I Drove A VW Golf GTI Race Car On A Soaking Track And Didn’t Die

I had my first ever drive in a full-on race car - a VW Golf GTI TCR - on a stupidly wet track in Spain, and nothing bad happened

“Good Morning Matt!” The chirpy written message on the well-known social media service read, adding, “Stay Dry In Terrasa. Rain Is Forecast”. A single and un-repeatable expletive rings out in my head.

I’m in Terrassa as it’s just down the road from an awesome but tricky track called Castelloli. You probably haven’t heard of it because it’s generally used for testing purposes rather than racing, but all you need to know is it’s complex, undulating and doesn’t have a whole lot of run off. And it’s the location of my first ever drive in a proper race car on this track. In the wet.

I Drove A VW Golf GTI Race Car On A Soaking Track And Didn’t Die - Features

The car in question is a VW Golf GTI TCR. 65 per cent of it may be made up of off-the-shelf VW Group parts, but this is a vastly different beast to a road-going GTI. It’s built by Seat Sport in Barcelona alongside the Leon TCR and Audi RS3 LMS, where a regular Golf body shell is shipped down from Germany to Spain and festooned with racing bits.

The familiar VAG 2.0-litre ‘EA888’ inline-four turbo is slung in the front, complemented by a shouty straight-through exhaust, a much beefier intake system, and a recalibrated ECU. Power? 346bhp!

I Drove A VW Golf GTI Race Car On A Soaking Track And Didn’t Die - Features

The suspension is where things get really interesting. The inboard subframes are as-per GTI, but the TCR is given bespoke uprights and wishbones. The camber, toe, ride height and spring rates can all be adjusted on the new setup. Factor in much beefier slick tyres, and you’re looking at a half metre increase in width over a road-going hot Golf.

Naturally, the arches are widened to match with fibreglass panels at the rear and new front wings. While they’re at it, the Seat Sport bods chuck in a big front splitter, a pair of side skirts, a rear diffuser and a massive rear wing. The result still looks like a Golf, just a Golf that’s gone ‘full Hulk’.

I Drove A VW Golf GTI Race Car On A Soaking Track And Didn’t Die - Features

Arriving at the circuit, it’s not looking good. Benny Leuchter - the chap who set the recently broken front-wheel drive ‘Ring record in a Golf Clubsport S - belts down the start/finish straight in one of the two TCRs available to us, with a torrent of spray erupting from the rear wheels and diffuser. With the forecast looking iffy for the whole day, the prospect of running on slicks has gone right out of the window.

Peeling back into the pits, Leuchter hops in a Golf R Performance - flanked by none other than former Formula 1 driver and Le Mans winner Hans Joachim-Stuck in another R - to lead us out on some installation laps. We’re in a fleet of Golf GTI Performance machines, and even at relatively gentle speeds, I can feel the front end trying to wander as the VAQ differential tries its best to put the power down in these soaking conditions.

I Drove A VW Golf GTI Race Car On A Soaking Track And Didn’t Die - Features

Soon after, Stuck and Leuchter have us huddled around for a pep talk. A decision has been made. Rather than going for the original plan of having one TCR session following the pros in the Rs and second session where we’re left to our own devices, we’ll be doing one longer session of guided laps. The mechanics have been up all night repairing a TCR binned yesterday in the dry, so they’re keen to make sure both cars and all drivers are intact by the end of the day.

This is all fine by me. If I can keep up with a racing god who’s driving a four-wheel drive car while I’m in a more powerful, lighter but front-wheel drive machine, I can count that as mission accomplished. The problem? I have an agonising two hour wait before my slot, and I’m nervous as hell.

If I look worried, that's because I am
If I look worried, that's because I am

When it’s time to change into the because racecar garb, my nerves haven’t settled. I’m ordered to strip off and change into flame resistant underwear and overalls. “You could leave your jeans on, but in a fire they’d melt onto your legs,” I’m told.

Seat adjusted (not the easiest task in the world of fixed bucket seats) and I’m installed in the stripped out interior, focusing on the job in hand. I’m car number two in a sort of TCR/Golf R sandwich, with Leuchter up ahead, Hans Stuck behind, and another TCR at the back. The lap starts off gently, but by the time we’re halfway around the 2.5-mile circuit, the pace is gathering rapidly.

I Drove A VW Golf GTI Race Car On A Soaking Track And Didn’t Die - Features

Early impressions? The front-end on this thing is incredible even in the wet, with an almost shockingly keen turn-in. The brakes make quite an impression too - ABS goes out of the window here (although it is optional), and the pedal for the AP Racing brakes is wonderfully progressive but incredibly firm. Each application takes an extreme amount of force which feels entirely alien for a racing car newbie like me. I’d make some quip about not skipping leg day at this point, but I’ve not been to a gym in about eight years.

There’s one braking zone that’s particularly hairy, which a series of bumps making the TCR feel ever so slightly nervous. I barely felt them in the GTI road car, but in the TCR each one aggressively clatters through the cabin.

I Drove A VW Golf GTI Race Car On A Soaking Track And Didn’t Die - Features

By lap three, I’m getting a little cocky. I’m too greedy with the throttle coming off a hairpin, at which point those wide front tyres dramatically lose traction. On a road car this would be fine, but in the TCR, the front end yaws from side to side quite violently while the VAQ system shuffles power between each of the fat front tyres.

Yep, it’s still packing the VAQ ‘half a Haldex’ system, and a six-speed DSG. If you’re a little more serious about your racing (the TCR mainly features a mixture of young whippersnappers on their way up the motorsport ladder, and older gentleman racers) you can up the €90,000 purchase price to €110,000 to get a proper plated diff and a six-speed sequential racing ‘box from ZF.

I Drove A VW Golf GTI Race Car On A Soaking Track And Didn’t Die - Features

Here, today, I’m quite content with the ‘entry-level’ DSG car. I’ve just taken a less than ideal line back onto the main straight, but that gives a small gap to Leuchter to properly put my foot down and catch up. Yes, the shifts aren’t as angry as they might be with the sequential car, but there’s a much more aggressive chuff reverberating through the cabin each time a new cog’s slotted in compared to road-going EA888, DSG’d machines.

Despite the extra power and weight loss it doesn’t feel that fast, but this just means you focus more on the way the TCR corners. Body roll? Flex? Forget it, there is none - at least not anything perceptible. There’s very little give in the race-spec suspension, and the whole shebang is 50 per cent more rigid than before thanks to the roll cage install and other strengthening jiggery pokery.

I Drove A VW Golf GTI Race Car On A Soaking Track And Didn’t Die - Features

By lap four, all feelings of nervousness and awe at my first racing car experience are gone. This is a machine that’s completely on your side, and a surprisingly easy-going introduction to just how magnificent a car can be once the compromises of the road are forgotten about. More to the point, I’m keeping Leuchter honest in the R, and that makes me very happy indeed. How do I know? He’s going sideways. A lot.

I’ve now lost count of the amount of laps we’ve done, but with the R up ahead backing off noticeably, it’s clear we’re on the cool-down lap. Now I realise I haven’t swallowed for the last 20 or so minutes and almost choke when I try. Oops.

Motorsport legend Hans Stuck appeared to be delighted that I hadn't binned the car
Motorsport legend Hans Stuck appeared to be delighted that I hadn't binned the car

As I pull to a stop and start the highly undignified process of climbing around the roll cage, I see Benny approaching, enthusiastically flashing me a thumbs up. He’s happy with how I got on, and Stuck has nice things to say too. Getting compliments from a Le Mans winner and a Nurburgring record holder? I’ll be boring people for months about that - unless of course they’re both just being polite…

Benny insists he couldn’t have gone faster, and mentions using a combination of Scandi flicks are strategic braking to turn the R’s pesky understeer into oversteer. He’s the real hero here - even with a clear track I really don’t think I’d have been that much faster, certainly not without the extreme risk of something very expensive happening.

I Drove A VW Golf GTI Race Car On A Soaking Track And Didn’t Die - Features

After capturing a little trackside photography and video, it’s time to be loaded into a shuttle bound for the airport. I’d have dearly loved to have driven the TCR in the dry on slicks, but as an introduction to the world of racing cars, it’s been an incredible day.

With most TCR teams charging upwards of €150,000 for a six-race season and anything up to €450,000 for 12 races, this little taster will have to do. But what a taster it’s been.