Conquering Knysna’s Hillclimb

Getting behind the wheel of any car comes naturally to me. It’s a big part of my daily life and I hardly think twice about it. Sharing race tracks and roads with fellow petrolheads is the norm, but nothing could calm my nerves for my first big racing event – the second Knysna Hillclimb – in front of a wave of enthusiasts.

Renault South Africa used the opportunity to launch three of its new Sport models – the Twingo RS Gordini, Mégane RS Sport and the Cup. There was also the 20th-anniversary special edition Clio RS and the sleek Mégane Coupé-Cabriolet, known as the CC.

Not only did we drive the new models through the picturesque mountain passes of George and Knysna, we had to race in the Hillclimb event.

Some of South Africa’s fastest cars and drivers took part in the three-day event to claim the title of king or queen of the hill. There was everything from the super-fast go-karts, street cars to Ferraris, an Ariel Atom and even a Porsche 956 sports prototype, the legendary four-time Le Mans winner.

I forgot about it by the time we landed in George and headed off for the three-and-a-half-hour drive in the Mégane RS and Clio models. Knysna was buzzing even though the weather was miserable and wet all weekend.

The three different models were rotated during the route so by the time we reached the Simola Golf and Country Estate in Knysna, where the event was being hosted, we were starving and tired. We guzzled down some finger foods and got ready for the race.

We were handed a helmet and had to choose a race name for ourselves. Mine was Pink Vleis, a much older journo’s was Pleasure Guardian and one black fellow picked out Rebel Boer.

We scurried down to the track to do the first two practice laps in the Gordinis before the qualifying laps in the Mégane models. Some journos had brought along racing boots, gloves and even their own helmets, while others took a joyride from Cape Town weeks before the event to scope the route and get in practice runs.

The Twingo RS Gordini is Renault’s cutest and smallest car, and carries a strong racing heritage in South Africa. While the looks were improved, the performance was lacking. A wasted opportunity for the giant French automobile manufacturer.

I put on my helmet and waited my turn. I wasn’t ready at all. My hands were clammy and my heart was beating much faster than the lap time I was about to make.

I wouldn’t have been half as anxious if my friends from Cape Town hadn’t caught me just before my first lap. I actually wished my cheerleaders were not there at all.

“Five, four, three, two, one … GO!” the marshal shouted.

I dropped the clutch and launched like a pro as the wheels screeched and I redlined into the next gear. My first lap felt like I was driving in slow motion as I went up the 1.85km track with sweeping S bends. I was relieved when the practice runs were over.

I was less nervous when it came to the qualifying laps in the Méganes. I knew there was no chance of me getting into the top 12 for the semifinals with my colleagues taking this race so seriously, but I sure tried. The Méganes are much bigger and heavier than the Twingos, with more power and torque.

There were six fun laps that got the adrenaline pumping – not to mention the old lady with the dogs who jumped up screaming at us to slow down. Obviously she had not received the memo.

While the Twingo models were a bit of a letdown, the Méganes were powerful and responsive, and should give the Ford Focus RS a good run for its money.

Needless to say, I didn’t make the top three, but at least I participated in what’s hopefully going to be a successful annual motorsport event in the country.

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