As you may or may not know I am currently competing in the Engen VW Cup national race series. At the previous round at Phakisa Freeway I had an up and down day that ended with a retirement thanks to mechanical maladies; you can read about it here. As it turns out the engine had to be replaced and was done so by Nathan’s Motorsport between rounds.
Returning to Zwartkops Raceway for round seven of the Wesbank Super Series I felt quite upbeat. To date it is the only track that I have revisited on the calendar. Thanks to the familiarity and more comfort with driving the tricky Polo Cup car I tend to go quicker there with each visit.
At the start of the official practice sessions on Friday I was raring to go. After a few laps of warming up I turned up the pace hoping to keep up with those around me. I quickly realised that something was not right as my car felt a little underpowered as those around me simply powered their way past. I finished the session with a little concern; was the new engine down on power compared to the old.
A quick inspection revealed that the accelerator cable was not opening the throttle body 100 per cent. FP1 was lost but at least we found, and fixed the problem. A few hours later FP2 was ready to kick-off. I headed out and immediately felt that the car was producing full power. With the added oomph I started to press on… a little too much as it turned out.
In an effort to keep up with two quicker drivers I went off at the most dangerous part of the circuit, the outside of Turn One. I slammed into the tyre wall with the front and then the left side of the car. After restarting the motor I limped back to the pits with a hanging radiator and destroyed front bumper.
Back in the garage the damaged was assessed and as it turned out, barring the damaged water cooler, it was all cosmetic. Some quick repair work by the chaps from Team Indy Oil (thanks guys) and I was ready to continue in a matter of hours.
During FP3 I set about rebuilding my confidence and feeling out the car for any after effects of the crash. The car felt good and I managed a decent lap time considering that I hadn’t really settled into a rhythm earlier on. With a few laps under my belt a gear linkage called it quits and I was stranded trackside, relegated to spectator status for about half the session.
As per usual qualifying took place early on Saturday morning. Polo M0 was kitted out with new brakes and fresh rubber so I had more grip to lean on for the important timed session. A few last minutes tyre pressure adjustments made by Graeme Nathan meant that I could push hard from very early in the ten minute session.
I drove smoothly and with great concentration. The laps didn’t feel ragged and at times I felt I was well within my, and the car’s, ultimate ability. I know it may sound silly now, but after my spin during qualifying at Phakisa I was keen to keep it together and set a decent time.
When the flag fell I had managed a quickest time of 1 min 15,18; four tenths quicker than I have ever driven around Zwartkops. More importantly I was classified 27th with a half a dozen drivers behind me at the start of race one.
A driver’s quickest time determines his race one start position and his/her second quickest time decides the grid slot for the second heat. As it turns out I was placed an even better 26th for race two. I know it may not seem like a sterling performance but it was a big deal for me. Look out for a full breakdown of my lap time progress through the year in the October issue of CAR.
I felt buoyed by my qualifying performance, not only had I out-qualified several seasoned campaigners but I was also achingly close to breaking into the 1 min 14 sec bracket.
I felt charged up at the start of heat one; replete in a full new OMP race kit courtesy of ATS Motorsport I know that I am good when it comes to launching the Polo from standstill, perhaps thanks to the vast number of front wheel drive cars I have tested over the years. I was sure that I’d gain some advantage once the red lights went out.
I timed it well and quickly got ahead of some of the guys around me. As we all piled into T1 for the first time there was some ruckus going on behind me. I was busy trying to keep up with the pack ahead and received a solid thump on my left rear, just behind the wheel. As the car was already leaning hard towards the right and near its grip limit there was only one outcome. I was unceremoniously shunted to the outfield where my car filled with cloud of sand. You can see the incident from inside my car here.
Before the dust even settled I was ready to get going again. The car took some time to restart but when it did I rushed around to catch up with the pack. The incident between Graham Press and Leon Odendaal left both drivers’ cars stranded in the kitty litter, which necessitated deployment of the Safety Car while the two stricken vehicles were removed from the dangerous position.
When racing resumed two laps later I chased my old mate Francois van Tonder. As I tried to catch him I felt that there was something wrong with the handling. There was a large degree of inconsistent oversteer through left hand corners, namely turns 8 and 1. Not knowing the full extent of the problem I slowed and circulated at a pace that allowed me to finish the race in one piece. At the end of heat one I was placed 27th of the 29 classified finishers.
Not long after race I was back in the pit where we saw that the right rear tyre was slowly deflating, hence the oversteer. The car and driver were badly in need of a valet to rid ourselves of the dust collected from the outside of T1. Some joked that I looked like a Dakar Rally competitor. A new tyre was fitted to the rear and we prepped the car for the final race of the day.
I lined up alongside the pitlane wall for race two, which theoretically put me on the inside at T1. I was hoping that the trouble would stay away from me this time. As the five reds extinguished I didn’t manage to pull my usual disappearing trick. I didn’t have enough revs on and the engine bogged a little. I was being gobbled up by fast starters from behind.
As we dived into T1, all fairly well behaved, Odendaal shot by on my left and claimed two positions. I was overly cautious and lost out at the hairpin that is T2. In the process I was squeezed and had both side mirrors closed shut; not ideal in any Polo Cup race.
I had to guess where those around me where as we all jostled through the first lap. A few drivers ran wide during the opening stages, causing opaque dust clouds to obscure the track. As the field spread out I found myself near the tail end duking it out with Van Tonder, once again. We were having a decent battle until…
T3 three at Zwartkops is a gentle right-hand curve that is usually negotiated full throttle in third and fourth gears. The very first time that I tried to get through there flat out I felt the rear end wandering over to the left . It was the first time I had to use any opposite lock at that very fast part of the track, or indeed held such a fast slide. You can see the 160 km/h oversteer moment here.
A lap later I was a little more wary but the tail-happiness continued at T3 and 4, which then made me reassess the car’s handling. Rather than experience an off at a very high speed part of the track I backed off the pace and (again) let Van Tonder escape into the distance. As the laps progressed the rear end issues began to feel worse with a noticeable vibration present through the fast right handers. I was about a half a lap from being lapped when the race ended. I was placed 27th and last at the chequered flag.
Back in the pits we jacked up the car to find that the rear left wheel bearing had called it quits. Whether it was due to the earlier shunt or not, we’ll never know.
Not the worst possible outcome
Considering the up and down nature of the weekend the results are not as bad as they could have been. With many retirements and thanks to finishing both heats I was ranked 25th in the overall classification (based on aggregate times and total laps completed).
The season is fast drawing to a close, something that I am dreading, but there are still two events scheduled to take place. The penultimate round of the Wesbank Super Series takes place at Killarney Raceway in Cape Town, a track I can drive to as it is only a few kilometres from my home.
I look forward to seeing many CAR magazine fans at this event scheduled to take place on September 22.
Here are links to all the videos:
Shunted to the outfield
160 km/h oversteer moment
Here’s the full set of diary updates: