OPINION | Why the historic Kyalami 9 Hour race proves Toby Venter really is a SA motorsport hero

<i>Image: Reynard Gelderblom</i>
<i>Image: Reynard Gelderblom</i>
Reynard Gelderblom

It has taken 37 years, but world-class in endurance racing finally made a spectacular return to the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in 2019 on 21-23 November.

However just five years prior there was a very real possibility of South Africa’s best-known circuit not seeing any racing at all in its then future.

Post-isolation South Africa saw a two-year cameo on the Formula 1 calendar with Motorcycle Grand Prix Racing and FIM Superbikes also making a few appearances, but that's where it ended.

A turn of fortunes

The Nineties-revival also saw the popular Super Touring format making a few brief visits after the category was introduced into South African motorsport. The turn of the century however also brought a turn in the fortunes of the Midrand-based circuit.

WATCH | Not even Joburg's thunderstorm could stop the race - Here's who won the historic Kyalami 9 Hour

Suddenly there was less interest from top-tier championships to compete at the venue while the Phakisa Freeway in the Free State became the new home for international motorcycle racing.

The now-defunct A1GP format moved to the circuit from Durban for a short period, but at that stage, this championship was also on its last legs. Soon the circuit was merely a dilapidated shadow of its former glory.

GALLERY | The spectacular Kyalami 9 Hour in pictures

With Midrand once being a suburb on the outskirts of Johannesburg heading to Pretoria, this has now become a thriving economic hub with the demand for prime real estate in the area growing. The announcement that the piece of land would go under the hammer on July 24, 2014, did not come as a surprise to many.

'This was not an easy job'

A few outcries of heritage preservation from South Africa’s motorsport fanatical minority was really the only resistance offered. Enter Toby Venter and Porsche South Africa who spent R205-million on the day with a very precise promise to South Africans.

Kyalami 9 Hour

                                                                          Image: Reynard Gelderblom

"I will bring back world-class motorsport to the circuit. But this was not an easy job," Venter said.

A near-complete rebuild added another few bars to the price tag, but in 2016 the prestigious venue was finally reopened. A few top national races followed along with the circuit becoming the new home for the annual Festival of Motoring and biennial BMW M Festival.

From 2018 onward, the circuit did not make an appearance on the South African motorsport calendar though apart from racing sideshows at major events which did not go down well with the local competitors and some fans.

Kyalami 9 Hour

                                                                      Image: Reynard Gelderblom

Venter and his team were called 'greedy liars' who don’t care about motorsport (amongst some other things) on social media. But unknown to them, Venter and co worked hard behind the scenes and soon the announcement came that the final round of the 2019 Intercontinental GT Championship would be held at the circuit in the form of the Kyalami 9 Hour.

Early battles

The weekend saw a 28-car strong grid line-up for the 1PM rolling start. With the Mercedes AMG GT3 of Maxi Buhk, Maro Engel and Raffaele Marciello retiring shortly after the start, the opening laps saw an all Porsche 911 GT3 R battle at the front of the field; a sight to behold for the circuit owners.

Kyalami 9 hour

                                                                    Image: Reynard Gelderblom

The pole-sitting Frikadelli Racing Porsche driven by Dennis Olsen and the GPX Racing Porsche with Kevin Estre behind the wheel battled it out in the early stages, but the first safety car brought on a quick change of fortunes.

Nick Tandy took over the driving duties at this stage for Frikadelli Racing while Michael Christensen got into the GPX Racing entrant. Tandy had his share of good fortune and survived a few nail-biting moments in this stint with contact between the two cars seeing Frikadelli Racing being issued with a drive-through penalty.

Silver Class winners WTM Racing

                                                                  Image: Reynard Gelderblom

Meanwhile, the Walkenhorst racing BMW M6 GT3 with Mikkel Jensen delivered a strong performance as the sunset over the circuit. But late springtime in Gauteng is known for its brisk changes in weather condition and a massive thunderstorm with severe rain arrived soon.

With the #108 Bentley Team M-Sport Continental GT3 off track, the safety car was deployed and would stay ahead of the pack for nearly two hours with conditions not improving. With just under half an hour to go the green flag came out again to signal a night-time sprint to the line.

Team orders in the Porsche camp followed with GPX Racing being requested to let the Frikadelli Racing entry through into the lead which would see Olsen take the 2019 Drivers title while Porsche secured their Manufacturers title, this at the home of Porsche South Africa.

Walkenhorst Racing finished as runner-up ahead of GPX Racing. The highest-ranked entrant with a South African connection was BMW Team Schnitzer where DTM ace Sheldon van der Linde shared the BMW M6 GT3 with Martin Tomczyk and Augusto Farfus.

This team held the lead right before the end of the final safety car period but opted to take a drive-through penalty to prevent a harsher penalty for exceeding driver maximum running-time.

The Silver Class saw the 16th placed WTM Racing powered by Rinaldi Ferrari 488 GT3 of Leonard Weiss, Jochum Krumbach and South African David Perel take the win while the 20th place Strakka Racing Mercedes-Benz AMG GT3 of Dominik Baumann, Adrian Henry D’Silva and female sensation Christina Nielsen took the ProAm honours.

The second Walkenhorst Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 took the Amateur Class honours with two South African drivers Gennaro Bonafede and Michael van Rooyen sharing the driving duties with Henry Walkenhorst.

Porsche Kyalami 9 hour

                                                                    Image: Reynard Gelderblom

Only one National Class entry made it to the finish line with Kishoor Pitamber, Lee Thompson and Michael Steven behind the wheel of the Pablo Clark Racing Ferrari 458 Italia GT3. By far, this was the most successful race weekend in South African motorsport thus far in the century.

Those once vocal in their criticism of the business direction taken by the circuit’s owners were silenced by the event which also featured a host of top musicians performing, and two curtain-raiser races by a 50 car strong field of Falken Polo Cup and MotorMart VW Challenge competitors.

More than 10 000 people enjoyed the action next to the race track which was also broadcast on SuperSport, and streamed online. The success of this event will be hard to beat, but no doubt that the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit team are already planning a bigger and better 2020 edition.

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