It’s difficult to fully describe what makes motorsport one of the greatest displays of the human spirit. Competition is present in every sport, so that doesn’t set motorsport apart. Camaraderie might be part of it, but certainly isn’t unique to motorsport.
In the modern world, most sports are safe. Sure, you might get a broken wrist here or a twisted ankle there, but your friends and family aren’t collectively holding their breaths every time you compete.
Motorsport is different. Hillclimbs even more so.
Racing circuits are designed with run-off areas and barriers designed to stop racecars at high speeds. The surface is (usually) not very bumpy and competitors will know where every bump is thanks to numerous practice laps put in before the big day.
Public roads transformed into part-time racing venues, on the other hand, offer none of these characteristics. This is racing in its purest and arguably most thrilling form – the tar-road equivalent of the magic of rally racing.
Many first-time competitors have only driven up the hill at road-legal speeds to go and have lunch at the hotel at the top of Simola Hill. This is the 10th running of the event, so there are a number of seasoned campaigners, but even those drivers arrive to a different set of conditions each year and often compete in a different car to the year before.
The exit of the first sweep, just before you head up the long hill towards the bridge, is incredibly bumpy. The braking zone for the sharp left-hander after the bridge is found through trial and error…except error results in an excursion into the trees and an insurance disaster (because you don’t have any). The final section of the climb is a set of curves so alluring and treacherous that the average swimwear model would be embarrassed.
All of this means that the atmosphere around every brave driver is genuinely emotional. For the vast majority of Classic Car Friday competitors and probably half of the King of the Hill field, friends and families make up the pit crew. The final look from the driver as he or she drops the visor and prepares for battle is everything that makes motorsport special.
It’s a baptism of fire. A gauntlet. A passion that once ignited cannot be extinguished.
The danger for competitors was clearly highlighted by Charl Joubert’s huge accident in his Lotus on a slippery track in the first session on the Saturday. We captured the startline video below just before the accident. The on-board footage that did the rounds a few hours later on WhatsApp is nothing short of frightening.
Driver ok – but still not for sensitive viewers:
(onboard video: Charl Joubert)
Thanks entirely to the quality of the racecar, the rollcage did its job and there were no flames to be seen. Charl got out the car as around 20,000 spectators on the hill held their breath, with many more on the livestream around the world.
Thankfully, the exceptionally high-quality organisation of this event ensures that it is about as safe as it could possibly be, evidenced by the oversubscribed entry list year after year.
Pit lane access is a must for any spectator. You are so close to the start line that you can taste the rubber being burnt to warm up the tyres. You can practically take the tyre warmers off the next competitor yourself (but you shouldn’t do that).
The slowest cars go first. Most of these cars were driven to the track and will be driven home afterwards. It would take an incredibly brave driver to drive these at ten-tenths, so eight-tenths is usually the order of the day.
Like a machine gun working through its magazine, the cars rocket off the startline one after the other. By mid-way through the pack, particularly in King of the Hill, you are starting to enter the realm of professional motorsport. There are factory teams who have dusted off some famous old names in South African motorsport. Others have elected to put current national class stars behind the wheel, in a bid to extract maximum performance from the cars.
There are special stories everywhere you look.
The Hollis family are Jaguar Simola Hillclimb stalwarts. Ron Hollis fittingly took 2nd in class in the Jaguar E-Type, demonstrating the motorsport heritage of the brand, and received the Spirit of Dave Charlton award as a recognition of his dedication to putting meticulously prepared classic racecars on the line.
Trevor Tuck has won the event three years in a row in three different Alfas, all of which he has built in the evenings leading up to the event. The Alfa Romeo brand was carried into King of the Hill by two Giulia QV entries, which were pitted against professional driver Gennaro Bonafede in a BMW M2 Competition.
Willie Hepburn celebrated his 54th year of racing (yes, you read that correctly) by taking third overall in Classic Conqueror, the final shootout of the ten fastest classic cars. His Opel Rekord has done service on circuits around the country and blew away every other classic tin-top on the day, beaten only by Scribante in a Chevron and Bezuidenhout in a Lola.
We could go on and on, but you get the idea.
As you make your way up Simola Hill to various spectator points, the enormity of this event kicks in. Many of us are too young to have enjoyed the best years of Formula 1 and touring car racing. To lie back on the grass on the hill, close your eyes and listen to the incredible sounds of these cars (whilst guessing which one it could be) is pure petrolhead nirvana.
Whether you attend with friends or by yourself, by the end of the weekend you will have met like-minded people on the hill. Cars connect people and racing even more so. Many a conversation was struck up to the background music of a billion horsepower lunaticmobile trying to shift the Earth’s axis as it struggled for grip into 2nd gear.
Fans of marques such as Porsche, BMW and Audi were looked after throughout the weekend, with fascinating entries across the various classes. Lovers of highly-modified Japanese cars never need to look far at this event to see something exciting.
Jaguar demonstrated a number of new models, including their new electric SUV (the I-Pace) which made everyone feel vastly better about what the future could hold, at least until the magnificent F-Type SVRs gave us a V8 symphony that took us right back to the land of all things petrol.
Open-wheel enthusiasts enjoyed Andre Bezuidenhout’s Gould GR55 (a specialist hillclimb car) having an immense battle with the A1GP driven by Robbie Wolk. Less than two-tenths separated the two drivers as they fought into the darkness on Sunday, with racing finishing much later than usual due to various incidents.
To catapult a car like that up the hill in near-darkness requires titanium you-know-whats.
For many, the highlight every year is the Nissan Skyline contingent, ranging from old-school R35s through to brand new GTRs. The Border Towing crowd turn Simola Hill into a warzone, running a bright yellow Skyline that genuinely sounds like a bomb going off after every shift. Scribante Racing took “Godzilla” to new levels with their GTR and an aero package that made headlines globally.
This is an event that rivals any petrolhead festival globally. The scream of the A1GP behind the line of trees could be a scene from any European Formula 1 race of the early 2000s. The view of the sun setting behind the pits could easily be the paddock at Spa-Francorchamps or any other iconic track, as teams settle down for the night-time session of a world endurance race.
You don’t need to climb on a plane and decimate your pension to attend an event that will stay with you forever. Thanks to Jaguar and the passionate team that put this event together every year, you just need to fly to George and take a short drive.
Better yet, climb in your car and make it a roadtrip. If you don’t fall in love with South Africa all over again after driving the mountain passes of the Garden Route and experiencing this event, there’s very little hope for you.