/ 20 May 2023

Simola is top of the SA racing hill

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On the podium: The winners at the Simola Hillclimb are announced after an exciting day of racing in slick conditions. (Daniel Theodorus Media)

The Simola Hillclimb is my favourite event on the South African motoring calendar. The location is the stunning coastal town of Knysna, known for its slow pace and popularity with retirees. Yet, for one week a year, racing enthusiasts flock there to witness a motoring spectacle unlike any other in the country.

A hill climb, where cars from any discipline can battle it out to see who is the fastest, is one of the most entertaining forms of racing. 

Unlike most other kinds of competition, there is very little that limits these cars. Apart from safety features, teams have free rein in terms of what they can do to their vehicles. This leads to a collection of breathtaking rockets showing up and competing on a road that isn’t what you’d typically call forgiving. 

Professional racing teams across the country bring their highly engineered racing cars, which are designed for their specific disciplines. And backyard mechanics bring their crazy builds to take on the multimillion-rand professional racing cars. 

As you can imagine, it is a sight to behold. Along with the mad racing cars, a selection of purists enter their bone-stock vehicles. 

Often manufacturers bring their production cars to take on their competitors. This year, Honda invited us and they had a monster with which to compete — the new Civic Type R. It’s a car I have been fortunate to drive, so I knew it would make some noise at the Hillclimb. 

The days leading up to the main events on the weekend showcase a selection of classic cars that compete in the same format. So, whether you love your R34 Skylines, Shelby Cobras, classic Porsches or the brand-new Golf R, this event will get your mechanical heart beating. 

The Simola Hillclimb, an annual racing event held in the Western Cape town of Knysna, sees professionals and amateurs competing.(Ettienne van Rensburg)

Day 1

We started on Saturday, once the classic races were over. It being my second time at Simola, I was looking forward to the noise and atmosphere of the pit lane, yet my goal was to work my way up the Hillclimb to witness each car in a different environment. 

Saturday was practice day and the weather played its part. It was a stunning, warm day, and the cars ran well. It was fascinating watching driver after driver bettering their times and slowly figuring out the course. The more seasoned drivers were showing off their phenomenal ability to adapt as they weren’t holding back from the start. 

A hill climb is one of the more dangerous motor sport events, with rough road surfaces, little to no run-off space, lots of trees and objects to hit and very little in the way of room for error. Adrenaline-fuelled nerves keep spectators glued to the screens as car after car comes screaming past.

Crashes are common at Simola, however, the drivers knew what they were doing this year. The only major incident was when the driver of an Alfa Romeo Giulia QV oversteered across the finish line and went off the road. I found the car back in the pits 30 minutes later with nothing but a cracked rear tail light and some minor scratches, by some miracle. 

The practice session set the scene for the second day of racing as qualifying and finals produced seriously hairy moments with drivers pushing for the best times. 

The Honda Civic Type R was the one to watch in the Sports car group, blowing the competition out of the water. Deon Joubert was the Type R pilot, and boy was he showing off. The amount of cornering speed the car maintained as it wove its way up the hill was phenomenal, allowing him to keep up with the Golf 8 Rs, despite their all-wheel drive advantage and strong launching ability. 

The Scribante Nissan GTR was, of course, a crowd favourite with its massive aero kit and wings. However, the weekend saw tight competition in the modified saloon category and the other R35 GTRs were close on its tail. 

Day 2

The second day of racing began with tension in the air. It had rained overnight, making the surface incredibly slick. The drivers knew they had to leave everything out on the hill and there was a sense of trepidation as car after car had close calls, many ending up in the dirt. 

The qualifying was competitive, as the hill champion would now be dictated by the drivers, not their cars. Unfortunately, a few cars didn’t go out due to concerns about the road’s surface and the lack of appropriate tyres, but the racing was even more exciting for those who braved the wet conditions. 

Further up the hill was the place to be for this day of racing, so we found our spot on the outside of turn three and witnessed the incredible speed at which drivers dashed up the main straight — 240km/h was the fastest speed achieved by the R35 GTRs right before the breaking point into the high-speed corner. 

Watching a ton and a half of metal speeding towards you is nerve-wracking, as you consider their breaking point and line through the corner. I occasionally held my breath as another car locked up before the apex. 

Joubert and his Type R were barely affected by the rain. I believe he was driving harder than before. The hot hatch looked good and well poised, rarely missing an apex. 

The finals were immensely entertaining as the spotlight lingered on the start line. You could feel how the pit lane froze whenever a car left the starting point. Eyes were glued to the screens, waiting for the time to flash up after each run. 

Honda was fortunate enough to have a vehicle which outperformed its closest front-wheel-drive competitor to the point where they were trying to see how far up the overall board they could come. 

The finals are always a sight to behold, yet this year, as the race drew to a close and the final battles were concluded, one last surprise wowed every person present. 

Norwegian rally driver Petter Solberg displayed his gift for driving by showing off in his rallycross car for the last time, burning the tyres bald and giving the car one last bash before it goes back on display in a museum. It was a spectacular end to a memorable week — and Solberg  hinted that he might be back for next year’s installation. 


Unfortunately, there wasn’t a new lap record, due to the wet road, but the drivers still put their hearts out on the hill. 

Honda was proud to have finished five seconds ahead of its Japanese competition, Suzuki, in its class, and set similar times to the Golf 8 R, at 55.368, although his fastest time in the dry was a 48s run. 

Andre Bezuidenhout again took the title of King of the Hill in his GR55 with a time of 37.580s. Franco Scribante won the Modified Saloon class in his wild R35 GTR with a time of 39.877s. The third King of the Hill title went to Jean-Pierre van der Walt in his Porsche 911 Turbo S with a time of 44.991s. 

Interestingly, the three big titles remained in the hands of their previous owners. Yet what a weekend it was. Simola saw its biggest audience to date — more than 17 000 people — with insanely-loud R34 GTRs and highly-engineered international race cars. The atmosphere was intoxicating and I don’t think there was a single person present who was not entertained. 

The Simola Hillclimb is a special race of which South African motor sport can be proud. From the brand-new Toyota Corolla GR to classic JDM icons, it’s a near-perfect performance spectacle and I can’t wait for the 2024 event.