Renault Clio Cup. Back to school

The Dubai Autodrome launches a new Renault Clio Cup drive experience. We slide behind the wheel of the 205bhp Cup car to see just how effective a morning’s training can be.

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I’ll be perfectly honest, an invitation to drive a Renault Clio at the Dubai Autodrome at first didn’t fill me with excitement: it’s a Renault hatchback; how good could it be? Words are swiftly eaten though when I find out the hot hatch I will be driving is the lightweight Cup car, a racing derivation that has been run internationally in the one-make Clio Cup by Renault Sport since 2001 and the UAE Clio Cup since 2011.

While at first glance it appears we’re a little late to this particular party, it has also been announced – ahead of the 2013/2014 UAE Clio Cup that kicks off in November – that Renault’s diminutive hot hatch will join the established single seaters, Audi TTs and Audi R8 V10s as part of the Autodrome’s drive experience programmes. The new addition allows budding racers – for the reasonable price of $300 – the opportunity to hone their racing skills at a comparatively base level, and is another tentative step towards developing a grass roots motorsport base in the region. Today, we’re here to see just how accurate that claim is.

Before jumping behind the wheel (and after a couple of surprisingly strong coffees in one of the Autodrome’s conference suites), I have to be given a briefing by circuit instructor James. The first thing to remember, he informs me, is that the Cup is no road car. The steering, throttle, gears and suspension have all been setup for track use. There’s a roll cage, a diffuser and rear spoiler, a six-speed sequential gearbox, a clutch, and no ABS. It is not a car in which to prat around, and must be given appropriate respect if I’d prefer to stay out of the wall. I ponder, as I’m given the debrief on track etiquette, if perhaps my earlier indifference was not only unfounded but unwise.

Downstairs in one of the Autodrome garages I’m introduced to the Renault I’ll be piloting for a few laps of the Autodrome’s 2.46km Club Circuit. Unlike the newly launched fourth generation turbocharged Cup (due to make its racing debut in next year’s Clio Eurocup), our third generation test model uses a 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder that kicks out 205bhp and 164lb ft of torque. That may not seem like much but bear in mind that the Cup weighs only 1060kg, and is therefore likely to shift like a startled rabbit.

I don’t have too much time to consider my charge though, since I’m soon being handed a helmet and a very fetching throwaway balaclava before being invited to step into the Sparco bucket seat. This is slightly easier said than done, since in order to do so I have to scramble over the roll cage support arms covering the doorway. Fortunately, though the seat does not move up or down, it can move backwards on its runners, leaving just enough room for me to clamber in with fewer people that expected sniggering. One of whom is instructor Rami Azzam who has made previous appearances in a MINI JCW and a Toyota Yaris, and who is also riding shotgun with me today.

As an Autodrome-shirted gentleman appears from nowhere to buckle my four-point racing harness, I take a look at the equipment in front of me. The readout behind the steering wheel tells me the engine’s rev range, water temperature, gear indicator, track temperature and oil pressure readings. To my right is a box comprising various switches and buttons to fire the engine into life. And aside from the Matter bolted roll cage, that’s it. This is about as stripped out as you can get without removing the doors.

A helmeted Rami slides into the seat next to me as my belts are pulled tight enough to ensure both shoulders temporarily pop out of their sockets. Though the cars will all have intercoms fitted when the circuit’s new driving experience program makes its debut in October, today Rami will give me directions on-track using hand signals: a closed fist means ‘stop’, a wave means ‘constant throttle’, and two fingers pointing straight forward means ‘gun it’. With that, Rami flicks a switch that says ‘start’, the four-cylinder fires into life, and we’re soon rolling out of the garage.



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