By: Jesse Adams
Johannesburg - I practiced on a friend’s Playstation until my eyeballs ached. Hours upon hours of virtual lapping on a two-dimensional screen, trying to learn the lay of the land at the Hockenheimring, without actually being there.
Audi gave me ample preparation time. It was around May when I received the call. Ten out of 40 journalists who attended a test day in Germany had been gifted seats in real-deal TT Cup races throughout the season’s seven round calendar, and I was one of them. This was huge for me, a guy who raced for a few years at national level in my younger years, on an impossible budget, in battered machinery with, at best, mixed results.
Now I’d jet off to Hockenheim for the once in a lifetime opportunity of racing on a world stage, against a field of budding pro drivers, in a factory-prepared car, with proper mechanics at my beck and call. It’s the kind of thing I dreamed about before turning to a career in writing about cars, instead of racing them. Did I take it too seriously? Heck yeah I did. Hence the hours practising on a Playstation.
But little could prepare me for the actual experience. I knew the track’s lefts and rights, and I was reasonably familiar with the TT Cup car, but the level of competition was unexpected. Of course I knew I wasn’t there to win. The 16 full time drivers with an average age of 19 were honed, and sharp and fit, and had six-pack abs where I had a 39-year old gut.
I was there as a guest, expected to enjoy myself and then write a story. They were there because their lives literally depended on results, and with good ones they could secure a (paid) future in motorsport.
It’s a lot like law school
Up until this point, these 16 youngsters were paying for their seats in TT Cup. Around R2-million per year. Think of it as an investment, made by their parents or sponsors. It’s a lot like law school, and a series like this is Harvard. Pay the expensive tuition and hopefully your child comes out the other side with honours (trophies), set for scooping up by some prestigious firm (race team).
The scene was fascinating. Between practice, qualifying and race sessions I sat in the comfort of a five-star Audi hospitality suite, observing the TT Cup Class of 2016. There were dweebs and jocks and teacher’s pets. This was the last of seven race rounds, and cliques had formed. One in particular was taking it all a lot more seriously than the rest.
Finland’s Joonas Lappalainen, Germany’s Dennis Marschall, Denmark’s Niklas Nielsen and South Africa’s own 17-year-old prodigy Sheldon van der Linde were quite visibly using their time off the track to study. They pored over onboard footage and data while others flicked ears and exchanged photos of swimsuit babes on smartphones. I’m not saying these guys (and one girl) weren’t also at the top of their games, because they all take things quite seriously once suited up with helmets on, but the aforementioned four were on another level and it showed all season long on track.
Each race is around 30 minutes of organised chaos, but it’s all broken down into hundredths of seconds. Brake one metre later. Carry 2km/h of extra corner speed. Straighten steering and get on the throttle a millisecond before the next guy. It all adds up to valuable time, and if you’ve prepared properly for the big tests (races), it shows in the results.
Joonas, Dennis, Niklas and Sheldon were able to sniff out those elusive hundredths, and for it they dominated this year’s TT Cup Championship, finishing in that order. They’ve graduated from Harvard at the top of the class, and each of them will move on to bigger, better and faster things in 2017.
How did I do? I was around one and a half seconds off the leaders which placed me 16th out of 20 starters on the grid in qualifying. I did my best to mimic my de facto team-mate Sheldon, and tried hard to pinpoint brake markers, nail turn-in points, glance apexes and carry corner speed in the two races I was grateful just to contest.
Race one went very well, and after some first lap pinball between other cars I settled into a rhythm and finished 13th overall and second of seven guest drivers - three of which were semi-pros already enrolled in next year’s TT Cup syllabus. I was then in line for a second guest podium placing in race two when a bout of brain-fade sent my car into a half spin, handing third to an Australian semi-pro.
Still, I was happy with the results, which I credit to the hours of studying I did at home school, behind a Playstation.
Follow Jesse Adams on Twitter @PoorBoyLtd