I was sitting at the Mumbai airport waiting to board my flight to Chennai, while simultaneously making up scenarios of how my first time on the track would play out. Would I be able to learn quickly, or would I crash and make a fool out of myself in front of all my peers? Maybe I would find out that I was a racetrack prodigy just waiting to be discovered (yeah, right). By then I had realised that my imagination was wandering too far. I snapped back into reality and looked up to see a few other journos also waiting at the gate.
I struck up a conversation to find out what the others thought about this opportunity, and almost immediately received a barrage of anecdotal advice, passed down from the seniors to each of us within each of our respective media houses. From detailed explanations of the track layout, to various tips and tricks to be faster than the competition, not to forget the strict instructions to have fun in the process. Well, there sure was a lot to look forward to, and by then I was able to fairly gauge what awaited us upon arrival.
The Young Media Racer Program is an initiative by TVS Racing to give budding automotive journalists, like myself, a proper hands-on experience of what it is like to actually race. With actual classroom sessions to give us the lowdown on the track and a crash course (maybe not the best scenario to use this) on communication via flags, TVS was thorough with it all. Not to mention, we were being coached by TVS OMC National Champions, with real-time feedback and instruction on the fly.
All that said and done, it was soon time to suit up, and that too in the sweltering heat and humidity of Chennai. And as if that wasn’t enough, the country was experiencing a full-blown heat wave. We received constant instructions to keep ourselves hydrated during the course of the event, and we more than happily obliged. Wiggling into the leather suits was a combination of trial and error for a lot of us, and we realised that it was easier to work together in pairs and suit up without dislocating any limbs in the process. The 31 journos were split into two batches, and I happened to be in the second one.
We were to ride the race-spec, carburetted TVS Apache RTR 200 4V wrapped in Petronas TVS racing livery. Featuring free-flow race exhausts, the pits were reverberating with the noise from 16 of these motorcycles starting up simultaneously. The most noticeable change to these bikes were the slim 110-section Eurogrip Protorq Extreme rear tires, a stark contrast to the meatier 130-section tires that come stock on the bike, with the 90-section front Remora tires. But do not be fooled for a second, as we soon found out how capable these machines were, and that everything was built to these specs for a reason.
Given the lovely weather, it didn’t take long to warm up our tires, and as a friend aptly commented, they stick to the tarmac ‘like chewing gum’. I soon found myself putting all my trust in them for the remaining duration of the event. The first session on track consisted of us riding behind the instructors as they showed us the racing lines, and pointed out the marshal posts along the way. This was important as this would be the sole means of communication on track, and one was to always keep an eye out for their flags. The instructors were helpful enough to mark the entries and exits of the apex with tape, just in case we needed a reminder.
The classroom session that followed saw our instructor Harry Sylvester teaching us all about body posture and the importance of vision in racing. With tips on how to switch positions while cornering, and explaining why racers gauge the lean angle by scraping their knees, among other things, he made sure that we knew what we were doing. We were soon on the track again, putting our newfound knowledge to the test. The results were faster lap times and smoother riding on the track. A huge part of learning to race was ‘unlearning’ what we knew about riding in general.
The final classroom session dealt with the gearing of the bike, and we were told which gears we were to attack certain sections of the course in, followed by a quick practical lesson on race starts and braking. It was soon time for our practice laps, and it was made known to us that the lap timings were being recorded, just in case the exhaustion caught up with us later in qualifying. I must have drunk three to four litres of water by then, but with the rate at which the sweat was flowing, I was sure that I wouldn’t need a bathroom break anytime soon. We were now ready to put in our qualifying timings, but little did I know that I still had a few more things to learn.
Qualifying started slow and steadily picked up pace as I made a few final calculations with respect to how late I was comfortable with braking, and the exact point into the corners where I needed to get back on the throttle. I have been told time and again that I tend to unknowingly prefer learning from my own mistakes, than from those of others around me. This found its way to the track, and as the in-lap ended, I went full-blast through C1. As I approached C2, I noticed that the yellow flag had gone up, and as soon as I saw the rider who was ahead of me lying in the gravel, my eyes locked onto him.
Target fixation saw to it that I helplessly veered off track into the gravel behind him, but then my instincts kicked in, and I managed to direct myself back to the tarmac. Two riders had overtaken me by then and I made quite an effort to catch up once again. The rest of the course went relatively smoothly, and once again I was approaching C2. Suddenly I was engulfed in thoughts of going off track again, and what do you know, I forgot to down-shift and ended up in the gravel once more. I felt a few curses roll off my tongue as I rejoined the track.
I had lost all hopes of recording a decent time when I noticed that the rider who had just overtaken me was riding very well. I decided to stay on his tail, and emulate his actions, what was there to lose anyway. A little while into this and I realised I was going much faster than in any of my previous laps. I even managed to carry decent speed into C2 and stay on the tarmac too. Unfortunately, this was an out-lap and wasn’t recorded, but whatever it was, I learned quite a bit.
I agree, my learning curve seemed to be slightly longer than anticipated, but I did enjoy myself thoroughly. The 16 fastest riders of the 31 journos present were to move on to the second round, and I ranked 20th on the leaderboard. Although I missed out on earning a spot among the lucky few, I am really thankful that I got this opportunity to experience the thrill of racing, most importantly racing safely and correctly. I now look forward to applying everything I learnt the next time I go on track.