Let me categorically state, without fear of being misconstrued in any way, that I have ultra respect for professional racing drivers. At the pinnacle of the sport, such as in Formula One, a contract signed between a race driver and a racing team can be dissolved at any point. A recent case in point is the premature termination of Daniel Ricciardo's three-year contract with McLaren, with another season still to go.
Yes, as a professional sports person, you're expected to consistently perform and deliver great results and much-needed points for your team. However, this can be sullied when the performance of a less experienced teammate consistently overshadows that of the more experienced. This has been the case with Ricciardo, as he'll be replaced at the Woking-based racing team at the end of the 2022 season.
That aside, we have just returned from Round 5 of the Extreme Festival season that took place at the East London Grand Prix Circuit. Unarguably one of the fastest tracks in the country, the coastal track has been known to tame even the most ardent of racers, particularly the famous Potters Pass, which is a right-hand bend taken flat-out. And I mean, pedal-to-the-metal sort of commitment.
Arriving at the track on the Friday preceding race day for free practice, I suddenly have this sinking feeling. Oh no, I realised I had left both my helmet and Hanz device (head restraint safety device) back at the hotel, some 20 min away from the track. This wouldn't have been an issue had it not been for the fact that we were due to start our practice session in exactly 40min, the exact time it would take me to drive to and from the hotel. Of course, I do not hesitate to nose my rental car in the direction of the hotel, but there's a snag — it's Friday morning peak traffic. That jaunt then will take me a little longer than I had bargained for.
Nonetheless, I made my way through the traffic and back to arrive at the track with my fellow GR Cup competitors already lined up in the pit lane to begin their six-lap free practice, and had to reluctantly sit that session out. Bummer! This meant I'd go into the race weekend on the backfoot with six laps less under my belt. I had to play catch-up and learn as much about the track as possible in the next two practice sessions. That said, I managed to get to grips with the track's layout and all I had to do was find the best racing line and brake markers, something that takes some doing. My GR Cup race car was well up to the task and felt very strong here.
Race day came around and I felt confident taking the fight to the front runners. I had excellent pace from the get-go and quickly settled into a rhythm. While adrenaline is pumping, remaining calm and composed is imperative lest you make a mistake and end up overdriving the car. Our second race was done at night, which wasn't ideal, and, to be frank, just outright dangerous. You simply become disoriented as you try, once again, to learn the track under night conditions.
As previously mentioned, the East London Grand Prix Circuit is not for the faint of heart. Most of the race cars go through the infamous Potter's Pass well over the 200 km/h mark, meaning drivers negotiate half of the circuit's 3.9 km with the throttle wide open. You ought to have your wits about you as it requires nerves of steel and plenty of bravado, not to mention leaning on the car's abilities. Of course, my initial lap into the infamous Potters Pass was taken with a great deal of caution, and, even then, your reflexes are more inclined to dab the brakes and shave off the colossal speeds. You soon learn to drive on instinct alone and place any inhibitions on the proverbial backburner.
Whatever you have heard about the East London Grand Prix Circuit being the most daunting track in South Africa, believe the hype. It simply resets your entire barometer of what a fast track entails. In fact, many international competitors have questioned the logic of having such fast sweeps, with clarion-like calls of petition to redesign the track to make it safer. While I understand the rationale, I'm still of the view that this iconic track's layout should be preserved as is. And having driven it in anger, I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for its very existence.
We are now heading to Round 6 at Killarney International Raceway in Cape Town on 17 September, marking the penultimate race of the season, so we expect huge crowds here once again.