Sparks fly as undertray and asphalt kiss violently. Flames bang from the exhausts as a bespoiled Nissan GT-R rockets through the vicious turn 5 and 6 S-bend, before roaring off out of sight. The car in question is one of the BB Motorsport-backed Nissan GT-Rs, driven by Edrich Zwiers. Over the years, I’ve seen it grow bigger wings, lower splitters and wider wheel arches, like some sort of hillclimb Hulk, surely reaching its ultimate iteration this year in 2018 – 700 kW plus (or 1 000 horsepower in the Queen’s English). This hill climbing thing clearly gets under one’s skin.
Probably because it’s so incredibly difficult and dangerous – the oldest and purest form of motor racing there’s ever been – there’s no time to do a few installation laps, warm yourself and the car up, find a rhythm and then go for it. Straight off the line, you need to be on it, and if you’ve tweaked a few settings, you’ll only discover their efficacy out there with precipitous cliff edges and unrelenting rock faces ready to envelop you. Not exactly where you want to find out you’ve inadvertently dialed in some snap oversteer on a corner entry, like Zwiers tells me the new front aero is doing, owing to its extra downforce – it’s pitching the nose into the tarmac (that was the scraping and the sparks) and loosening the rear. Thankfully, all of Saturday’s runs are practice to help dial in the car, with Sunday morning made up of six qualifying runs. The single quickest run is what matters, and by lunchtime on Sunday, the class finalists have been identified, before the top three in each class shoot it out for ultimate hill-climb glory.
A tall start arch reaches for the sky, rubber elevens run scorched along the tarmac underneath, a route toward the horizon dives off to the right. For guys driving the hill, ‘it’ doesn’t get more ‘it’ than this. And for the spectators, of which there were a record number yet again this year, the preponderance of insane performance machinery and professional racing drivers of the highest order just waltzing around the paddock can’t be replicated anywhere else in South Africa.
At the sharp end of the spear there’s Andre Bezuidenhout in a 2004 Gould GR55 single-seater. Doesn’t sound like much until you realise this is the same brave man who’s run a Dallara F1 car up the hill for many a year, and this new hill-climb special with a competition V8 motor, traction control and monster downforce allegedly makes that F1 look like an old knocker by comparison. Wilhelm Baard returns with his radical BB Motorsport Nissan GT-R, painted in a blue hue this time around, and sporting in excess of 970 kW, up from the 820 kW that saw him post a record-breaking 39.46 sec in the modified saloon class. His highly controversial apex-clipping front splitter remains … but more about that later.
Besides the front runners, there are 82 other fiendishly fast hill climbers, all vying for the right to say they’re fastest up the hill in one of the 19 classes. Fan favourites include Robert Wolk in an A1 GP race car, Dawie Olivier in a Jaguar F-Type SVR, Thouca Mechanicos in his monster C 55 AMG, rally ace Mark Cronje in the slithery, supercharged Jaguar XJR 575, Dawie and Charl Joubert behind the wheel of their blindingly fast Honda-powered Lotus Exiges and ex-Nürburgring instructor Anthony Ashley driving a potent Ariel Atom. But just to show it’s not a total Goodwood-wannabe schmooze, there’s a class featuring a Citi Golf, an old Corolla with the door mirrors folded in to reduce drag, and a box-shape Beemer that doesn’t gain traction off the line for,
oh, I don’t know, about half a kilometre.
Cars are held ‘in the box’ by a marshal sporting Allan Donald warpaint. The flag lifts and brr, brrrr, brrrrrrr…! Another car tears away from beneath the arch in a flurry of wheel spins. It’s from spectating at the start line that you appreciate that hill climbing is indeed a four-wheel-drive sport. Unless you have a featherweight single-seater like Wolk or Bezuidenhout that can accelerate up to speed from zero revs, you simply need all four wheels clawing at the tarmac like a kitten on a ball of yarn to ensure maximum traction, and make every single kW count over the 1.9-km run. Baard’s BB Motorsport GT-R sits on the line hanging onto 4 000 rpm in launch-control mode…
The collective hairs on everyone’s necks go mental as he slings away dramatically, all-four wheels gripping in controlled chaos. This Herculean traction off the line leads to noticeably more speed in
the run-up to turn one. There are trees off to the left-hand side and a 90° right-hander to be wrestled into submission, before Baard can unleash hell on the steep uphill straight. In a matter of seconds he’s at the next long left-hander, hard on the brakes as the back goes loose, scrubbing off speed from over 240 km/h. It’s a blind corner but wide enough to play with, and boy does that wide-body GT-R need every inch of tarmac at its disposal.
Next, treacherous turns 4 and 5, or the ‘esses’ as they’re known. Here the dark art of downforce must work its magic. Baard barely taps off and trusts that the grip is there. It is, tons of it, pressing the Nissan hard into the ground as carbon-fibre body-work and asphalt kiss violently once again. He tears through with implacable fury. One sweep, then another, before the car darts into a big oversteer. Baard corrects heroically within hundredths of a second, but he’s still offline and the huge front splitter clips the inside tyres… Disaster! The splitter is gone and with it the turbo boost pipe. At full throttle for the final two turns before the summit. It’s like someone’s deployed a parachute out the back. He crosses the line convinced he’d blown it.
Then Roger McCleery announces the official times over the PA system. Wilhelm Baard, fastest modified saloon in a time of 39.46 seconds, besting his 2017 record by four-tenths of a second. Unbelievable. Baard is adamant that if he hadn’t had that little moment, he would’ve clocked a time in the 38-sec range. Well, there’s always next year. And best believe Baard and the rest of the BB Motosport crew will be there to defend their titles from 2-5 May 2019.
The hillclimb in numbers
17 873 spectators
15 000 tyres make up the tyre walls
1 400 full-throttle starts
40 concrete barriers
19 race classes
Kings of the Hill
Production cars – Reghard Roets, Nissan GT-R – 44.89 sec
Modified saloons – Wilhelm Baard, Nissan GT-R – 39.46 sec
Single seaters – Andre Bezuidenhout, Gauld GR55 – 35.52 sec