This past weekend saw the S.A. Shelby Can-Am championship head to the fastest track in South Africa, the East London Grand Prix circuit. After securing a hard-fought win at the last round at Zwartkops, debuting for new sponsor Hollard Insurance, reigning champion Darryn Lobb was aiming for nothing less than the top step of the podium.
After struggling for pace at the previous round, the Kyalami based resident, elected to run the car of Sean Grieve who was unable to make the event. It was a car with which Lobb had previously won both events at Zwartkops in 2010. New body work, and a slightly modified design, meant that the Hollard-backed car was not only going to be fast, but also eye-catching.
In summary though, East London proved that it’s not easy to join a championship midway through, regardless of the amount of experience.
Friday Free Practice 1 started slowly as Lobb round-out the top three, albeit two seconds off the ultimate pace. A worrying sign was the lack of top speed, which was expected to be in the region of 240km/h, with the Hollard Insurance car only topping 228km/h.
For the remainder of the 2011 season, Lobb has joined PI Racing, the team who took him to his first SA championship in the series in 2007. The team, encouraged to have done the deal with Lobb, were working hard on tweaking the downforce package of its cars, and believed they had found a trick. As it turned out, the additional downforce seemed to be ruining the ultimate top speed, and Lobb found himself crossing the speed traps 13Km/h down on the fastest.
In the remaining two sessions, the team worked hard to reduce the downforce created, in the hope that this would boost the top line speed. Although the circuit is widely known as the fastest on the 2011 calendar, the team knew that there was enough time in practice to reduce downforce to appropriate levels, while at the same time, understanding the changes, and weighing up the possible benefits to be gained at a race track like Kyalami (Round 7).
By the time the team arrived at qualifying, all modifications and updates had been removed. The setup was tweaked to remove all drag by reducing front and rear toe; in addition, the rear wing was flat, and the gurney tab removed, but still the car still lacked ultimate speed.
Sixth place in qualifying and over two seconds off the pace, led to a major strategic decision by driver and team. Overnight, the team worked frantically to swap cars for Lobb. Fortunately/unfortunately, UK based racer, Hanno Pengilly, was unable to catch a flight to SA for the race meeting, and so, his car stood as a spare for the race meeting.
According to the series rules, a car swap after qualifying forces a driver to start from the rear of the field. The decision was still made to swap cars, despite the knowledge that Heat 1 would be a non-event, starting from the back, but hoping that Lobb would be in with a fighting chance in Heat 2, whereas he was destined to two sixth place finishes (at best) in the original car.
Lobb got to run the new car for the first time in Saturday morning warm-up, and unfortunately, only managed one flying lap, as the new car suffered mechanical problems cutting Lobb’s session short.
Nevertheless, Lobb felt confident that the team had made the right choice as he lined-up on the back row for Race 1. Everyone knew it was going to be an uphill battle, as the two cars were substantially different in setup, being prepared by two different race teams.
Despite this, Lobb put in a sterling drive to steal fifth position from the nine lap, Heat 1. Between heats, the team worked frantically on the Hollard Insurance car to change it more to Lobb’s liking. This involved an adjustment to the gear lever, which was causing the car to jump out of second and fourth gears, a significant reduction in caster, as well as a big adjustment to rear ride height, and front ARB.
A further change, on the start line for Heat 2, had the team increase the rear wing setting to create more down force through the 226km/h Potters Pass, and 236Km/h Rifle Range corners.
Lobb started the race in P4, but quickly made that P3 by Turn 1, and then P2 by Lap 3. Lap 5 saw Lobb move into the lead, and slowly edge out a small gap to the rest of the field. Unfortunately on Lap 8, the safety car was deployed after a crash in the GT field. The field returned to green flag racing some four laps later.
Unfortunately for Lobb, the gearbox maladies from Heat 1 returned, as the 2010 champion dropped from first to third on the restart. This was then compounded by a driver error three laps later which saw Lobb visit the flora of the Eastern Cape, after locking the rear brakes into the final corner. With over half the race to go, Lobb was near the end of the field, and a fight-back was inevitable.
But things weren’t to be, as Lobb’s race ended three laps later after contact with the #12 car resulted in a broken rear suspension. The incident saw the #12 car receive a one race ban, but more importantly, resulted in a suspected broken wrist for the South African iRacer.
Lobb now finds himself in a race against time to regain fitness for Round 7 of the championship at Kyalami race track on August 12. In the meantime, the team have begun rebuilding the car and motor used by Lobb at Zwartkops, with the hope that the tough luck experienced at East London is now behind them.