It was an interesting weekend in Durban as I took part in a “Pre-National” event to gauge my pace against some of my main opposition.
Friday testing was awesome as I was clearly the fastest in my class but Saturday did not go so well.
The pace was upped by the other drivers and for various reasons I just couldn’t match them. It was a big dose of reality and to be honest I was a bit down by the end of the day. I definitely went the wrong way with my setup though but luckily we worked that out on our way home that evening.
Come Race Day and I was raring to go, we made a huge setup change to my kart for morning warm-up (literally going the way opposite to what we had on Saturday) and it worked a charm. Even though I was still 2/10ths off the pace I knew that with the new setup I could race hard at the front.
Qualifying has always been my week point and it was no different this weekend. I was way off the pace and only managed 4th place but since I’ve been here many times in my life it didn’t get me down, I just had to work harder in the races.
The aim of this weekend was to test and fly below the radar but when you can sniff victory it’s incredibly difficult to let it go.
In heat 1 I got a so-so start but by lap 5 I found myself leading a pack of 4 karts literally running nose to tail. The sensation of leading a race again was just so satisfying but unfortunately I couldn’t hold on to it for too long. I ended up 3rd in that heat after taking the lead twice but felt that it was a matter of timing if I was to win.
Come heat 2 and I made a massive mistake when doing a routine check on the motor. When I put the parts back together I managed to literally put something upside down and it cost me dear in the race.
At the start I slotted into 2nd place but going up one of the steep hills I realised something was wrong and lost out hugely. From then on it was a matter of survival to try and hang onto 4th place while the leading three stormed off. I somehow managed to keep my place through the race and was happy to gain some experience in blocking like crazy to survive.
In heat 3 the problems were fixed and we decided to make another change to my setup. I was hugely skeptical about the change but my mechanic/engineer insisted we try it. He turned out to be right and a huge battle ensued for the race win between myself and local-guy Mitchel Licen.
I led the race multiple times but somehow managed to miscount the laps. I slotted into 2nd and planned an attack for the final lap but it turns out we were already on the final lap!
No to worry though as technically I should have stayed in 2nd in the first place.
With a 3rd, 4th and 2nd in each heat I finished 3rd on the podium in the final points count. Hugely satisfying for my first race back in karting in over three years.
Bring on the African Champs!
Just a quick update, the day could not have been better. We obliterated our best time from the previous test with a 44.7 and did consistent 44.8 - 44.9 second laps during most of the day.
Some of the main competition was also testing but they couldn’t seem to match our pace. We will see on Sunday whether they were playing games or if we are genuinely as quick as it seems.
Other good news is that the GoPro camera is working magically, I have some really cool footage from today which gives you a sense of how quick these karts actually are. Hopefully we can get some good footage on race day.
On Thursday I get back on a plane to Durban for some more testing. Since I’ve been back I have tried to do as much exercise as possible but my ‘other life’ (read: work) seems to be getting in the way!
This weekend is a regional race event but because it’s the last race before the main African Championship event I expect to see many of my competitors entering this race to do some testing.
In Karting we call it a “Pre-National” because you use the non-championship event to gauge your competition.
On a side not I am excited as I’ve managed to get a GoPro HD Camera (thanks @bernarddeclerk!), so look forward to seeing some rad onboard footage for this site :)
The schedule is basically practice Friday, Saturday and the race taking place Sunday.
The main event consists of a morning practice session, qualifying and then three heats. You earn points depending on which position you finish in each one and then the person with the highest score overall wins the day.
The most important thing this weekend is not to win though, it is purely to see where I stand against the competition. Even though last week went really well it’s nothing like performing when the pressure is on.
This event will be a real acid test. Can’t wait.
While I wait to board my plane back to Cape Town.
14 hours later…
So I’m back and, wow, what a trip. One thing I forgot about motorsport (actually sport in general, no doubt) are the highs and lows you can experience in just one day.
For day two of testing we got to the track nice and early as we had some work that we still had to do on the kart. Once preparation was done I went out to do a short session to warm up the body and check that everything was ok.
Straight out of the blocks I was relatively quick which is always relieving because I sometimes tend to worry that my performance is a fluke or once off.
After three morning sessions we decided it was time to stick on some new tyres. The day before we had set a best lap of 45.2 on new rubber so today we planned on at least doing 45.0 and hopefully some high 44’s.
The biggest nightmare as a driver / team is that when you put on new tyres you don’t actually go any quicker. Generally tyres are guaranteed to find you time so if you put them on and stay at the same pace (or worse, go slower) then you worry.
Unfortunately I was blessed with that honour on this second day of testing. Instead of doing 45.0 I juuuust managed to squeeze out a 45.2. I personally felt that it was down to me, the driver, as our setup was really good.
So with that in mind I sat down in a quiet corner and gave myself a fat lecture. I have experienced these moments while competing in Gran Turismo competitions, so I know the drill. It is usually a case of me over driving or over compensating. I thought to myself, if I just pull it back slightly and then build up pace again I should be able to do a good time.
By now it was already midday and the bruising around my ribs was taking serious strain. It took me about 1-2 laps just to get over the pain and shut it out so that I could drive flat out.
During the second session after putting on new tyres it seemed that my little pep talk did it’s trick as I started dipping into the 45.1 range. As the session progressed I felt that I could push a little bit harder and the next thing I see that on my lap timer is that I have hit 45.02.
The racing lap record around the circuit is a high 45.0 however I didn’t know this at the time. I stayed out and pushed harder in the hope of breaking into the 44’s but it wasn’t to be.
When I came into the pits I was told that I had matched and then broken the lap record. That, my friends, is a competitive pace and something I wasn’t expecting when I got on the plane to Durban 2 days prior.
With 45.0 as our new benchmark we experimented with a few things on the kart but as the day progressed I was in more pain. It eventually took me 5 laps to get over it and through some of the really fast corners I was gritting my teeth as hard as I could to just get through the corner.
Eventually I decided to call it a day as we were losing time due to the drop in track temperature and the pain I was experiencing.
All in all it proved to be a very successful test, I will be back next Thursday to take part in a Regional Race meeting as preparation for the big race in August. Everyone who will be there in August will be there next week, so it will be a fairly accurate acid test of where I stand.
I am cautiously optimistic but also apprehensive because going fast in testing is one thing but racing fast is quite another!
Some pics I took over during the two day test. I wish the images did this track justice in terms of gradient. It is truly a spectacular track to race on.
It’s been a super long day but I finally have a chance to fill you in on my first day back on a kart track in three years.
The long and short of it is that things went really well.
In karting, pace/lap times are measured in the 1/10th of a second. That is juuust faster than the blink of an eye.
If you are three to four tenths off the pace of the fastest guys then you are considered slow and going nowhere fast.
When we arrived at the track early this morning we agreed that if I did a 45.5 second lap time we would be satisfied. The ultimate lap times around the circuit are in the region of 45.0 and 45.2. So if we were three tenths off after being out of karting for over three years then it would be an excellent result.
We started the day on some really old tires to scrape off the driver rust and the first few laps back in a kart were absolutely awesome.
There is an indescribable sensation when driving a kart. The steering is so sharp and the manouverability so quick that it takes a short while to get your bearings straightened. You have to be so precise and gentle with steering, braking and throttle that it’s a bit of a shock to the system when you get back into it. The karts we race are capable of +/- 150km/h but about this track we ‘only’ get up to 115km/h, so they are by no means slow!
Adjusting to the braking points and turning points was the biggest challenge in the first two sessions but once in the groove we decided to stick on a new set of tires to start doing some meaningful setup work.
The first session with new rubber proved a bit underwhelming and my best time was only 45.8. We weren’t put down by this however and kept pushing. By the 3rd session (on new rubber) we managed to get down to 45.2 while consistently lapping in the 45.4 range.
Not only did we beat our target time but we also matched the race pace of the top competitors. There is a huge amount of satisfaction and relief when you find out that you can still mix it with the top drivers.
The only issue from here on is getting to a fitness level where I can lap consistently for 25 laps +. Karting is incredibly tough on the body and the bruises and blisters are already showing.
Tomorrow is my last test day before I head home and back to work. We still have another set of new tires and are hoping that we can get as low at 45.0 or even break into the 44 second lap times.
If we do that. We are in the game.
In a few hours I’ll be on plane to Durban.
The reason for my trip is to climb into a kart to see if I still have what it takes to compete at the highest level.
Once upon a time, my dream in life was to have a career as a racing driver. The pinnacle of my ‘career’ was competing in the World Rotax Max Championships in 2007. I ended up 6th at the race but wasted an opportunity of actually winning. That fact haunts me to this day.
To compete in the World Champs you need to become the SA champ. To do that you have to dedicate 110% of your time and focus, as well as every cent of any money you may have, to even stand a chance of winning. It took me 6 years to eventually achieve it and is still by far the most difficult thing I have ever done.
In early August is a rare opportunity to qualify for the World Champs without having to win the SA Championship. There is a once off event called the African Championship, taking place in Durban, and the winner will qualify for the World Finals.
It is a fast track method to qualify and even though it still costs a bucket load of money it is less than the truck load you’ll have to spend to win the SA’s.
When I finally stopped racing in 2008 I had nothing left, both in terms of money and motivation. I started to focus on Obox with my brother and said that one day I will come back to racing on my own terms. Just over 3 years later I am at a point where I can afford to do this race on my own terms and with my own money. It’s a big moment for me and I plan on maximising every second of it.
With the race itself on the 8th August I have planned to fly to the track that we will be competing at to practice and prepare. Karting requires sharp reflexes and intense focus and having been four years out, there is no doubt that I will be a bit blunted.
So over the next 5 weeks I will be plowing all my extra time, and attention into getting fit, more focussed and most importantly, believing again. This will include wearing a helmet in my pyjamas while I exercise my neck before bed time.
It is no in way an easy task and I am under no illusion of how steep this mountain is to climb. Of the 32 people who will take part there will be at least one European Champion as well as numerous SA Champs and competitors who’ve finished in the top 10 in the World Champs. South Africa has some thoroughbred karters who give nothing away.
The aim is to win and qualify but the reality is that even if I finish in the top 10 it will be impressive. Winning is the ultimate goal though and that’s why I’ll be on that plane.
This is day one.