Tossing Caution to the Wind
I’m at Autodromo Vallelunga, a little north of Rome, about to thrash on the World Touring Car Championship Polestar S60, Volvo‘s brand-new, one-of-a-kind-so-far return to the international stage. Having driven the Volvo North America-supported K-PAX Racing S60-R for years, I’m well-acquainted with Polestar, the recently acquired performance division of Volvo Sweden. Their relationship is much like that of Mercedes and AMG, including factory performance parts and even special models, happily available in the States, too.
I’m honored to have been allowed on track—the car I drove is the only one extant. A lot of trust there, which I shoulder earnestly.
Keep an eye on the Polestar Volvo. These Swedes are serious about speed.
Many racing series use ground-up race car designs with a tacked-on silhouette body, which is a practical solution for competition, but manufacturers often are drawn to regulations that use much more of the original road car for greater relevance. In many series with the title Touring Car, this is the case, including North America’s Pirelli World Challenge.
This S60 WTCC race car is the product of Volvo/Polestar and Cyan, the racing side of Polestar, spun off when Volvo took Polestar in-house not long ago. The formula for the series is only a year old and attracted Volvo as a place to showcase the strengths of the road car, discover ways to improve it, and develop ideas for Polestar high-performance upgrades for the street.
All cars in the series are front-wheel drive, and they all deliver a challenging 400 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque, exceptionally high for the configuration. The rules require a 1.6-liter turbo at about 2 bar (29 psi) of boost, and Volvo is bravely using its own Drive-E-based street engine, the only entrant so far to do so. It is mounted transversely and as far back as the rules allow, leaving a roomy engine bay dominated by the huge intercooler. The exhaust note is sharp and crackly, unlike a normally mellow turbo thrum, in spite of running through dual catalytic converters.
Interrogating the soft-spoken and brainy engineers and designers (the entire team is Swedish), I learn the rules are quite strict, but they are so far pleased with the series’ FIA officials. But the car is new, having yet to run a race, so let’s see how that pans out; I know how prickly rules can sometimes become. The S60 is light at 2,420 pounds (1,098 kg) with driver. The body is quite true to stock form with a carbon roof but steel doors. The flares jut out sharply to emphasize the original appearance.
Polestar has allowed me to crawl all over the machine, and I see MacPherson struts on all four corners with hlins shocks. The lower control arms look very long to me, mounted to a fabricated tubular-steel subframe near the center underneath. Such a setup reduces roll-center migration, a downside of the strut. The upside is strength at a lower cost than more complex arrangements, and the rules require struts anyway, so it’s the same for every team. This is a theme I heard repeated several times. The Polestar Volvo team seems to relish competing on a level playing field.
They allow that the rear suspension is a bit stiffer, and I see anti-roll bars on both ends in sophisticated low-drag bearings, both set in their nearly full-soft positions. The differential is a clutch-type mechanical limited-slip with ramps, la Porsche, continuing the series’ philosophy of minimal electronic controls. No traction, stability, anti-lock braking, or diff control. It’s all natural, as I like to say. Driver dependent. Bravo, WTCC.
The tires are spec Yokohama race slicks, and the camber settings look mild. I remember seeing crazy rear camber in the C30s Volvo ran in the past Swedish Touring Car Championship, like something out of Stance magazine, and I ask if such a setting is in the plans. It’s early, they chuckle, and it has not been ruled out. With the same size slicks all around and far less load in the back, FWD needs a few unexpected tricks to work. I dug, but the most I could squeeze out of the engineers was something vague about roll centers and ride height. Race engineers hold their cards close to the chest.
Enough blah-blah. Let’s drive this thing. With only the firewall and no dash, the steering wheel is suspended out in space with a small electronic Pi instrument cluster. We’re pretty much in the back seat, and low. Even with my long torso and neck, I can barely peep over the cowl. The rollcage is well below the roofline but still well above my helmet, which I suggest is to lower the center of gravity. More smirks. Strictly regulated, too.
I grew up racing front-drives, so I know the breed. And clearly, the World Touring Cars are in their own league in torque, really pushing the limits of FWD with all that boost. This has way more torque than the high-revving non-turbo Honda and Mazda Touring Cars I’ve raced, and it incorporates an anti-lag system that keeps the boost up even off throttle, like the import drag cars we see on YouTube. It really just feels like a nice 3.0-liter: zero delay, linear power delivery.
The healthy torque tightens the steering, forcing me to have to unwind the wheel myself, and the car hunts and tramlines a lot on the straights. Torque steer, no wonder. With this level of oomph, the fundamental rule of high-performance FWD is even more important: more acceleration, less steering. The gas pedal and steering wheel must be opposites, or you push madly. I had to consciously work on this because of that lack of self-centering on throttle. The Volvo also understeered strongly even on steady power yet not at all off-throttle, even in the first-gear hairpin. It is very early in the development of this new World Touring Car, and I hope to get to try it at the end of the season to see what Polestar has come up with.
Some of these characteristics were exaggerated by the cold and slightly damp track condition. I’m honored to have been allowed on track, considering the example I drove is the only one extant. A lot of trust there, which I shoulder earnestly. That explains why I was 20 mph (32 km/h) slower than the factory guy in the bumpy, near-flat, sixth-gear Turn 3. The splitter and wing generate considerable aero grip, planting the car well at 120-plus mph (193-plus km/h), but not knowing the car or track, well
Volvo Polestar recognizes that the series is primarily a show and must exhibit competitive races to succeed, so it accepts the series rules, which add “success ballast” to the cars that run the fastest laps, averaged over the past three races. This can get as heavy as 175 pounds (79 kg). All entries of that model get it, not just the fast driver, and I like that, having often been frustrated with driver “welfare” weight in the U.S.
The Volvo S60 WTCC racer is a unique beast, beautifully executed, and it greatly piques my interest in a series I knew little about until now. With its high power, it presents real challenges to both driver and engineer, front-wheel drive to the extreme.
I’ll watch the season with interest. With seven races in Europe and five more outside, it truly is a world series, including even Russian and Chinese venues. Keep an eye on the Polestar blue Volvo. These Swedes are serious about speed.
|2016 Volvo S60 WTCC Race Car|
|BASE PRICE||$420,000 (mfr est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 1-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||1.6L/400-hp/332-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|CURB WEIGHT||2,425 lb (mfr)|
|L x W x H||193.9 x 77.0 x 54.9 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.9 sec (mfr est)|
|RACING FUEL ECON||2.0 lb/min|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Never|