South African motor sport took two heavy body blows at the end of 2018, with Sasol withdrawing its support for the GTC modified car racing series and BMW’s factory team that competes therein, while Engen ended its sponsorship of the Volkswagen Polo Cup racing series and its support for the Audi GTC team of Terry Moss. These moves, sadly, mark the end of support for local motor sport by the major petroleum companies.
Gone are the days when factory-entered cars in circuit racing, rallying and off-road racing went into “battle” boldly decked out in the colours and logos of companies such as Castrol, Total, BP, Engen, Shell and Sasol. This situation endured for many glorious decades but has now ended.
Local championship motorsport has been on a downward path for the past few years and the withdrawal of two large and long-standing sponsors is a further serious blow.
Volkswagen is the only major manufacturer with a substantial involvement in circuit racing in 2019. Not only is it running its one-make Polo Cup Series (formerly sponsored by Engen and now by Falken tyres), but it also has a four-car team in the premier GTC formula as well as setting up a dedicated Volkswagen Motorsport Academy.
The Academy was formerly part of VW Advanced Driver Training, but now a standalone entity, headed by Neil Stephen, which will source and develop new motor racing talent for SA.
Otherwise it seems BMW will continue in the GTC racing championship, while Toyota and Ford will support cross-country racing and Toyota will probably continue its involvement in rallying through a privateer team.
In the light of falling support for local motor racing in terms of both the number and quality of entries, as well as the number of spectators paying to watch the action it was wonderful for a motorsport enthusiast like me to see packed parking areas at the Zwartkops Raceway for the traditional, season-opening Passion of Speed International at the beginning of February.
The weather also played along for the weekend. Although rain threatened on both the Saturday and Sunday, it, fortunately, did not materialise, which was a blessing for long-suffering promoter and track owner, Peter du Toit, who has often had to contend with a rain-interrupted programme at his premier event of the year.
This popular meeting is aimed mainly at classic car racing, but in recent years the action has been spiced up with races for G&H Transport Supercars.
This year was no exception and there was a most impressive line-up of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches, and BMWs as well as the well-known and very quick Stradale Motorsport Aston Martin driven to great effect by Charl Arangies and a lone newly-imported GT3 McLaren which had experienced Gavin Cronje at the wheel. Altogether there were 36 entries, which made for hectic racing, with the Aston and McLaren sharing the spoils of victory in the two races and thrilling the large and enthusiastic crowd.
However, as usual at this annual event, there was a wonderful array of classic racing cars, including 12 brought to South Africa from Europe for the event, with the number limited by high costs. The standard of replica racing built locally continues to amaze, while the general level of preparation of the SA-based cars was generally of a high standard.
The point I am trying to make is the way interest has changed in the recent past. It seems gone are the days when fans flocked to race tracks around the country to watch national championship – and sometimes international – events or stood at the side of the road or track watching rally cars and off-road racers displaying their skill.
Nowadays it seems as though classic racing and exhibitions are growing in popularity. As an example, last year’s attendance at the Pretoria Old Motor Club’s Cars in the Park show at the Zwartkops Raceway was the highest in its 39-year existence. More than 110 motor clubs were represented.
This enthusiasm was continued at the 2019 Passion for Speed festival at Zwartkops and there are already high expectations for the upcoming George and Knysna motor shows, which are located in a region of the country where many car enthusiasts now reside.
What is going to be interesting to see is the level of public support there will be for the last round of the 2019 Intercontinental GT Challenge scheduled for November 21-23 at Kyalami. Billed as the “Return of the Nine Hour”, let’s hope this race lives up to the wonderful reputation for public support which the Nine Hour races at Grand Central and Kyalami enjoyed in the past.
However, the good news for classic car and motorcycle enthusiasts is that public support for their area of interest is showing no sign of waning!
By Roger Houghton