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my friend, the button.

The optional Sports Performance Pack, with its 15-millimetre-lower body and sports mode available at the push of a button, makes for a whole lot of driving fun in the Polo GTI. Sweden’s star junior racing driver Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky tests its endurance on the Oschersleben race track.

Text Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky
Interview by Marijke Engel
Photos Michael Haegele

My mother says I’ve become a different person in the last three years. She might be right. It all began here in Oschersleben, with an inspection. The FIA International Automobile Federation had launched an initiative to increase the number of women in racing sports. Twenty young women accompanied me to the race track near the German city of Magdeburg, 124 miles west of Berlin. After countless races, I was ahead and had qualified to take part in the Scirocco R Cup! Compared to most of the guys there, I was quite old at 19. You can take part as young as 16, but I was a late starter. I took part in go-kart racing in Sweden for six years and won a few races. In retrospect, it seems strange to me that I had no interest in anything to do with engines at all up until the age of 12. Barbies, gymnastics and dancing –that was my world. Not exactly following in my family’s footsteps! I seemed to have inherited slightly different genes.

Some say that petrol rather than blood flows through the Kottulinsky veins. In 1980, my grandad Freddy won the Paris–Dakar Rally in the Volkswagen Iltis. In 1990, my mother Susanne was the Swedish Rally Champion. And, of course, she met my father Jerry as they were competing against each other in rallies. So it’s hardly surprising that my brother Fredrik was already announcing in his Bobby-Car that he wanted to be Rally World Champion! It was for Fredrik’s sake that I spent many weekends of my childhood as a spectator at go-kart tracks. And I didn’t like it at all. I would never have thought that I would regard engine noise as music and the smell of oil and burning brake linings as perfume.

» Some say that petrol flows through Kottulinsky’s veins instead of blood. «

 

To be more specific, I am actually different from the rest of my family. I am the only family member who spends their time on the race track. Rallying is more for daredevils. Whether you win or lose is dependent on many factors. On the race track it’s different. It’s about precision and balance. About being at one with yourself and your car. In the Scirocco R Cup all cars are equal. You can work a bit on the tyre pressure and stabilisation, but the technical prerequisites are the same. And the drivers also have very similar abilities. They all take the racing line. But in the end it’s all about pressing the gas pedal and brake at precisely the right millisecond with precisely the right pressure.

 

It is this determination for perfection that is my driving force. For every race I not only have to qualify by completing the circuits fast enough, but I must also earn the six-figure participation fee, which is contributed by my sponsors. In addition to this, I work as a driver trainer and test new developments. This can be really enjoyable.

Today, for instance. The sun was shining and I got the chance to drive the new Polo GTI with Dynamic Chassis Control and manoeuvre it around the bends. It is my first encounter with this Volkswagen. My first impression: very balanced proportions, a classy compact car. When you push the button on the right of the dashboard, the word “Sport” lights up in orange. In a flash, the cute compact car is transformed into a sharp racing machine.

 

The “Sport” button transforms the Polo GTI into a sharp racing machine.

I get in and drive a few test laps. Even without the Sports Performance Pack, the GTI is set 15 millimetres lower than the Polo and has very good stability in the bends. Driving fun factor: very enjoyable. I would choose this setting on the roads. I like a sporty driving style, but I also like it to be very civilised. The setting has to be a little more comfortable. Particularly on long routes or in town.
I push the Sport button. A quick test of the gas pedal and it seems to have woken up. And the sound is really cool: it purrs with satisfaction inside the car. I don’t need this as a guide for when to change gears, but it’s simply part of the racing feeling. Continue to accelerate: third, fourth, fifth. Under the Volkswagen Bridge I have reached a speed of 108 mph, but unfortunately have to brake again to make sure I don’t fly out of the hotel bend. We are taking this bend a little slower. In racing, you have to switch down to second gear here and take a right-angle turn.

Now there’s the triple bend on the left, so I switch to fifth gear. It’s one of the nastiest corners in Oschersleben. While racing I’ve flown out of this bend in the past. So I switch down to fourth gear and put my foot down again. The Polo copes wonderfully with this. This is where the Dynamic Chassis Control chassis really comes in handy as it doesn’t tip or rock at all. I’m impressed! Hard right again, then full throttle, third gear, fourth gear.


Then into the chicane, things hot up as we tackle a tough, fast change of direction – right, left – hard over the kerbs. I feel the harsh impacts in the car, but it is staying on course. As I exit, I drive up to the green marking behind the kerbs. These aren’t just randomly placed here. To take the racing line you must use every centimetre of the track. Now, on the back straight, I have to rapidly switch into fifth gear, top speed 111 mph – crazy! Almost as fast as racing! Thanks to the seven-gear dual-clutch transmission and with the help of the paddle shifters on the steering wheel, this takes fractions of a second. Then the starting line and finishing line, accelerate, third, fourth, fifth – and finish! Wow!

 

I drive another circuit to see whether I can take the chicane a bit more softly this time. The Sports Performance Pack is heaps of fun. The fact that the steering reacts so fast and the car doesn’t fly out of the bend is partly due to the additional valve in the shock absorbers that closes when the Sport button is pushed. This further reduces the wobbling in the bends and makes it as fun as driving a race car.

Åhlin-Kottulinsky in the bright red Polo GTI: after the first test lap, she becomes interested in technical details, too.

It’s my job to know about technical details. I have to explain to the mechanics what weaknesses a car has and how they have to adjust it to me and my driving style. Unfortunately, I often find I am not taken seriously by technicians when I tell them this or that isn’t working properly. But with my knowledge of the details I can get them to listen to me. Yes, there are these typical situations when I have to gain respect as a woman in this business – whether on the race track, in the media or with sponsors.
Somebody once told me it looks as if I’m dancing when I drive around the bends. A wonderful compliment because it really feels that way when it goes well. I know what I’m talking about – three years ago I was still practising modern dance and gymnastics. Both were very important to me – dancing for my inner balance and gymnastics for strength and coordination. Now I work out every day. You have to be fit to stay among the leading positions. You have to be able to completely rely on your body, even when you are so tightly fastened in your car with helmet, head and neck support and five-point belt that you can barely move. In the cockpit the temperature gets up to 60 degrees and the centrifugal forces that affect the body are incredible. You have to do something to combat them.

» I had to learn to remain cool. «

I love competition. Of course I want to win. I am ambitious. My first victory, last June at the Norisring near Nuremberg, was incredibly exhilarating! I was the first woman to win a race in the R-Cup. I had tears in my eyes at the presentation ceremony.
But winning is not my first priority, as paradoxical as that might sound. To become really fast, you have to have a lot of patience. My parents never get tired of telling me that racing sports are about experience. You get a little better with every lap. When I’m sitting in the car and the red lights are counting down to the start, I’m not thinking about winning. Ideally, I’m not thinking about anything. I become one with the car. There is no better feeling in the world.

To gain respect in the racing world is really easy: it’s all about who brakes first. In 2013, I took part in the Rally Cup several times and straightaway got involved in several horrible crashes because I didn’t – as my opponents expected I would – jam on my brakes. You have to be prepared to take a chance. But at the side of the race track too, you can’t show any weaknesses. I had to learn to always remain cool. And not talk too nicely to my opponents! And if things didn’t go well, don’t get annoyed at all! This attitude doesn’t necessarily make you more likeable. But I’m not a “grid girl”, not a racing sports hostess who has to be nice to everyone. To be honest, I’ve often wondered why I can’t have a “grid boy”. It makes me furious when journalists ask me to pose in a bikini. Are you serious? Which guy poses in their underwear next to their racing car?
I find it wonderful that in racing sports men and women compete against each other. Ultimately, quality is the only thing that matters. I have a big goal and a clear plan. By no later than 2018, I want to take part in the DTM, the German Touring Car Masters. And not just as a token woman. Sooner or later, I want to win it.

Sports Performance Pack

The chassis was specially designed for sporty drivers. They can choose from two settings:


The normal setting is a bit more comfortable than the conventional sports chassis. It enables completely relaxed driving despite its sports chassis properties (e.g. lower chassis).


The sports setting is sharper and makes driving feel more dynamic. You get a more intense road feel.


With the Sport button in the centre console you can choose your chassis setting. The active setting is shown via the button and the multifunction display.


The pack also features a throttle response characteristic and special sports shock absorbers. The Sports Performance Pack with Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) is exclusively available as an option on Polo GTI models.