Few drivers in the world get to go out playing with cars just a few days after New Year’s Eve.
It was my turn this year as well, as new challenges awaited me and my new team, WRT Speedstar, which was making its Rolex 24 at Daytona debut.
The deal came about very late so there was a lot to learn for the team, as well as for my rookie teammate Roman de Angelis, who, at 17 years old was making his first Rolex 24 start.
The Roar test typically doesn’t lend itself to a lot of track time, especially when you are trying to get four drivers out on track at some point, as well as trying to set up the car for the race. Our test was a bit turbulent, but we left Daytona with some sense of achievement.
It was then off to the first race of 2019, the 24 Hours of Dubai, and my first time taking part in the event.
Although still know as a semi-pro event designed for less experienced drivers, I was really surprised at how much the race had to offer.
With a high volume of cars on track, all in different classes, it makes this race completely different to any other.
I would almost say that the traffic conditions are worse than at the Nürburgring 24. I learnt so much about traffic management that weekend, and if I were to start my career again, this is the race I would put on top of my list to go and do to learn all about endurance racing.
As far as our race went, we were running strong early on and were constantly in the top-three before it was brought to an end by some technical gremlins.
After the disappointment of not finishing the race, I booked an early flight home and made a detour to my home country of South Africa for a few days where I was able to catch up with family and friends, while spending some time on the lake with the jetskis and the boat.
When you’re faced with 25-28 race weekends a year, each opportunity you get to be at home is priceless, so it really was a good week for me in terms of resetting, going into the coolest back-to-back race weekends of the year at Daytona and Bathurst.
The Rolex 24 weekend started quite difficult for us. Despite having a well-balanced car, the Audis seemed to be further off the pace than expected after the Roar, so we went into the race with mixed emotions, starting in P20.
However we never gave up and did some more radical changes to the car in the last practice session before the race, which left us feeling a bit more positive.
Our strategy in the race was to run our two Silvers early on (Ian James and Roman de Angelis), and then for me and Fred Vervisch to jump in from about 1 a.m. on Sunday. It was an unusual feeling for us to be in our casual wear for the whole of Saturday!
However, our strategy worked and both our Silvers really did punch above their weight, doing fantastic lap times and stints.
By the time 1 a.m. came, we were lying P6 in class and still on the lead lap.
Myself and Fred then got cracking and got into the lead before a puncture put us out of sync prior to the first red flag.
Conditions were horrible and really undrivable. I found myself aquaplaning behind the safety car. It was the most extreme conditions I have ever driven in.
When we did get back racing, we fought our way back to the lead, but our fuel strategy forced us to the pits 30 minutes before the eventual race-ending red.
In the end we came home P4 on track and P3 after some post-race penalties. It was a great result for WRT’s first Rolex 24 appearance and to think that before the race, we thought our chances at being competitive were slim.
From one extreme to another, it was then off to the desert-like heat of Bathurst, for what’s turned into one of the best events on the calendar.
Everything from the country to the track and to the TV package for the Bathurst 12 Hour is fantastic. As a driver you really do feel part of something great when you compete at this track.
We hit the ground rolling in practice and always looked strong, running inside the top-three, so we were confident heading into qualifying.
And what a qualifying session it was! Each of us were given two to three sets of new tires to go out and give it everything we had to try and make the Top 10 Shootout.
It was my privilege to again do qualifying this year, and from inside the car, the competitiveness of the grid really got me fired up.
Each new tire run was about shaving another 0.05 seconds off your last attempt. It was one of the closest qualifying sessions I have been in, with the top 10 covered by 0.2 seconds! We ended up P7 in the session.
Unfortunately, in the Shootout, I put two wheels on the dirt that cost considerable time on my lap. However, I did manage to claw back some of the time lost to put our car P6 on the grid, just 0.2 seconds from pole.
I went to bed that night obviously very disappointed. You never know how many times in your career you will have a chance like that to go for pole but I turned my focus to the race, knowing that qualifying meant very little at Bathurst.
Fred started the race and got into a solid rhythm, handing over the car to me in P6. I jumped in for a single stint and immediately started fuel saving, knowing track position early on would mean nothing.
We were then lucky with a safety car, which gave us optimal track position running in P2 behind the BMW. At this point we had about half a tank of fuel in hand over all of our competitors and were running ahead of them on track.
The race has become a lot about fuel strategy and we focused on that before the race, especially with having Garth Tander on our team. He showed us some really interesting tricks for fuel saving that he used during the Bathurst 1000.
However, Garth had a bit of a clash with a Pro-Am Merc and that set us back.
I was doing an interview in the Audi lounge while watching the race and saw the clash live. I was so disappointed.
After last year’s heartbreak, we put so much emphasis on staying clean early on this year, and for it to be over so soon while running so strongly was devastating for our entire crew.
Knowing how quickly things can happen at Bathurst, I knew exactly how Garth felt. I knew he was upset, but as a team we regrouped and taped the car back up and went back out, having lost six laps.
Our car was still super fast despite that added race tape, which made the pill even more difficult to swallow.
But that’s just Bathurst. So much can happen in those 12 hours that you never truly know when you are safe.
That’s what makes the race so cool. Just as the Nürburgring 24, it’s a battlefield out there, and just is an art in itself.
I jumped on a plane to South Africa after the race feeling disappointed, but by the time I had my first sip of champagne on the flight home, I just looked out the window and realized, “Damn I’m a lucky person to have had a month as crazy as this one”…