Say hello to the Ameo Cup, son of Vento Cup and grandson of the path-breaking Polo Cup. It’s not like the Ventos were falling to pieces. It’s not like the lap times were a joke. It’s not like another manufacturer was snapping on the heels of Volkswagen Motorsport India, in fact the last to try a similar model were Toyota with the Etios Cup. And that was given a silent burial in just three seasons. No, the Vento Cup was the benchmark for one-make racing and would have remained the benchmark for years to come. Yet this year young Indian drivers won’t be racing the Ventos, they will cut their teeth on the brand new Ameo Cup. And it is no hack job, like all sub-4 metre sedans are.
What I mean is this isn’t a Vento with the boot chopped off. Neither is it a Polo with a boot tacked on. This really is an all-new car. The bodyshell, obviously, is new and that’s something driven by marketing considerations, to connect racing activities with the road car they want to push the hardest. And that big wing hanging off the back restores proportions ruined by the sub-four metering of the Vento sedan. What racing fans will be more interested in is what that carbonfibre wing does and I can report that it isn’t a mere cosmetic ornament, generating 50kg of downforce at 120kmph. This is important because the Ameo Cup runs the shorter Polo wheelbase and that means a return to the twitchiness that the Vento’s longer wheelbase cured. The added downforce at the rear is claimed to settle the back end in faster corners (particularly round the BIC) where the Polo used to get a tad frisky.
The aero performance is also important because the Ameo Cup has become faster. Gone is the old 1.4 TSI motor that did sterling service in the Vento Cup and in its place is the much-larger EA888 1.8 TSI motor that you will be familiar with from a range of VW Group cars like the Octavia, Superb, (old) A4 and most recently the Polo GTI. Developing 202bhp, this is an admittedly easy state of tune for the motor and that has been done not only to ensure life of the engines but also to leave a safety margin when the push-to-pass feature rolls out next year.
The engine is mated to a Motec M142 electronic control unit with a custom wiring harness designed in-house by VW Motorsport. This is the first time VW are using a motorsport-spec ECU for the Cup cars and this will not only result in improved performance with a greater margin of safety for the engine but also ensure the difficulties the team faced with bad fuel quality – like engine failures at the last Vento Cup race at the BIC – are a thing of the past. Just the savings on engine replacement alone will pay for the ECU many times over. Motec’s C125 full-colour display-cum-datalogger sits where the conventional dials would be and gives out a whole array of information to the driver – lap times, temperatures, pressures, programmable shift lights, the works. And since this is a standalone ECU that completely bypasses the original, there’s a custom-designed controller on the centre console to access and activate functions like the wipers, blower (now only to demist the windscreen, not to cool the drivers), launch control and next season’s push-to-pass among others. There isn’t even a fuse box, replaced by a power distribution module so that there’s no shorting of wires and all the associated headaches with diagnosing faults.
If all this sounds like a considerable investment, well, we’ve not come to the best part yet – the gearbox. Gone is the twin-clutch DSG gearbox, admittedly a very refined unit but one that’s adapted from a road car, and in its place comes a 6-speed sequential gearbox. Made by 3MO this is hardcore motorsport-spec, in fact the same spec as the Golf GTI Touring Car. But to account for the fact that greenhorns will be driving the Ameo Cup, it is activated not via a (super-cool) manual lever but by the same paddles behind the steering wheel. This is connected to the actuator that sits in the passenger compartment that does the actual shifting, ensuring drivers cannot fluff downshifts and blow the engine.
It’s the gearbox that completely transforms the driving, or racing, experience of the Ameo Cup. First things first the Ameo has three pedals. Unlike the Vento’s fully automatic gearbox, here you use the clutch to start off after which you shift using the paddles like a regular automatic. Launch control now means revs are held at a steady 4000-or-so-rpm and as the lights go green, you dump the clutch and the electronics monitor wheelspin to give it a proper launch. Expect to see cars stalling on the straight as engineers and drivers both struggle to get launch control to work properly.
So anyway, you roll off while being careful not to stall it courtesy the sharp bite-point on the competition clutch. Accelerate out of the pits, shift to second, and whoa, the aggressiveness of the shift, the noise, the clank, it’s all new to VW’s Cup cars. Tap the right paddle for third and, khatank!, you realise this is a serious piece of kit. Truth be told it doesn’t accelerate ten times faster than the Vento but with everything that’s going on with the gearbox, the raw and direct connection a sequential ’box delivers, it feels ten times faster. You also treat it with ten times more respect, after all this is no longer a road car lowered and stiffened for track use.
The Ameo Cup feels a world away from the Vento Cup; there’s a new-found anger, violence and urgency to the experience. Your backside feels every upshift, and the downshifts even more so. The larger 1.8 motor, while not feeling significantly faster than the 1.4, definitely feels like it has more cee-cees – there’s more grunt and it feels like it has bigger lungs. I take the C1-C2 parabola section in second gear but carry just a little more speed (like you would in race conditions) and I suspect you’d be able to take it in third and power out of C3 that much quicker by riding the torque rather than the exit being interrupted by an upshift, however quick it might be.
Some engine mapping work is still to be sorted before the season kicks off in a month. On the exit of C5, I grab third for a brief moment before piling on to the brakes and banging into second for the right-and-right that leads back on to the straight. It is only here that the Ameo gets a tad out of shape as the electronics blip the throttle to smooth out the shift, putting stress on the front axle that is already fully loaded on the brakes. Then again this is a make-shift corner used only for our test so might not be a true representation.
In terms of handling the Ameo feels as planted and stable as the Vento I raced last year. You can attack the high kerbs on the tight C4-C5 left-right section with impunity, getting two wheels fully airborne. As for high-speed stability, the Kari track doesn’t have a corner where you can test it so that will be left unanswered until I (hopefully) get behind the wheel at a race this year. The KW suspension is retained from the Vento’s but with different valving to make it slightly softer, mated to softer Eibach springs at the rear and KW springs at the front. The brakes are discs from the R32 Golf up front and Polo GTI discs at the rear grabbed by competition-spec brake pads. And MRF supplied three different compounds and construction of their race tyres before VW settled on a softer tyre for the 2017 season. All of this makes the Ameo Cup a good 4 to 5 seconds a lap quicker than the Vento round the Chennai track according to former champion Karthik Tharani who did most of the testing. In fact, the Ameo Cup will match and might even go quicker than the Super Saloons, is a terrific achievement for what is a one-make series.
A big contributor to the lap times is also the stiffer (than the Vento) limited-slip front differential like on the rally cars I am used to. An LSD only works when you are on the gas and the Ameo’s is now set up so that the harder you accelerate through the corner the harder the LSD works to pull you towards the apex. It demands a more aggressive and committed driving style, let off mid-corner and the Ameo will swap ends, but the consequence is the more you push the Ameo the faster it will be. And that’s the fear, that the top 3 or 4 drivers – the really good, experienced and committed drivers – will run away at the front, opening up even more of a gap to the rest of the grid. Then again, the job of series such as the Ameo Cup is to train and develop kids and it’s better they take one more season getting up to speed, on home tracks in India, rather than burning a shed load of cash to race abroad, only to be all at sea.
What I find most commendable about the Ameo Cup project is that everything was done in-house. It’s one thing to make copies of a car developed in Hanover, another thing altogether to engineer a TCR-spec racer all on your own in a remote outpost of a vast global empire – all while restricted to a tight budget in these no-WRC, no-Le Mans times. And with everything VW Motorsport India have put into the Ameo Cup, it’s not just the next Aditya Patel that the series will unearth but the next J Anand and N Leelakrishnan – high-quality engineers that Indian motorsport needs as desperately as the drivers themselves.