shocks and camber set up are really important for turn in with a FWD car. All FWD cars will have mid-corner-to-exit understeer (tight/push on exit meaning the car does not want to turn) and we worked hard to minimize it to a point where, on a new set of Pirellis, you could really drive it perfectly.”
It may have been basically a production car but it needed to be treated like any other race car once on the track. “The car had to be stiff in the rear to free it in the mid-corner and exit, but there was a limit before it became too loose (“tail-happy” or oversteer) at the rear. As the tire wear increases, the car becomes more of a handful, especially in the fast corners,” Jan explained.
Finding the limit of the car’s performance was one of the key elements of the competition that separated the experienced drivers from the rookies, particularly when it came to braking. This was something Jan noticed early each season: “the difference between the younger guys and the more experienced drivers was that the guys with experience didn’t drive so much on front tires. New guys went quick but really ate their front tires. The key to going fast is NOT to drive on the front tires. Trail-braking into the corners and getting the car to stop on the front tires won’t work. It’s all about braking early and carrying the speed into the corner without putting stress on the front. In the second halves of races, the younger, more aggressive guys would develop understeer because they had leaned way too much on their front brakes.”
That point about race craft and mechanical sympathy was backed up by one of the voices of the American Le Mans Series and the head of the Team USA Scholarship, Jeremy Shaw. Shaw was invited to race as a guest in the 2009 Road Atlanta event (pictured below) which proved to be a very wet affair. His measured display netted him a 12th place against the regulars, equaling the best performance by a guest that year. He thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience.
“I loved it,” Shaw exclaimed, still beaming about the event two years on. “Everything about it was new to me, I’d never raced a car with a paddle shift before, the torque from the diesel engine was terrific, and I was even left foot braking.” The biggest surprise for the veteran journalist was the braking. “You could almost go as deep into the corner in the rain as you could in the dry. It was fantastic!”
Heylen agreed that “the brakes were unbelievable”, explaining that they had done a lot of development work on them. “The (standard) ABS worked really well. You could slam the brakes on and the ABS would do the work.” He also shared a helpful hint about using the ABS in the dry.“The car uses both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ anti-lock braking and applying too much pressure, or being too late on the brakes, activates the hard ABS. You must try to use the soft ABS only because you simply don’t have the power in the Jetta, so you need to do all your work before you turn in so that you can get a good exit and get a good lap together.”
Like Jeremy Shaw, Jan Heylen had nothing but good things to say about the car and the series: “I’ve been in the sport for 22 years and I have never seen anything like it. What we had was something really special. I have never seen any school or series that delivered the same product as we did!”
So there you have it! For a whole 45 cents on Simraceway you can download one of the best training tools ever developed, hone your race craft and have huge amounts of fun in the process. So what are you waiting for!?
Photos courtesy of Jeremy Shaw and www.janheylen.com
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