#ThrowbackThursday: A history of Kyalami (2015)

30 July 2020 - 15:58
Sports cars roar down the long main straight of the original circuit.
Sports cars roar down the long main straight of the original circuit.
Image: Sunday Times Archive

Join us as we look back at some of our notable motoring activities from days gone by. This week, we flip the calendar to May 21 2015, where Brenwin Naidu delved into the history of Kyalami racing circuit, which at the time had just been saved by Porsche South Africa boss Toby Venter.

She is the undisputed darling of South African racing circuits. Her asphalt curves played host to epic duels and tragic dramas. Legends were forged, headlines were made – and memories are etched firmly on the minds of the millions who descended to witness the scenes played out on the blacktop stage. Yes, Kyalami inspires petrolhead poetry.

And when the fate of the iconic track was thrown into doubt, the outcry attested to the place it holds in the hearts of South Africans. The saviour in the story, as you probably know already, is Toby Venter, boss of Porsche South Africa, who secured Kyalami for R205-million when it went under the hammer in 2014.

His declaration that Kyalami would remain a racetrack assuaged the fears of enthusiasts. Last week, we were invited to the circuit to hear about the plans for its revival and to savour a final lap of the “old” track before it was extensively overhauled. Of course, you want to know about the promising road ahead, and we will get to that. But no article on the famed circuit — Kyalami means “my home” in isiZulu — would be complete without a trip down memory lane.

In 1961, undeveloped land just north of Johannesburg, in what is now Midrand, Gauteng, was chosen as the birthplace of Kyalami. Its forerunner had been a circuit near Grand Central Airport in Halfway House, which hosted events such as Nine Hours of Kyalami — a series that was later moved to the venue of its namesake.

The original circuit boasted nine corners and was 4.1km long. The first race to be held at the new Kyalami was the Rand Grand Prix, a local series run to Formula One rules. Jim Clark of Team Lotus clinched victory in the 75-lap contest. This set the tone for its future because, six years later, Kyalami hosted the South African Grand Prix, replacing Prince George Circuit in East London as the venue on the international calendar.

Some would argue that the golden years of the Grands Prix, between 1967 and 1985, coincided with the best years of Kyalami. The biggest names in the business are inextricably linked to our local icon. Legends such as Jackie Stewart, Jack Brabham, Niki Lauda, Gilles Villeneuve, Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna worked their magic on this track.

We also cannot forget our home-grown hero, Jody Scheckter, who took victory in the 1975 South African Grand Prix in his Tyrrell P34. Scheckter recalled, in a comprehensive history of the circuit, titled The Kyalami Book, how the track inspired his nickname.

“I remember taking Barbecue and Jukskei absolutely flat out on the first lap. My right leg was shaking uncontrollably from nerves, so I took my right hand and pressed my leg down in order to keep the accelerator flat on the floorboards. Later, as my right leg steadied, I could keep both hands on the steering wheel, which made it easier to go flat out and a little bit sideways, which earned me the nickname ‘Sideways Scheckter’.”

Apart from Formula One, Kyalami hosted numerous local racing formulas. Notable series included the Stannic Group N production car races. Many will recall fierce tussles between the famed BMW 325iS and Opel Kadett Superboss, track-focused iterations of what were veritable street menaces in that era.

A Porsche 911 RSR exits the Ingwe corner.
A Porsche 911 RSR exits the Ingwe corner.
Image: Porsche Global Media Website

The illustrious story of Kyalami is not without tragedy, however, with as many as a dozen names on her list of lives claimed. A notable victim was promising Welsh racing driver Tom Pryce, a driver for Shadow, who died after striking and killing 19-year-old marshal Frederik Jansen van Vuuren at 270km/h in the 1977 South African Grand Prix.

The headline on the front page of the Sunday Times on March 6 read “Shadow of Death” — and was penned by our group motoring editor, Wynter Murdoch. He recalls how Pryce was slumped in his racing car, dead, but that the car continued to drive on. The race resumed and Lauda took the top spot on the podium. Initially, he was quoted as saying that it was the greatest victory of his career, but after hearing about Pryce’s death, Lauda said: “There was no joy after that.”

More recently, in the 1999 FIM World Supersport Championship, South African rider Brett MacLeod fell off his Suzuki and was hit and killed by other racers coming up behind him. In 1985, Kyalami hosted the last South African Grand Prix before an eight-year hiatus due to anti-apartheid sanctions. A number of teams decided to boycott the race.

Some drivers, such as Stefan Johansson, raced anyway — despite the Swedish government ’s reservations about his participation. Renovations began at Kyalami in 1988: the circuit now had eight corners. In 1992, more changes were made, transforming the track into the soon-to-be overhauled Kyalami we know now.

With 13 corners and a length of 4.26km, it hosted two Grands Prix in 1992 and 1993. The latter year bore witness to a heady battle between Prost, Senna and Michael Schumacher, with Prost eventually securing victory. This was the last time Kyalami would be filled with the thrill of Formula One racing.

But the future looks promising — and although we might not see a Formula One Grand Prix just yet, the new owners of the circuit are preparing to turn Kyalami into a facility worthy of hosting other motorsport events on a global scale.

The refurbishments, which are underway as you read this, start from the very foundations of the track, and will cost R100m. For starters, the entire circuit will be resurfaced. The famous straight will gain extra length, running close to 900m. More challenging turns will be incorporated. And a great naming revival is also in the pipeline. Best familiarise yourself with titles like The Kink, Crowthorne, Jukskei Sweep, Barbecue, Sunset, Clubhouse, Esses, Leeukop, Mineshaft, The Crocodiles, Cheetah and Ingwe.

Circuit safety — which at the “old” Kyalami seemed to be lacking — will be improved. The new owners intend getting FIA Grade 2 accreditation. But the practical aspects off the asphalt will also receive attention. A new underpass will be built to allow easier access —and this will include a pedestrian walkway. The parking areas will be refurbished, as will the old pit complex. The pit entry will be revised to FIA specifications and many of the small buildings behind the old pit complex will be removed.

Motoring fans will also be made more comfortable. Many of the dilapidated spectator areas will be demolished and new stands erected to provide better views. The ablution facilities will be upgraded and a new public address system will be integrated too.

Even sport and recreation minister Fikile Mbalula feels positive about the Kyalami revival. “The restoration of Kyalami Racetrack is good for motorsport development and for motorsport in South Africa,” he told us. “We thank the private sector for their continued support for motorsport.”

He said he was looking forward to having a go on the track himself, citing his last track experience at Zwartkops as a guest of Ignition GT LapZ presenter Gugu Zulu. According to Porsche South Africa, the circuit is expected to reopen between August and September.

The current circuit layout.
The current circuit layout.
Image: Supplied

A LEGEND REMEMBERS

Roger McCleery, president of the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists and former motorsport commentator, witnessed the excitement of Kyalami’s glory days. The veteran motoring journalist spoke to us, fresh from his stint at the Simola Hillclimb in Knysna, about his experiences with the famous racetrack. What made the circuit brilliant, in his view, was its technical nature.

“Most of those corners are blind; there is excitement. When you drive around Kyalami, you just think to yourself: ‘This is a real circuit,’” McCleery said. “Kyalami was one of the top three circuits in the world in its original state — it has seen everything from superbike racing to Formula One and I think it’s wonderful that this home will be preserved.”

“One of the biggest highlights was when Jody Scheckter won the 1975 South African Grand Prix. During those years the international races were big; it was lovely to be a part of the scene, with all the big names there.”

But he also acknowledged the low points, one being the death of Tom Pryce. McCleery recalls the horrific sight of the nearly decapitated racer hurtling towards the Crowthorne corner after striking a marshal.

“Those were the days when safety wasn’t as jacked up as it is now, and you don’t want such incidents to happen again.”

McCleery said he was unconvinced that Formula One races at Kyalami would be as successful as they were in the past. “It’s become a bit sterile. In the old days, driver talent outshone the capability of the cars. F1 doesn’t deliver on the excitement anymore,” he said.

“It’s horrifically expensive to host —and it would be expensive from a spectator point of view.” But in light of Kyalami’s revival, he feels that South African motorsport has a bright future.

“Circuit racing in South Africa is looking good, now we’ve got Kyalami, as well as circuits like Zwartkops, Phakisa, Midvaal, Killarney and Dezzi Raceway in Natal.” McCleery feels that its new owners have taken the correct approach.

“Toby Venter is under no illusion as to the costs involved in running a circuit like Kyalami. Sustaining and improving the circuit is the right way to go.”

An aerial view capturing the construction of the dynamic handling circuit and skidpan.
An aerial view capturing the construction of the dynamic handling circuit and skidpan.
Image: Supplied

IT ALL STARTED WITH A TRUCK RACE

I remember the first time I visited Kyalami in 1998. It was overcast, but that didn’t dampen the spirits of a six-year-old boy keen to watch truck racing. The sound of those powerful behemoths as they thundered around was astounding.

And the spectacular slides that befell some of the lumbering racers when the skies eventually opened up elicited pure awe. I was hooked on the thrill of motorsport spectatorship, hopeful that one day I would be able to blitz the track too.

Thankfully, in my relatively brief career as a motoring scribe, I’ve been privileged to have enjoyed encounters with the famed circuit — at the helm of cars such as the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, Ferrari 458 Spider and the current-generation of BMW M3, chariots built to be unleashed in the unbridled environments of a racetrack.

So, the mood was nostalgic when we were given the opportunity to enjoy one last lap of “old” Kyalami before its extensive redevelopment. It was only fitting that the ride of choice was a Porsche — the Panamera Turbo. It’s by no means the prettiest model from the stable, but pretty adept when it comes to the dynamic stuff. But this occasion was all about savouring the moment at a leisurely pace, reverentially treading in the tyre tracks of legends from yesteryear.

Yeah, right! I blasted out of the pits, exploiting the might of that turbocharged V8. The big saloon tucked into the first corner with an eagerness that defied its size. Its sticky all-wheel drive traction gave this grinning slab of meat confidence to be a bit more exuberant than necessary.

That said, one chap did get it wrong, heading off onto the gravel trying to connect the dots on those famous Esses. I promise, it wasn’t me. His misfortune was a gentle reminder that the circuit deserves respect.

After all, Kyalami has humbled many speed chasers in her lifetime. Easing out of the final bend and into the pits, I felt bittersweet pangs in the knowledge that this would be my last experience of the circuit as I knew it. But as they say, every ending is a new beginning. And Kyalami version 2.0 is unlikely to disappoint.

FACT FILE:

  • The McLaren P1 holds the record for the fastest production car around Kyalami, blitzing the circuit in 1min 45sec.
  • The Automobile Association of South Africa was once the owner of Kyalami. The association sold it for R42m in 2004.
  • In 1998, Formula One ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone entered talks with former president Nelson Mandela to discuss the feasibility of a grand prix. The fall in the value of the rand, coupled with the then new anti-tobacco legislation, which would affect advertising, were said to have scuppered plans.
  • While commentating on the 1985 South African Grand Prix for the BBC, retired 1976 Formula One world champion James Hunt launched into an attack on the evils of apartheid.
  • In 1985, then FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre cited apartheid as the reason that Formula One would not return to South Africa.
  • Porsche South Africa’s R205m bid for Kyalami in 2014 was the highest price paid for an auction property in South Africa.

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