Motorsport enthusiasts were treated to a thrilling spectacle on the first day of King of the Hill challenge at the 2016 Jaguar Simola Hillclimb, which produced a bevy of leading contenders, along with some spectacular action and drama.
Robert Wolk, a Hillclimb newcomer and multiple single-seater champion, was the leading driver for the day in his 2004 Formula Renault V6, setting the fastest times in three of the five practice sessions, and dominating the two qualifying sessions.
A man on a mission was Franco Scribante, who emerged second-fastest in qualifying, using the light weight and astonishing performance of his stunning 1972 Chevron B26 to great effect. As the 2014 King of the Hill champion, he is more determined than ever to reclaim the title won last year by Des Gutzeit in the highly modified 1 500 hp 1993 Nissan GT-R – and he certainly raised the bar by becoming the first driver to break the 40 sec barrier in this event’s seven-year history.
One the major highlights of the 2016 Jaguar Simola Hillclimb was undoubtedly the wonderful sights and sounds of the first Formula One car to tackle the 1.9 km course, as Andre Bezuidenhout made his Hillclimb debut in the spectacular 1979 Dallara 189. He immediately entrenched himself as one of the main contenders, along with 2015 third-placed finisher Darron Gudmanz (modified 2011 Nissan GT-R R35) amongst a formidable ensemble of SA’s elite drivers, matched to an equally dazzling range of cars.
The first of the day’s five practice sessions commenced in wet and cold conditions, with constant overnight rain and early-morning drizzle making the 1.9 km Hillclimb very treacherous. As a result, all of the drivers adopted a conservative approach as they were waved off by Ian Scheckter, Grand Marshal for the 2016 event and a multiple single-seater champion in his own right.
Many of the race-spec cars completed their first runs on either full wet tyres or semi-slicks, while the drivers competing with standard cars simply had to make the most of their conventional road tyres.
Darron Gudmanz set the initial benchmark of 50.561 sec, while Dawie Olivier did the Hillclimb’s title sponsor proud when he blasted the impressive, and completely standard, Jaguar F-TYPE R Coupé AWD to second quickest – just 0.13 sec adrift.
Robert Wolk had an impressive first run, crossing the line third quickest on 50.749 sec, a performance that immediately identified him as a strong contender despite this being his first Hillclimb, and only having driven the car once before.
With the rain abating and the track starting to dry as the second practice began, Wolk began showing the pace of the 3.5-litre V6 thoroughbred race car with the top time of 44.085 sec. This was 2.2 sec ahead of Anton Cronje (modified 2013 Subaru Impreza WRX), and a further 1 sec quicker than 2014 champion Franco Scribante in the beautifully prepared Chevron B26 which is powered by a specially developed 600 hp 2.9-litre V8 Suzuki engine.
The times tumbled further in Practice 3, as Wolk led the way once again on 40.696, 1.4 sec ahead of Scribante, followed by Cronje and Mike Verrier (2005 Formula VW). P3 also produced one of the major highlights of this year’s event, as the first Formula 1 car to take on the Jaguar Simola Hillclimb emerged from the pits. André Bezuidenhout opened his Hillclimb account in the Ford 3.5-litre V8-powered Dallara with a time of 44.6 sec.
At the end of P4 the top three were unchanged, but reigning King of the Hill champion Des Gutzeit finally joined the fray and posted a time of 44.238 sec, followed by Bezuidenhout and Gudmanz.
Jaki Scheckter emerged as the fastest contender for the new SuperCar Shootout in his standard 2016 Nissan GT-R, clocking 7th overall on 45.416 sec.
By the time P5 commenced after the lunch break the track was completely dry, albeit still a tad greasy. Nevertheless, Scribante made his intentions clear and became the first driver to break the 40 sec barrier, throwing down the gauntlet with a remarkable time of 39.578 sec.
From a standing start, he completed the 1.9 km course at an average speed of 172.82 km/h – the fastest to date. Although only qualifying and final runs count as official times, it is surely a sign of things to come for day two on Sunday.
Bezuidenhout wrapped up his practice runs on 41.375 sec, ahead of Gutzeit (41.986 sec), Cronje and Gudmanz. Wolk, however, had a huge scare at the fast turn three, spinning off the track and only just missing the tyre barrier, fortunately without incurring any damage.
The first qualifying session started at 3 pm, with Wolk leading the charge on 41.552 sec, followed by Gudmanz (42.523 sec) and Gutzeit (42.937 sec). Fourth-fastest was Cronje, ahead of Bezhuidenhout and Scheckter.
Q1 was also the scene of plenty drama, as Mohamed Dangor (1999 Nissan GT-R R34) went off the track at high speed before Turn 4, spun out and damaged his vehicle – in the process leaving a trail of oil along the top section of The Hill which halted the racing.
The dedicated team of Jaguar Simola Hillclimb volunteer marshals kicked into action in an effort to clean up the oil, with the action resuming more than half an hour later. The remnants of the spill and the cement used to soak it up proved to be the undoing of local doctor Verrier in the Formula VW, as he skidded off the road and crashed. Fortunately, he emerged unscathed, while his car was decidedly worse for wear, putting a premature end to his impressive performance thus far. The incidents also scuppered Scribante’s run in Q1.
Ultimately, the final qualifying session was more of a sighting lap for the drivers to assess the conditions. Nevertheless, Wolk topped the timesheets once again with a fastest time of 41.432 sec, half a second ahead of Scribante, followed by Cronje and Duane Galloway (1992 Nissan GT-R R32).
Several drivers elected to skip the final run, including Gutzeit, Bezuidenhout and 2011 winner Wilhelm Baard in the factory-backed, highly modified 2016 Nissan GT-R.
“It’s been an interesting day, particularly going up the first time in the wet,” Wolk said. “I started out on wet tyres which had a lot of grip and felt really good. We switched to slicks for the fourth practice and I made a mistake and went off coming out of turn three, fortunately without damaging the car.
“I’m still learning the track and the car, and the starts aren’t easy with the hand-operated clutch, but it’s great to end today with the fastest qualifying times. I’m really looking forward to a good couple of runs tomorrow to build my confidence. We have a new set of tyres for tomorrow and will be doing a bit of set-up work on the car, so I think it will be really close at the front.
“The Hillclimb is a really great event,” he added. “It’s a slick event with great people, and I’m having a lot of fun.”
Having been crowned Classic Conqueror on Friday, Scribante was still on a high at the end of day one at King of the Hill. “Today was fantastic, as we broke the 40 sec mark which is what we set out to do.
“The car is running really well, and it’s a real pity that there was oil on the track towards the end as I believe we could’ve gone under 39 sec based on my sector times. Tomorrow is going to be very exciting as the times are definitely going to tumble.
“Robert Wolk will probably be our main rival as he’s a really good driver and the Formula Renault is very quick. But Des still hasn’t shown his hand yet and he could come with a big surprise tomorrow morning.”
According to Gutzeit, the battle lines will definitely get underway in the morning. “Well done to Franco on going under 40 sec, and we’ll see what tomorrow holds,” he said, as calm as ever.
“We had a faultless couple of runs today in the GT-R, but it was tricky in the wet, and then there was the problem of the oil in the afternoon. So it’s difficult to say what our real pace will be, but the course is good and the organisers have done a great job with the newly tarred sections of the road.”