Jaco Van Der Merwe

By Jaco Van Der Merwe

Head of Motoring

Toyota GR Cup opener proves to be a steep learning curve

Killarney action included major improvements, a slippery track, mid-pack battles and an ill-fated puncture.

There are many adjectives that can describe the opening round of the Toyota GR Cup in Cape Town last weekend, and we are happy to report boring isn’t one of them.

The six identical Toyota GR Corollas, in which The Citizen Motoring (yours truly) competes against five other members of the motoring media, made for a thrilling local racing debut at Killarney International Raceway during round one of the National Extreme Festival.

Sean Nurse (AutoTrader), Hannes Visser (L’at Wiel) and Alex Shahini (Carmag) stood on the podium after finishing the two races in that order, but it was lower down the GR Cup field where the day’s real spectacle took place in Cape Town.

GR Cup up and running

Friday’s three practice sessions turned out to be quite a roller-coaster ride. Only Nurse and Visser have raced on the tricky seven-corner, 3.24 km track before, and it was a steep learning curve for the others.

After only two previous outings in the Toyota GR Corolla at the familiar Zwartkops – before they were even fitted with the Powerbrake upgrade – it was a case of sink or swim during the first 15-minute practice. With no visual aids in the form of brake markers and cones to indicate apex entries and exits, like during our sessions at Zwartkops, we were left to our own devices. Similar to proper racing drivers.

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The day started out as a clumsy stumbling-over-the-furniture-in-the-dark session for me. But it ended on high note as I managed to improve my best lap time by 2.6 seconds to be the third fastest behind Nurse and Visser on the first official day of the GR Cup season.

Like life, racing throws up surprises. The only chance of rain at Killarney over the weekend was early Saturday morning, and guess what? The heavens took the little chance they had and made sure the track was nice and wet when we rocked up for qualifying – the first action scheduled for the day, meaning there weren’t other cars to help dry the surface.

Highs and lows

I stumbled off Friday’s high to yet another low, spinning out twice pushing too hard on the Dunlop Direzza semi-slicks. I could only qualify fifth fastest, which meant I had lots to do by the time the first GR Cup race started at midday – on a bone-dry track with the sun beaming down.

Toyota GR Cup Killarney
Going farming doesn’t feel as spectacular from inside the car as it might look from the outside. Picture: Toyota

Nurse and Visser started well, and opened up a gap at the front, with the stage set for an epic mid-pack battle between Bernie Hellberg (Driven) and Shahini, who started third and fourth respectively, and myself, with Kumbi Mtshakazi (Kumbi-M on Cars) a little further downfield.

With two laps to go, I had fought my way up to third, with Shahini fourth and Hellberg fifth. I went farming before the sweeps and despite recovering ahead of Shanini, the Biltong Italian went into full-on Ferrari mode, and reeled me in. This set up a door-to-door all-out testosterone entry into the infamous Cape Town corner.

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Convinced I could pip him on the outside, I lost grip around the bend and went farming again to allow Shahini and Hellberg through. Two corners later my sins had caught with me as a front left puncture erupted which saw me limp home dead last behind birthday boy Mtshakazi in GR Cup Race 1.

The collateral damage from the shredded tyre meant no anti-lock braking system for the second outing, plus some potential handling challenges with fresh and older rubber paired together on the front axle and some balancing issues.

Toyota GR Cup tyre
This tyre and rim have seen happier days. Picture: Jaco van der Merwe

Slippery slope

Fastest lap of the first race determines the grid for the second, which saw me move up to fourth, only 0.12 seconds behind Shahini in third. After managing to stay with him for a few laps, I locked up the brakes after the main straight. This allowed doubt to creep into my inexperience, which is a terrible combination.

Shahini went off into the sunset, with Hellberg reeling me in as the race drew to a close. A gutsy overtake on the last corner of the race saw him pip me by 0.368 seconds at the chequered flag for fourth place in GR Cup Race 2

Sixth and fifth do not look good on paper, but I’ll take it on the chin for all the knowledge gained and precious memories made in the awesome Toyota GR Corolla. The next round, at Kyalami on 13 April, cannot come too soon.