I experienced a heightened sense of anticipation as the date of my most recent Engen VW Cup appearance drew closer. Don’t get me wrong, I am always excited by the prospect of a race weekend, but the fifth round of the Wesbank Super Series would be a significant experience for a variety of reasons. Racing would take place on a custom street circuit in the city of Durban. What’s more, most trips that I make to my hometown are to visit family and friends, so it was unusual to head East with my full race kit packed and ready for action.
Keep away from the walls
Even on the plane ride into King Shaka International Airport my levels of excitement climbed. It was only a short while later when I realised the true meaning of the words “street circuit”. Not long after I landed I was walking along the concrete-lined tarmac that would make up the Durban Street Circuit. Ace racecar preparation specialist and my driving mentor Graeme Nathan took the time to survey the roads around Moses Mabhida Stadium and discuss my approach to the tight track before official sessions began on Friday.
We laid out a game plan, which was simply: Keep away from the walls.
Most other racers refer to the Engen VW Cup as the demolition derby class, due to the high number of accidents and incidents that occur on a typical race weekend. With this circuit providing no room for error everyone waited with bated breath as 22 cars of the one-make series made their way onto the circuit. Two laps was all it took for someone to find out just how unforgiving concrete can be.
Regular front-runner Mark Silverwood ran-off at the end of the incredibly fast main straight. For some or other reason he didn’t slow down enough and his car smashed head-on into a concrete barrier. His car was totalled, but thankfully Silverwood limped away relatively unscathed. He wasn’t the only casualty of the session as Adrian Wood also damaged his car’s suspension against a wall.
Our first session was red-flagged before anyone of us could get a good feel for the circuit. Not that it really meant anything, but the quickest lap time of the session, 1:14,3 was posted by Kosie Weyers with my lap time set at 1:25,5.
Each category had only been allotted one practice session for the day and as ours had been cut short the Engen VW Cup drivers had to plead for more track time. Our wish was granted and a few hours later we headed back out for more exploratory laps.
Times tumbled as we all explored the grip limits and began to push harder. After just four laps were completed the 10-minute session ended. Weyers led once more this time on a 1:10,1. I did a best of 1:18,9 seconds.
Time for reflection
Five laps was the total of our practice on Friday and with all driving completed by midday there was plenty of time to reflect on my progress. I may have started to close the gap to those ahead of me, but I was still very far away from any decent lap time.
I sat down and chatted with regular top-five runner Jeffery Kruger of the Indy Oil team to seek some hints as how to go quicker. He gave me some really good pointers that I was sure would help during qualifying the next morning.
I have to admit that I did not sleep well that night thanks to my lack of pace in practice. As I drove to the circuit the next morning with the sun breaking over eThekwini I replayed the circuit in my head working out where I would press-on and where I would need to be cautious.
There was little time to dwell on things at the track as qualifying took place early on Saturday morning. I went out near the back of the field to make some space for myself and not get in the way of anyone else’s fast lap.
After warming up the Continental slicks on my car I went for it. With Kruger’s words still fresh in my mind I pressed on where he suggested and felt as though I was really flying. With each passing lap I found more confidence and when the flag dropped I was classified second last, but more importantly I had managed a best time of 1:13,3. Not only had I gained 5,5 seconds but I had closed the gap to front of the field as well. For a full breakdown of times log onto www.zatiming.co.za
In as much as I wish I had gone quicker I was not completely unhappy with my qualifying performance. Perhaps I wouldn’t be at a particularly big disadvantage by starting near to back of the field on this particular circuit, or so I tried to convince myself at the time, anyway.
Since the likelihood of a first corner incident was quite high race officials decided to start our field under double-waved yellow flags for the first two corners. The entire field was supposed to hold station until we had all safely negotiated this part of the track.
My regular sparring partner Dino Manelis, who had qualified alongside me, did not seem to understand the prevailing rules and made his move even before we were through T1, as seen here. Manelis was significantly slower than I was in qualifying – by nearly three seconds – so to be caught behind him was very frustrating.
He made it very difficult to get by and was driving defensively to maintain his position. At about the halfway point of the race I had a good run down the main straight, slipstreamed him and when he dropped anchor for T1 I made my move. I left my braking as late as I dared and Manelis saw the determination in my manoeuvre leaving enough space for me to dive by.
In my haste to create some space between the two cars I ran wide into T2 and nicked the wall, but only just. I made an impression on the barrier and altered the rear suspension geometry slightly but that was the sum total of the damage. Since Manelis has held me up the pack in front made a clean getaway and there were not enough laps to catch them. I would finish race one where I started, 20th of 21 runners. It wasn’t ideal but at least I had finished. And to top it all I had gone even quicker than in qualifying posting a time of 1:13,1.
The starting grid for heat two is determined by a driver’s second fastest lap in qualifying, as a result I was scheduled to start on the second last row for race two. That was a real boost for my morale as I was already on a good footing.
Bizarrely, Leon Odendaal, who was placed behind me on the grid, saw the need to inform me that he would be “coming through” when the race started. It seemed like an obvious enough thing to be doing in a race. Anyway, if he was behind me and quicker he would have to make a legitimate pass (or not as it turned out) to gain track position.
Race two started much like heat one under waved yellow flags and we negotiated the first few corners without drama. Odendaal and I ran in close formation as we swept through the course’s only left hand corner. At the very end of the corner was a very slow ninety-degree right hander. Unsighted by us someone had run off at that corner, which brought out the yellow flag.
I slowed for the incident and Odendaal took his chance. He passed (as you can see here) me under a waved yellow flag (I am one of the few drivers that seems to understand/follow this rule). I was annoyed, but it was only the start of the opening lap, which gave me enough time to mount a counter-attack. I carefully worked out where I could make up the time on him.
A lap later I drafted Odendaal down the fast start/finish straight and as they he went for the outside line, I tucked in and left my braking later than he did. To my surprise I also managed to get by Eddie Rodrigues who led Odendaal at the time (the banzai manoeuvre overtaking pass can been seen here). Later they admitted that it looked as though I was going to overshoot the corner, such was the lateness of my braking point.
As I set about chasing Graham Donker the “SC” boards were displayed by marshals, denoting a safety car situation ie full course yellow. Racing was suspended until a stricken car was removed from the circuit. After two laps of slow circulating we were released to continue at full race pace. I waited no longer than T1 to fling it up the inside of Donker. He seemed obliging to let me pass and put up little resistance. Either way I was happy to have the position.
Justin Taylor was ahead but following and keeping pace with a fast bunch of drivers. Little did I realise at the time that I had a bigger issue looming in my mirrors in the form of the charging Adrian Wood. Wood had caught and passed the guys behind me and hunted me down in the closing laps. I couldn’t live with his pace and soon enough he got me too.
Best result to date
I knew that I had a good lead ahead of the chasing pack that seemed engrossed in their own scuffle, so I kept it tidy and managed to complete the remaining laps without drama. When the chequered flag was waved, after what seemed to take an eternity, I was running in 15th place.
It may not have been a victory but it felt damn good. Even better was the fact that I was classified second in the Masters Class for drivers older than 27. All in all it was an amazing race weekend on the streets of Durban. It will undoubtedly remain etched in my memory for decades to come.
The next round of the Wesbank Super series takes place at the Phakisa Freeway in Welkom on August 4.
Here are links to the full race videos as well as the individual clips:
Race 1: http://youtu.be/ej9eJztR8U0
Race 2: http://youtu.be/rIihMJWEGVg