“Don’t crash the car.”
Those were the exact words my editor-in-chief told me before sending me off to the Toyota Vios Racing Festival at Clark International Speedway in Pampanga. His apprehension was warranted: My motorsport experience consisted of 1% actual racetrack driving and 99% video-game playing. I knew that a car responded to control input almost identically in the real world and on Gran Turismo. But I was also aware that I couldn’t simply hit the reset button in case I hit a wall (like I could in the virtual world).
Things didn’t bode any better for me when I got to the track. First of all, I hadn’t been behind the wheel of the country’s best-selling car. And I was to drive a race-prepped example in a precision-driving competition. My unfamiliarity with the subcompact sedan coupled with the fact that I seldom drove a stick shift these days meant that the possibility of me breaking the vehicle was very real.
It didn’t help that I had difficulty squeezing my porky frame into the caged interior of the stripped-down Vios. If there’s one thing that would force me to learn yoga, this is it. The bucket seat hugged my ass so tight it would have suppressed my diarrhea if I had it. The mid-afternoon sun was making the cockpit very stuffy. I was sweating profusely because the helmet and the racing overalls I wore added to my body’s generous layer of insulating fat. And there was the issue of my ability to quickly climb out of the car should I figure in an accident.
The track that lay ahead of me featured several chicanes and tight technical sections, marked with traffic cones. I was to attack it in either first or second gear. Once the marshals let me loose, the gaps between the cones suddenly seemed a lot narrower than I had initially thought. To make matters worse, the steering rack was slow and I had to fight with the wheel as I was negotiating the chicane. I thought I could power out of corners early at full throttle. But no—the more I pushed the accelerator, the more the car lost front-end grip. I couldn’t make the turn tight. The Vios was punishing my rough control input, the consequence of which was (obviously) a bad lap time.
Like a good teacher who rewards a student’s progress, the Vios gave me smoother racing lines, tighter and faster cornering, and gentler weight transfers
I vowed to manipulate the steering wheel and the pedals more fluidly in my succeeding runs. And just like a good teacher who rewards a student’s progress, the Vios gave me smoother racing lines, tighter and faster cornering, and gentler weight transfers. Each practice lap was an opportunity to know what the car wanted from me. With my colleague Manskee Nascimento riding shotgun with a stopwatch, I was steadily bringing down my lap times. During the timed runs where everything mattered, I was able to brake late, get on the throttle early, and get close to the apexes of the corners. These incremental improvements to my driving were enough for me to qualify for the semifinals. Not bad for a neophyte.
Unfortunately, the semifinal round was as far as I could go. My rivals were three to four seconds faster. But I was okay with it. For someone who had never really driven a car on a track before, just lapping the autocross course in good time was an achievement in itself. And it was all because of my unlikely mechanical mentor.
I wouldn’t normally give the Toyota Vios a second look. The car is a common sight on our roads, and is often used as a trainer for new drivers. But beyond that noble purpose, the Vios is a forgiving coach on the racetrack. It’s well-behaved and predictable when driven on the limit, but it also gives you clear feedback when you perilously breach said limit. Not only has it taught many people how to drive, it has now taught me how to drive fast.