Regular visitors to this site will probably know that I am currently competing in the Engen VW Cup race series. I have entered and driven in all four rounds held to date. This category is considered one of the most difficult in the national championship with up to 34 cars participating per race.
The most recent event took place at Zwartkops Raceway near Pretoria. I was looking forward to being back in the racing seat as it would be our second race meeting there this year. More importantly, I had done a test session at the very same circuit just a few weeks prior, which was very encouraging as I found more confidence in my ability to pilot the tricky racecar.
Something else that came to light during that session was that “my” car was down on power. By benchmarking my car against another similar machine we worked out that car M0 was a good few kilowatts in arrears. In a series in which all competitors are supposed to have the same power outputs at their disposal I had started on the back foot at every race to date.
As the race weekend dawned on Friday I was extremely excited to get going again. We decided to use the Friday practice sessions as exploratory outings to work on our race pace, rather than single quick laps as needed for qualifying.
The day ended with no incident and decent, if not sterling, lap times. The team decided to call in VW Motorsport engineers to scrutinise the engine’s ECU parameters. As I’ve always suspected, all was not well. Deon Slabbert found that the car was running extremely rich ie over-fuelling by almost 25 per cent. He stated that he’s never seen a Polo Cup car so poorly out of tune. With several new pieces of hardware installed that would regulate the fuel mixture to specification, not least a new ECU, the diagnostics equipment showed the motor was back on song.
With fresh rubber, new brakes and a few more ponies under the hood I went out for qualifying on Saturday morning in a really upbeat frame of mind. All those changes and the extra seat time really paid off. By the end of the session I had recorded a fastest lap of 1 min 15,5 seconds a time that placed me 30th of 34 cars.
My qualifying time during the earlier visit to Zwartkops was 1 min 17,7 seconds. The 2,2 second gain is a veritable eternity when it comes to lap times. Not only had I gone much quicker than my own personal best but I had also managed to out-qualify some of my usual sparring partners, Francois von Tonder, Justin Taylor and Graham Press. More encouragingly, I had also managed to do several laps in the 1 min 15 second bracket.
As we lined up for the six-lap first race, my heart rate climbed as I recalled what had happened at the previous event but I tried to put everything else out of my mind and focus on the task at hand. When the lights went out I unleashed too much power and set the front wheels spinning. As I tried to manage the spin and forward motion I was passed by one of the cars that had started alongside me. With so many cars jockeying for position the opening lap turned out to be a real traffic jam.
Race 1 and 2
By the time we arrived at the hairpin that is Turn Two opportunistic drivers were using every bit of track (and then some) to gain an advantage. I finished lap one having lost two places. Quick lap times are one thing but racecraft is a something completely different.
Many who have watched me race will claim that I am not aggressive enough and that is costing me race positions. While aggression is one thing, idiocy is another and one racer that seems hell bent of driving with little regard for his or anyone else’s safety, is Ian Prinsloo. At the back end of the grid drivers have a healthy respect for one another and give each other space while still racing hard. This probably stems from the fact that most backmarkers are privateers that foot their own running costs and repair bills. Prinsloo’s sponsor, however, must plough a lot of money into his racing as he shows little respect or sense when trying to pass people.
He shoved his way past me, but not before I managed to bump him wide in the final corner of the lap. Once he’d dispensed with me he made silly manoeuvres on Von Tonder (whom I managed to pass as well), Press and Dino Manelis. I finished race one second last of all the runners with Von Tonder the only driver behind me. With heats one and two run back-to-back we stopped on the grid for a quick re-group. Several drivers displayed and voiced their irritation towards Prinsloo, who remained firmly belted within the safety of his car.
Heat two started a few minutes later and was a lot tamer. I battled with Press for a good few laps and then it happened: my very first proper overtaking manoeuvre. I knew that I was better on the brakes into the fast right hand sweep that is Turn 4 so I planned my move from as early as the start/finish line.
I followed Press closely through Turns One and Two without trying anything that would jeopardise my momentum. I slipstreamed him all the way through T3 and when we arrived in the braking zone of four I made my move. I pulled to the right of Press and left my braking to the very last moment before turning in. I had him as we entered T4 and managed to maintain my mid-corner speed so that he could not have a run back at me at the very next corner.
Press was caught out by Mandla Mdakane who was two laps behind after an earlier off track excursion, but chose to race us for position anyway. Mdakane bumped me in an attempt to get by, which did not make any sense as he should have been shown blue flags. When the flag dropped at the end of race two, I was classified 30 out of 32.
At the start of race three I timed the start extremely well. Managing the throttle and clutch to perfection I snatched two places on the run down to Turn One. We must’ve entered the fast left-hander four abreast with a good deal of door bashing taking place. I was the meat in the sandwich and got bumped from both sides. By mid-corner I was turned 90 degrees to the track and being driven along by Manelis who was busy reshaping the left hand side of my car.
I was spun around completely but thankfully did not hit anything. I recovered to join at the very back of the field and set about chasing those ahead. Little did I know at the time that there was carnage taking place up ahead. By the time the first lap was completed a few cars were already parked in the run-off areas.
With 12 laps to complete I still had to concentrate. As the lap counter wound down more cars slowed or pulled into the pits. Bodywork was falling off cars as the race progressed, which begs the question: why aren’t drivers shown black flags when their cars are posing a hazard to themselves and those around them? I finished race three 23rd of the 26 finishers.
In the overall classification for the day I was 23rd of the 34 cars that competed. It may not seem like a great result but in a field that is that competitive and with so many non-finishers I will bank those results with a smile. All in all it was a great day at the track. I went quicker than I have ever been, I got to race again, I also got barged out of the way… AGAIN, but most of all I had a mountain of fun.
The next round of the Engen VW Cup championship takes place on the streets of Durban on June 16 and 17. This should be an exciting event as it will take place on public roads near the Moses Mabhida stadium. Theoretically I should have the homeground advantage, as I was a Durbanite for over 20 years, but in reality it will be a level playing field as no driver will have intimate knowledge of the track. If you happen to be in eThekwini during that weekend, feel free to pop by the track and say hello.