She is the undisputed darling of South African racing circuits. Her asphalt curves played host to countless mechanical beauties, beastly brawls and tragic dramas. Legends were forged, headlines made and memories etched firmly on the minds of the millions who descended to witness the excitement played out on the blacktop stage.
Yes, Kyalami inspires petrolhead poetry. And when the fate of the iconic track was thrown into doubt, the outcry attested to the place it holds in the hearts of South Africans. The saviour in the story, as you probably know already, is Toby Venter, boss of Porsche South Africa, who bought Kyalami for R205 million when it went under the hammer in 2014. His declaration that Kyalami would remain a racetrack assuaged the fears of enthusiasts. IgnitionLive was invited to the circuit to hear about the plans for its revival and to savour a final lap of the “old” track before it was extensively overhauled. Of course you want to know about the promising road ahead, and we will get to that. But no article on the famed circuit would be complete without a trip down memory lane.
In 1961, undeveloped land just north of Johannesburg, in what is now Midrand, Gauteng, was chosen as the birthplace of Kyalami. Its forerunner had been a circuit near Grand Central Airport in Halfway House, which hosted events such as Nine Hours of Kyalami, a series that was later moved to the venue of its namesake. The original circuit boasted nine corners and was 4.1km long. The first race to be held at the new Kyalami was the Rand Grand Prix, a local series run to Formula One rules. Jim Clark of Team Lotus clinched victory in the 75 lap contest. This set the tone for its future because, six years later, Kyalami hosted the South African Grand Prix, replacing Prince George Circuit in East London as the venue on the international calendar.
Some would argue that the golden years of the grands prix, between 1967 and 1985, coincided with the best years of Kyalami. The biggest names in the business are inextricably linked to our local icon. Legends such as Jackie Stewart, Jack Brabham, Niki Lauda, Gilles Villeneuve, Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna worked their magic on this track. We also cannot forget our home grown hero, Jody Scheckter, who took victory in the 1975 South African Grand Prix in his Tyrrell P34. Scheckter recalled, in a comprehensive history of the circuit, titled The Kyalami Book, how the track inspired his nickname. “I remember taking Barbecue and Jukskei absolutely flat out on the first lap. My right leg was shaking uncontrollably from nerves, so I took my right hand and pressed my leg down in order to keep the accelerator flat on the floorboards. Later, as my right leg steadied, I could keep both hands on the steering wheel, which made it easier to go flat out and a little bit sideways, which earned me the nickname ‘Sideways Scheckter’.”
Apart from Formula One, Kyalami hosted numerous local racing formulas. Notable series included the Stannic Group N production car races. Many will recall fierce duels between the famed BMW 325is and Opel Kadett Superboss, track focused iterations of what were veritable street menaces in that era. The illustrious story of Kyalami is not without tragedy, however, with 12 names on her list of lives claimed. A notable victim was promising Welsh racing driver Tom Pryce, a driver for Shadow, who died after striking and killing 19-year-old marshal Frederik Jansen van Vuuren at 270km/h in the 1977 South African Grand Prix.
The headline on the front page of the Sunday Times on March 6 read “Shadow of Death” and was penned by our group motoring editor, Wynter Murdoch. He recalls how Pryce was slumped in his racing car, dead, but that the car continued to drive on. The race resumed and Lauda took the top spot on the podium. Initially, he was quoted as saying that it was the greatest victory of his career, but after hearing about Pryce’s death, Lauda said: “There was no joy after that.” More recently, in the 1999 FIM World Supersport Championship,South African rider Brett MacLeod fell off his Suzuki and was hit and killed by other racers coming up behind him.
In 1985, Kyalami hosted the last South African Grand Prix before an eight year hiatus due to anti-apartheid sanctions. A number of teams decided to boycott the race. Some drivers, such as Stefan Johansson, raced anyway despite the Swedish government’s reservations about his participation. Renovations began at Kyalami in 1988: the circuit now had eight corners. In 1992, more changes were made, transforming the track into the soon-to-be overhauled Kyalami we know now. With 13 corners and a length of 4.26km, it hosted two grands prix in 1992 and 1993. The latter year bore witness to a heady battle between Prost, Senna and Michael Schumacher, with Prost eventually securing victory. This was the last time Kyalami would be filled with the thrill of Formula One racing. But the future looks promising and although we might not see a Formula One grand prix just yet, the new owners of the circuit are preparing to turn Kyalami into a facility worthy of hosting other motorsport events on a global scale.
The refurbishments, which are underway as you read this, start from the very foundations of the track, and will cost R100 million. For starters, the entire circuit will be resurfaced. The famous straight will gain extra length, running close to 900m. More challenging turns will be incorporated and a great naming revival is also in the pipeline. Best familiarise yourself with titles like The Kink, Crowthorne, Jukskei Sweep, Barbecue, Sunset, Clubhouse, Esses, Leeukop, Mineshaft, The Crocodiles, Cheetah and Ingwe. Circuit safety which at the “old” Kyalami seemed to be lacking will be improved. The new owners intend getting FIA Grade 2 accreditation. But the practical aspects off the asphalt will also receive attention. A new underpass will be built to allow easier access and this will include a pedestrian walkway. The parking areas will be refurbished, as will the old pit complex. The pit entry will be revised to FIA specifications and many of the small buildings behind the old pit complex will be removed. Motoring fans will also be made more comfortable.
Many of the dilapidated spectator areas will be demolished and new stands erected to provide better views. The ablution facilities will be upgraded and a new public address system will be integrated too. Even Sport and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula feels positive about the Kyalami revival. “The restoration of Kyalami Racetrack is good for motorsport development and for motorsport in South Africa,” he told IgnitionLive. “We thank the private sector for their continued support for motorsport.” He said he was looking forward to having a go on the track himself, citing his last track experience at Zwartkops as a guest of IGNITION GT LapZ presenter Gugu Zulu. According to Porsche South Africa, the circuit is expected to reopen between August and September this year.