Racing, much like life is all about timing: lap times, sector splits, qualifying times and so on. And more often than not to succeed you need to be in the right place at the RIGHT time. Imagine if Michael Schumacher had been born ten years earlier and raced through the mid-1980s as opposed to the mid-90s and later? Would he still have seven world titles to his name? This last weekend I found out what it was like to be in the right place at the WRONG time…
Round three (read about round one and round two here) of the Wesbank Super Series took place in Port Elizabeth on April 28 and a few days earlier I boarded a plane and made a bee-line for the friendly city. Thanks to my travel sponsor, Aztech, I am spared the arduous task of having to drive to each round of the series.
Aldo Scribante is a very busy track. There are two very technical corners that have a big effect on lap times and two fast sweeps (Hangar and Chevy) that require oodles of bravery. The main straight is also long enough to get to the top of fifth gear, which is followed by a very tight right-hander.
At the end of free practice 1 (FP1) on Friday morning I found myself at the back of the field as I came to grips with the tight and twisty confines of the track. I wasn’t completely disheartened but felt that I needed to find some time in my driving. A few hours later after FP2 was done I was second last, minor progress but progress nonetheless. As I was still finding my feet we chose not to run the car on fresh rubber yet. Importantly I had slashed 0,6 seconds of my fastest lap in FP1. As we needed to prepare for qualifying on Saturday morning we put a good set of (used) tyres on the front wheels for the FP3.
Despite several lock-ups going into the tight Turn 1 – Polo Cup cars don’t have anti-lock brakes – I went quicker again in FP3. I found another 0,8 seconds and I was now fourth last on a 1 min 16,852, which really lifted my spirits. I left the track that evening knowing that with the benefit of new slicks and brake pads I would find even more time the next morning in qualifying. Saturday morning is a high-pressure affair. Shortly after arriving you have to jump into the car and head out to qualify. As the Engen VW Cup field is so large – up to 35 cars – the 25 minute session is split in two with the faster half of the field from FP3 going out first. Once they are done the remaining pack has just about 11 minutes to set a fast lap time that determines your start position.
I’ll admit now that I made a hash of qualifying. For some reason unknown to me I over-drove the car. I wasn’t neat or tidy, mental notes that I made during practice went out of the window. When the session ended I had managed a best of 1 min 16,809. I was gutted… Theoretically, I should have gone at least a second quicker but I didn’t. I would start on the last row of the grid alongside my regular sparring partner, Francois von Tonder.
Just after midday we lined up on the grid for heat one and with qualifying out of my mind I was ready to focus on the race. Even though I may have been off the pace with the grid formed faster cars were just metres ahead. I timed the start perfectly as the red lights went out and nearly slammed into the car ahead of me as he was so much slower off the line. Von Tonder and I went for the same gap in the middle of the pack and I scraped passed Bevan Williams taking a nice Continental black stripe down my flank. After the long drag down the main straight there was the usual concertina effect under braking into the slow Turn 1. As we jostled for track space I picked up another place and as everyone took a defensive line I found myself on the outside of Turn 2. I wasn’t too worried as Turn 2 and 3 form the Esses and with 3 being a left hander I would be on the correct side of the track in a moment. Many cars ran wide through 3 as I took a tighter line.
Then I saw it, the usually aggressive Chris Fielding was completely out of shape on the outside of the corner. He didn’t lift of the loud pedal for a moment and came spearing across the track where he made solid contact with my right front corner. The resultant thump straightened his slide allowing him to continue while I made a high-speed exit to the outfield. There was little I could do except slam on the brakes and hold on.
I hit a tyre-covered light pole (yes, a racetrack that has a light pole in the outfield, I mean really, who does that?) doing at least 80 km/h. I connected with the left front side of the car and thanks to the solid stance of the pole the car went airborne, pirouetted 180 degrees and landed. When I regained my composure I grabbed first gear and was ready to go again, but the marshals quickly pointed out that the radiator was lying on the floor – bugger. I got out and watched the remaining laps from the outfield.
Car M0 was returned to our pit area shortly after the race ended. I looked at the sad wreck and thought it would take a week in a panel shop to get sorted; little did I know… Before I could even start to assess the damage two rivals drivers Trevor Bland and Dino Manelis pitched up and started to strip the damaged bits. With a full set of replacement parts from the Volkswagen spares truck Manelis, Bland and the car’s usual race technician Gerald Wright rebuilt the entire front end. It was an awesome effort by all, which I really appreciated (thanks guys).
Much to my amazement, just hours later the car was ready to go for race two. Lined up on the grid I was really looking forward to being in the action again. Another good start gained me two positions by the time we arrived into Turn 1. I was having a ball and happy that I was in the thick of it. For almost two laps I followed Andrea Bate at close quarters. Von Tonder, Fielding and Williams were keeping each other busy which allowed me to concentrate on the fight ahead. Bate was in a battle with Manelis and I was there with a front row seat to witness them go at it. But the fun was not to last.
As we turned into Chevy the car dropped on the front right corner and I heard the tyre rubbing against the bodywork; something was wrong. I pulled into the pitlane as it didn’t seem safe to continue. Inspection later revealed that the right balljoint on the control arm was badly bent.
All in all it was another weekend of my racing career that I would rather forget. But having said that, I have a racing career (at least for now) something not many can lay claim to and for that I am extremely grateful. And as they say, a bad day racing is better than a good day in the office.
With special thanks to Steve Wicks of SA Racer for the crash image and Franklin Petersen for the rebuild photos.