Home Sport Day One of 2023 Simola Hillclimb delivers enthralling battle

Day One of 2023 Simola Hillclimb delivers enthralling battle

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The first day of the King of the Hill challenge at the 2023 Simola Hillclimb saw a mix of established favourites and new contenders delivering an enthralling battle.

Knysna – The first day of the King of the Hill challenge at the 2023 Simola Hillclimb was wrapped up in spectacular fashion, with a mix of established favourites and new contenders delivering an enthralling battle for the spectators and international livestream viewers.

In the Single Seater and Sports Prototypes category, Andre Bezuidenhout once again proved why he has five King of the Hill titles behind his name, along with the outright record for the tight and twisty 1.9 km Simola Hill course.

He was peerless in the 2007 Gould GR55 throughout the practice session and was so calculated, calm and confident in the qualifying rounds that he only went out on one of the three scheduled runs – in which he set the benchmark time of 35.347 seconds.

“It was a good day for us, as we planned to be in the low 35s and that’s what we achieved,” Bezuidenhout said. “We’re at the end of the useful life of these tyres, and the team understands what the car is doing, and I understand the bumps in the road and how best to tackle them, so we are confident for tomorrow and will be running new tyres.”

Robert Wolk was consistently second quickest in the roaring Indycar-derived Infinity V8-engined 1989 Pillbeam MP58, and ended the day on 37.259 seconds. It was a thrilling tussle between the next three competitors as the Formula VW drivers, Andrew Rackstraw and Byron Mitchell, traded places throughout the day with Rui Campos in the V8-powered Shelby CanAm. Rackstraw ultimately set the third-best time (40.389 sec), ahead of Campos (40.745 sec) and Mitchell just five-hundredths of a second adrift. Ian Schofield ended sixth (42.052 sec) in his Formula Ford.

Modified Saloon Cars

There was huge interest in the Modified Saloon Cars this year on several fronts – the most obvious being the participation of WRC and WRX champion Petter Solberg in the mighty 2018 title-winning Volkswagen Polo R WRX Supercar. And the popular Norwegian driver didn’t disappoint, bringing his unique flair and enthusiasm to South Africa’s premier motoring and motorsport lifestyle event.

There is also plenty of intrigue in the battle amongst the monstrous Nissan R35 GT-R machines of four-time King of the Hill Franco Scribante in his car, known as ‘The Sherriff’, and the ‘Armageddon’ BB Motorsport GT-R driven by Reghard Roets. There’s also a formidable onslaught from an epic line-up of other protagonists, but it was Solberg, Scribante and Roets that dominated the time sheets today.

Solberg undoubtedly surprised many pundits by going out in the opening practice session with the Polo R WRX machine and posting an astonishing time of 40.867 seconds on his first-ever run up the 1.9 km Simola Hill – a mere 2.7 seconds off Scribante’s current record and winning time of 38.129 sec from last year.

Not surprisingly, it landed up being a three-way battle between the trio throughout the day, with Roets making his intentions clear with a best qualifying result for day of 38.045 sec. “It has been going great,” Roets said. “In Q1 I lost drive to the front and had a big sideways moment, but other than that it has been awesome, and the car is running like a Swiss clock.”

Scribante was steadily building up his pace throughout the practice sessions, but in the fourth attempt the GT-R destroyed its rear prop shaft off the line, resulting in the lunch break and Q1 being spent on repairs. He came back with a vengeance in Q2 to set the second-fastest time of 39.021 seconds – but there’s guaranteed to be more in the bag from the reigning champion.

Solberg was full of praise for the Simola Hillclimb, along with a dash of surprise that the team had been so competitive straight out of the box, going as quick as 39.848 sec in the third practice session. “It has been really good fun with a great atmosphere, and my brother Henning and I are extremely happy to be here,” he said.

“I was a bit surprised that we got good times from the start on tyres that are two and a half years old. We have some decent tyres for tomorrow, and I really hope to get under 39 seconds. I’m not even worrying about the leading Nissan GT-Rs as one of them has 1,200 hp more than my car, and the other has 1,000 hp more than my 600 hp car,” he commented with amusement.

Charl Joubert ended the day in fourth place in his Honda twin-turbo V6-powered Lotus Elise (40.253 sec), ahead of brother Dawie in the Ferrari 488-powered Lotus Exige who didn’t do any of the practice sessions but managed a time of 41.355 seconds in qualifying. Aldo Scribante was sixth in the Audi S4 with a time of 41.752 seconds.

Pieter Zeelie, the 2021 winner and a serious contender for this year in his Toyota MR2 Super GT which has received extensive aerodynamic upgrades, unfortunately didn’t post a qualifying time today after recording 41.244 seconds in practice. Set-up challenges with the suspension to deal with the increased downforce were then followed by two damaged driveshafts in the qualifying rounds, but he is sure to be in the mix on Sunday.

Road-going Saloon Cars and Supercars

If you’re looking for a model of inch-perfect consistency and exceptional pace, then double reigning champion JP van der Walt will be hard to beat in the 2021 Porsche 911 Turbo S. Having set his quickest practice time of 44.630 seconds, he completed two qualifying runs of 44.666 seconds and 44.688 seconds respectively – a difference of just two-hundredths of a second!

Garth Mackintosh emerged second fastest in the 2017 McLaren 720s following a back-and-forth battle with Clint Weston in the 2023 Mercedes-AMG A45S during the opening stints. Mackintosh really put the hammer down during qualifying and edged ahead to record his fastest time of 44.919 seconds, with Weston settling in third on 45.948 seconds.

Former Formula 1 driver Mika Salo was 0.8 seconds behind Weston in the second Mercedes-AMG A45S to end fourth. “This is something completely new for me as I’ve never done a hillclimb before, so the schedule is quite difficult to get used to as you do one run and then wait,” he said.

“I wish that I could do 10 runs in a row then I would learn the circuit better. But it’s a great event with lots of nice people, a big spectator turnout that gives it a great atmosphere, along with superb weather and a beautiful setting.

“There’s some unbelievable cars here that I would be scared to drive up this hillclimb with over 1 000 hp and huge wings, but they must be amazing to drive,” Salo added.

Fifth place went to Simola Hillclimb regular Gordon Nicholson in the Audi R8 V10 Plus (46.989 sec), with motoring journalist Ashley Oldfield sixth in BMW’s newly revealed XM hybrid performance SUV (47.192), just edging out the equally fresh BMW M2 driven by Robert Gearing 47.432 sec).

In the battle between the Volkswagen Motorsport Golf R entries, Jonathan Mogotsi goes into tomorrow with the early advantage with a time of 47.968 sec, a scant 0.04 sec ahead of team-mate Daniel Rowe.

Henning Solberg, also a renowned WRC and WRX competitor and older brother to Petter, is still fine-tuning the set-up on the third Golf R, and is confident of improving on the 50.073 seconds he recorded today.

“This is a fantastic event, the people are amazing and there’s a lot of spectators so it’s great to compete at the Simola Hillclimb,” Henning said. “I’m very impressed by the quality and performance of the cars racing here.”

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