Tackling the Emerald Speed Fest — with a Toyota GR Supra and bucket
Thomas Falkiner and his Toyota GR Supra almost win the inaugural race - until his stomach fails him
If you are a fan of motorsport you'll know that fewer people are making the trek to the track to watch races. Maybe it's because the tickets are too expensive. Maybe it's because the fields have started to wear too thin.
Maybe people have just grown tired of watching cars go around the same old tracks all day long? Whatever it is, there's no denying that our local motorsport scene deserves some serious reinvention. To steal a quote from Lord Hesketh (the infamous team owner who gave James Hunt his first- ever drive in Formula 1) "It's a flat bottle of champagne in need of a rather good shake."
Fortunately, there have been a few people thinking out of the box and coming up with alternative events that take the racing off the staid track environment and out to the people. The first is the Knysna Simola Hillclimb that has become an institution since it started in 2009.
Held over four days, it treats spectators to a vehicular thrill ride that's one half speed and one half bravery as competitors race the clock up a curvy hill road for the ultimate honours.
The speeds are great (up to 260km/h in sections), as are the consequences: a quick YouTube search will reveal quite a few clips of drivers and cars coming a cropper.
The second (and newest) is the Emerald Speed Fest, inaugurated last weekend. The actual location might not be exotic - Vanderbijlpark's Emerald Resort & Casino will never ever compare to the coastal charms of Knysna - but the course is electrifying.
And I should know because the good folk at Toyota South Africa let me compete in it behind the wheel of a brand- new GR Supra: a two-door sports coupé I've been a fan of ever since it launched here towards the end of last year.
Haters - of which there are many - will be quick to deride its BMW underpinnings (peel away all that radically Japanese sheet metal and you'll find a Z4 M40i), but the fact remains that the Toyota GR Supra is an incredibly adept piece of sporting machinery. One that I think does the job better than the car on which it is based.
Unlike Knysna, Vanderbijlpark is flat, which means that there are no major hills to negotiate and consequently nothing to fall off. Instead, this 1.6km course has a series high-speed sweeps that challenge you to keep your foot planted to the throttle for as long as you dare.
Which is sometimes tricky as the tyres that flank the asphalt (stacked four high) make it difficult to look through corners and pick your apex point.
So you have to go by feel, instinct and the brief learnings that every heart-busting run gives you. Problem is you only get three of these a day. Indeed, never before has studying in-car camera footage been so valuable.
Having a communicative car is also crucial for turning fast times straight out of the blocks. In this modern era in which technology and infotainment now outweigh the driving experience, a lot of sports cars feel distant and aloof when driven on the limit.
They simply don't give you a clear indication of how much grip you have in reserve, their steering systems failing to broadcast a clear signal of how the front tyres are biting into the bitumen.
The GR Supra bucks this trend. It may use BMW underpinnings but the Toyota engineers have made subtle tweaks to the suspension and steering that make it an incredibly feelsome whip.
There's also a great deal of mechanical grip: sticky Michelin Super Sports allowing you to take all manner of sideways liberties even with the traction control system neutered. Put simply, the GR Supra is a car you can trust.
THRILLS THEN SPILLS
Consequently it's not long before I'm running ahead of more powerful exotics such as a Noble M400 and Alfa Romeo Giulia QV, on a par with some modified Ford Mustangs, and breathing down the exhaust pipes of a Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 that has a sizable grip advantage courtesy of its trick all-wheel-drive system.
I keep whittling my times down and eventually I manage a run of 40.5 seconds (for some context, the fastest modified Nissan GTRs are posting 33s and some of the slower historic cars a 51).
I'm looking good for winning my class (A3: Road Going Saloons) and then on the final day, with one run to go, the old Falkiner Curse strikes again and I have to swap my helmet for a bucket and a saline drip in the medical tent.
I'm not the only casualty though, with those tyre walls claiming a few cars.
Next year you can bet they will all be back to give one more shot at one of the most exciting alternative motorsport challenges on the calendar: the Emerald Speed Fest.
The event was won by Reghardt Roets in a modified Nissan GT-R in 33.869 seconds
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