by Sean Siff, Marketing Manager, iRacing.com on December 26th, 2009
November 16th was a warm, sunny, picture perfect fall day in Alton, Virginia – home to Virginia International Raceway – and as chance would have it, I was climbing into a Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup race car! The flu had struck one of my colleagues at iRacing, and I was given his opportunity to test drive one of the Jetta TDI Cup cars at VIR’s Patriot Course. As a proud sponsor to the VW TDI Cup Series, we at iRacing feel that we have delivered a super-accurate version of the VW Jetta for our members to race against one another. My goal was to put that belief to the test.
When the idea to bring the VW Jetta into iRacing was first being discussed, none of us here knew for sure how the car would be received by our membership. Let us look at the stats for a moment; the race version of the Jetta tips the scales at a portly 3,000 lbs and it is front wheel drive! However, once the car launched in our service, it quickly became one of iRacing’s most popular cars. Every member I have spoken with enjoys the car and comments on the close racing since the set-ups are fixed. It is a personal favorite of mine to drive in iRacing, so the chance to actually climb in the car and race it around the Patriot Course in reality was an opportunity I could not pass up.
In preparation for my inaugural Jetta TDI Cup experience, I did what any amateur racecar driver does . . . fantasize for the entire drive from Boston to Virginia on how I would be the fastest driver at the event and most likely be given a free TDI Cup ride from the motorsports manager of VW – Clark Campbell, himself!
OK, back to reality for a moment. What I actually did was practice in my spare time at home on iRacing in the Jetta at the Patriot Course so that the time I had in the real Jetta at the track wouldn’t be spent learning the racing line. The second reason for practicing on iRacing was so that I could conduct my own experiment on how accurate our software is versus racing in the real world. Since I work for iRacing, you may think I am a little biased, but we do accurately replicate tracks and race cars down to one millimeter, and we have many more than a handful of pro drivers that use our software for training! Anyway, the best time I could muster at home on iRacing was a 53.180 lap time.
Now, two days later, with my borrowed VW driver suit and trusty – albeit smelly – race helmet on snuggly, I was actually climbing in to the #18 iRacing-sponsored Jetta TDI Cup car for my first session. Minutes earlier, Jan Heylan, the VW Jetta TDI Cup chief driving instructor, gave me a fast (emphasis on FAST) ride around the Patriot Course. He took a slow lap and then a fast lap, emphasizing proper gear selection and braking technique. The car was on two tires through at least five corners and when he hit the brake pedal my insides were quickly rearranged!
Now it was my turn. My first impression was that the care wasn’t all that quiet inside. With a VW-tuned exhaust, the diesel engine’s noise was clearly audible, especially as it approached the top of each gear. Thanks to the driver who preceded me in the car, the tires were already warm, so I didn’t need to take it very easy. The car shifted at exactly the same points as the iRacing version, and I liked the smooth steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. My Spec-Miata redlines at about 6,800 rpm, so it took me a few sessions to get used to shifting at around 4,000 rpm in the Jetta. The shift lights and gear indicator were exactly where they are in iRacing, so it was easy for me to adjust to the car.
My first session on the Patriot Course had me following the 2009 VW Jetta TDI Cup Champion, Timmy Megenbier, in his Jetta. By following him, I was able to learn from his braking and shifting points. Despite my best efforts, I was not able to stay with him, even when I got comfortable enough to try. After completing my first session in the car, my best lap time came down to about 54.300. Not fast enough for my imagined fantasy free ride in the Jetta TDI Cup in 2010.
In my second session I went out by myself to see if I could combine my iRacing practice with the instruction I had been given by Timmy and Jan. Once I got in the groove I turned a 52.617. It was the fastest I dared to go on the technical and tight course, but FASTER than my practice time on iRacing. On warm tires the car was confidence-inspiring; it stuck through the corners to the point where I could hop it up on two wheels as much as I dared through some of the sweeping “S” turns, and the brakes were, in a word, Dynamite! The Jetta TDI Cup car has the same brake rotors and calipers as the Audi R8 (with ABS) and I never experience any brake fade.
After the session, I went to speak with Jan and Timmy about my fastest lap. They handed me a slice of humble pie and explained the track record is a 49-50 second lap. Well, not bad for an iRacer/ SCCA club racer. I was only two and a half seconds off the track record. And the eternal optimist in me reminded myself there is plenty of room for improvement. Overall, the experience was awesome. The Jetta was fast and handled as predictably as it does in iRacing. The torquey diesel willed the car up the hill and through the corners with ease. I was impressed. It felt faster in real life than in iRacing . . . maybe because when I run out of talent in the real world I can actually get hurt or stuff the car into a wall.
Racing the Jetta TDI Cup car around the Patriot Course was an experience I will not soon forget. To bookend my experience, when I got back my home I loaded up the Patriot Course on iRacing to see if I could take what I learned from reality and apply it to iRacing. I ended-up running a 51.235 on iRacing as my fastest time. I was certainly more daring in iRacing than in reality as errors are solved by the convenience of a quick reset button. More importantly, after driving the course in the flesh, I was able to go a little deeper into the braking zones and be a little more aggressive over some of the curbing in iRacing. The Jetta handled brilliantly and I can attest that it is a digital replica of the real car!
A big Thank you to Clark Campbell and entire VW Jetta TDI Cup crew who provided the cars and the track time. Thanks also to Ryan and Parker at 3-Wide Life/LVRG for some great photos of the event.