Grant Orbell is one of the most humble racing drivers you will meet and the quickest I have ever met. When you consider where he has been and how good he really is, it is wonderful knowing a man like Grant.
I am lucky enough to know him well and when he agreed to be my first interviewee I knew it would be special and so it is.
Grant started karting at age 11 and by the time he was 20 he was a multiple champion and racing in Europe. When he won the Formula Ford Championship in 1997 he beat the likes of Tomas Scheckter and Johan Fourie to the title. In the year he raced the Le Mans 24 hour race for Kremer Racing the team were the top privateer team for the first 10 hours of the race.
Grant now races the occasional local race and runs the Legend Cars Motorsport team. He is a true legend of South African racing.
You are one of South Africa’s great drivers and your years in Europe proved your mettle as a driver, what was it like going across and racing in Europe?
What a kind compliment! Racing overseas was such a life changer. For one thing, I was 20 years old, living abroad, traveling around Europe, seeing the sights and tracks I had always dreamed about! It was such an experience, and yet very intimidating. The second year, I spent in Germany, which was even tougher. The language barrier was tough to overcome, as well as finding things to entertain myself with, as I was at a loose end between races. I eventually bought a BMX, and just missioned day in and day out, seeing the sights… In terms of the racing though, it was everything I’d dreamed about and more. Competing against drivers that I’d watched on TV, competing in F1, Le Mans, Single Seaters, Etc, was epic! Then, of course, the challenge, of getting into a top level of motorsport, and trying to be competitive on tracks I’d never driven before was also very challenging!!
It all seems to have started with a very successful outing at the Formula Ford World Finals; tell me more about this weekend and for you, was it a moment when you felt you could make it overseas?
That’s a super question – It was a series of fortunate happenings that put “the right people, at the right place, at the right time” – I was awarded an all expenses paid drive at the Formula Ford World Finals (originally called the F/Ford Festival) – as a prize for winning the South African Championship. It was my 2nd experience in the UK, and I was at least fairly familiar with Brands Hatch now. I was also given plenty of test time, which helped too. I eventually made it to the final, all be it in on the last row, and made my way to the top 10, before falling back to 16th with an electrical glitch.
In the mean time, Vodacom were busy putting into play a local series of sports cars, now called Shelby Can Ams. This dovetailed with their vision of a South African racing at Le Mans. One or two representatives of Vodacom were in the UK on business, and came to watch the World Finals, they were impressed enough with my showing to offer me the Sports Car drive.
Do you think that Formula Ford and the world Championship race in the Formula Ford series still holds the same opportunities for a young South African driver nowadays?
That’s a tough question to answer. I think all categories of motorsport follow a parabolic line in terms of their success on the world scale. In the 90’s in particular, it was a massively large series, world wide. Every first world country had a formula ford series, and it attracted the creme-de-la-creme of their local drivers. A number of current Formula 1 drivers came off the back of a season in Formula Ford, somewhere in the world. Drivers like Mark Webber, Jenson Button etc were Formula Ford champions during their rise. These days, international Formula Ford is experiencing a bit of a lull again, as drivers are opting to fast track their careers, and go straight from Karting to “slicks and wings” type formulae.
What was it like driving now legendary cars like the Palmer Audi and the Kremer Porsche?
You know, each car I’ve ever raced has been unique and special in its own way. There have been some cars that have stood out head and shoulders above the others though.
The Kremer Lola Rousch was one of those, just a beast in every sense of the word. At the time, it was the latest and greatest from the world of “customer” type sports cars. In full “Le Mans” trim, with carbon brakes, full aero etc, and 650bhp on tap, it was epic to drive. It’s the sort of thing where, the first time you hit 350kph, you take a deep breath and think, if something goes wrong now, I’m done for. After 11 hours of laps, hitting 350kph each lap, you start wishing for just 10kph more…
Another favorite was the Kremer Porsche K8. This was my first proper go at World Sports cars, and that was a beast. Somewhat older than the Lola, and based on a composite open top version of the Porsche 956/962. Because it was dated in terms of technology, the only way to make it go was to boost the hell out of the turbos. The motor was a 3L flat 6, pushing like a million bars boost. So out of the tight stuff, the car had like, 50bhp on tap. The turbos would eventually spool, and it would go from 50bhp to 550 bhp, and ALL HELL WOULD BREAK LOOSE! I’ll never forget, driving that car at Kyalami, in 1998, getting it sideways with wheel spin, out of WesBank, and still be wheel spinning. Shifting gears, and sideways on the straight down the hill towards the mineshaft!
Other favorites would include my Chevron B16, a historic car from the 70’s, that is very nearly the perfect balance of grip and power, with the heart of a lion, that NEVER GIVES UP. With her spirit, we have beaten a Lola T10, a 1000bhp Mclaren, a Ferrari 312… A Real David / Goliath car…
In terms of fun, nothing comes close to my Lotus 7, with 250bhp, 6 speed sequential, LS diffs, old technology etc, it’s just the most fun you can have on 4 wheels…
I know you raced at Le Mans; from a driver’s point of view, what makes this race so special? And what was it like racing at such a legendary event?
You know, its not one thing, its EVERYTHING. The weekend starts 6 weeks before with pre-qualifying. If you make the grade, you return a week before, to start setting up shop. You have so much to do, and slowly, while you’re meeting guests, testing, having endless drivers briefings, technical briefings, etc, the whole event is gaining momentum. The next thing you realize, the tented areas are full, ALL OF THEM, there are just hundreds of thousands of people, everywhere, wanting autographs, etc. The grandstands are full, and there is no testing scheduled for hours, if at all on the day. They close the roads off the day before testing starts, and I would go for a jog, every day around the track. You pass monuments, to drivers that have perished over the years, scattered around the track.
There’s the scrutineering of the car, which is an event in itself. There is the driver’s parade, during registration day, where they put you on the back of classic cars, and drive you round the town. There’s the drivers’ parade on the day of the race. And everything is watched by THOUSANDS of people! There were so many people, that eventually, on race day, my co-driver and I got a police escort into the track, from miles away, because the roads where choca-block full of people coming to watch.
I know you recently did the 24hour Beetle race at Spa; it sounds like it was a really fun event. What was that experience like for you?
It was a 25-hour race, actually, “the longest race in the world” – it starts with 160 competitors, and you thrash around SPA for 25 Hours! We started 80th, and after the 2nd hour, were in the top 30. That gives you an idea of what it was like – TOTAL CHAOS. It marked a number for firsts for me in my racing career, the most memorable was getting the giggles, in the middle of a 2-hour long, non stop dice, because my opponent had more speed, but I had bigger balls! We had be passing one another, 2 or three times a lap, every lap, for 2 hours! Just Biblical! As races go, it was infinitely more fun than anything else I have ever done! And to think they only lost around 10 cars in 25 hours…
You grew up with a racing father; Gavin raced actually a lot with my father. What was that like? Did it help you when you started racing at a young age?
Gav has just been an amazing mentor to me. It began as a competition between him and my mom, as to whether I’d follow dad and compete on 4 wheels, or mom and compete on horse back. It was decided one Christmas day, when I was bucked off a DONKEY’S back (Thanks mom) – and we went motor racing. Gav was the perfect tutor – he really put no pressure on me to perform, and gave me all the best equipment, and support to succeed, but enforced the discipline required to maintain a healthy level of humility too. What I learned from him was the right mental approach, to understand my equipment, to understand why I was going better / faster, and when I’d get a bit big for my boots, he’d give me the required “klap” to bring me back to earth. He forced me, from day 1, to work on my own cars, prep my own equipment, keep fit, and understand all aspects of racing. He was a demanding mentor – I’ll never forget Gav standing in the middle of the track, with a lead up of coke tins, ahead and behind him, teaching me the right racing lines!
Any and all success I have ever attained in motorsport is all due to those early days of karting, with Gav, at the track at 6am, every Sunday, summer through winter, the track to ourselves, just doing hundreds and hundreds of laps. Eventually, as I got quicker and showed more promise, Gav gave up his racing, to support me in mine.
As racing memories go, my favorite is by far and away, having the opportunity in 1999, to take Gav for a drive in the Kremer Lola around Kyalami. It felt like it had been as much his journey as mine…
You raced with some special drivers; for you who was the most memorable?
It’s a very tough question that… I’ve taken so much from so many people… In terms of support I received, it was probably John Nielsen, my co-driver for the 1999 sports car season. He was a previous winner of the Le Mans 24-Hour, and gave me so much guidance in what was a tough season. Just a fantastic gentleman.
Another memorable moment, was sitting at one of the Le Mans driver’s briefings, and who sits next to me, but Martin Brundle. The next thing, he leans over, and asks, “are you the South African driver?” After I’d finished spitting teeth at him, we had a wonderful chat.
You know, it’s impossible to single out one person, I’ll just keep adding drivers to this list, and it will end up with a list of everyone I have ever competed against – I have learned from everyone!
I know you’ve had some rivals over the years racing in South Africa and overseas. For you which was the one you enjoyed racing against the most?
Impossible question to answer… Just so many rivals over so many years, all of whom I’ve enjoyed…
Drivers I’ve spoken to all say that what makes you a great driver is your “car understanding”. Your ability to develop a car, that priceless feedback, how did you develop this and how did it help you over the years?
Easy – It was all Gavin, and those early days in Karting. He would wake me up at 5am, and by 6am, we’d be at the old Zwartkops kart track, doing laps, winter or summer, rain or shine! By 11am, the track would be getting busy, so we’d pack up and head home, where I’d have to wash the kart, make a list of any issues, repair them myself (where possible) and prep the kart for the next practice session. This format continued right through my racing career, where I’d work on my own equipment. So, eventually, I got an intimate understanding of how the car / kart worked mechanically. With this knowledge base, it became easier to take the sensations the car was giving me, and put them with the technical understanding I had on how the car worked, and be able to predict what to do to improve the car. Eventually it got to the point, where instead of talking issues over with the team engineer, I’d just tell them what I wanted done to the car, and I could go out and get more out of the car.
I’ve heard that you tested for Eddie Jordan. What was this experience like? How close were you to a Formula 1 test?
Wow, you are connected!! During my two years in local Formula Ford racing, I was invited to go over and meet Eddie Jordan, test a single seater, and possibly test one of his cars. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity.
Gavin and I flew over to the UK, and spent a day at Jordan F1. We met Eddie, had a meeting, and stared to project what it would take to get me into a F1 car. The second day there, I was asked to test a Formula Vauxhall Junior, for Martin Donnelly, a close friend of Eddie Jordan. Martin would assess my ability, feedback, “drive” etc, and report back to Eddie Jordan. The test was my first time on Snetterton, and I was pitched against their top driver, in a back to back test against one another. We spent most of the day in the car, and they threw many curve balls at me, including telling me they had done one change, but done the opposite.
It was a hugely successful test, and I was quicker than their #1 the whole way through. Based on this, Eddie Jordan offered me a test in the F1 Car. After heavy consideration, we felt that I would not do myself any favours, getting out of a 150bhp Formula Ford, and getting into a 700+bhp F1, and so I declined the test. Less than two years later, I was in a 650bhp world sports car, managing fine… I suppose hindsight really is 20-20…