Paddock diary: a trip to the gold fields pays dividends

Thursday, 18h00: work continues

Why is it that things always seem to fall apart at the office a day before race weekend? My last Zoom call had just wrapped up and I had yet to pack a thing, let alone make it to the shops to buy food for Friday night’s post-practice braai. 

Packing was more important, though. I set to work loading up the trailer, throwing tools and race kit into the Range Rover Sport SVR I had been given for the weekend trip to our first away race of the year at Phakisa Freeway in the Free State.

Friday, 04h30: Sneaking out the house

I wake up before my alarm. The anxiety of race weekend tends to have that effect on me. I may as well get up, considering I have to leave home at 05h15 to meet up with the convoy near the Grasmere Toll Plaza. At least there’s no alarm clock to wake my wife, but starting up the V8-powered Range Rover Sport SVR that I’d been loaned for the weekend ruined that somewhat.

Friday, 08h30: Italian breakfast

I’m amazed by the size of the Phakisa Freeway complex – a venue to which I’ve never been. The facility is massive, featuring campgrounds, the circuit, an oval track, a motocross track, and various ancillary buildings. I offload the car and get to preparation, ensuring nothing untoward has happened while the car was in transit. Then it’s off to see an Italian gentleman who runs the canteen, which supplies a delightful bacon sarnie and the promise of pasta for lunch.

Friday, 09h40: Learning the circuit

Rolling out of the pit lane, I found myself desperately trying to remember the circuit layout that I’d attempted to learn via YouTube. Hopeless attempt that was. My first few laps were painfully slow while I figured out which way the circuit turned next. 

What was clear was that Phakisa Freeway is a high-speed venue favouring the brave, especially over the latter half of the lap – most of which is spent at full throttle through a series of right-hand bends. It’s thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.

Friday, 10h00: Data, data, data

I arrive back in my pit area having achieved a 2:02 lap time. I’m told by the seasoned racers that anything under two minutes is a decent pace for one’s first time at Phakisa. My teammate Nick, a fellow rookie, arrived in the pits having done a sub-two-minute time. Immediately, I whip out the laptop to compare data logs and see where I’m losing time (which happened to be just about every corner) but the comparison gives me some good pointers I can work on for the remainder of the day.

Friday, 18h00: Braai time

I’m packing up for the day with a long face as I’ve yet to break the two-minute barrier. Casting an eye over the timesheets shows the frontrunners some three seconds up the road. That’s a massive gap to bridge. 

Fortunately, the ensuing banter around the braai has my spirits up. Frankly, this camaraderie is what club racing is actually about, but deep down we’re all competitive – so I can’t help but spend a few minutes trying to uncover the secret to unlocking lap time. 

Saturday, 09h10: Breaking the two-minute barrier

The pit lane opens for qualifying and I position myself behind one of the frontrunners in an attempt to follow and learn. It’s a well-known fact that following a competitor pushes one to improve. And improve I did, finally breaking into the sub two-minute crowd, if only by 2/10ths of a second. That leaves me starting in 5th (out of 9) for race one.

Phakisa Freeway race

Saturday, 13h15: Parc ferme 

Parc ferme is an area designated for post-race inspections, like ensuring all competitors meet the minimum weight requirement. For the drivers, it’s a chance to vocalise all the fun had on track with your competitors. My race was a whole lot of fun, too. 

I completely missed the lights going out for the start of the race so was immediately on the back foot and down in 6th place for the first corner. Coming into the penultimate corner of lap one, I rectified that situation and set off after 4th place. Midway through lap two, and I’d gained another position but I wasn’t getting away with it quite so easy. What ensued was the best ding dong battle I’ve had on a race track, with position changes almost every lap to the end of the race. As it turned out, I was piped at the post, losing out on 4th place by a mere 0.2 seconds. 

Saturday, 17h35: Prize-giving

Collecting the trophy for third place overall was rather satisfying considering this was my first time at the circuit. Podiums are awarded on total race time for the day over the two heats, so while I’d come 5th in race one, on my way to 3rd place in race two, I was far enough ahead for my confined race time to hand me a trophy. 

I’d got away well at the start this time and taken advantage of some congestion to get myself up into 2nd place by the end of lap one, having started in 4th. I built up a gap while the pack squabbled, which I maintained until lap six when one of the quicker chaps got hold of me. We battled over the last two laps and I just lost out, this time by a second. I was really chuffed with my podium but equally rued, allowing the chasers to catch me. 

Phakisa Freeway race, 3rd place

Sunday, 06h30: Homeward bound

Hooking up the trailer to head back to Johannesburg, I reflected on a great weekend. Most importantly, the car was in one piece. A trophy I won – on merit – was equally satisfying and more so as I’d had such fun with the on-track battles. 

Next time, we’re at Zwartkops in the latter part of May. I’ll be aiming for more action and ending higher up on the podium. 

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