As I arrived at Kyalami to race 450 bhp Reynards, I was filled with apprehension and mounting worries: what if I excelled at high speeds, would it be too late to change my career? Did they make fireproof suits in plus-sizes for the more muscular racer?
I soon realised that my worries were unwarranted.
In the reception area I met my competition, a group of radio and TV personalities and models. At least I was the only athlete I figured, that would surely count for a few precious seconds – seconds that would win me a spot on top of the podium and a hair-full of sparkling wine. The others may have carried lighter bodies, but I had the reflexes of a panther on horse steroids.
We cautiously eyed each other out in the locker room. Especially the models, who weren’t as comfortable with the unisex setup as the guys. At this point, the trepidation and anxiety got so bad that I declined a third prego roll, even though it was presented to me on a silver tray. I decided that it would be prudent to pocket it in a serviette and eat it in the car.
I would later discover that there was no way to unwrap and eat a prego in a cockpit that strapped you into a bathtub-lying position, doing 230 km/h through a corner. I had to concede that the extra weight of the bread and spicy meat probably cancelled out my aforementioned athletic advantage.
During an hour-long race briefing we were given a list of rules, regulations and graphs of the Kyalami course. We were shown the race lines on each corner, what gear we should be in at that point and told how to avoid ending Friday in a ball of fire, upside down, with the Wesbank billboard worn as a funeral scarf. There was so much information to process that even Stephen Hawking would have furrowed his brow – if he had the motor skills to do such a thing. I was pretty sure that if nothing else, I would be able to beat Stephen Hawking around this track.
My only question for Jody our instructor involved the old pair of race boots that I had been given. I asked him (earnestly) if it was okay that the tread on my sole was worn smooth. He looked at me with a hint of sadness, which both reassured and spurred me on to fly in the face of his disdain. I decided not to ask him how much quicker we could run at the coast.
This was briefly followed by the signing of indemnity forms and ticking whether you preferred an oak or pine box.
Jody then took us around the track to demonstrate the race line, which wasn’t very helpful as we spent the trip swearing nervously as he negotiated the course sideways in a Merc Vito.
Then it was time for our own days of thunder. A chance to push the V6 Dodge engines to their (limited to avoid law-suits) limit, to pull some Gs and get our start in a car that Juan Pablo Montoya had once also enjoyed success.
I slid my legs over the fire extinguisher and got strapped in so tightly that my lung capacity was diminished to that of a lifelong crack smoker. I was pretty sure at that point that the prego would no longer be in edible shape.
I was then shocked to discover that there was no MP3 auxillary port. How was I supposed to listen to Pantera Live in Moscow, to urge me on in record time? I was further disappointed to discover that I’d have no contact with my pit crew, in case I had to change from slicks, or at least to find out if I was gaining time on the guy from Binnelanders.
I then had to forgo some of the more comfortable protective features, to make sure that I was successfully crammed into the breakaway cockpit. I was reassured that everything broke away in the car to ensure maximum safety. As long as my head didn’t break away from my neck I was going to be fine.
With nothing but an open road ahead, the green light lit up and I sped out to meet the first corner.
I then proceeded to forget every instruction that had been issued during the PowerPoint presentation. I accelerated through corners, weaved around in an attempt to re-invent more efficient race lines, accelerated when I should have been braking and sometimes even kicked the rear wheels out like a belligerent unicorn when I should have been tight and efficient, like a well-mannered meerkat.
I sensed the marshals quietly judging me from behind their cheap sunglasses.
My race line was as tatty and inconsistent as a hobo’s sob story. But like golf, the memory of that one sweet shot brings you back for another round. Until frustration immediately surfaces and you dump your Cash Crusaders golf bag into the lake.
The point is, when you feel like you’re getting the race line correct, it brings you back for more, and at a higher speed.
Jody came out in an A1 car to check on our progress. I took the opportunity to drive beyond my capabilities and attempted to stay with him as he playfully flitted through the pack. He soon disappeared over the horizon. I downshifted on the 6-speed sequential gearbox like Ike Turner with a hangover. The vibrations through my helmet made me feel like I was in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I then realized that I should probably concentrate on my braking points instead of how to recreate this shaky effect for films.
With the sun setting and adrenalin still coursing, we were flagged into the pits. Apparently Alain Prost won the last F1 race held at Kyalami. I felt his presence as I rounded the final corner. In fact I could almost see him on the side of the track, waving me off with French contempt.
Out on the circuit you learn to appreciate the skills and endurance of the pros, not only to drive strategically at a ridiculous speed, but also to maintain serious concentration for 65-or-so laps. And all without onboard snacks.
I rushed back home to catch any kind of motorsport update on TV. As I slowly immersed myself in some Nascar qualifier, I put on my complimentary Chinese A1 team cap. The cap may have been handed out randomly, but I took it as a sign: China are an ascending power in the world. Which just might bode well for my future in competitive driving.
Originally published in GQ magazine.
For more information on settling inter-office rivalries contact Fantastic Racing.