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Shaking down for the Toyota GR Cup

02 March 2022 - 21:47
Falkiner enters the hairpin at Zwartkops Raceway.
Falkiner enters the hairpin at Zwartkops Raceway.
Image: Supplied

Monday mornings are usually quite a mundane affair: an autopilot routine of checking the news wires and answering a slew of emails as I wait for that tired old moka pot to work its caffeinated magic up on the hob. Today, however, things are a little different. 

Instead of staring at my laptop screen I’m ogling a box-fresh Toyota Gazoo Racing Yaris racing car with my name on it. How did I get so lucky? Well in case you missed my previous post, I somehow managed to be one of six local motoring journalists picked to represent their publication in newly formed GR Cup Yaris Challenge — a circuit-based competition designed to create a buzz around the brand and test the waters for a future one-make race series. This isn’t the first time I've seen the car in question up close and in the metal but it will be the first time I get to pilot it in anger here at Zwartkops Raceway.

Before I do though, I need to gear up. To ensure that we are all safe and conform to MSA regulations, the Gazoo Racing team is supplying us scribes with a full-on racing kit that even seasoned track combatants would be proud to stuff inside their duffel bags. Colour-coded OMP overalls, gloves, shoes and underwear? Check. Bell helmet? Check. A HANS device? Check. It’s a comprehensive list of apparel: a suit of fire-resistant armour that once fitted to my frame makes me look like a proper Gazoo Racing works driver.

The GR Yaris does a good track car make with lots of grip and a fine turn of pace.
The GR Yaris does a good track car make with lots of grip and a fine turn of pace.
Image: Supplied

Content that I now at least look the part, the pit crew — lead by Fred Pretorius of race car preparation specialists Fast Development — usher me towards my GR Yaris. To make it fit for a year of blasting around some of SA’s most demanding race tracks, the interior has undergone a fair amount of fettling with a roll-cage, OMP seat and five-point harness at the top of the list of modifications. For the sake of shedding some weight the rest of the Yaris’ seats have been removed (as have the rear panels) while the front passenger footwell is filled with a large red fire extinguisher — hopefully I won’t ever need to use it.

Stuck to the windscreen and finishing things off in style is an interesting piece of tech called a Garmin Catalyst: a real-time driving coach that uses GPS and other electro-trickery to analyse each lap and work out where I can go faster. Once it’s identified where I can make up time it then lets me know via audio cues broadcast through its built-in speaker. It can also be paired to the Yaris’ audio system, which, factoring in my helmet, is probably a good idea. 

Anyway, once strapped in and comfortable behind the wheel it is finally time to spear out the familiar Zwartkops pitlane and turn some laps. The little 1.6-litre three-cylinder turbo engine bolted into the GR Yaris might sound eerily muted but it does deliver an admirable turn of pace — even in today’s sweltering 30-degree highveld heat. At the braking point for Turn Four, which is undoubtedly the fastest part of this 2.4km circuit, I’m clocking a VO2 max 172km/h. Not bad for a car that weighs north of 1,300kg. There’s a bit of turbo-lag at lower revs, something you need to be aware of and ultimately make allowances for (like getting back on the throttle sooner that you would in a naturally aspirated car to build up boost) but on the whole the three-pot feels at home on the racetrack. 

The standard interior has been stripped of seats and features a roll-cage, race seat and five-point harness.
The standard interior has been stripped of seats and features a roll-cage, race seat and five-point harness.
Image: Supplied

Equally on point is the six-speed manual transmission to which it comes paired. OK, so it might not like being rushed from second to third but everywhere else it offers quick, positive shifts with the added benefit of Toyota’s excellent iMT system that automatically matches engine to gearbox speed on downshifts. Heel and toe purists will scoff at using such a system but if the technology is present then you might as well use it, right? After all, with the car’s electric brain handling the throttle blips it means that mine has one less thing to expend mental energy on while tackling the curvier parts of Zwartkops Raceway. 

Speaking of which, the little Toyota GR Yaris scampers through them with an impressive amount of mechanical grip courtesy those large Dunlop Direzza semi-slick tyres. Add in the extra traction offered up by the car’s GR-Four all-wheel drive system plus those front and rear Torsen limited-slip differentials and you get a machine that behaves in a fairly neutral and predictable manner once you nail the apex and get back on the power.

With drive distributed to all four wheels, however, the GR Yaris does — compared to what I’m used to racing — behave quite differently right up until that point. There’s considerably more understeer than what you would experience in a rear-driven race car and as such I find myself needing to be a bit more aggressive on initial turn in: using the sudden weight transfer of coming abruptly off the throttle and maximising the effects of late trail braking both help to get the nose tucked in and pointing where I want it to go. After a few hot laps I quickly learn that it’s all about squaring off the corner as much as possible, then getting hard back on the gas and letting the Toyota’s clever drivetrain take care of the rest. 

Falkiner managed to clock a string of mid 1:13s during the first shakedown session.
Falkiner managed to clock a string of mid 1:13s during the first shakedown session.
Image: Supplied

Braking performance is, as I expected, fairly respectable with the middle pedal only starting to feel a bit mushy after about 12 or so laps. This should be rectified as Fast Development plans to install a racier set of pads and some more track-friendly fluid. 

So how did I get on then? Well after a few sessions in the stifling weather I managed to clock a string of laps in the mid 1:13s, a competitive time that — compared to my fellow GR Cup compatriots — should see me running at the sharp end of the grid when the season begins. And if I learn how to operate that Garmin Catalyst and actually listen to what it is trying to tell me, well, then I could most probably shave a few hundredths of a second. 

Next on the GR Cup Yaris Challenge agenda is tackling the series’ inaugural race. Forming part of the national Extreme Festival, it’s unfolding at Killarney International Raceway on Saturday March 5. The last time I drove at this circuit was back in 2013, so it’s definitely going to take a few practice laps to blow away the rust. Still, with a picturesque backdrop and a capable car to make the most of that fantastically long back straight, I’m looking forward to the challenge. Be sure to click back for updates as and when they happen... 


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