Back in the day, post lunch excitement came from Mercedes-Benz Truck Racing, an arcade game which introduced my curious self to the world of truck racing, amazed by how so much bulk can be hustled with grace and pace on the track. Now truck racing is something that Indians are quite alien to. Although a reasonably popular sport in the West, India was introduced to it only in 2014, in the form of the Tata T1 Truck Racing Championship.
Little did I know that about a decade or so later, I’d be piloting one such pachyderm-like bulk around a skid pad and a track. At Tata Motor’s private test facility in Pimpri, we drove an example that would compete in this season’s T1 Prima Truck Racing Championship at the Buddh International Circuit.
The racing truck is essentially a moderately tuned Prima 4038 S (4×2 Tractor), and gets its power from a Cummins ISLe 8.9L engine tuned for better acceleration and performance requirements. Power is rated at 370 BHP @ 2100 RPM (+/-50 RPM), while peak torque stands at 1550 Nm at 1300 rpm ( +/-100 rpm).
Going into its second season now, here’s a list of changes differentiate the current season’s truck from the one that raced last year:
- Top speed has now been increased to 130 km/h from 110 km/h.
- 350 Kg weight reduction achieved through lighter springs and fifth wheel coupling
- Ride height has reduced by approximately 55 mm, due to a reduction in the leaf spring stack.
- 55 mm chassis height reduction by spring stack height reduction
- New air-pressurized brake cooling system.
- Caster angle of the front axle has gone up from 2.4 degrees to 6.5 degrees.
- Rear axle ratio has changed from 4.3 to 5.126
- Fixing of rear mudguards
- New rigid seat mounting structure
- Bigger diameter OMP steering wheel
- Improvement in differential lock arrangement
- Tail lamp assembly re-positioning
- Additional toe hook at front
Spreading her wings
Head lamps have been blocked out.
Handsome, Prima front fascia is retained..
..but also get an additional front tow hook.
Re-positioned tail lamp assembly for this season..
..as well as fixed, rear mud-guards.
Hoist yourself up, and you enter the cavernous cabin. To the uninitiated and diametrically challenged, like me, it felt like being on the bridge of a ship, gazing at the rough seas ahead, anticipating salty spray to hit the ruddy face. But no water came, and no rum was found inside. And what lay ahead instead of an ocean was a sizeable part of skid pad where I’d be piloting the beast.
Cabin is stripped off and bare, like freshly cut cow hide.
Giant roll cage holds things together
Instrument cluster is carried over from stock, and is quite neat.
Red for the vacuum assisted parking brake; and a couple of bottle holders – but sipping on coffee is the last thing on your mind when you’re in this thing.
For racing intents, the Prima’s cabin has been stripped off all kinds of trim. What remain are solely the instrument cluster, the transmission tunnel shroud and the gear selector lever, both carried over from stock. The rest is bare, riveted metal, held in one piece by a massive roll cage that digs its metal claws in every corner it can find inside the cabin. All the wiring has been let loose, and it wanders its way, given a free reign to dangle along.
Fixed OMP racing seat with a 5-point racing harness.
Huge rear view mirror keeps you updated about the whereabouts of fellow truck-racers on the track.
Power windows – what’s that?
OMP wheel feels like it came off a go-kart; is easily detachable too, like in F1 (below).
The throne is a fixed OMP racing seat, and what belts you in is a proper 5-point racing harness. The focused, OMP racing steering wheel is just about bigger than a go-kart’s, and is easily detachable. Ergonomics aren’t that bad actually, considering the original Prima has a European truck-like flair about it, so the steering, pedals and the gear lever fall within easy reach, unlike older Tata trucks, where you need military, as well as gymnastic training to reach for the gear lever. There are no glass side windows as well, all in the name of weight reduction, and what you get is a net instead, which happily keeps flapping in the wind.
EATON 9-speed manual transmission with crawler gear (L) grinds like fury.
Lot’s of space here to do some vehement foot-work.
In here, you feel like a king, but stripped off all his dignity.
That’s all you get in place of glass windows – pretty military style huh?
But wait. I glance at the gear lever, and surely there’s something wrong. The pattern on the knob goes on forever, till it reaches the number 8. What stared back at me was a lever which rowed a 9 speed manual transmission underneath. This is going to be good morning.
Right then, I thumb the rubbery starter and the big, Cummins turbo-diesel barks into life, after sending a judder through the hull like it just hit an iceberg. Without a muffler and a shorter pipe, its sounds pretty wicked and gangly, just like some of the public buses out there. I take a look at my assistant, who gives the go ahead, slightly petrified at my inexperience and slot in into first – a first followed by a lot more to come.
The clutch is reasonably light, considering all that torque it has to deal with, and off she rolls. I keep punching the gas, but there’s plausible shove beyond 15 km/hr. Why will it? This 4038 is intrinsically a tractor trailer, meant for heavy haulage (up to 40 tones), so the first and second gear ratios are barely used, along with the crawler gear (L). The lower ratios are only put into use when the fully loaded Prima hauls itself over steep slopes, just to gain initial momentum under heavy load, preferably when the going gets high.
Slotting into third gets you the wind, and the juggernaut picks up pace. In fact, because of all the 1500 Nm of shove and unladed weight, lifting it from standstill in third doesn’t make it squirm at all – just feels like a long first. But first, a stern word about the gears – it isn’t child’s play. The shifter is intensely hard and stubborn, and feels like it grinds boulders underneath. Agreed, it’s a 9-speed affair, but you keep miss shifting all the time, making the beast lurch and shudder uncomfortably, something that you wouldn’t want to do while racing. In fact, I kept struggling with the gears throughout the drive.
On the move, she’s pretty brisk and intensely mechanical, will all sorts of squeaks and rattles reverberating off your ear drums, giving the whole experience a distinctive old-school, raw character. The ride is incredibly stiff, and that’s because the cabin, which has a dedicated suspension system in stock mode, has been locked for this race-bred example. Also, this one also rides a tad lower than stock, with a couple of leafs from the original suspension missing. Once on the move, you realize how taut and stiff the whole package is, the cabin and the chassis trying to flex itself all the time, but crashing back, bound by rigidity, more so over undulations on the track.
Is it tearing, glazing fast? Umm, no. But it’s a truck for God’s sake, and manages to hide its pace alarmingly well. The torque makes it presence felt here, calling for some pretty potent shove, and you’re doing three digit speeds before you know it. The acceleration is linear and the engine responsive, but selecting the right gear ratios are of prime importance, otherwise you lose pace. Again, with the ill shifting, infinite speed gearbox at hand, getting the maximum push was getting a little difficult.
As speeds rose, it was a turning out be a very different sensory experience. Visceral forces make your body the medium as they pass from the fixed seat to the steering wheel, wrenching your guts and muscles – a very pure machinist-like encounter, driving, or shall we say riveting home the point that you’re at the helm of some clunky, giant mechanical monster. Truly, an experience like no other.
In gear acceleration is pretty brisk for its size, but because of the torque heavy nature of the motor and the shorter gear ratios, you run out of steam easily, which means having to shift quite frequently – which as mentioned before, isn’t exactly a walk in the park. The engine has no plausible red-line, and the tachometer reads 4000 rpm as its last, but trusts me, the humongous diesel has enough pokes lying within those, rather lowly engine speeds.
Vibrations after 130 km/hr are enough to lose your teeth, and it feels everything will fall apart. The Prima T1 is said to max out at 130 km/hr, but I clocked 136 on the straights, and one adventurous, fellow journalist from a different publication even clocked 142 km/hr, much to the amuse of the attendant.
Sticky, 315/80 R22.5 rubber from JK Tyres. Also, the entire wheel rim is made from a single piece of metal.
These two cylinders carry 120 liters of water to cool the drum brakes. The water spray operates pneumatically.
Cab gets independent suspension; but is locked for this race-bred version.
That’s the diesel tank.
The Prima T1 handles and grips rather well for such a behemoth, with surprisingly less body roll, and all that can be attributed to the slightly lower ride height and the specially built, sticky,315/80 R22.5 rubber from JK Tyres. Agreed, it’s no car, let alone a van, and there’s massive under steer, but get the speeds and the rhythm right, and the big fellow is a joy to steer. On the sharper bends, it’s quite easy for the rear wheels on the turning side to get some air, without the truck tipping over. Be judicious with your inputs and everything feels totally in control and non-truck like. In fact, it’s happier around the bends, rather than wringing it out in the straight line.
The steering has massive amounts of play, and is pretty dead at the center, but feedback is quite commendable. But let’s talk a bit about the brakes. The Prima gets drums on all four wheels, which tend to heat up real bad. To tackle this, racing trucks have a brake cooling system, wherein water is sprayed on the brakes every time the driver lets go of the pedal after you drop the anchors. This system was present in last year’s truck as well. In 2015, the mechanism has been further modified. The system will now spray water on the brakes throughout the race, without any gaps. The water tank’s capacity is 120 liters. Under hard braking, the rear tires tend to lose grip as all the weight gets transferred to the front, and you need to be Hercules to get the maximum bite. But they work pretty well though. Under hard braking, the rear tires tend to lose grip as all the weight gets transferred to the front, and you need to be Hercules to get the maximum brake bite. They work pretty well though.
Getting some air. Credits: Nishant Deshpande.
To sum it up, the drive makes you lose the typical inhibitions one has about a truck. Agreed, this is a race truck, but it’s all very forgiving as well as massively engaging. The width could have been an issue, but since I was on the track with acres of space, it wasn’t a spot of bother at all. The fact that you can control such a heavy, manic beast, and even make it go fast, is a very selfish, accomplishing feat in itself. As the “whoosh” of the vacuum assisted parking brake signaled the halt of my run, I climbed down, having rekindled all my commercial vehicle fantasies to the fullest. The T1 Prima is fearsome monster where every aspect can be simply defined as “stiff” or “hard”. Be it the touch points, the controls (apart from the clutch), the ride or even the structural rigidity. As the reflected on the drive later, I felt like I had conquered something truly savage and raw.
Now that Tata Motors has taken the initiative to start this interesting sport in this country, we wish other local manufacturers like Ashok Leyland, AMW, Mahindra Navistar, Volvo Eicher and Mahindra Navistar start follow suit.