The 10-driver team from South Africa return home this week from the 2017 Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals in Portugal with a mixed bag of results , but with a sense of honour that our drivers can still compete with the very best kart racers in the world.
The 2017 event was the most competitive in the 18-year history of this World Championship for Rotax-engined karts, with 350 drivers from 59 countries taking part.
And putting the calibre of the competing drivers into perspective, all the drivers earn their seat by being the cream of the crop in their respective countries. Rotax estimates that these 350 drivers have come out tops in their regions by beating an estimated 15 000 competitors in each Rotax season world -wide! So just to be chosen for the finals is already a huge honour.
The week-long Kart-Fest sees drivers in six classes take part in qualifying and elimination races before the six winner-takes-all finals run on the Saturday. And whilst South Africa can look back on some 13 World Championships achieved in this event since 2000, this year it was case of oh-so-close, rather than any ultimate prizes.
“This is the Olympics of motorsport, where a driver and team’s performance is measured on a playing field as level as possible,” says SA Rotax importer Ed Murray, who, as always, was at the Grand Finals this year to lead the team from the front. A multiple former SA karting champion, Murray says this was the most competitive Grand Final he has ever attended, since the inaugural event in 2000.
“Every effort has always been made to ensure parity of equipment in the Rotax series, and this year that was achieved to a greater degree than ever. Racing in identical chassis with identical engines, it is the qualifying heats that make or break you.”
Mini Max The South African who came closest to glory was young Leyton Fourie from Alberton, who actually took the lead for a few brief moments in the Mini Max event for drivers aged 10-13 years old. The 12-year-old SA Mini Max champ, driving in his first Grand Final, put in a huge effort for the 2017 World Championship meeting, practising at the Algarve karting circuit in Portimao a few weeks before the event. And it paid off, as he was competitive from the word go.
Leyton qualified in an excellent third place for the finals, out of 36 karts. He ran in the top three on the opening lap of the final and then made a brilliant overtake to briefly lead the race for a few corners. He then mixed it in second and third places, before losing a bit of pace a few laps before the end, but still finished in a fine sixth place.
“Leyton was extremely impressive all week long,” said Ed Murray. “His attitude was spot-on from the start of the event and kept things together brilliantly. We are all very proud of this youngster.”
DD2 Masters. Michael Stephen, a multiple SA karting and Touring Car champion, came very close to winning the DD2 Masters title (for drivers aged 32 years and over) in 2015, and this year he was out to set the record straight. The week started well for the 36-year-old engineer from Port Elizabeth, challenging for top positions in qualifying and in his elimination heats. But a mishap in the pre-final on the Friday saw Michael start the final on the back-foot. A karter in front of him knocked his nose-cone badly, and rules in Rotax state that any driver with compressed nose cone mountings in a race gets an automatic 10-second time penalty (this rule was drafted in to prevent excessive bumping in races and it applied to Michael, even though his incident was not of his own making)
Starting in 11th position in the DD2 pack for the final was a tough ask, and before the race Michael was hoping none of the drivers ahead of him would break away from the pack. That’s in fact what happened, but nevertheless Michael’s charge back from 11th to an eventual fifth was text-book Stephen race-craft, as he lapped right on the pace of eventual winner Troy Woolston from Australia.
Jonathan Pieterse, our other South African entry in DD2, was only notified of his place in the team a few days before event started (due to a late withdrawal from African Open winner Marouan Selmi). Jono, as he is known in karting circles, really came to the party, qualifying for the finals in fine style, and finished a fine 25th, out of the 72 DD2 entries for the event.
“For Jono to come on board at such a late stage and qualify for the finals against 72 DD2 national championship winners from around the world was excellent,” said Ed Murray. “He drove brilliantly, especially as he has only recently returned to karting after a break of some years.”
DD2 Gearbox. South Africa had high hopes of a victory in this class, as our SA champion Brad Liebenberg had already proved himself to be highly competitive on the world karting stage in previous events. Brad was on the pace in qualifying and elimination heats, with times in the top–four, but he initially suffered a nose-cone penalty, and then was disqualified for being underweight at the weigh-in after the pre-final. This was the result of a confusion in adding too little fuel to his fuel tank, and it was a bitter blow to the SA team, and to Brad!
Jason Cotezee from Cape Town did very well considering that this was only the second time he had ever driven a DD2 Gearbox class kart, having earned his place in the finals in South Africa with a top African Open result in the non-gearbox Max Challenge class. At the tender age of 15, the DF Malan Hoer Skool pupil was also one of the youngest competitors in the DD2 field.
“Jason improved steadily throughout the week, and eventually his times were on a par with Brad Liebenberg’s, so that was super-impressive,” said Ed Murray. “He just failed to make it into the final.”
Benjamin Habig, the talented youngster from KZN, was strangely off the pace all week, and never really found his personal groove at the Algarve kart circuit, so went home empty-handed. Perhaps the demands of an intensive University programme, as well as competing in Polo Cup on the main circuit this year may have played a part in diluting the ultimate focus on karting for Benjamin in 2017.
Senior Max. Luke Herring from Cape Town was another SA Team member expected to challenge for victory. But bad luck dogged the SA Senior Max champion from the start of the week in the elimination heats with a strange misfire, which was eventually traced to a pinched ignition wire beneath the engine of his kart. When Luke got going he was very quick, but then in the all-important pre-final his kart was tagged from behind, ripping the corner mount off the rear bumper, and that put paid to his chances of a come-back drive, as he failed to make the finals.
Junior Max. Joshua Coertze from Port Elizabeth showed improving pace all week in the Junior Max Category, for drivers aged 13 to 16. He ran as high as fifth place in one of his elimination heats and eventually qualified in 27th place for the final, an excellent showing in his first Rotax Grand Finals. He finished 28th in the final on Saturday.
Sebastian Boyd also showed good pace after sorting out an electrical problem earlier in the week. But the young Cape Town driver was involved in a last-corner, last-lap incident in the pre-final which put paid to his chances of reaching the finals. Still, speed-wise Boyd was competitive in a field of 72 Junior Max drivers consisting of national champions from all over the world.
Micro Max. South Africa had one entry in the class for the youngest drivers in the event, aged from 7-10 years-old. Muhammad Wally from Johannesburg was competing in his first Grand Final, and battled to find competitive pace. He nevertheless ended up an honourable 24th out of 34 starters.
“Looking back on the 2017 Grand Finals, it was pretty much a case of ‘so near, and yet so far’”, said SA Rotax importer Ed Murray. “We have a great record in this event, which has grown enormously over the past 18 years.
“To come back and win from a lowly qualifying position in the heats and races leading up to the final is just not possible anymore. Naturally we are disappointed that we couldn’t return home with one more World title to add to our tally of 13, but it shows that for a country up against the likes of Australia, the UK, America, Germany, France, Italy and over 30 other smaller countries, we still have the competitiveness to mix it at the sharp end of the grids. We just need to up our game in terms of staying out of trouble, and not making mistakes in set-up and race preparation.
“ Nevertheless, I am very proud of all our competitors in the Rotax series, and next year we will be back, stronger than ever.”