BY: SETSHABA MASHIGO

Round 1 of the Toyota Gazoo Racing Cup at Zwartkops Raceway couldn’t have gone any better for team ASAMM (Association of South African Motoring Media). Scoring a second place overall finish on my real-world racing debut was an extraordinary start to the 2023 season.

The build up to the race weekend was jam packed with introductions to the Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa team, Fast Developments who prepped the stunning GR 86s we’d be racing, and my fellow motoring scribes with whom I’d (hopefully not) be swapping paint throughout the 2023 season. Citizen’s Mark Jones and BMW Car Club racer returns as a veteran of the 2022 season, Denis Droppa of Times Live, Brendon Staniforth from Maroela Media, Auto Trader‘s Chad L├╝ckoff with a background in drifting, and freelance writer Reuben van Niekerk representing the wonderful Jumping Kids initiative were the lucky lads selected to battle for the title of Fastest Motoring Journalist of 2023.

The new Toyota GR 86 automatic was selected to be run by the motoring media while last year’s GR Yarises were handed down to Toyota Karting Academy’s young graduates. The cars have been fitted with Dunlop Direzza 03G semi-slicks, Powerbrake 4-piston big brakes up front, straight-through exhaust and a partially stripped interior wherein a roll cage has been bolted in. Both standard seats have been thrown out in exchange for a snug OMP racing bucket seat.

Pre-season testing and familiarisation with the car took place on Monday where my aim for the day was to connect my sim racing experience with the real world.

My lap times in Friday’s official race practice sessions suggested that the connection clicked and I found myself with the second quickest times behind Lotus Challenge and Mustang racer Thomas Falkiner, who filled in for Dropps this weekend. The heavens opened and turned the circuit into a skating rink. However, the GR 86’s relative lightweight, low centre of gravity and rear wheel drive balance made for a communicative, intuitive and predictable racing platform even in the pouring rain.

Ominous clouds hovered over Zwartkops on Saturday but they mercifully didn’t unload any water onto the track surface. By this point I had become quite confident wielding the GR 86 around the circuit and had my eyes set on closing the 1.2 second gap to Falkiner from practice. I had bettered my best practice lap time by a solid 7 tenths to 01:14.6, only 0.4s off of the previous day’s purple lap. I made one more attempt to improve upon that time but ended up overdriving the car. I decided to return to the pits to avoid compromising my tyres for the two race heats to follow. The timing sheets showed that Thomas had shaved another three tenths off of his practice time with a pole lap of 01:13.9, thus placing me 0.7s behind and second on the starting grid.

An agonising wait for Race 1 to begin only worsened the nerves, heart rate peaking at 156bpm. This was the big one.

Lights out on the rolling start, Thomas instantly began his charge into the distance. Staniforth filled my mirrors for a good three laps and forced an error that saw me brake too late and touch the gravel at turn 5. Aware of my poor exit, I closed the door into the turn 6 right hander before Staniforth got any ideas. He promptly made an error of his own heading into the final corner. This eased off the pressure and I sailed on to an easy second place finish. A podium finish on my first ever outing!

Race 2 met me with a much clearer head and a lot more confidence. It played out much the same as the first heat with Falkiner off into the distance, me cruising alone in P2. I spent most of the lap watching a battle raging between Jones and Staniforth in my mirrors. A bit of farming at the exit of turn 8 didn’t eat too much into my pace and I crossed the finish, solidifying my second place overall.

A fantastic outing that I couldn’t have ever imagined even in my wildest dreams. First impressions last and I’m super stoked to have put my best foot forward. I will be flying the Association of South African Motoring Media (ASAMM) flag high in Round 2 of the GR Cup at Killarney Raceway in Cape Town on March 18th.

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