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Once upon a Durban street

2006-01-30 08:00

Colin Windell

The South African A1 racing car "Vulindlela"

The banner headline on the Independent on Saturday cried "Va Va Vulindlela" and rather summed up the growing emotion in the streets of Durban as the countdown to the South African round of the A1 GP series moved inexorably towards it climax.

Vulindlela, painted on the rear wing of the Team RSA car, means "clear the way" but that's not what the little chap was trying to do. He was more than happy at the growing flood of cars and people heading towards the access points for the only street race on the A1 GP calendar.

Also, while he may not have been fully aware of just what all the fuss was about, more people moving about his street corner meant more papers sold. And this, on a much grander scale was exactly what Durban was hoping for - a major influx of people, both local and international, spending money.

At the time of writing, various figures were being bandied about as to the actual cost of staging the race, these ranging from around R90-million to upwards of R115-million. Whatever the actual figure, Durban taxpayers were in for a third with the balance coming from A1 GP itself and South Africa's seat holder Tokyo Sexwale.

While it is highly unlikely a final set of accounts will ever be made public, equally imaginative projections were being made for the earning potential of the street spectacular. Again, reality means these numbers will probably not be known but many hotel rooms were taken up to house the teams, attending journalists, photographers and officials.

As with any major event the true people "spend" takes some time to filter through, but a look around the restaurants within the Suncoast Casino complex showed a steady stream of meals going into hungry tummies.

Whether the race weekend broke even, made or lost money, will be a matter of conjecture for some time - probably until it is time to start the circuit building process for next year's race.

Laid back

Durban and its inhabitants are sometimes so laid back they are in danger of falling over - after all, on the Saturday morning before the race it was the only city on the Robbie Williams World Tour where tickets for the concert were still available!

All emotion aside, it was a brave decision to stage the A1 race in Durban - a risk that may have seemed odds against as heavy rain and dark, brooding clouds blanketed most of the country and left the circuit slippery and rather ominous.

But, practice ran as scheduled and finished with team boss for the British outfit, John Surtees calling the facilities superb, adding: "I see no reason why it (Durban) shouldn't become the next Monaco.

"With the superb Durban facilities, the government and business community support and the convenience of time zone proximity to Europe, it's gratifying to see A1 being the first motor sport to take advantage in reaching out and generating more business for South Africa."

New experience

By Saturday morning the clouds had moved one and visitors were treated to temperatures in the upper 30's with humidity around 78%. From the wet circuit of the day before, it was a whole new learning experience to find the quick way around in the dry.

As the A1 drivers continued to learn the track, there were plenty of spins and excitement as front wings were lost over curbs and cars headed into tyre walls.

Five red flags were bought out after spins from A1 Teams Australia, Lebanon, Malaysia, Pakistan and Portugal but they were not the only ones to leave the track.

Italy, the USA and Mexico all damaged their cars, with Mexico losing two front wings over the course of the session and Ireland and the Netherlands taking minor spins.

Following his incident on track, A1 Team Pakistan driver, Adam Khan, was airlifted to hospital for a precautionary CT scan after complaining of lower back pains.

This sunshine brought the crowds out in reasonable force.

Dana Cooper, Chief Executive Officer of A1 Team South Africa says: "Although we started construction of the circuit only at the beginning of December, with roadworks and erection of the first temporary grandstands, the progress was outstanding and everything was in place in time for the first car to go out."

The Mayor of eThikwini (Durban), councillor Obed Mlaba, said the city was proud to be hosting the South African round of the series and the series' only street race.

"We want to showcase this city - its culture, its history and its people - to the rest of the world. It's a great opportunity for us to compete with the other great cities of South Africa for the attention of the outside world.

"As for 22-year-old Cape Town driver Stephen Simpson the glitz and glamour of the public spectacle was somewhat further back in his mind.

"We've learned a lot during the first half of this inaugural A1 Grand Prix season," says Simpson, who won the South African Formula Ford championship in 2000 at the age of 16 and has been pursuing a motor racing career in Europe since he was 17.

"We're up against some very experienced drivers and teams, including former F1 drivers such as Holland's Jos Verstappen, Malaysia's Alex Yoong, the Czech Republic's Tomas Enge and Ireland's Ralph Firman, as well as top GP2 drivers in the form of Switzerland's Neel Jani, France's Alex Premat and Nicolas Lapierre, and Brazil's Nelson Piquet Jr.

"We've improved with each race meeting and in Dubai, where our car, Vulindlela, was at its most competitive, we were just four tenths of a second off the pace. Now we must consolidate, continue to make improvements and score more points in the competition.

"The Durban race will be a big challenge for all of us. A street race is very different to a custom-made circuit, but it will be an amazing experience to compete in front of a South African crowd. I think they're in for an experience of a lifetime and with the circuit being brand new and unknown to all the drivers, the results are going to be hard to predict.

"South Africans can be sure, though, that their team will be putting in a maximum effort to do them all proud at home."

Race day

Race day dawned overcast and broody, but with enough of a promise the rain would hold off. From very early in the morning the crowds began to gather and, my didn't the Blue Waters Hotel do well.

Right opposite the hairpin at the end of the straight its balconies were bulging with race fans. On the beach side of the casino hundreds of fans waited patiently in line to cross the bridge over he track to their pit-view grandstand and even the 2 500 security people seemed to be in good spirits.

Despite managing only 18th quickest in the warmup, Stephen Simpson was the coolest person the Team RSA pits where team boss Mike Carroll and his technicians were buries knee-deep in computers trying to figure out the optimum settings for the young racer.

"Sorry, things are a tad hectic here right now," said the affable young driver, breaking off almost immediately to answer a question from "The Chief", Tokyo Sexwale, who was obviously revelling in the glare of the publicity generated by his home race.

Another person not unused to public scrutiny was President Thabo Mbeki who made a point of making his way his down the pit lane before the start of the feature race to meet the South African team personnel, saying: "We're behind you South Africa."

Emerson Fittipaldi, himself no stranger to the country or racing here, was all smiles as he looked at the crowded stands and said: "It was so good to see the people standing up waiting for the start of the race. This excitement should be the emotion of every A1 race."

The records will show the Sprint race was not good for Simpson and the Team SA car - now sporting Telkom livery in addition to the Absa colours - developed an electrical problem that put him in the pits for five laps, earning himself a huge roar of approval from the crowd when he went back onto the circuit to secure a grid place, albeit last, for the Feature race.

Keeping out of trouble he made up places when others failed in the Feature race and came home a more than creditable fifth in a race dominated by the last lap 'do or die' manoeuvre by Jos Verstappen who won for the Netherlands.

Was the A1 GP of Nations in Durban worth it? Unquestionably yes. It was a great day for motor racing, a better day for South Africa and sealed with approval of the President himself.

And now, it's just looking forward to doing it on a Durban street again next year.


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