The 2024 GR Cup, presented by TOYOTA GAZOO Racing SA, and driven by Netstar, got off to a flying start in the Mother City on 15 and 16 March, at the Killarney International Circuit. Featuring identical near-standard GR Corollas, piloted by six of the country’s top motoring media, the GR Cup has proven to be an exciting racing formula since its inception in 2022, and the opening weekend in Cape Town certainly didn’t disappoint.

The weekend started with the usual practice sessions on the Friday, before the drivers got down to the serious business of qualifying on the Saturday morning. An unseasonable spell of rain saw the six media drivers – four of them having never raced in anger before – dealing with a wet track for their first ever qualifying session.

AutoTrader’s Sean Nurse set the fastest time of the session, besting La’t Wiel’s Hannes Visser by just 0.317sec. Bernie Hellberg (Driven) was third-fastest, leading Alex Shahini (CAR) by just 0.196sec – clearly a tight dice was one the cards between these two! Jaco van der Merwe (Citizen) and Kumbi Mtshakazi (Kumbi-M on Cars) completed the grid.

By the time Race 1 of the 2024 GR Cup got under way, the track had dried out completely, and this showed in the lap times too. Not that the lap times really mattered in the race – it was all about reaching the chequered flag first. Nurse made it a flag-to-flag win, with Visser keeping him honest throughout, though he never got to within passing distance. Behind the two leaders, it was Shahini who brought his GR Corolla home in third place, after an eventful battle in the mid-pack.

While the initial stages of the race saw the mid-pack maintain their grid positions, it wasn’t long before a small mistake from Shahini allowed Hellberg to overtake. But just a few laps later, a mistake by Hellberg opened the door for both Shahini and Van der Merwe to pass the Driven scribe again. A ding-dong battle between Shahini van Van der Merwe ensued, with door-to-door action highlighting the latter part of the race.

Unfortunately for Van der Merwe, one too many off-track excursions was the likely cause of a left-front puncture near the end of the race, which saw him drop all the way back to sixth place. In the end it was Nurse and Visser out front, with Shahini in third, Hellberg in fourth and Mtshakazi in fifth.

The lap time from Race 1 did, however, play a role in the starting grid for Race 2. As such, it was Nurse and Visser on the front row, followed by Shahini and Van der Merwe in Row 2. Hellberg and Mtshakazi completed the line-up once again.

Race 2 was rinse-and-repeat for Nurse and Visser at the head of the field. Nurse posted his best lap time of the weekend during the second race, while Visser pushed hard to come home in second place. The gap to Shahini, who finished in third place, was 18.1sec, clearly showing the pace of the leading duo.

Fourth place went to Hellberg this time, with Van der Merwe settling for fifth after a tough race that saw him feel his way around the circuit without the benefit of ABS brakes due to a sensor damaged in the off-track excursion. In the end, Hellberg managed to squeeze past Van der Merwe on the final lap, putting them both ahead of Mtshakazi.

The latter celebrated his birthday on the Saturday of the race weekend, and while he admits that he has a lot to learn, he was very positive after his first outing: “I’ve learnt so much from this weekend, and while the wet qualifying session was a bit of a spanner in the works, I really enjoyed every moment. Now, I’m looking forward to the next round!”

GR 86 DEVELOPMENT ACADEMY

2023 GR Cup media challenge champion, Setshaba Mashigo returned to the GR Cup – this time as part of the GR86 Development Academy – where five other driver candidates would be duking it out for honours. While the Johannesburg-based racer managed to show a clean pair of heels to most of this media peers in 2023, he found himself with a serious challenge amongst the ex-karters sharing the tarmac.

Perhaps the biggest challenge would come from Dawie van der Merwe, who joined the GR86 ranks for 2024 af racing in the PoloCup during 2023. Van der Merwe set the pace throughout the weekend, taking pole position as well as victory in both races. This left Mashigo to fight for the ‘best-of-the-rest’ title, and he set about his task with characteristic determination.

Mashigo set the third-fastest time in Qualifying, trailing van der Merwe by just 1.24sec, and breathing down the tailpipes of Niko Zafiris, who pipped the former media driver by just 0.002sec. Zafiris, however, managed to maintain his starting position in Race 1, where the Top 3 finished in the same order they started.

Race 2 saw Setshaba find a way past both Zafiris and Ryan Naicker, who started ahead of him due to a faster lap time set during the first race. Catching Van der Merwe proved a bridge too far, but Setshaba had a terrific battle for second place with Zafiris. In the end, he was happy to bag a third and second in the two opening rounds of the season.

The weekend was a baptism of fire for the rookies in both line-ups, but having had their first taste of competitive racing now, they’ll be chomping at the bit for Round 2, which takes place at the Kyalami International Circuit on 12 and 13 April.

STORY COURTESY OF TOYOTA GAZOOR RACING SOUTH AFRICA

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