Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa’s (TGRSA) first foray into the South African Endurance Series (SAES) in 2022, proved to reap rewards as the ‘newcomer’ team, that won The Index of Performance title with their near-standard Toyota GR Yaris entries into the South African Endurance Series (SAES) final round – Nine-Hours of Killarney event.

For the 2023 SAES season finale, the venue moved to the iconic Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in Midrand, Gauteng and took place on 15 & 16 December.

This time two Toyota GR86s, fresh from seven rounds of GR Cup sprint racing, piloted once again by a combined crew of motoring journalists and Toyota South Africa execs, took part in the iconic 2023 Nine-Hours of Kyalami event, walking away with the silverware for the second year in a row.

With the GR86s being comprehensively outgunned in horsepower and outright race pace terms, the focus was always going to be on The Index of Performance battle. It was up to the media team of Mark Jones (The Citizen), Denis Droppa (Times Live), Setshaba Mashigo (ASAMM) and Chad Lückhoff (AutoTrader) in car number 12, and Brendon Staniforth (Maroela Media), Riaan Esterhuysen (TSAM), Mario de Sousa (Motus), and Anand Pather (TSAM) in car number 19, to bring this title home.

The biggest difference between year one and two, was that the brief for 2022 was to simply get the cars to the chequered flag. No race strategy was in place other than to do as many laps as possible on a tank of fuel and not crash. Nobody had any further expectation. 2023 was altogether different. The benchmark of being a victorious team had now been set from the year before; nothing less would suffice, and expectation was hanging heavy in the air.

As has been explained before, the Toyota GR Cup spec GR86s lose only the front passenger seat, while gaining some Dunlop Direzza semi-slick tyres, a Powerbrake big brake kit, and a cat-back exhaust that is more for sound than horsepower, to go with a roll cage, OMP race seat and harnesses. Full interior trim, infotainment system and aircon remain. For the step up into the world of endurance racing, the cars were fitted with a MoTech data logger to monitor the vitals from the pits, heavy duty race pads, a long-range fuel cell, and camber bolts were used on the stock suspension to allow for a slightly greater range of adjustment. That’s it!

Friday practice allowed the drivers to get a chance to sample the GR86s on the Kyalami circuit for the first time, and despite respectable times being posted, it was clear that the front of the grid was going to be a long way off come race day. The bespoke GT3 race cars ranging from Lamborghinis, Audi R8s, Aston Martins, and Ginettas, were lapping a full 40 seconds a lap quicker than the two TGRSA entries, and this meant the biggest challenge would be to stay out of the way of these pukka endurance race cars while they came barrelling past the Toyotas every four or five laps.

Come Saturday, a strategy was put in place with a consistent lap time of 2 minute 20 seconds being the non-negotiable target, while each driver was expected to go out for single stint of 2 hours 15 minutes of fast and consistent driving. It was Jones and Staniforth that would head out first, and despite having to deal with early race madness from those around them, they handed the cars over to Droppa and Pather without anything negative to report.

This duo was to be the last to get a clean run, because by the time they handed over to Lückhoff and De Sousa, the weather was rolling in, and the torrential rain that followed saw cars careening off the track and the safety car being deployed several times. While this mayhem unfolded, the GR86s were slowly but surely moving up the leader board.

All too soon it was down to the last pair, who were not only going to be left to battle the elements, but they were also going to have to contend with the rapidly approaching darkness of nightfall. It was up to Mashigo and Esterhuysen to bring the cars home. As it always seems to be the case in endurance racing, the drama comes at the end, and despite the weather easing, there were cars falling victim to mechanical failure and stopping all over the track, including car number 19 coming in for an unscheduled pit stop to check what was thought to be a tyre related issue.

But when the clock hit the nine-hour mark, the GR86s had managed to finish over 210 laps and 960 km of racing each without a mechanical hiccup, and on the same set of tyres and brake pads they had started on. The GR86 car of Staniforth, Esterhuysen, de Sousa, Pather came in 15th overall, and 3rd in class, and took the last step on podium for The Index of Performance title, while the car of Jones, Droppa, Mashigo and Lückhoff ended 14th overall and 2nd in class while scooping The Index of Performance title.

The motorsport adage “to finish first, first you have to finish” is never more appropriate than in an endurance race, and the performance of the two GR86 teams – fielded by Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa – have emphatically proven that once again.