My introduction to Formula 1 was going to the South African Kyalami Grand Prix in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The track was significantly modified in the late ‘90s and does not reflect what one may call the ‘classic Kyalami’.
It was the scene of some excellent races and made some champions – would you rank Kyalami as a good track?
I have many great memories of Kyalami, which, in its original guise, was one of the greatest Grand Prix circuits I ever saw. It was mighty dangerous, of course, and considered so even 40 years ago, when far less attention was paid to safety than is the case now. I think particularly of that endless blast down to Crowthorne, where there was no run-off at all; simply an earth bank awaiting anyone who had a problem there.
It was indeed a track for the very brave, in particular the long downhill right-handed Barbeque Bend, and the daunting uphill left-handed Jukskei Kink. Watching qualifying here in the turbo era, when such as Nelson Piquet and Keke Rosberg were on the limit, boost off the clock, is something I will never forget.
In terms of actual races, I suppose one that comes readily to mind was the 1983 South African Grand Prix. It was the last round of the World Championship that year, and up for the title were Piquet (Brabham-BMW), Alain Prost (Renault) and René Arnoux (Ferrari). Arnoux pretty well accounted for himself during practice, when he contrived to allow a car’s wheel to be pushed over his foot. He raced, but really the thing was between Piquet and Prost.
Actually, Nelson blitzed it. In the early laps he simply left everyone behind, and when Prost retired, he knew the title was safe, and ultimately backed off, falling back to third, allowing his team mate Riccardo Patrese to take the victory. Team owner Bernie Ecclestone, while pleased with a Brabham win, was not impressed with Piquet’s decision.
Only some years later did we learn that the fuel used by Brabham-BMW in the late races that year was not quite… how can I put this, what the governing body had in mind.
The last time the ‘old’ Kyalami was used was in 1985, and that was a fantastic race. The Williams-Hondas of Rosberg and Nigel Mansell ran away with the early laps, but then Piercarlo Ghinzani’s Toleman expired at Crowthorne, dumping oil all over the place. Rosberg, the next man through, spun on it, but Mansell, seeing what had happened to Keke, backed off, and just made it through. Nigel went on to win the race, and Keke, driving absolutely at the edge, came back to finish a brilliant second, passing Prost’s McLaren five laps from the end.
It was always delightfully informal at Kyalami, even by the more relaxed standards of the day. The ‘post-race press conference’, I remember, was in a small tent, Mansell simply standing around with the rest of us, answering our questions.
After a seven-year gap F1 went back to Kyalami, in 1992, and again Mansell won, this time in the ‘active’ Williams-Renault FW14B that was to dominate the season. By now, though, the magnificent old track had been laid to rest, and what we had in its place was just another ‘modern circuit’. Inevitable perhaps, but no less sad for that.