My year as a competitor in the National Championship Engen VW Cup series has been a real rollercoaster ride. There have been ups and downs from my national debut to a string of DNFs, which, I guess, is all part of the motorsport game.
At round 5 of the Wesbank Super Series, held in Durban, I managed my best performance to date. After that high it was with a little trepidation that I set off for Phakisa Freeway near Welkom in the Free State. From what I heard the track is extremely daunting. Designed with motorcycle races in mind the layout has some very fast flowing corners. As with almost all the tracks I have driven this year I had not turned a wheel in anger at Phakisa prior to this weekend.
I had the same plan that I do at all new circuits ie to use the Friday free practice sessions to learn my way around the circuit and progressively close the gap in lap times between myself and the rest of the field. As it turned out, this wasn’t going to be the case. A very bad vibration manifested itself whenever the car executed right-hand turns and from the very first laps of FP1 I did not feel confident with the Polo.
I misdiagnosed the issue as being a suspension/tyre fault, which the team then proceeded to look at. With no defect evident I went out for the second session but the problem persisted. With some prompting from team manager Graeme Nathan we worked out that the vibration was coming from the left side driveshaft. The large degree of negative camber on the front wheels and high lateral loads generated by the Continental slick tyres coupled with the movement of the powertrain to the left caused the left side driveshaft to force against the diff’.
The team tried to fix the issue between FP2 and FP3 but it wasn’t completed cured. In FP3 the vibration was still present. By the time the day’s sessions ended I was no closer to the field, lap-timewise. Even after the sun went down over the “Freeway” and the temperature plummeted the team continued to work on my car. A new driveshaft was fitted and the powertrain was shifted as far over to the right hand side of the engine bay as is was possible.
When our qualifying session was ready to start the car was 100 per cent sorted. With very little fast running time under my belt I was not totally prepared for the session and chanced my arm. With space around me and very little time to set a fast lap I pressed on at a part of the circuit where I would pay a high penalty for getting it wrong… and I did.
There is a pair of very fast right hand sweeps near the end of the lap at Phakisa. I managed to negotiate the first one faster than I had before. I entered the second one without scrubbing off enough speed in the preceding braking zone, which meant I carried a LOT of speed into the following one. Not long after I turned in, the rear-end let go. I wasn’t quick enough to catch the oversteer slide and headed to the in-field backwards. I brushed the Armco and came to a screeching halt. You can view the spin here. With little time left in the session I crawled back to the pits.
When the proverbial and literal dust settled I was classified third last, faster than some of the other rookies and usual rivals, Graham Press and Francois van Tonder. For a full breakdown of times and positions click here: www.zatiming.co.za
Quick panel repairs
My little off-track excursion necessitated some makeshift panel beating between the qualifying session and race one. With a trolley-load of new spares from the VW Motorsport truck Daniel Luwes and Renier Pretorius set about repairing my damaged car. And a damn fine job they did at that. With minutes to go before the start of heat one the team even managed to get the alignment perfect, with team boss Nathan and even Steve Green (of Rob Green Motorsport) getting under the car to make the final adjustments.
I lined up on the second last row of the grid, 32nd of the 34 runners. All around me were my usual sparring partners, Van Tonder, Press, Justin Taylor, Ian Prinsloo, and newcomer Nic Toner. There are two sets of lights over the start/finish straight at Phakisa. Unbeknownst to us at the rear end of the field the second set (about halfway down the grid) was not operational. As a result many drivers were caught napping as some realised that the race was started and others didn’t.
One of these was Dino Manelis who was shunted from behind by Taylor. Manelis was sent spinning into the adjacent wall. A full video of race one, including the shunt can be seen here. Most of us managed to stay out of trouble and thanks to a quick start on my part I was up the order. I ran as high as 28th through lap one.
Unfortunately my lack of pace over a lap meant that I was eventually passed by quite a few of the guys I’d overtaken at the start. After trying to defend a few attacks I eventually settled into a rhythm and finished in 29th place courtesy of a few retirements.
Earlier in the day after qualifying one of the technicians from VW Motorsport commented on irregular noises emanating from the engine of “my” Polo. There was little we could before race one and with a small gap between the two races we tried to ascertain what was wrong. We removed the tappet cover under supervision of the series’ technical consultant but we could not find anything wrong.
I started race two in the same position as the first heat. This time around all drivers were aware of the starting light procedure and we all got away cleanly. As we jostled for position during the first lap I made up a few places. In laps three and four I again ran as high at 28th but would relinquish a few places as the race went on.
With just over half distance completed the engine on my car developed a misfire. Without wanting to cause any effect on the race I pulled into the pits where the team advised me to retire the car. That was my race weekend done and dusted.
A lesson in motorsport
Not long after climbing out of the car I changed out of my race suit and started the trek back to Johannesburg. The solo drive gave me plenty of time to reflect on the weekend’s events. I have had great results (for a rookie journo anyway) and I have also had a few shunts, but this weekend at Phakisa left me feeling indifferent. I know I wasn’t fast enough to really challenge anyone and that is something I can redress if I ever make it back to Phakisa. The technical issue is part and parcel of this sport and as much as I would have liked to finish both heats the prudent move was to retire the car.
The next round of the Wesbank Super Series takes place at Zwartkops Raceway, a track that I have much more experience at and tend to go quicker with each visit there. I am really looking forward to the race on August 25.
With the issues concerning the driveshaft and the unplanned panel-beating session I would like to thank all the guys from Nathan’s Motorsport: Graeme “Grumpy” Nathan, Dean Jeffrey, Renier Pretorius and Daniel Luwes, who worked tirelessly on my car all weekend.
Here are links to all the videos:
You can read the full series of diary entries here: