Pretoria - Jonathan Mogotsi has won the inaugural Volkswagen Driver Search following an intensive three-month program that culminated in a shootout with finalist rival Ryan Rhode in a pair of Volkswagen Polos in Saturday's Zwartkops Superhatch races.
While the more experienced Rhode beat Mogotsi in those races, the judges opted to hand Jonathan the top prize - a drive in the 2017 VW Polo Cup.
“This has been a most difficult process,” Motorsport South Africa sporting services manager Wayne Riddell confessed. “We started with a pile of 50 entries and it was hard enough to choose 16 candidates from those.
“Then, while it was clear that there was always a top echelon emerging, it was even more difficult to choose eight from those 16 and a really tough task to cut those down to four and then two as the cream rose to the top. But today's final selection was the most challenging of all - we have seen Jonathan and Ryan growing through every step and we now have two racing drivers in every respect.
“We are sure that the runner-up will now find a top drive too - we have had interest in the services of whichever driver did not make it, but there can only be one winner and that is Jonathan Mogotsi - well done - make the best of this opportunity!”
Driver Search convener Steve Harding agreed: “While it was a dream come true for us to make it happen, the Driver Search has been an emotional rollercoaster through which all the contestants have shone.
“Now we have a winner, but we will do it again next year - Driver Search will become a regular annual event
‘Impressive depth of talent’
Volkswagen motorsport manager Mike Rowe confirmed: “The depth of talent we have dealt with over the past few months is truly impressive, but now we have a winner and we look forward to seeing Jonathan develop through the ranks; starting with his rookie season in the Polo Cup in 2017.”
Rhode and Mogotsi were among the 16 hopefuls selected to the Driver Search, which was designed to find the cream of South Africa's crop of previously disadvantaged drivers, starting with an academy module at the Gerotek test facility outside Pretoria in September 2016. That process groomed the candidates in every aspect a racer will require in their careers; from fitness to the basics of driving, marketing themselves and the commercial aspects; but also selected a top eight, who returned to Gerotek for a further academy module in October.
The top four candidates chosen from that module - Rishay Moodley, Ayrton Good, Mogotsi and Rhode then went through to an on-track shootout at Red Star Raceway, where Rhode and Mogotsi qualified for the final phase, the first half of which was to compete together in last Saturday's Port Elizabeth Three-Hour. The two rookies delivered a superb performance, to take a giant-killing sixth overall and win the Index of Performance in the Polo they shared with Polo Cup regular Kuda Vuzhare.
Rhode finished ahead in both races on Saturday but, although it seemed impossible on the face of it to split the two, Mogotsi's exceptional performance versus his lack of real race experience earned him the nod, ahead of the equally talented Rhode, who used his superior experience to beat Mogotsi in the Zwartkops races.
Runner-up Rhode said afterwards: “It was a great opportunity and I can only thank Volkswagen and Motorsport South Africa for this incredible experience.
“I’ve enjoyed every moment of the program, I’m grateful to have come so far, and I feel even more motivated to show what I can really do. Congratulations to Jonathan.”
Mogotsi, a business analyst from Johannesburg, learned his racecraft in gaming and has won several racing game competitions; he came very close to winning an international competition that would have seen him competing in world GT3 races, and when the Volkswagen Driver Search was announced, he was among the first to apply.
His hunger and dedication soon got the attention of the judges, who were impressed by his natural ability and ruthless competitiveness, in spite of a relative lack of experience. Mogotsi comfortably progressed through to the top four shootout, where he was quickest of all by a tiny margin to Rhode and the two went on to impress in the Port Elizabeth Three Hour.
But Rhode took the gap at the start of the first Zwartkops race to open up a small lead over his rival; although Mogotsi closed the gap down, he couldn’t get close enough to take advantage. In Race 2, Mogotsi was caught behind a car that was faster than his in a straight line but slower through the corners; by the time he got past this mobile chicane, Rhode was gone.
“I had thought I'd blown it today - Ryan beat me in both races!” he said afterwards. “But it seems the judges thought I did enough - this is a huge moment - now it's going to be a long four months’ wait for my first race in Polo Cup!”
“I really hope Ryan can find his way into Polo Cup too next year - we’ve had a brilliant fight and it would be great to take that forward, but right now I need to concentrate at the job at hand; I’m going to grab this opportunity with both hands.”