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Column: Catching the bug again

2009-09-30 07:21

Lance Branquinho

Terry Moss and Giniel de Villiers greet in Turn 1. Although neither had raced around Killarney in a good few years, they were on pace from the word go.

Motorsport. Ernest Hemingway once said that "there are only three true sports: mountain climbing, auto racing, and bull fighting. All the rest are children's games played by adults."

Now I fear if Hemingway was alive today, to witness all manner of extreme sporting bravado, he would be forced to amend his list. To a great many, motorsport remains the pinnacle – a heady blend of speed, courage and forbiddingly geared competition.

There is real consequence too if you make a severe error of judgement. Unlike Golf, for instance, where having to take off your socks and wade through water is about the worst thing which can befall you.

Problem is, I am not much taken by it anymore.

I have not gone to a race in years, despite living within earshot of the Killarney racetrack in Cape Town since the age of five.


At primary school I bunked many a Friday – and this was during the fastidiously disciplined, pre-outcomes based education days – to watch practice and qualifying sessions for national race days at Killarney.

I remember my hair being tousled to a mess by the blustery South Easter during the nine-hour endurance races, jealously guarding my spectator vantage point at Turn 2 in an oversized windbreaker liberated from my dad’s car.

Although I was unable to quantify my almost toxic obsession with motorsport (I remember the joys of early morning blanket-and -ProNutro starts to the Japanese or Australian GPs), it was an all encompassing state of affairs.

Blood, guts and thunder

For a young boy, the magnificent chaos of Ben Morgenrood’s rotary-powered MX6, Sarel’s oversized Mustang and the Audi S4 duo of Moss and Aberdein hounding each other at suicidal speeds was simply beyond compare.

Mike Bond, the erstwhile Rothmans S4 Quattro race engineer had a credible hand in my preoccupation with Wesbank modifieds too.

He gave me the portable battery unit to wield around one Friday morning (bunking school, obviously) and I helped start (in a rather insignificant busboy way) Aberdein’s S4.

When Aberdein returned from a blistering qualifying run, Bond asked me to help change tyres. Although I scalded my hands (stupidly griping the tyre instead of rim) I was smitten with this racing stuff…

When the S4s withdrew in favour of a V8 rule change I was inconsolable.

Mike Briggs at the wheel of possibly the most striking local racecar ever produced - Owen Ashley's Opel Calibra. Rule changes late in 1993 killed it off and evaporated much of the author's enthusiasm for local motorsport.

Whatever stood to reason, during the period 1994-2008 I hardly attended any events and followed racing only casually, almost by accident, via rebroadcasts.

Without my Wesbank hero cars the intoxication wore off. Racing had become irrelevant to me. Perhaps there were other factors besides the Wesbank rule change.

Could it have been pending puberty and the fascination of/with/about girls?

Was my focus softened by South Africa’s reintroduction to international sport on all fronts, which fleshed out the entertainment offering over weekends appreciably?

Perhaps it was Senna’s death at Imola in 1994, or the rise of touring cars as the pre-eminent local formula during that year, supplanting my beloved Wesbank modifieds, which turned me off racing.

In hindsight, the best racing around at that time was in the lower echelons of Group N, and to the real connoisseurs, Formula Ford. Not that it mattered much though, racing had lost its lustre for me. Period.

Aberdein in a Quattro leads Morgenrood in a rotary 323 down the Mineshaft with a turbocharged Ford up the inside for good measure. Pre-1994, this was mighty good Saturday.

Going back

This Saturday though, I was back at Killarney.

Older, and now a jaded member of the local motoring press corps, the tree-lined back straight became a redemption road of sorts.

Whilst my media colleagues busied themselves with banter and food in VW’s reception venue I strolled across from the pit complex past Owen Ashley’s workshop.

Passing Owen’s facebrick garage I gentled my face against the fence. I was back at one of my favourite (and generally clandestine) vantage points, the exit of Malmesbury – the fast and forbiddingly tricky double apex right hander leading into the Killarney back straight.

I watched some bikes career down the back straight in ear-splitting fashion.

The weather was inclement, skies pregnant with the promise of rain and the North Westerly particularly nasty (in typical Cape fashion). The brazen courage of two-wheeled racing had me murmuring expletives to myself.

As the bikes disappeared into the distance I thought of Russell Wood and what a hero he had been to me all those years ago.

Close enough for you? Despite the humble machinery at their disposal Moss, Giniel and Supervan put on a class show for the crowd.

Racing drivers never get old or fade away?

My reason for being at Killarney was to witness some deft public relations work by VW.

A troop of stock Citi Golfs had been stripped of their rear seats, reinforced with roll-cages and were to be piloted by some of the most illustrious names within the pantheon of South African circuit and dirt racing.

Some media colleagues would make up the numbers in between. I was there to cajole and support.

The drivers list read like it could have been a plaque on any number of local motorsport trophies – Giniel (no surname necessary), Sarel (you should know who he is too), Terry Moss, Chris Aberdein...

VW even sportingly invited Nissan motorsport boss Glyn Hall to pilot a car – which nearly turned out to be a massive PR disaster when Hall proved to be hugely competitive, finishing fourth in both heats.

It was Giniel’s first race at Killarney for nearly a decade and former team mates Moss and Aberdein (always the VW/Audi teams’ perennial runner up) were keen to settle some scores without diplomatic team orders to consider.

Supervan was simply there to outdrive everyone, despite being due to turn 63 in December.

The racing? It was, quite simply, brilliant. If you consider the cars at hand were stock 1.6l Citis, it could be classed as epic entertainment.

Tallying the results, it was a particularly poignant result for me, with the former Audi S4 Wesbank modified teammates (Moss and Aberdein) taking a win each.

The second race was a drenched affair, bearing witness to some outlandish car control (Citis steering through Turn 1 on a healthy dose of opposite lock). It finished with Moss taking victory from Giniel after a fantastically tactical (and at times tactile, look at the images) three-way battle with Supervan.

I stood in the rain for a while after Moss had finished his victory lap. My clothes were soaked, my grin generous.

It was a treat to watch my boyhood heroes demonstrate their boundless class again - although there was a particular former BMW works driver ambling around the pit complex I would dearly loved to have seen compete too…

No, it's not alarming lift-off oversteer, just a courtesy push from behind to remind one to stay on pace.

Will I be going back? Probably.

I am obliged, to an extent. As a motoring journalist there is a sense of expectation for one to spend race days trackside.

When I was young the reason for going was a sheer sense of wonder at the mechanical threshold, the noise and sensation of pending chaos which was racing.

As a youngster I did not much care for the uniformity of regulations which allow for truly close racing, aptly demonstrated by the Citi Celebrity Challenge pooling massive driving talent into equally prepared Citi Golfs.

Back then variety was everything. My lopsided 11-year old logic decreed V8s, four-cylinder turbos and forced induction rotaries, each characterising (rather loosely) some roadcar-based homologation, was a prerequisite for exciting racing.

Now, in the fullness of time, I have a keener sense of what is at stake.

I’ve driven all the major tracks locally thanks to some of the privileges apportioned to me by my chosen vocation. Apexes, clipping points, delicate car control and the consequences of crashing all factor into my subconscious now.

No, it's not the Goodwood Festival of Speed. In fact, this is Fanie Viljoen at Zwartkops. Historic racing is alive and well in South Africa, and one of the more stylish ways to introduce friends and family (whilst reintroducing yourself) to racing.

Admittedly the Golden era of local motorsport has long since passed.

The local tracks are still brilliant though, every FIA safety officer’s worst nightmare too – narrow, fast and very old-school in terms of layout. This is precisely why you should take out some time to watch a national race meet.

You don’t have to limit yourself to the big name stuff either - some of the clubman and historic racing is achingly good.

Don’t wait for it to be rebroadcast like I did for years, though. Motorsport is a living, breathing cacophony of mechanical drama, best sampled trackside without earplugs.

Am I about to become a motorsport anorak a few days short of my 28th birthday? Oh dear…

I’ll just blame a crumpled up old racing team poster found whilst cleaning out the garage a few weeks ago for that. Nothing special really, it just had a blue and white racing car on it...


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