Battle Royale on First Day of King of the Hill

The hills surrounding the Simola Golf and Country Estate in Knysna came alive to the sound of rip-roaring race engines being pushed to the absolute limit as the first day of the Jaguar Simola Hillclimb’s King of the Hill challenge unfolded today.

In front of thousands of enthusiastic spectators, a total of 80 of the country’s fastest and most spectacular road and race cars were driven up the challenging 1.9 km hillclimb course by some of SA’s very best and intensively competitive racing drivers.

The pit lane was hive of activity throughout the day, as the drivers set off on the first of the scheduled practice runs at 09h00, and followed this up with another four practice sessions through to just after lunch.

The saying goes that familiarity breeds contempt. But on the Jaguar Simola Hillclimb, it means lap times tumble progressively as the day goes on as the drivers familiarise themselves with the extremely fast and tricky course, and as more rubber is laid down on what is normally a public road.

2012 winner Jade Gutzeit, competing in a heavily modified 2006 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 7, set the benchmark in Practice 1 with a time 44.107 sec, just ahead of father Desmond in his mighty 1400 hp Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R on 44.491 sec.

The roles were reversed in P2 as Des went more than 2.5 sec quicker to post 41.903 sec, with Jade roughly half a second adrift. Darron Gudmanz (2008 Nissan R35 GT-R) was third in both opening sessions, on 45.773 sec and 43.283 sec respectively.

Des, more determined than ever after finishing second last year, dominated P3 once again with another fastest time of 41.754 sec. Jaki Scheckter, son of Ian and nephew to Formula 1 champion Jody, powered his 2010 Nissan GT-R to second with a time of 42.907 sec.

Last year’s winner, Franco Scribante, finally stepped into the top three with a time of 43.655 sec in the scintillating 1970 Chevron B19 – although still some way off his 2014 record-setting time of 41.159 sec.

It was an all-out Gutzeit family battle once again in P4 as Jade crossed the beams at 41.873 sec, with Des just half a second slower and Scribante a mere tenth of a second further back.

For the final practice session, the Gutzeits set the bar again and both managed to dip under the 41 sec barrier for the first time. Jade was fastest on 40.949 sec with Des a mere two hundredths of a second slower.

Jaki Scheckter returned to the top trio on 42.619 sec, followed by Gudmanz (42.866 sec), Toby Venter in the stunning Le Mans-specification 1996 Porsche 911 GT2RS (43.623 sec) and Scribante on 43.707 sec.

With two qualifying sessions lined up for the afternoon, it was time for the drivers to really step up their game. A total of six qualifying runs, including four on Sunday, will determine the top competitors for the Class Final, as well as the Top 10 that will battle it out for this year’s King of the Hill title.

The qualifying started off well, albeit in noticeably cooler conditions, and it had been a largely incident-free weekend thus far – until Mohamed Dangor went off the track at Turn 2 and landed up with his Nissan Skyline R34 GT-R stranded down an embankment. Fortunately he was unhurt, but his car was retired on the spot.

Des Gutzeit had just set off for his first qualifying as the incident happened, leading to the run being red-flagged and aborted. On his second attempt, Gutzeit powered his astonishingly rapid GT-R to a time of 41.093 sec – sufficient to secure his name at the top of the qualifying charts for the rest of the day.

Jade Gutzeit was up next, and he continued the family affair by blasting through in 41.366 sec to snatch the second-fastest qualifying performance. Satisfied with their runs, both elected to skip Qualifying 2, especially with the cooler track temperature resulting in generally slower overall times.

Des was delighted with the result. “It’s fantastic racing with my sons, and there’s no doubt that Jade has the potential to beat me as he is a brilliant driver and we’ve built him a really quick car. And whoever takes it tomorrow, there’s truly no-one better to beat me than my son.”

But Gutzeit senior hasn’t thrown in the towel just yet, and indicated that he’s ‘only’ running at around 1200 hp currently, with his heavily modified GT-R capable of pushing out up to 400 hp more.

“What we lose in the turns I make up on the straights, but running the extra boost does unsettle the car quite a bit in the corners,” he indicated. “The track definitely has less grip than last year, but I will be using new tyres for the first time tomorrow, so that should help go a bit quicker.”

Jade was equally happy with the results so far. “I’m actually really impressed with how quick I’ve gone today, particularly as we only finished building the Lancer Evo 7 on Thursday morning before packing and driving down to Knysna,” Jade said.

“Today was the first time I’ve driven the car, and it has been fantastic from the start. I expected to spend the whole day tweaking the car, and especially the aerodynamics, but we’ve made hardly any changes.”

The car still has a lot more potential, he indicates, as it has only been producing around 650 hp. Depending on how it goes on tomorrow, he may potentially turn the boost up to deliver around 800 hp, along with fitting a new set of rubber for added grip.

“It’s a great dice with my dad, and more so due to how radically different the cars are,” he added. “The GT-R is around 150 kg heavier than the Evo, my car has a four-cylinder engine to his six, and there’s a huge gap in terms of power. Yet the times are incredibly close, and it’s going to be a fantastic race tomorrow.”

Jaki Scheckter was up next in Q1, completing his run in 42.699 sec, only to be beaten by Scribante (42.228 sec) for third. Darron Gudmanz was fifth fastest, followed by Sav Gualtieri (modified BMW 335i) on 43.312 sec, Toby Venter (44.085 sec) and Willie Hepburn in the thundering Opel Rekord V8 from the WesBank Modifieds era (44.348 sec).

With the Gutzeits sitting out for Q2, Gudmanz went half a second quicker at 42.205 sec in his 950 hp Nissan GT-R to top the session, and grab the third fastest qualifying time overall.

“I’ve had issues with the electronics and the launch control the whole day,” Gudmanz commented. “We finally got it all sorted in the afternoon, and I had a good final run.

“I don’t think anyone has a chance of beating the Gutzeits as I’m driving the wheels off this car. My GT-R weighs 1.9 tons, is road legal and even has both front seats, so there’s no way I can go a full second faster to catch them at this stage.

“For tomorrow I may just ask the organisers to change the starting order, as it’s actually quite demoralising to start behind Des, and see him smoking all four wheels off the line and hear the engine cracking down the road,” Gudmanz joked.

Franco Scribante’s final run was 0.4 sec slower than Q1, so he slotted into fourth overall after what he described as a frustrating day.

“We made quite a few changes to the Chevron for this race, including fitting an electronic engine management system that also has launch control, but we just can’t get the system to work properly” he said.

“We’ve abandoned the launch control and I’m driving as hard as I can, but the times just aren’t fast enough. The team is working hard to sort it out, so hopefully I can have a clean run in the morning. For now the Gutzeits are running away from everyone else, so it looks like I’ll be fighting for third place tomorrow,” he said.

Despite this being his first Jaguar Simola Hillclimb, Porsche South Africa boss and the man behind the revival of the Kyalami race track, Toby Venter, wrapped up his day with second place in Q2 with his fastest time yet of 42.458 sec – sufficient to slot him into fifth overall.

“I’ve had a great day, but I must admit the course is very rough and intimidating. The car was set up for circuit racing to start off with, so it was far too stiff for this bumpy road. We softened the suspension which made it much faster,” Venter stated.

“It’s great to be competing with this car, as it has none of the fancy electronics and launch control systems of the GT-Rs. It’s also only rear-wheel drive, has two valves per cylinder and is air-cooled, but with somewhere around 650 hp it’s really fast.

In terms of the event, Venter had nothing but praise. “The hillclimb is amazing, and you can sense the enthusiasm from the whole organising team, so hats off to all of them. The drivers really enjoy it and it’s great for the spectators. All they need to do now is resurface the road, then it will be perfect,” he mused.

Sunday’s action commences with a warm-up session at 09h00, followed by the four remaining qualifying rounds. The Class Final is scheduled to start at 15h15, followed by the focal point of the entire weekend – the King of the Hill Top 10 shoot-out from around 16h00.

Release compiled by Colin Mileman