Geoff is surprisingly humble in who he is but his achievements in all forms of motorsport are unprecedented and his legacy will always be felt in motorsport, in cars such as the Renault Gordini and the Audi Quattro. He has worked with all the South African greats and raced and beaten most of them as well. His career as a driver and as a team manager are the stuff of legend.
He raced with my father, Don Vale, and I know the respect that Geoff commands with him and this speaks volumes for Geoff the person. He worked with my mother’s racing team over the previous two racing seasons and he always will be one of racing’s gentlemen. His interview was one that I loved doing and his stories, I know, could fill volumes!
You are probably most famous for the Audi Quattro, tell us more about your success and tribulations on this project?
The Audi Quattro was probably the most exciting Rally Project that I undertook in my career, simply because it was a world rally car at the time and nothing like it had ever been seen in SA.
The difficult part about the project was building the cars in Germany. The cars were built at the Audi Sport Workshop in Ingolstadt. Unfortunately a lot of the development parts which were used on the SA spec car which turned out to be quite troublesome when put in the field back in SA.
Needless to say, after some pressure from VWSA, these problems were eventually resolved and the two original cars went on to win and score podium positions over a four year period with myself, Sarel and Glyn Hall driving.
In 1987 we acquired the Short Wheelbase Audi S1 which was very much more advanced technically than the earlier cars. I was able to win the SA Driver’s Championship that year and Sarel repeated that achievement in 1988.
You were a big part of Sarel van der Merwe’s off-road success. What was it like working with him? He is one of the characters of SA racing, I’m sure there are some truly wonderful stories about him in the off-road races!
I first met Sarel under quite unusual circumstances in 1972. I was managing the newly formed Chev Dealer team at the time, and we were campaigning an Opel Manta rally car for Jan Hettema.
On a rally early on in the season, Jan had an off-road excursion resulting in his retirement. After the stage was closed I drove into the stage to pick up Jan and his navigator who had spent some hours in the cold and dark. On the way out of the stage we came across Sarel stuck with a flat battery due to alternator failure in his Datsun SSS. We lent him the battery out of my car to enable him to get out of the stage, telling him to follow us closely with just his park lights on to conserve battery power until he could make repairs to his alternator
On the main tar road from Lydenberg to Nelspruit, approaching the T Junction at the old Bambi Motel, I stopped at the stop street before turning left into Nelspruit. Unfortunately, Sarel deemed that since there was no approaching traffic from the right it was not necessary to stop! But he did stop with considerable force up against the very robust rear bumper and tow hitch of my Chevrolet Caprice, resulting in the demise of one Datsun SSS rally car. Needless to say his rally career was terminated for a while.
Sarel and I finally became team mates in 1981 and 1982 with Ford and from 1983 to 1986 with Audi. In the years 1974 to 1980 we were in different teams but always competitive. I think I had as many podiums in my 14 year career as he had wins, so I could never understand how in my 20 National Championship Rally Victories (as against his almost too many to remember) he would be so upset and unfriendly when I beat him, but that is Sarel and we are still friends today.
Another thing I remember about Sarel was that he never ever had a flat tyre in his rally career, although he did have lots of flat wheels!
You raced a lot with my father Don Vale, and there were some adventures along the way including the Roof of Africa. What was it like racing with him, and tell us more about the year you did the Roof of Africa with him?
I met Don Vale when I was running the Leyland Rally team in 1974. He was the manager for Leyland Trucks in Welkom at the time and campaigning a Triumph 2500 in rallies. At our rally workshops in Glenhazel, Johannesburg, we had developed a Rover V8 engined Marina Rally Car for the SA National Rally Championships. Despite the sceptics this car was competitive and in a short 18 month career managed 4 National Rally wins.
During this period I asked Don if he would co-drive for me in the Roof of Africa in the Marina. He agreed and we were allowed to make pace notes for the famous 40 kilometre Lancer’s Gap opening stage. Some distance into the stage we approached one of the many blind rises at high speed, Don had called the rise in question a flat, but on cresting the top of the blind rise we were confronted with a village immediately in front of us, the road doing a ninety left to circumnavigate the village. Needless to say we did not make it, but managed to drive through the village without hitting a single hut, chicken, goat or local inhabitant. Upon which my trusty co-driver threw his book of notes into the back of the rally car saying they were a waste of time, bloody dangerous and did not work. As I remember he declined any future offers to be my co-driver/navigator.
Group N racing brought you success in the Renault Gordini in particular. Tell us more about the Gordini?
The Renault 8 Gordini of the 60s and 70s was truly a remarkable car. In South Africa in the hands of Phil Porter, Chris Swanepoel and Louis Cloete it was a very successful rally car. In the National SA Saloon car racing category the car was very successful with myself, Scamp Porter and Jody Schecktar as main drivers. In long distance races we teamed up with the rally drivers to take numerous index wins in the famous Nine Hour race and Springbok Series.
The car was probably the best handling rear engine production car in the world at that time and needed very little in the way of suspension changes to make it a fantastic handling race or rally car. The engine was a brilliant development by Amedee Gordini of the current 1100cc (and later 1255cc) Renault R8 engine and lent itself to race and rally tuning. The 1000cc version was developed by myself and Scamp Porter in the late 60s to compete against the very quick Minis it developed 123bhp and revved to 9000rpm.
You were also well known for racing the Chevair V8, what was that like and what was special about racing this car?
The Chevair was one of a number of different makes of car developed for a fairly successful but short lived series called the SA Manufacturers’ Challenge Series. The rules were fairly flexible in terms of design and engine specs. Briefly three ‘tin top’ versions were built, they were:
Chevair 5 Litre V8 designed, built at Chev Dealer team and driven by myself.
Opel Record 5 Litre V8 designed, built and driven by Willie Hepburn.
Ford Escort 3 Litre 4 Cam Cosworth V6 built by Ford Motor Sport in PE and driven by Sarel van der Merwe.
Other cars were:
Monocoque Mazda 3 Series Rotary designed and built by Ken Gellibrand and driven by Dave Charlton.
Space Frame Fiat 131 (2.6 Litre Turbo Ferrari V6) built and designed by Ken Howes driven by Ian Scheckter.
With reliability on my side and top podium positions achieved, I was able to win the 1980 Drivers Championship.
What was the change from being a driver to running a racing team like for you?
No change for me, as I had in my career spanning some 47 years as both team manager/owner/driver, and had the best of all worlds. It’s equally rewarding to win or see your team achieve the same.
I hear rumours that you’re involved with getting a WRC event to South Africa? Is there truth to this rumour? Are we going to see WRC in South Africa any time soon?
WRC in Sa? Unfortunately a dream I think. I was involved in a very small way with a team of SA organizers and officials in 2006/7 who had the Natal Zulu Rally observed by the FIA for possible inclusion in the World Rally Championships, unfortunately, this did not happen.
Winning the Knysna Hill Climb last year was quite special. Did you expect to be competing for the win when you entered?
This event, in only its 3rd year, has become a serious event on the SA motorsport calendar – Competing last year was quite a daunting experience, as we had clutch problems on the Saturday and were not able to practice. However, we gave it all on the final Sunday run in the rain, not expecting to win, but were rewarded with a 0.2 second win over the second placed Nissan GTR 35. Hopefully, 2011 will be as good, but the competition is definitely hotting up.
What is it like working on the very modern cars like the Nissan GTR at NXGen compared to when you started working on cars like the Audi Quattro?
Modern cars verses old? (prep of competition cars) No difference really, mechanicals and the basics of race and rally have not changed much. Modern electronic technology (as long as you have the right person pushing the buttons) makes cars more reliable and easier to tune.
What are the major differences that circuit and off road racing present?
The differences between off-road/rally and circuit racing? Not all that different, they require the same amount of setup and testing and with the internet these days, lots of information for the uninformed can be accessed, especially regarding suspension and shock absorber technology.
What was your favourite car that you raced?
Favourite Race Car: Renault Gordini – Vice free, easy to setup, always competitive even against supposedly faster cars in larger capacity classes.
Favourite Rally Car: Ford Escort MK11 – Did not have to prepare it myself, bit you if you treated it badly – fantastic to drive.
Who were your favourite rivals?
Were those you could race wheel to wheel without actually making contact and not have to have recriminations or bad feelings with after the race. To name a few, Garth McGill, Gordon Briggs, Scamp Porter, Dave Charlton, Willie Hepburn, Tony Viana, Collin Burford and Koos Swanepoel.
There were a lot of drivers you raced with like Louis Cloete over the years, which drivers were in particular special to you and why?
Were not those that were the best, but raced for the sport and love of it and were graceful in defeat and who knew they were, and often proved they were, winners.
What was it like racing a Gordini in the Kyalami 9 hour, in the pouring rain?
I raced Gordinis in many 9 Hour races at Kyalami but the special one was in 1969 co-driving with Scamp Porter, winning the index of performance and coming 4th overall in the rain against the mighty sports cars of the time.
Tyre choice, great pit work and timing, plus a brilliant team mate played a huge part in that race.
I have raced for 50 years and I’m still dabbling in it and having fun!