Cape Town - The 2017 Extreme Festival national racing series gets off the line this Saturday at Killarney, with new faces and new combinations in almost every class.
The Sasol Global Touring Car championship for rear-wheel drive, two-litre cars starts its second season with a grid of at least 16 cars, visiting Cape Town for the first of two occasions this season. With two races at each of nine rounds, the first full season for South Africa’s new premier circuit-racing category is going to a be a long hard slog, with mental stamina as important as driving talent.
Heading the entry list is defending champion Michael Stephen, with Simon Moss back in the second of the ‘works’ Audis - but they’re unlikely to enjoy the advantage that propelled Stephen to victory in the first six races of 2016.
BMW star Gennaro Bonafede was the form man at the close of that first, shortened GTC season, taking five wins from the final eight races, with single-seater specialist Robert Wolk taking over the second BMW from Hennie Groenewald, who has hung up his helmet after a long and successful racing career. Expect Bonafede to be in the thick of things from the word go, with Wolk something of an unknown quantity until he adapts to tintop racing.
Mathew Hodges and his VW Jetta GTC won the very last race of 2016; his crew say the hitherto somewhat temperamental Jetta has been thoroughly debugged and should be competitive from the first lap. Hodges is joined for 2017 by defending GTC Production champion Daniel Rowe, no stranger to saloon-car racing and a talent to watch.
Rounding out the Premier-class field are Capetonian Johan Fourie and Gauteng’s Michael van Rooyen, in privately-entered BMWs. Each is an accomplished racer and given the tight class regulations, they could give the factory-backed teams a run for the silverware.
Volkswagen has entered two new GTC2 Golf GTis for Mandla Mdakane and 17-year-old rookie Keagan Masters, who earned the drive with a sterling performance in the 2016 Polo Cup.
Last year’s cars have been sold to the experienced Trevor Bland and Charl Smalberger, with two older Golf 6 GTis for Devon Piazza Musso and Ian Stevenson - but the big news is that Mini is back in national racing with two John Cooper Works cars for Polo Cup graduates Chris Shorter and Bradley Liebenberg.
The top three points finishers from the 2016 season have all moved up to the GTC series - but former VW Cup star Tasmin Pepper is back to give top contenders Jeffrey Kruger, Juan Gerber and, especially, KwaZulu-Natal driver Shaun La Reservee a hard time.
Young talents entering the series include Benjamin Habig, son of rally legend Jan, fourth-generation racer Giordano Lupini and Gansbaai rally driver Paulus Franken. They’ll be joined by Volkswagen Driver Search 2016 winner Jonathan Mogotsi, Shivesh Bissoon, who also took part in the Driver Search program and transformation driver Kuda Vazhure, who enters his second season of the Polo Cup racing.
More family connections include Matt Shorter, younger brother of 2016 champion Chris, identical twins Darren and Justin Oates, Daniel Duminy - son of production racing star Shaun - and father and son team Gary and Ethan van Heerden.
The Formula 1600 single-seater series has been updated - and the playing fields levelled - with the introduction of new, more modern bodywork for the tubular-framed cars, new, harder tyres, which will last longer but will make the cars more difficult to drive, and prize money as both an incentive and a form of sponsorship.
The engines of the cars are sealed, so nobody has a power advantage, and 2016 champion not racing this season, anything could happen and probably will.