East London, South Africa: The defending Sasol GTC Champion Michael Stephen has put his title defence back on track as he powered his Engen Xtreme Audi GTC to a pair of victories last Saturday, at Round 4 of the championship held at the East London Grand Prix circuit .
Having been crowned the inaugural Sasol GTC champion at the Eastern Cape circuit last November, the 12-time SA motorsport title holder took both 10-lap race victories, with race two again in reverse grid format.
Second and third places on the podium were shared between Engen Xtreme’s Simon Moss and EPS Racing’s Johan Fourie in race one, and Sasol GTC Racing Team’s Gennaro Bonafede and Robert Wolk in race two.
The Sasol GTC Championship teams gave notice of their intent in an unbelievably close qualifying session late on Friday afternoon. Johan Fourie (#14 EPS Couriers BMW GTC) initially led the way in spite of running a standard motor this event, followed by Stephen, but as the sun set it was Moss (#38 Engen Audi GTC) who pipped the Cape Town driver by 0.134 seconds to claim his maiden GTC pole position.
Fourth in qualifying went to Gennaro Bonafede (#32 Sasol BMW GTC) who was just 0.248 seconds off pole. Daniel Rowe (#11 Volkswagen Jetta GTC) and Michael van Rooyen (#95 RSC BMW GTC) filled the third row of the grid followed by Mathew Hodges (#57 VW Jetta GT), while Robert Wolk missed the session after running off the track in free practice two and required extensive repair work.
GTC2 provided another close session with the dominant Volkswagen Golfs of Mandla Mdakane and Keagan Masters bested by Bradley Liebenberg (#12 Ferodo MINI) with a margin of just 0.07 seconds. Newcomer Kosie Weyers planted his Chevrolet Cruze into third place followed by Trevor Bland (#5 TB Motorsport VW Golf), Masters and Chris Shorter (#33 Champion Mini).
The biggest news of the day came in the early morning warm-up session, when polesitter Moss run off the track and damaged his car’s front end. The Terry Moss Racing team performed a minor miracle by repairing the damage in just under 2½ hours to give the Port Elizabeth driver a chance to make the most of his first race from pole position.
While Moss maintained the lead off the line, Stephen took overtook his teammate as early as turn three and never looked back, with Moss playing the role of wingman to his team leader. Fourie maintained his third place position in spite of a power deficit of 15kW from his standard motor.
Rowe got ahead of Bonafede, but went off the road as he ran wide at the ultra fast Potter’s Pass corner on lap two, but recovered and rejoined the race. Bonafede dropped a wheel off the road at the same place and damaged the aerodynamic front splitter which caused him to pit for temporary repairs during the race, losing a lap in the process.
Michael van Rooyen and Mathew Hodges were embroiled in a tight race for fifth place, overtaking each other on every lap. With three laps remaining, van Rooyen was forced to retire with mechanical issues, leaving Hodges – who was battling with grip issues – to come home in a comfortable fifth place.
Wolk had power steering issues on the warm-up lap, but remained in the race to earn as many points as possible.
With van Rooyen unable to start the reverse grid race two, the two Sasol BMW GTCs of Wolk and Bonafede lead the way around with Hodges, Rowe and Fourie following, while the two Engen Audis filled the rear of the field.
Bonafede rocketed into the lead while Wolk and Rowe tussled for third place. As Wolk tried to dive up the inside of Rowe, the latter VW Jetta driver moved over and the two cars collided before continuing on. Rowe was later penalised three finishing positions, leaving Wolk on the final step of the podium; his first podium finish for the 2017 championship.
Having started from rear of grid, Stephen sliced his way through the pack with a series of precision overtaking moves. With three laps left, Stephen out-braked Bonafede into turn three and pulled out a 1.6 second lead by the time the chequered flag fell.
Moss ran off the road twice and trailed the pack home behind Hodges and Fourie.
Brad Liebenberg initially lost out to Kosie Weyers in the first race, but by lap four he had passed the Chev driver with Trevor Bland and Mandla Mdakane hot on their heels. The five-car train chopped and changed positions by the corner, cheered on by the spectators who lined the 3.9km long track.
Liebenberg held his nerve and recorded the first win in his recently rebuilt MINI John Cooper Works for Signature Motorsport. Bland and Weyers followed the Ferodo Mini home, followed by Chris Shorter, Iain Stevenson (#69 Comsol VW Golf) and championship leader Keagan Masters.
With Liebenberg at the back of the pack for the reverse grid race, newcomer Dayne Angel (#5 Honda Civic Type R) led the field away but was quickly swallowed up by Charl Smalberger (iCorp VW Golf), Masters and the rest.
Masters, Shorter, Weyers and Mdakane continued to tussle their way around the track door-to-door, even at one stage trying to negotiate Beacon Bend four abreast. Weyers was hit by Mdakane, forcing the class debutant to end his strong weekend in the pits.
Liebenberg picked his way through the field and hunted down the leaders as the race drew to a close. The MINI driver took the lead on the final lap in a hard braking move on Masters, Masters fought back and drew alongside at the final corner, but Liebenberg squeaked across the line with one tenth of a second to spare.
Bland led Smalberger home, followed by Shorter’s bruised Champion MINI.
The Sasol GTC Championship next heads to the tight and twisty Zwartkops Raceway in Pretoria for Round four 4 of the 2017 season on June 17, 2017.
Championship standings after the East London race (subject to MSA ratification):
1. Gennaro Bonafede (BMW) – 239
2. Simon Moss (AUDI) – 201
3. Michael Stephen (AUDI) – 175
4. Johan Fourie (BMW) – 136
5. Matthew Hodges (VW) – 107
6. Daniel Rowe (VW) – 57
7. Robert Wolk (BMW) – 50
8. Michael van Rooyen (BMW) – 18
1. Keagan Masters (VW) – 247
2. Trevor Bland (VW) – 200
3. Bradley Liebenberg (MINI) – 135
4. Charl Smalberger (VW) – 127
5. Mandla Mdakane (VW) – 112
6. Chris Shorter (MINI) – 82
7. Kosie Weyers (Chev) – 31
8. Iain Stevenson (VW) – 29
9. Dayne Angel (Honda – 6
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