Engen Xtreme Team’s Michael Stephen has taken the Sasol GTC Championship lead for the first time in 2017, after a commanding performance this past weekend that saw the 12-time national champion take back-to-back race wins at round six of the championship held at Zwartkops Raceway, Pretoria.
With five race wins to date this season, the Audi driver has not lead the championship since he won the inaugural title in November last year, due to multiple mechanical challenges in the first half of the season. Meanwhile his closest rival and fellow title contender, Sasol GTC Racing Team’s Gennaro Bonafede, conceded the title lead he had held since day one of the 2017 season, thanks to multiple incidents which saw Bonafede sidelined by the day’s end.
The weekend started off on a strong note for the Sasol BMW outfit after Robert Wolk scored his first pole position of the season, just 0.02 seconds ahead of Stephen. The top five in qualifying were covered by a scant 0.189 seconds, pointing to close racing to come.
Meanwhile, the GTC2 grid saw the top five separated by 0.388 seconds with the category championship leader, Keagan Masters edging out Iain Stevenson (Comsol VW Golf GTi) and Mandla Mdakane (VW Motorsport Golf) with the Ferodo and Champion MINI JCWs of Brad Liebenberg and Chris Shorter respectively, rounding out the top five in qualifying.
The first 17-lap race saw Wolk disappear ahead of the field despite being chased by the two Engen Audis of Stephen and Simon Moss. Crowd-pleasing motorsport chaos ensued at turn seven on the opening lap when Volkswagen Motorsport’s Daniel Rowe (VW Jetta GTC) bumped Bonafede into a spin. MVR Racing’s Michael Van Rooyen swerved to avoid the melee and spun to the back of the field.
Lap six saw Stephen pass Wolk – who was battling with brake problems – followed a lap later by Moss and Mathew Hodges (VW Jetta GTC). Wolk came under attack from Fourie, who tapped the Sasol BMW into a spin in turn two. GTC2 driver Keagan Masters, faced with the spinning BMW in front of him, chose the wrong way to go around and made heavy contact that resulted in Wolk retiring on the spot with damaged suspension.
Meanwhile in GTC2, Masters lead the field from pole, but within the opening laps was hunted down by Brad Liebenberg. The two young chargers swapped positions four times during the race, while Chris Shorter caught the pair and crossed the line in third. Trevor Bland (VW Golf GTi), Charl Smalberger (iCorp VW Golf GTi) and Iain Stevenson rounded out the top six.
The reverse-grid race two saw Wolk and Rowe line up on the front row, followed by Van Rooyen and Bonafede, while the Audi duo started at the rear of grid.
The incidents began on the opening lap as Moss dived up the inside of Van Rooyen but ran the BMW driver wide. As Hodges tried to slip past the unfolding accident, Moss turned into the Volkswagen driver and all three spun out. Van Rooyen was the only survivor who continued at the back of the pack. Wolk led Rowe and Stephen, but the reigning champion had his eye on the lead and quickly found a way past the Jetta driver and set off after Wolk. Stephen eventually past Wolk in turn six as the GTC pack closed in to lap the GTC2 runners.
As Wolk picked his way carefully past Volkswagen Motorsport’s Mandla Mdakane and Liebenberg, who were running at the front of the GTC2 pack, Liebenberg tried to follow Wolk past Mdakane as well, but collided with both the BMW and Golf, again putting Wolk out of the race. Liebenberg retired as the safety car came out to clear the track of debris.
With Stephen in the lead ahead of Fourie and Rowe, Bonafede retired with mechanical issues three laps from the end. Masters lead Smalberger, Shorter and Bland across the GTC2 finish line; however a post-race technical inspection saw Masters, Liebenberg and Shorter all penalised by 20 seconds for over-boosting. This handed Smalberger the GTC2 race win – his first in 2017 – followed by Mdakane and Bland.
With just three rounds and six races remaining in 2017, the Sasol GTC Championship travels back to the Killarney International Raceway, Cape Town from September 8-9 for round seven.
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Championship positions (subject to MSA confirmation):
1. Michael Stephen 444
2. Gennaro Bonafede 393
3. Simon Moss 347
4. Johan Fourie 264
5. Mathew Hodges 220
6. Robert Wolk 153
7. Daniel Rowe 127
8. Michael van Rooyen 84
1. Keagan Masters 466
2. Trevor Bland 313
3. Brad Liebenberg 287
4. Charl Smalberger 281
5. Chris Shorter 261
6. Mandla Mdakane 196
7. Iain Stevenson 82