2019 sees the national GTC Championship taking a step into the unknown following a host of changes. Change is however not necessarily a bad thing and the opening round of the season in Port Shepstone on the weekend of March 1-2 could well be the start of a new, exciting chapter in South African motorsport and the country’s premier main circuit category.
The off-season in a nutshell
In recent weeks we’ve also seen two of the top drivers announcing that they won’t be competing in the season ahead. The first announcement saw triple champion Michael Stephen not coming back to defend his 2018 title. This sees Stephen end a long and successful career as championship winning driver in a host of South African national categories throughout the last two decades. His experience, both on track and as race engineer, is certainly not going to waste either. Stephen has since stepped into the Volkswagen Motorsport South Africa organisation to head up their Driving Academy. This will see him playing an important role in the development of South Africa’s future motorsport talents.
More recently, Gennaro Bonafede announced that he would not take part in the 2019 season. Bonafede has been one of the most successful young drivers to make it through the South African motorsport ranks during the last decade. The past two years in the GTC Championship saw him becoming Stephen’s primary rival. More news about Bonafede’s future is still unclear at the present time.
So, who’s in?
The exit of two of the category’s frontrunners brings with it the opportunity for a host of drivers to step forward and emerge as the new champion. Heading up this list is Stephen’s former Terry Moss Racing / Audi stablemate, Simon Moss. Though largely overshadowed by the battle between Stephen and Bonafede, Moss has emerged as one of the regular frontrunners. In 2018 in fact, he finished as runner-up on the points table in what ended as the team’s most successful season to date. Stepping in as teammate to Moss is veteran driver Tschops Sipuka. Although this will see him making his debut in the GTC Championship, Sipuka is no new face to the Terry Moss Racing / Audi setup at all. He himself has been a team mate to Stephen in the former Production Car Championship until the end of 2013.
Volkswagen Motorsport South Africa will also field a strong unit in 2019. Daniel Rowe has emerged as one of the most improved drivers during 2018 and will head up the team’s campaign. Joining him will be reigning GTC2 champion Keagan Masters. There is no doubt that this relatively young driver duo can potentially head up the next generation of South African greats. Pre-season testing also showed early indications of the Volkswagen Jettas being able to produce the winning pace.
Johan Fourie in his EPS Courier Services BMW has also found himself at sharp end of the field throughout previous GTC seasons. As a multiple champion in various national categories, Fourie will be eager to add the GTC title to his impressive career statistics. Robert Wolk will be competing in the Chemical Logistics BMW in 2019. Like Moss, he has found his efforts overshadowed by his former teammate Bonafede since his debut in 2017. There is however no doubt about his intentions to add more race wins to his tally in the season ahead.
The surprise package may come Michael van Rooyen who will be competing in the Gazoo Racing Toyota Corolla for the 2019 season. Van Rooyen has been a regular on the podium, but that maiden victory has remained elusive. In a season where we are guaranteed to see a new champion, could we also see a new constructor heading up the renaissance.
In GTC2, Adrian Wood finds himself in an advantageous position of starting the new season in the same camp as where he finished in 2018. He will again be piloting the Kyocera liveried Volkswagen Golf, the car that saw him take his maiden victory during the 2018 season finale. Partnering Wood in the Volkswagen Motorsport liveried sister car is Brad Liebenberg. Two seasons behind the wheel of the MINI John Cooper Works saw him take a host of victories. Essentially, he’ll be stepping into the car vacated by Masters. The Volkswagen Motorsport South Africa team have dominated this class for three seasons and with their young and competitive driver line-up, they’ll be the firm favourites for 2019.
Charl Smalberger has moved to the Universal Healthcare camp where he will also be piloting a Volkswagen Golf. Smalberger’s pace has been marred by reliability issues in previous seasons. A change of fortunes could well see him being a regular at the front of the field. Bob Neill also returns in his Delmon Mining Ford Focus ST. Unlike any of the before mentioned drivers, Neill does not have many years of experience at national level. His 2018 debut in the championship saw him in fact taking a step up from the regional VW Challenge championship.
New faces, but also new places
2019 also sees two new venues added to the calendar. The season finale will take place at Red Star Raceway in Delmas, a circuit which was initially included on the 2018 calendar; also, as host venue for the season finale. A mid-season change in sporting body affiliation resulted in the venue not being eligible to host the event where after it was replaced by Zwartkops Raceway.
Dezzi Raceway in Port Shepstone will host Round 1 of the championship. The circuit last featured on the national Extreme Festival calendar during the 2015 season; prior to the birth of the GTC Championship. Although some of the drivers have competed at the venue in various other categories, there has been several changes made during the off-season that will essentially make this a new circuit for everyone. It does however remain a tight circuit where driver skill will be more important than car performance in a bid to be victorious. The driver who gets to grip with this new circuit first, could well emerge first on the championship log following Round 1 of the championship.
The weekend will also see the opening rounds of the Falken Polo Cup, Investchem 1600 and the Pirelli South African Superbikes championships. This also marks the first time since the opening round of 2017 that both four- and two-wheeled national championships will be hosted at the same event. Saturday’s programme will see Qualifying taking place at 10:05 with two separate 15 minutes sessions for GTC2 and GTC. Race 1 is scheduled for 12:10 with Race 2 at 15:25. There will also be a gird walk prior to Race 1 where spectators will have the opportunity to meet the 2019 GTC drivers.
Story by Reynard Gelderblom