Is Polo Cup still the ultimate in SA tin-top competition?
The natural progression in South African motorsport, if you've served your time in karting, is to choose between tin-top or open-wheel racing.
It's a solid base on which to build and if you choose open-wheel, your next stop is to go off and compete in the F1600 championships — a series that can open some doors to competing in the UK. But if your choice is tin-top racing, then where do you go? Both inland and coastal (Cape Town) have a solid regional tin-top series with the Prabar GTI Challenge and the Cheapercars GTI Challenge. Both see national champions participating and given its history, Polo Cup has been the holy grail to land at, opening the door for a European drive. However, does it still rank as the ultimate tin-top racing series in South Africa?
A Proving Ground
Polo Cup has always been a testing ground where older drivers could mix it up with younger drivers, imparting valuable lessons learnt in quite the harsh environment. For those that have come up from the younger ranks, it's a chance to prove their mettle against some of the best in the country.
Some of the most successful of these drivers are the van der Linde brothers. Let's just say that the racing genes are strong in the family, with Sheldon and Kelvin winning the Polo Cup championships. Sheldon won twice, in 2014 and 2015. But such is the tight margins that just about anyone who's competed in Polo Cup and ranked in the top five could go overseas and challenge the world. Names like Jordan Pepper and Shane Williams all went on and successfully competed in Europe.
The sad reality is that just about everyone who's won a season could have gone on and competed, given there was sufficient budget. How great could it have been if men like Tschops Sipuka and Graeme Nathan had gone overseas and competed on the international circuit, both Polo Cup champions? The list of other potential talents that could've made it is longer than I have space to type.
The closeness of racing is the true litmus test of any specification-based race series, and it's no question that closeness is a factor in the Polo Cup today as much as it was in the beginning. The recipe is correct. During the last round at Killarney, there was a 0.60-second split between Nathan Victor in P6 to pole man, Giordano Lupini in super pole. Not much you can do in 0.6 seconds apart from blinking. And chat to anyone in the series and they'll attest that if you're out of place, down the order, it's incredibly difficult to make up any places in a race. Qualifying is, in that respect, critical in securing a good start for solid placement in a race. Job done, Polo Cup.
Times have changed
Sure, the cars look and sound more clinical than when the series started in 1997, but like everything in life, times change, and racing needs to change with it. If we look at similar feeder series in Europe, one can see that the cars have moved with the times, too. Naturally aspirated cars made way for turbo cars from Polo Cup to Scirocco Cup to the Audi TT cup. So in that respect, our scene has kept up with Europe.
The question of affordability.
There's the question of affordability and let's be clear that all forms of motorsport get costlier the higher you go so, naturally, we need to speak relatively. From everyone we've talked to, one thing Polo Cup has is the reliability of the turbo setup. Relatively little fuss and you have a car that can run the entire season unstressed. Chatting to Nian Du Toit from NDT Racing, who looks after two of the cars in the current series, he tells us there isn't too much to do to get the car ready for a race weekend.
Sure, there's the logistical issue of moving a team, and car around the country for the national calendar, but even with that, the costs are as much as some of the local, and regional costs. One might find that hard to fathom given the fanfare that is the National Series. There are also a few cars on the market now for sale at around the R400,000 price point. Budget one and a half times that amount of costs for the year, and you're roughly looking at a worst-case scenario. Many have gotten away with considerably less. Obviously, when compared to the original Polo Cup in 1997, chatting to Brett Roach, who competed, told me that he got away with R150,000 for the entire season. A time, it must be said, when there was a lot of manufacturer support. A lot has changed since then.
But it can always get better…
The question about tyre compounds being used and whether they're the best option for these cars has been raised numerous times. The tyre life isn't long at all, and the ability to secure a clean lap at the right time to secure a good starting position is quite an art form in itself. From the sources we've spoken to, the entire series has room for improvement, especially the cars which some feel are a little too easy to drive.
The same was said about the Audi TT Cup. A validating factor, though, is that these cars are meant to be a competitive feeder series. However, balancing the challenge of driving, excitement levels, and entertainment is a difficult task to balance.
Given the high cost of motorsport in South Africa, the current series still provides a great deal of entertainment at an affordable price point, relatively speaking, when you're balancing technological changes and current global market conditions. At the last race, 16 competitors made it to the grid, and more cars are joining the series that should see the series hit pre-Covid numbers of 22 competitors.
It's proven that the Polo Cup still ticks many boxes for those looking for progression in tin-top racing. With the Polo road-going version still one of the most popular cars in South Africa, selling more than 1,800 on average each month, having this as a series run is a great thing. Yes, there's room for improvement, but as things stand, it's still providing the right product and is a platform to take circuit racing to greater heights, supporting the future of SA racing talent for those not in pursuit of open-wheel racing.
Words: Brent vd Schyff