Our man Matai goes racing for the very first time and does a convincing job of it, mixing it up with some SA racing legends in the process.After years and years of watching racing – on telly and trackside – being a pit crew member and most recently writing about motorsport, my turn in the hot seat had finally arrived.
As described earlier, I was given the opportunity to represent CAR in a celebrity challenge race. VW had invited several racing legends to help celebrate 25 years of the German brand’s involvement in South Africa motorsport; Giniel de Villiers, Sarel v.d Merwe, Terry Moss, Chris Aberdein, Enzo Kuun, Geoff Mortimer were among the celeb drivers battling for top honours. Included among these legends were media representatives; TopCar editor Pierre Steyn, Cars-In-Action publisher Michele Lupini and yours truly.
I have completed many laps of various race circuits over the years but none of those was in the heat of wheel-to-wheel battle, so my first competitive outing was bound to be interesting, and a learning experience to boot.
I pitched up at Killarney on Thursday slightly earlier than necessary as my excitement and anxiety levels were quite high. It was then that I got my first taste of what it must be like to be a works driver for a professional outfit. I was handed all the requisite gear – including overall, race boots, gloves and VW branded clothing that was to be worn at specific times on particular days – and told to relax as the cars were already prepped and ready to roll.
VW supplied bog-standard – apart from roll-cages and race seats/harnesses – 1,6-litre CitiGolfs to race, the cars even rode on treaded road rubber. As none of us had driven the randomly drawn vehicles before, we were given ten laps on Thursday afternoon to familiarise ourselves with, and set up the cars.
I utilised the session to get used to the car, learn the fast lines and trying to follow faster drivers – of which there were plenty in attendance. After some minor tyre pressure corrections to address a “loose” rear end I was comfortable with matters.
During the warm-up session on Friday morning I grew more confident, and my lap times may not have significantly dropped, the rest of the field seemed to be going fractionally slower, so the gap from me to the front runners had closed a little.
Qualifying on Friday afternoon was conducted in “superpole” format, which meant we had just one flying lap to set a time. I fared pretty decently managing 8th quickest time of thirteen runners in the field. See the video of my qualifying lap, with in-car footage. I was 2,1 seconds off the pole time, set by four-time touring car champion De Villiers, but quickest of the motor-noters. With my confidence levels up, I was really looking forward to the race on Saturday.
With pre-race activities – autograph sessions, grid girl posing, photography and a parade lap – concluded on Saturday morning, time for the real business had arrived.
It may have been nerves or just a bit of doziness but I was caught napping on the start line and immediately lost a position as Lupini – who was a race driver long before he became a scribe – passed me on the run down to turn one. I held my position for a few laps until Geoff Mortimer – whom I had out-qualified – made his way past. The former saloon car champion bided his time and slipstreamed me down the pit-straight before out-braking me into turn one.
Mortimer and I set about chasing down the three cars ahead Lupini, 2007 national rally champ Enzo Kuun and “Supervan” der Merwe, who fell down the order courtesy of an off-track excursion when he and rally navigator Guy Hodgson came together. I had the best seat in the house as I watched the three brusque drivers ahead contest the same piece of tarmac lap after lap. Before I knew it, race one had drawn to close. When the flag dropped I was 9th, 0,5 seconds behind Van der Merwe and less than a second behind 5th place Lupini.
At the front Chris Aberdein lead home multiple Touring Car champion and Dakar Rally winner Giniel de Villiers and Terry Moss, also a former Touring Car champion.
Race two had taken place after a typical Cape storm. The torrential downpour had left the track extremely slippery while a light rain persisted throughout the race.
I started from 9th on the grid and by virtue of a smooth, gentle take off had gained two places on the start. Suddenly I found myself mixing it up into turn one. A few bumps and shoves but we all made it out. Some of the drivers ahead were over-enthusiastic as they jostled for track position into turn 2. As a result a few ran wide under braking – there is no ABS on a CitiGolf, remember? Out of nowhere I found myself in the middle of the field. While jostling for position someone had seen fit to give me a “friendly” nudge to gain a position. My race was essentially over as I pirouetted into the in-field at turn three, and watched the entire field pass by.
I spent the remaining laps playing catch-up, with little avail. The track was still slippery underfoot and a lack of experience in the prevailing conditions meant that I was left floundering at the rear of the field. Terry Moss claimed the win from de Villiers with Sarel van der Merwe third.
As per an earlier blog, it seems my new nickname is not Luca as I seemingly managed to turn in a decent race performance. One good-humoured mate did call me Jarno (Trulli), referring to my decent qualifying pace but lack of race craft. He’s not far from the truth either. As this was my first ever race I need to get used to the idea of swapping paint and banging door handles. Maybe I need a few more outings to get a bit more aggressive on track.
One of the highlights of that first day and indeed the entire weekend was getting to rub shoulders with famous motorsport names that I had watched as lad on telly. Years before I watched Sarel throwing an Audi Quattro around, and there I was having a chat with Supervan. Terry Moss and Chris Aberdein will forever be remembered for their exploits in the all-conquering Audi S4s in the Wesbank Modified series. Who can forget Giniel de Villiers decimating the opposition in Touring Cars; for four years in a row he was unstoppable. And there we were getting into our race overalls side-by-side in the VW truck comparing racing lines. Enzo Kuun has covered my clothes in dust on more rallies than I care to remember and the 2007 SA rally champ was busy praising my smooth driving style, and trying to convince me to buy a Citi and join him on track. I could go on, but I won’t.
All in all, it was an unforgettable experience that I will no doubt be boring friends and family with for years to come. Now if I can only work out how to go racing on a regular basis AND get some else to fund it.
Sudhir was last heard cold-calling potential sponsors on the telephone