Graeme Nathan, the most successful driver in South African production car history with seven titles to his name, sees 2016 as the opportunity to finally dispel the notion that he is a front-wheel-drive specialist.
His opportunity to do so will come mid-year, when he gets behind the wheel of a rear-drive Volkswagen GTC (Global Touring Car) contender in anger for the first time at Aldo Scribante circuit near Port Elizabeth. Teams are working around the clock to ready their cars for the first race of the championship on June 4, with the Jettas being assembled by Thompson Racing, a crack team of technicians and engineers who have tasted success repeatedly in rally and off-road racing. They will also look after Nathan’s car on each race weekend.
“Being chosen by Volkswagen to lead their GTC campaign is a great honour for me and brings with it a number of interesting ‘firsts’,” says Nathan. “It’ll be the first time that I’ll be racing a car that I haven’t actually built, I have been loaned a company GTI, and yes – it will be the first time I’ve raced a rear-drive car!”
While clothed in Jetta bodywork, like all other GTC cars power from a 300kW production-based 2.0-litre turbo engine goes to the back wheels.
But the towering, 1.98 metre Nathan, who moved to circuit racing (amusingly, in a historic Mini) after a career-ending motocross accident in 1993, sees no issue with being pushed along after two decades of being pulled around in Minis, Polos, and Golfs.
“In some ways I don’t even want to comment about the rear-drive/front-drive thing,” muses Nathan. “Driving or riding anything quickly is predominantly about your ability to read the grip you’re getting from the machine – it makes little difference whether it has two wheels or four and which of those wheels transmit the power. Sure, the line on a race track between front and rear-wheel drive differs by perhaps a metre or two but ultimately it doesn’t matter and a good driver will feel what works for a particular car.
“The most important thing is going to be my attitude, and I’m not in GTC to have a swansong season in a fast car,” says Nathan vehemently, who at 47 is going to be the senior citizen of the championship. “I was born and bred competitive, and when I drive I drive full out – I want to win as much as ever and I’m looking forward to going head to head with the top guys – drivers like Michael Stephen and Gennaro Bonafede.”
One of the biggest challenges, says Nathan, is going to be relinquishing control of both the building and the running of the car. With a reputation for being something of a maverick, Nathan and his bunch of merry men – with motorsport doyen and renowned talent scout Peter Kaye-Eddie ultimately at the helm – have pulled off many upsets over the years. There’s an inimitable fact in local motorsport: you need to get up early to beat Nathan and company.
So despite a new dispensation in virtually every aspect of his racing this year, his intention is to make sure that one important fact remains unchanged – and that’s winning races.