Home sweet home
After years of uncertainty about its future, Kyalami has new owners, a revised layout and fresh hopes Writer Andrew Frankel
Kyalami. It means ‘My house’ in Zulu, and it might just be the most appropriately named racetrack of all time. For whomsoever you speak to about this place or, more precisely, the eye-poppingly rapid circuit it used to be, you’ll find they spend at least as much time eulogising about how much they enjoyed simply being there as they do about the racing. To a man, they felt at home.
Kyalami is not one of the great old tracks: it first opened for business in 1961, a decade or more after even post-war British circuits such as Silverstone, Brands Hatch and Goodwood, and half a lifetime after the European monsters such as Spa, Le Mans, Monza and the Nürburgring. At approximately 2.5 miles in length it wasn’t a particularly long track nor, I’m delighted to say, is its history littered with the bodies of drivers who blasted out of the pits and never came back. In 26 years as a permanent racing facility, just six drivers died there including Peter Revson and Tom Pryce, but as the former was claimed by suspension failure and the latter by a freak collision with a teenage fire marshal, the circuit cannot be implicated as a contributing factor to either incident. Compared to the more lethal European venues, its record is exemplary.
But you need only to look at on-board footage to know luck must have played its part because, at least by our cosseted modern standards, it looks like an absolutely terrifying lap.
You passed the pits through a flat-out kink that still required a full line to be taken before accelerating up to top speed – more than 200mph in the final F1 and sports car machinery to race here. Looming large in your view was Crowthorne, a right-hander with horrifically little run-off for which you’d need to lose perhaps 100mph. The track then swept downhill into Barbecue Bend. Commentating on an in-car Alain Prost lap in an F1 Renault, Murray Walker estimated a turn-in speed of 155mph as the track flicked right and then uphill and left over the marginally flat Jukskei Sweep. As a series of corners and curves you’d need something like the section after the pits at Rouen to match it.
The track then fed into the still-quick Sunset Bend before, for once, slowing to a reasonable speed for the left-hander at Clubhouse, the track plunging downhill again into the Esses before angling uphill and away into the Leeukop Bend that started another lap. In qualifying for the last ever South African Grand Prix to be held on the original track, Nigel Mansell took pole position in his Williams FW10 with a lap at more than 147mph. To provide some perspective, pole at Spa that year – essentially if not identically the same track then as now – was claimed at 134mph.
“I used to shake so much going down through Jukskei I had to push my right leg down with my hand just so I could take it flat.” The words belong to Jody Scheckter, the only South African ever to win a world championship F1 race on home soil. He’s not talking about the Tyrrell-Ford 007 in which he triumphed in 1975, but the self-built supercharged Renault 8 in which he learned his craft in the 1960s.
He was not the only one to have his eyes opened wide by this place. “Ah, now that was a real driver’s circuit,” says Richard Attwood today. As a triple winner of the legendary Kyalami Nine Hours, once in a Porsche 917, he speaks with rare authority on the subject. “It was a track you could really get your teeth into, a truly great challenge in any car let alone some of the stuff we used to race there. It was incredibly dangerous of course, and I think it’s just luck that there weren’t more major accidents, because if you went off through some of the quick stuff, well, you’d definitely need luck on your side. That said, it wasn’t the sort of track where you’d put your hands together on the way home and say a word of thanks. We’d save that for the big European circuits.”
Kyalami came into existence after the Grand Central circuit, at the midway point between Johannesburg and Pretoria, fell into disrepair. In a country obsessed with motor sport and which had held its first race in 1903 and its first Grand Prix in 1936, it seemed unthinkable not to have a racetrack between the country’s largest city and its capital. The circuit at East London had been around before the war (and remains intact to this day) and would host three championship South African Grands Prix, but in the Transvaal a replacement for Grand Central was urgently needed.
According to the circuit’s official biographer André Loubster, the track was designed by Alex Blignaut using Piero Taruffi’s The Technique of Motor Racing as a guide. A lap measured slightly more than 2.5 miles, including a 200ft change in elevation. But perhaps the most significant measurement was its height above sea level: at a peak 4920ft, it’s almost twice as high as Interlagos.
You don’t notice the altitude if you’re just walking around, but the moment you try to climb a few flights of stairs your lungs feel it. So imagine what it would be like for a Cosworth-Ford DFV trying to push a Tyrrell through the air at close to 200mph. “It was a real problem,” says Jody, “but at least it was the same for everyone.”
Kyalami’s inaugural event was its first Nine Hours – won by John Love in a Porsche 550 Spyder – and long-distance racing stayed on the calendar until literally the very end. The last such race was the Yellow Pages 500, also won by a Porsche, this time a factory 962 with Jochen Mass at its helm. “It was a fabulous track in a wonderful part of the world. I loved driving sports cars there in the long-distance races, far more than Formula 1. I’m not sure why, perhaps I just did better. It was a circuit where the driver could make a real difference, with all those quick corners. I also just enjoyed being there, away from everyone else’s winter.”
Everyone, it seems, liked being there. This, of course, was South Africa in the days of apartheid, but however repugnant the ethos and its administration, visitors with no need to immerse themselves in politics could have a very good time indeed. Out at Kyalami, it all took place at The Ranch.
“Oh the parties – so many parties,” sighs Derek Bell, another Kyalami stalwart. “The trouble we got into…” The Ranch was not just the best place to stay near Kyalami, from what
I can work out it was the only place to stay. Which is why the entire Grand Prix circus would move in once a year, with GPDA meetings taking place on the lawn by the pool with drivers in swimming trunks.
There was another reason Derek was so happy to go, especially in sports cars. “It was always a non-championship race,” he says. “All that had already been decided, so the only reason for going to Kyalami was for the sheer love of racing. All the pressure was off and we’d just race for the fun of it. And the crowds – they were incredible. South Africa was increasingly isolated in the world. People were starved of the sport they loved, and we’d go and bring it to them. Somewhere I have a picture of me broadsiding Jacques Swaters’ Ferrari 512S out of Clubhouse and on the bank, behind, you can just see this wall of people cheering. It was an incredible place to race.”
And it may yet be again. Most parts of the Kyalami circuit, including the straight, Crowthorne, Barbecue Bend and Jukskei, were bulldozed after the 1987 season. Every last brick of the ranch was flattened, too. A new circuit was built, which ran anti-clockwise but still featured Sunset, Clubhouse and the Esses, before turning left where the old circuit went right. It held two world championship F1 races, in 1992 and 1993, but failed to capture the imagination of the original.
Over the years the condition of the track steadily deteriorated until it was put up for auction in 2014. The winning bid came from local entrepreneur Toby Venter, who owns the Porsche concession for South Africa. “Really the only choice was to start again with the circuit,” he says as I am shown around by him, Andrew Baldwin (who oversaw its restoration) and circuit manager Denis Klopper (who has attended every major race held here since the 1960s).
So start again they did, spending 450 million rand (about £20 million) on purchasing and rebuilding the place. There was no possibility of reinstating the original circuit, because the land in which it stood is covered in industrial and residential properties and, besides, the old Kyalami would stand precisely no chance of being licensed for racing today.
Instead they resurfaced, extended and reprofiled what was already there, widening the track in places to encourage overtaking, lengthening the straight, creating new corners, replacing all the barriers and knocking down more than 40 buildings. In their place have risen gleaming new structures, as well as off-road and handling courses enabling Kyalami to diversify into the kind of alternative activities that will be essential to its future prosperity.
And yet as you walk around, something of the old school remains. It has gravel traps, not asphalt run-off areas, the trip from circuit to the scene of the accident is unfashionably short and, when you get there, you’ll find not modern Tecpro barriers but tyres, properly belted but tyres nonetheless. “We wanted there to be consequences,” says Baldwin, “because it rewards better driving and makes for better racing.”
The track still follows the course of the original through Sunset, Clubhouse and the Esses, but it takes Klopper’s encyclopaedic knowledge to find any vestige of old Kyalami. He takes us up to a part of the track where building work requires us to travel in a 4×4, to show us just a trace of kerbing and some steps up what would once have been a grandstand. This sliver of Leeukop is all that survives.
Happily, this is still one hell of a circuit and, better, FIA Formula 1 race director Charlie Whiting has been and granted Kyalami grade two certification, meaning it can host everything other than a Grand Prix. “A round of the WEC?” I enquire. “Absolutely,” replies Baldwin. “Kyalami was once up there with Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring among the best venues for long-distance racing in the world, and there is no reason at all why it cannot be so again.” He calls F1 “achievable” but, I suspect, not without rather more work even than that completed to date.
It is already gaining supporters. I spoke to factory Porsche driver Jörg Bergmeister who is evangelical about the new Kyalami. “Have you driven it? It’s just amazing, a proper driver’s circuit, fast, difficult, challenging, everything it should be. I have already told the team we should be doing our winter testing here.”
I do a few laps in a 571bhp Porsche 911 Turbo S and am enthralled. It’s a circuit that will test your heart and head equally, technical but ballsy and, as you pitch into Sunset and see Clubhouse appear before you, still sufficiently connected to its past to make you think of what Messrs Bell, Mass and Attwood achieved here in their rather faster Porsches. On the new, longer straight, this road car hits 170mph with ease so I can barely imagine what a 1000bhp Porsche 919 prototype would reach. But I’d love to witness it.
More than anything, however, the friendly atmosphere of this place and, indeed, this part of the world, still pervades. The track, the ranch and the heroes of old may be gone, but that sense of being at home remains. Kyalami is once more doing justice to its name.