Racing can deliver the highest of highs, and then smack you with what feels like the lowest of lows. I had barely recovered from the excitement of participating in my very first Engen VW Cup race when race weekend two was ready to kick off. I was also feeling a little more confident at my second event as it was held at my home circuit, Killarney Raceway.
The early “home ground” advantage was quickly eroded as, at the start of first free practice, I was at the back of field but, unlike at Zwartkops I was dead last. It was not an ideal situation but I did know where to make up time to the guys ahead of me. As the practice sessions progressed – and with a few suspension changes made – I found more confidence in the car and my driving ability, and subsequently the lap times tumbled. By the end of final free practice on Friday I was 2,7 seconds quicker than at the started the day. Both the team and I were very happy with the progress even if my lap times were not quite on the pace.
As usual, qualifying took place early on race day and when I woke up (at 04:30 that morning) I was ready for what lay ahead. For the last “time trial” of the race weekend we fitted a fresh set of Continental slicks and new brake pads to the front axle of car, both of which contributes to me to dipping into the 1 minute 28 seconds bracket – a full 7/10ths quicker than I had been up until that point. That time earned me 31st place on a starting grid of 34 starters.
I was caught napping slightly at the start of race one but as soon as I got going I got stuck in. As usual there was much action on lap one with 34 Polos bustling for position throughout the field. Somehow I managed to gain a few places and found myself in a proper battle with some of cars that had qualified ahead of me.
Two laps into the race I was passed in a very brusque manner, which saw me lose part of the driver’s side mirror. In one manoeuvre I was passed by two cars and forced wide in Turn 5. From then on it was just a case of keeping up as race one drew to quick close; I finished 30th.
For the very time Engen VW Cup ran a three-race format at Killarney. Races one and two were back-to-back, six lap affairs with an on-grid parc fermé situation. No work, short of essential panel beating was permitted on the cars and after ten minutes of waiting we were ready to go again.
This time I was far better off the line and kept pace from green light. This allowed me to follow a closely-packed bunch through Turn 1 and by the time we arrived at Turn 2 I managed to gain a few positions. I was really mixing it up. On-track skirmishes caused other cars to go off and further down the field we were tasked with taking evasive action. By the time we started lap 2 I was already up to 26th place.
I was having the race of my life. Not only had I passed a bunch of cars I was now holding station at a respectable pace. On the long back straight at Killarney I glanced in my mirror to see none of my pursuers gaining ground. It was a moment to savour a real high in my short racing career. Then came the low…
As I approached Turn 5 I shifted down from fifth to fourth gear in the braking zone. When I let the clutch out I heard the engine revs rise uncharacteristically. I suspected that I had missed a gear and immediately dipped the clutch for another attempt. By this point I was already deep into the braking area and fast running out of space. I opted to go for third and then realised that all was not well. I found a box full of neutrals as the gearbox and engine no longer seemed to be on speaking terms.
I cannot begin to describe how quickly my levels of elation dissipated. Thank goodness there was no recording equipment in the car as the language was about as colourful as you’ll hear at any dockyard. Momentum carried me back to the pit lane where the team were waiting. A quick inspection revealed that the gear linkage had popped off the gearbox. It was a quick fix but race two was almost over. I remained seated in the car and took some time to gather my thoughts, though even a few words from the usually calming team manager Graeme Nathan were not enough to lift my spirits. I was VERY dejected!
We had a few hours to kill before race three so I took that time to relax, meet some “fans” (ie family and friends) and try to put the disappointment of race two behind me. I refuelled myself and as the time drew closer for the start of race three my excitement levels started to build once more. I had it all to play for in this race. The fact that I did not run the full distance in race two meant that my tyres and brakes would be in better condition than those around me and I planned to make the best of this slight advantage.
As we lined up, and with the earlier disappointment behind me, I was totally psyched. When the red light went out I got a flyer of a start and was already passing cars on the push towards Turn 1. Someone seemed to bog off the line or perhaps missed a gear and was very slow as we approached this first turn so evasive action was called for. When we reached the track’s only left hand corner I decided to go the long way went around the outside of a few cars.
Taking the outside line at T1 has the advantage of placing you on the inside line as the field approaches Turn 2. This allowed me to gain yet another position. With cars using every bit of available tarmac we stormed, I’d guess, four cars wide to the left hand kink. Here, we were met by a dust cloud caused by cars taking to the dirt just ahead of us. At race pace there is little time to think so you choose your line quickly and keep your foot planted. I chose a very wide arc all the way to the right hand side and came through the dust ahead of most of the guys I was scuffling with.
I had the advantage as we ran into the very fast right-hander at Turn 4. Someone behind me did not appreciate the fact that I was ahead of them and with the car fully loaded and at the very edge of its grip limit; I was punted from the rear corner. I tried my best to catch the resultant slide but it happened VERY quickly. I spun out and headed straight for the wall after bouncing through the outfield. I made contact with concrete, which damaged the bodywork and shattered the rear window.
After ensuring I was okay I rejoined the track and car seemed to be drivable. I pounded two more laps and then the front tyre deflated completely, nearly putting me into the pit wall as the car pulled violently to the right. Unbeknownst to me there was a slow leak undoubtedly caused by the off-track excursion. On a flailing tyre the car limped to the far side of Turn 1 where I parked it for the day.
Not only was I extremely upset to be forced off the track but I was even more disappointed to not be able to finish the race. Of the days 23 racing laps I completed a total of 12. Every time I retold the woes of my day I was reminded, usually with a shrug of the shoulders: “Well, that’s racing I guess.” And now as I write this, I guess that IS racing…
*Round three of the Wesbank Super Series and Engen VW Cup takes place in Port Elizabeth at Aldo Scribante racetrack on April 28.