Simola Hillclimb delivers world-class King of the Hill spectacle

  • Andre Bezuidenhout claims sixth King of the Hill title in Single Seater and Sports Prototype category
  • Franco Scribante edges out Reghard Roets to secure his fifth Modified Saloon Car victory, with WRC and WRX champion Petter Solberg adding great excitement in third place
  • JP van der Walt earns third consecutive Road Car and Supercar win
  • Estimated 17 500 spectators joined the adrenaline-fuelled three days of action, which included Classic Car Friday

KNYSNA, South Africa, 7 May 2023 – The Simola Hillclimb has firmly established its status as one of the world’s most exciting and competitive hilllclimb events, with the 13th edition – held in Knysna, South Africa from 5 to 7 May 2023 – delivering its most thrilling and fiercely contested spectacle yet.

As South Africa’s premier motoring and motorsport lifestyle event, this year’s competition and the global interest were elevated to even greater heights with the participation of three star international drivers: 2003 WRC champion and double WRX champion Petter Solberg along with older brother Henning Solberg who is a veteran WRC and WRX driver, as well as former F1 driver Mika Salo.

Bringing an exciting international flavour to the Simola Hillclimb and expanding its reach to an even wider global audience via the full-length livestream weren’t the only highlights, as the event attracted a record eight vehicle manufacturers as event partners, sponsors and entrants.

As has become the norm, it also featured some of the most powerful and fastest cars on the planet – from specialised hillclimb single-seaters to outrageously powerful saloon cars. Accordingly, it was no surprise that the weekend saw spectator numbers return to pre-COVID-19 levels, with an estimated 17 500 people attending the event over the three days, which included Classic Car Friday.

Following two days of thrilling King of the Hill action on Saturday and Sunday, Andre Bezuidenhout earned his sixth consecutive title in the Single Seater and Sports Prototype category in the 2007 Gould GR55. Several rainy spells had thrown curveballs at the crews throughout Sunday with the final all-or-nothing Top 10 Shootout taking place in mostly wet conditions on the challenging 1.9 km Simola Hill course.

Nevertheless, Bezuidenhout produced a masterful demonstration of strategy and focused determination to power the Gould to a winning time of 37.580 seconds. This was some 3.4 seconds off his outright record from last year’s event, but an impressive result considering the ever-changing weather and the unpredictable levels of grip across the hillclimb course.

Unfortunately, the challenge from Robert Wolk in the Indycar Infinity V8-powered 1989 Pillbeam MP58 failed to materialise when his engine blew on the final qualifying run. However, Bezuidenhout had maintained a healthy advantage over Wolk throughout the weekend, and was faultless on his way to victory, earning a clean sweep after also claiming his first Classic Car Friday title two days earlier.

“I tried for six years to win Classic Car Friday, and only managed it this year, so that’s motorsport,” Bezuidenhout said. “On King of the Hill, I thought Rob had a good chance this year until his car broke down, so it was an easier run for me until it rained, and it was quite a challenge to get the car over the line in the wet conditions. Prior to the final run I hadn’t driven on the wet tyres, because every time we fitted the wets it stopped raining, so I didn’t have a single practice on these tyres and I’m very lucky that I made it.”

Bezuidenhout was very enthusiastic about the growing international interest in the Simola Hillclimb, and the great exposure being generated by Salo and the Solberg brothers attending this year’s event. “For several years the Simola Hillclimb has been knocking on the doors of world hillclimb racing. People have been talking about it, and reaching out to ask about it,” Bezuidenhout said. “Having someone like Petter Solberg here is going to take this event to the next level, because in World Rallycross he is the Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen. It’s lovely for the event to have Petter, Henning and Mika here, and it’s great for Knysna and South Africa.”

While Bezuidenhout ruled supreme once again, the runner-up in the Top 10 Shootout with a time of 40.794 seconds was Devin Robertson in the 1992 Radical Pro Sport, which is powered by a 1 300 cc Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle engine. Andrew Rackstraw took the final step of the podium with a time of 41.589 seconds in the Formula VW single-seater.

Modified Saloon Cars

Petter Solberg was undeniably the highlight of the mighty race-tuned saloon cars, combining his effervescent personality and exceptional talent with the remarkable performance of the 2018 title-winning Volkswagen Polo R WRX Supercar.

Solberg last drove this car in 2019 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, after which it was placed in the Volkswagen Museum in Germany. Despite the car simply being dusted off, given a quick service and running on tyres that were more than three years old, the Norwegian ace raised more than a few eyebrows when he posted an astonishing time of 40.867 seconds on his very first run up the 1.9 km Simola Hill. He slotted into second place with a margin of just 1.3 seconds from the leader, Reghard Roets, in a much more powerful and highly modified 2014 Nissan R-35 GT-R, known as ‘Armageddon’.

Through the two days of fierce competition, it became a three-way tussle for the title between Solberg, Roets and four-time King of the Hill, Franco Scribante in his radical time attack-inspired GT-R, called ‘The Sheriff’.

Having sorted out the series of technical niggles that plagued his car last year, Roets seemed well placed to secure his first Modified Saloon Car win after dominating the times in almost every session. He posted the fastest-ever unofficial time for a tin-top car during Saturday’s final qualifying run on 38.045 seconds – eight-hundredths quicker than Scribante’s current official record of 38.129 seconds from the 2022 event. However, the title slipped from his grasp at the final hurdle when he braked a moment too late on wet tyres going into Turn 3, and he had to settle for second place with a time of 40.539 seconds.

In contrast to the largely hassle-free weekend that Roets experienced, reigning champion Scribante had to navigate through several problems, including having to replace a destroyed rear prop shaft on his mighty GT-R. He produced a storming drive in the unpredictable and greasy conditions on the final run to snatch his fifth Modified Saloon Car King of the Hill title with an astonishing time of 39.877 seconds on wet tyres.

“I probably had less pressure on me than Reghard did, because he outperformed me the whole weekend,” Scribante said. “My team did an amazing job, as we changed things chronically and put everything into getting the package right for that final run. But it finally all came together at the end,” Scribante said.

To rousing applause from the thousands of spectators, Solberg completed his final dash up the Simola Hill in a series of full-attack power slides in the Polo R WRX Supercar, and he was rewarded with third place in the Top 10 Shootout on 41.281 seconds. Before the rain disrupted the proceedings, Solberg had posted his best practice time of 39.848 seconds, and wrapped up qualifying on 40.165 seconds

“I didn’t have the right tyres, so my last run was just okay, but I’m very happy with the result,” Solberg said. “I’m very lucky that the wet weather arrived just in time so I could get the podium. The car was perfect, and to finish in the top three with a four-cylinder Polo against some serious hillclimb cars isn’t bad.

“The fans and the atmosphere have been amazing, and it has been really special to meet all the people, sign autographs and feel so appreciated,” he said. “We came here to make a great show of it and have fun, and the racing side of it went a lot better than I expected. I would really like to come back next year, so we’ll see what the future holds.”

Road-going Saloon Cars and Supercars

JP van der Walt stamped his authority on the standard production car category by scoring his third consecutive King of the Hill title in a 2021 Porsche 911 Turbo S with a Top 10 Shootout time of 44.991 seconds in wet conditions. This was a remarkable feat, considering it was just 0.4 seconds off his winning time from last year, and only three-tenths slower than his quickest run in the dry this weekend.

“This was the most difficult one by far,” Van der Walt said. “We’ve had electrical issues with the car since the parade started on Friday, and I have to say a big thanks to the Scribante team, BB Motorsport and Volkswagen Motorsport who all came to assist. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get all the problems resolved and I had to drive around them, so I gave it my all and I’m happy with a 44-second time in the wet.”

Garth Mackintosh was the closest rival in his 2017 McLaren 720s, coming within 0.3 seconds of Van der Walt in the dry. However, the rear-wheel drive McLaren was no match for the all-wheel drive Porsche in the wet, but Mackintosh held on to finish second in the Top 10 Shootout on 47.261 seconds.

Finnish Formula 1 driver Mika Salo delivered a tenacious drive in the wet conditions to claim third place in the 2023 Mercedes-AMG A45S, crossing the timing beam in 47.876 seconds. “This was something different for me as I’ve never done a hillclimb before,” he said. “It was not easy to get to know the course and I was quite cautious at the beginning, but I saved the best for last when I pushed the limits. It was a nice event with a great atmosphere, and I really enjoyed the experience.”

Class Finals

While the qualifying runs determined the Top 10 Shootout contenders for all three King of the Hill categories, they also decided which drivers would contest the penultimate Class Finals which were conducted in rainy conditions.

Andrew Rackstraw took the class C2 victory for four-cylinder single-seaters (44.946 sec) after an intense battle with Formula VW compatriot Byron Mitchell, with C3 (unlimited single-seaters) going to Andre Bezuidenhout on 41.872 seconds in the 2007 Gould GR55. Tom Barrett earned the C4 win for four-cylinder naturally aspirated sports prototypes with his 2006 Lotus 7 Replica (58.730 sec), and the unlimited four-cylinder C5 title went to Devin Robertson in the 1992 Radical 1300 Pro Sport (43.842 sec). Rui Campos powered his way to the class C6 title for the large-capacity sports prototypes, recording 48.896 seconds in the V8-powered Shelby CanAm.

In the Modified Saloon Cars, it was a racing debut and class B1 (naturally aspirated, four-cylinder) win for MasterDrive/Castrol driver search winner Bevin Harris in the 2007 Ford Fiesta ST (1:17.478), with Graeme Nathan taking B2 (four-cylinder, 2WD unlimited) in the VW Polo SupaCup on 50.664 seconds.

B3 for unlimited four-cylinder 4WD cars went to Petter Solberg (43.383 seconds) in the 2018 VW Polo R WRX Supercar, while Pieter Zeelie earned the B4 crown (five-cylinder and above, 2WD) on 44.656 seconds in his 2002 Toyota MR2 Super GT.

Although he missed out on the overall King of the Hill title, Reghard Roets was able to take the trophy for class B5 (five-cylinder and above 4WD) home in the 2014 Nissan R35 GT-R (40.565 sec), completing this session 1.649 seconds faster than second-placed Franco Scribante.

Geoff Goddard Jnr took the B6 honours for six-cylinder naturally aspirated cars in the iconic 1989 Stannic Group N BMW 325i Shadowline, with B7 (eight cylinders and above, naturally aspirated) claimed by Pieter Joubert in the bright yellow Mercedes-AMG V8-powered Lotus Exige (48.947 sec).

Renowned circuit and rally-raid driver Anthony Taylor took the B9 win for unlimited SUVs and bakkies (pick-ups) in the new twin-turbo V6-powered Ford Ranger Raptor with a wet time of 1:02.064, after having gone as low as 54.747 seconds in the dry qualifying sessions.

In the Road-going Saloon Car and Supercar category, Deon Joubert led the charge in class A1 (2WD, four-cylinders) in the latest Honda Civic Type R on 55.368 seconds. Clint Weston settled the tight squabble with Mika Salo in the pair of Mercedes-AMG A45S entries by winning the A2 title for 4WD cars on 49.134 seconds.

Farhaad Ebrahim took A3 (five-cylinders and above, 2WD) with a time of 50.223 seconds in his 2020 Toyota Supra, while JP van der Walt was untouchable in A4 for the 4WD cars (48.449 sec). Sean Mackay earned the A5 win (five cylinders and above, naturally aspirated) in the 2000 Porsche 911 GT3 (1:03.799), with the A6 trophy (eight cylinders and above, naturally aspirated) handed to Gordon Nicholson in the 2017 Audi R8 V10 Plus (50.462 sec).

Garth Mackintosh powered the 2017 McLaren 720s to the A7 win for force-fed cars (eight cylinders and up) on 52.800 seconds, while Ashley Oldfield scored the victory in A8 for hybrid and electric cars with the BMW XM that made its South African debut at the Simola Hillclimb, achieving a time of 49.134 seconds.

Castrol Motorpress
Release compiled by Colin Mileman (082-897-6145