Tasmin Pepper returns to racing with double Top-5 in VW Polo Cup
On the sidelines for over two years since the pandemic hit, South African star racer Tasmin Pepper returned to racing in the VW Polo Cup – and she fought at the top end of the field claiming two Top 5 finishes.
Tasmin Pepper was unquestionably one of the revelations of the inaugural W Series season in 2019. The South African was probably among the dark horses of the very first selections, with extensive experience of saloon car racing in her home country, but with no international big single-seater resumé, like some of the other condenders. But Tasmin, 29 years old at the time, was surely ready to put up a fight and proved she deserved a race seat in the first ever all-female F3 championship, embarking on a journey overseas. Pepper had a great start of the season and impressed weekend after weekend, finishing in the top 10 in the first four rounds, with a best result of sixth in Zolder. She would eventually finish 10th in the standings – gaining an automatic entry into the second edition of the series. Unfortunately, the pandemic cancelled the 2020 season, and made 2021 even more challenging for Tasmin. Just as the only pre-season testing was getting underway in Anglesey, Wales, Pepper's efforts to travel from South Africa to the UK proved all vain due to the travel restrictions and, the logistical difficulties in reaching Europe, meant that she was demoted to reserve driver for the entire season. After over two years away from racing, Tasmin – a talented driver as well as a bright personality – had the chance to get back behind the wheel of a race car this weekend, as she returned to the VW Polo Cup in South Africa at Red Star Raceway. Tasmin had raced in the national series for several years – a one-make front-wheel drive series featuring a very competitive grid, now in its 25th year of racing. Pepper stepped in for Keegan Campos in the #3 Campos Transport Polo, as he moved up to the SupaCup category. "It's really good to be back in a car again." – said Tasmin as she got ready to hit the track. "The Polo is very different from my W Series F3 car, so it's a bit of an adjustment, but we're certainly getting there and hopefully I can start chasing these guys at the front." "I've been out for two and a half years now, and I missed out on the W Series season due to the covid regulations in getting in the UK at the beginning of the year" – she explained. "It's a bit of a bummer not to be over there and racing alongside F1, but it's really good to be able to get back in the car towards the end of the year and just be able to drive again and have some fun instead of sitting on the sideline." And the South African woman did shrug off the rust quickly, as she ended the first practice session in fourth place and went on to confirm that position in the Super Pole. Tasmin Pepper, surely one of the highest profile female drivers in motorsport, wasn't the only woman on track though, as she was joined by local talent Lonika Maartens, who consistently lapped within the top 10 throughout the weekend. Maartens also made the Super Pole and slotted in sixth place in the 18-car field. In qualifying, championship leader Leyton Fourie scored an important pole position for his championship ambitions and shared the front row with Squadra Corse's Nathi Msimanga, who took a career best second place on the grid. At the start of Race 1, Fourie got a good getaway and led Msimanga into Turn 1, while Pepper battled for sixth and went side by side with Maartens. Tasmin eventually moved into P5 during the opening stages. Msimanga was under pressure from Jurie Swart, allowing Fourie to pull away in the lead. Behind them, Pepper was getting bigger in Bezuidenhout's rear view mirrors and tried to find a way past the #57 Polo. But the race was action filled all the way through the field, with Dawie van der Merwe making good passes to recover up to seventh after an exciting battle with Lonika Maartens. The latter ultimately had to give up the position but slotted in a solid eighth. At the end of lap 9, Leyton Fourie crossed the finish line to take the first win of the weekend, almost five seconds clear of Nathi Msimanga, who was able to fend off the attacks of Swart and claimed his first podium this season in the #28 Squadra Corse Polo. Similarly, Clinton Bezuidenhout held on to fourth and finished ahead of Tasmin Pepper, fifth at her racing return. "It was awesome to be back behind the wheel and in familiar ground" – Tasmin told us.
"I didn’t think it would click as quickly as it did, it’s a really competitive field but I’m glad I was about to get right back into it and in the top 6 straight away." Just a few hours later, the drivers of the Polo Cup South Africa were ready to line up on the field once again for Race 2 at Red Star Raceway. Leyton Fourie got away from pole position once again, leading Msimanga into turn one. The latter was quickly defending from Bezuidenhout and Swart, who were right in his slipstream throughout the first laps. From sixth place, Tasmin Pepper was up to P5 – while Maartens had a good start and gained a couple of places as well. Fourie again pulled away and the 3-car battle for second allowed Tasmin to close in on the leading group. A mistake by Msimanga in the early stages of the race would drop him behind Bezuidenhout, Swart and Pepper – the latter moving into fourth place. Just behind, Maartens was under pressure from her teammate Arnold Neveling – who would eventually get past in a very tight battle. Just when Maartens seemed able to fight back, Charl Visser made an opportunistic move stick that demoted the young woman to eighth. Msimanga was also determined to recover from his mistake and tried to go alongside Pepper – but he had to deal with the W Series driver's defensive move and desisted. Layton Fourie took another commanding victory in the second race, and led TeamRed teammate Bezuidenhout across the line. Jurie Swart again rounded out the podium in third. Tasmin Pepper completed a remarkable return to racing with a P4 – her second top five of the weekend. Despite losing some race pace due to a lack of race setup, Lonika Maartens had another very positive race in the Top-10 and was satisfied by her weekend, marked by her performance in Super Pole. "The races were fun and extremely hot - I wasn't used to the heat inside the car - the single seater is a lot cooler" – Pepper commented at the end of the race meeting.
"I have some pace to refine, but I think the next round will be a little better. It was good to be fighting at the top end of the field, and I’m sure it will only get better from here."
Tasmin will in fact return to the VW Polo Cup South Africa for the remaining races of the season: the next round is scheduled in a month's time at Zwartkops, Pretoria.