Kyalami - The South African Circuit

While these words are being read in the March issue of Motor Sport the South African GP will be in full swing on the fast Kyalami circuit north of Johannesburg. Over the years the Kyalami circuit hasn’t been changed very much so it is a good basis of comparison and analysis. After the Grand Prix races in Argentina and Brazil there were a lot of variables and unknowns around the performances of the Ligier cars. I write this before the South African GP with the hope that the race on the Kyalami circuit will fill in some gaps and either prove or disprove various theories. The Argentine GP is always the spring-board for a new season and can seldom be taken seriously, while the Brazilian GP moved back to the Interlagos circuit, after a brief flirtation with the new autodromo at Rio de Janiero, so race knowledge and performance was two years old. However, Grand Prix performance at Kyalami is not the point of this article, it is to talk about another regular happening on the South African circuit which concerns South African motoring enthusiasts, but which I find very interesting.

Some years ago when visiting a friend in Johannesburg we were drinking a beer at his private bar at the end of his lounge, surrounded by motoring and racing memories when I noticed a plaque which said “Peter Theobald, Jaguar E-type, 118 m.p.h.” As a Jaguar motorist this intrigued me and Peter explained that it was for a timed run through the speed trap on the Kyalami circuit, done at one of the special days that are laid on by the club. Now we all know that an E-type Jaguar can do more than 118 m.p.h. but not many of us can prove it. I know that the special Road Test E-type was timed at 149 m.p.h. or 151 m.p.h. depending on which magazine you read, and I know that my fixed head coupe did 143 m.p.h. and my subsequent open roadster only did 132 m.p.h. (such is progress, or truth!) but I’ve never had anything to prove it. Other E-type owners have their own ideas about the maximum speed of their cars, and few agree, but that is unimportant. The 118 m.p.h. of Theobald’s E-type was relative to the conditions and when viewed in that light it is very interesting. In America you can take your E-type, or anything else, to the Bonneville Speed Week and get a speed certificate for your terminal speed. In Britain all you can get for your terminal speed is a ticket, an endorsement and a heavy fine!

The Kyalami circuit lies on a shallow hillside, is roughly rectangular and has a fast top “straight””. This upper leg of the circuit starts at a climbing right-hand hairpin; this is followed by a length of straight, slightly uphill and then comes a dip and a flat-out right-hand curve followed by a straight climbing up past the pits. This reaches its brow at the end of the pits and then plunges downhill on a fairly long straight to the “falling-away” Crowthorne corner. In any car it is full throttle from the Leeukop Hairpin to the braking point for Crowthorne corner, and a Formula One car is very much on “full song” down the hill. Just before the cut-off point there is a permanent electronic speed trap that gives a good “maximum” reading for the circuit as the entry into the top straight is more or less the same for everyone. The highest speed ever recorded through the “traps” was during the 1971 Kyalami 9 Hour race by Jackie Ickx in a works 512S Ferrari, when he clocked 189 m.p.h.

During the 1978 South African GP the current Formula One cars were clocking 170-180 m.p.h. (the fastest was actually 177 m.p.h.), while the little 1,500 c.c. Grand Prix cars of 1961-65 were usually in the 145-150 m.p.h. bracket. It is the unchanging nature of the Kyalami circuit that makes this speed trap and its results interesting.

Every year, and sometimes twice a year, the club have a Top Speed Day in which anyone can enter with any vehicle, paying a nominal entry fee and an equally nominal insurance fee. The actual runs begin from Clubhouse Corner on the lower leg of the circuit, so you get a run through the Esses, up the hill to Leeukop Hairpin and then a flat out run down to Crowthorne corner, with your terminal taken at the bottom of the dip. Some 500 enthusiasts enter for these speed days, in anything from standard saloons to exotic Italian cars and the results must enliven club nights for a long time afterwards. No one is silly enough to consider the speeds as the ultimate, but they are interesting for comparative purposes, and no doubt many a private wager is made on the side, and many a clubroom argument is settled on these Top Speed Days.

This is something that could be done at our Silverstone circuit, with a speed-trap on Hanger Straight just before the cut-off point for Stowe Corner, starting at the exit of Copse Corner. During the USAC invasion last Autumn the Indianapolis-type cars were timed at over 200 m.p.h. at that point, which would give us a good starting point for consideration if our standard XJ-S Jaguar did 112 m.p.h., for example. At the annual Speed Trials held on the sea-front promenade at Weston-Super-Mare every autumn the Burnham-on-Sea Motor Club always give terminal speeds at the end of the standing 500 metres and the faster cars have recorded 150 m.p.h., which is impressive on a normal width road. Perhaps the BRDC would like to consider the idea of a Silverstone Top Speed Day.

At recent Kyalami days some interesting speeds were:

All speed in m.p.h.
Jaguar E-type 124
Ferrari 330 GT 113
Aston Martin DB6 124
Ferrari Daytona 132
Porsche 911S 117
Chevrolet Corvette 141
Ford Capri 3000 V6 118
Lotus Europa 109
Lotus Elan 107
Jaguar XJ6 saloon 101
BMW 3-litre saloon 103
Mercedes-Benz 280SE 100
Jaguar 3.8S saloon 99
Mini 1000S 74
Lamborghini Espada 112
BMW 900 c.c. m/c 109
Suzuki 550 racing bike 125
Honda 750 motorcycle 111

When considering these speeds bear in mind the 189 m.p.h. of the prototype sports-racing Ferrari 512S and the general run of today’s Formula One cars that record 175 m.p.h. – D. S. J.