Whether you’re a fan of sports car racing or not, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the Kyalami 9 Hour.
The international event ran in South Africa between 1958 and 1982, with the final race won by legendary driver Jacky Ickx and teammate Jochen Mass in a Rothmans Porsche 956. Then it fell off the map completely.
Why this happened I’m not 100% sure. There was a lot of political unrest in SA at the time, which could’ve been partly to blame, but the 1982 South African Grand Prix still took place at Kyalami that year, so the 9 Hour’s demise was possibly for another reason altogether.
But this year it made a comeback, and there was no way I was going to miss it.
A lot of credit for the event’s return goes to SRO Motorsports Group founder and CEO Stéphane Ratel, who along with Toby Venter, the CEO of Porsche South Africa and owner of the Kyalami race track, have made the 37-year-long dream of many come true. The event certainly makes the Intercontinental GT Challenge a true global championship, spanning over five continents.
It’s quite fitting that the 2019 event was won by a Porsche given the 1982 result.
Frikadelli Racing’s 911 GT3 R shared by Dennis Olsen, Nick Tandy and Mathieu Jaminet, enjoyed a great day of racing. On top of taking home the original Kyalami 9 Hour trophy, the team took the fastest lap in the hands of Tandy, and then on the back of the outright win also secured Porsche the manufacturers title and Olsen the drivers title.
Throughout the race weekend there was a lot of action, strategy, and contenders for the title, but that’s not what this article is going to be about. I want to show you what made this event so great.Future Hope
Many years ago, Kyalami hosted all manner of international motorsport events, including MotoGP, the World Superbike Championship, and even Formula 1. By 2009 things had started to take a turn for the worse; the events had fallen away and Kyalami was in a downward spiral. In 2014 it was put up for sale, with most believing it would be sold to a developer and turned into a business park or housing estate. But luckily for all, Venter stepped up and saved the facility.
On top of the US$14m buy price, a lot more money was then spent over the course of the next few years upgrading the track and surrounding complex. Now, the rebooted Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit has FIA Grade 2 status, meaning some amazing events can be held here in the future.
The 2019 Kyalami 9 Hour was the first big race since the purchase and overhaul, and the reception from teams and spectators couldn’t have better. After all, adding a new exciting circuit to a list of well known venues is a win in everyone’s books: The drivers and teams get to experience a new track, while international audiences get to see racing in a different part of the world, and in this case one still unknown to many. But don’t worry, no lions, giraffes or other wild animals crossed the track during the race…
I doubt we’ll ever see an F1 race at Kyalami again, but I don’t think that’s a big loss to be honest.Wicked Weather
Racing in perfect conditions makes for fast lap times, but it also takes some of the excitement away for me. The weather in Johannesburg can be pretty erratic during the summer, and the weekend of the race it definitely played the villain – which was awesome.
Rain and thunderstorms coupled with night-time racing made for some spectacular action, albeit at the expense of a very wet me. Whatever it takes to capture the action, right?
It’s one thing if bad weather is predicted and sets in for an expected period of time, but on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, it rained, then cleared, then was followed by a massive storm, then a few minutes later had sunshine again. This made it really difficult for the teams to stick to a specific tyre and pitting strategy.The Pits
One of the best places to experience this kind of racing is not actually around the track, but in the pits. This is where you’ll find teams discussing strategy, analyzing data, and sometimes talking nonsense. At the front of house, there’s no shortage of action either.
Pirelli is the official tyre supplier for this series, and I don’t think I’d ever seen so many racing slicks in my life – there were literally tyre walls as far as you could see. The pace at which the teams were going through the rubber was also ridiculous; it’s insane to think how quickly these GT3 beasts eat up tyres.
I know safety in the pits is of utmost importance, but I’ve always felt sorry for crew members having to wear full race suits all day long – especially when it’s the peak of summer, which in South Africa means 30°C+ (86°F+) days. It was my first time shooting this race series, and to my surprise I had to wear a full race suit while working in the pits too. It was not fun.
Furthermore, on one day of the event I logged 18km (11mi) of walking, so whoever said shooting motorsport was easy clearly lied.Locally Made
Another special thing about this event was that in the field of 28 cars, 16 drivers were South African. Three teams – Team Perfect Circle in a Porsche 997 GT3 R, Stradale Motorsport in a Lamborghini Huracán GT3 and Pablo Clark Racing in a Ferrari 458 Italia GT3 – were all locally based with local drivers, while a few of the international teams had South African drivers who now reside outside of the country’s borders.
Lechner Racing, who are based in Austria with their Porsche 991 GT3 R had Saul Hack, while Audi Sport WRT from Belgium in their Audi R8 LMS GT3 2019 had Kelvin van der Linde. At 23 years of age, van der Linde has already achieved a lot in the motorsport world, including being a two-time GT Masters champion, a 24 Hours of Nürburgring winner, a twice California 8 Hours winner, and a Suzuka 10 Hours winner. His younger brother Sheldon is also a racing ace, competing here for BMW Team Schnitzer in a M6 GT3, and currently also racing in the DTM.
There were two other local drivers racing in a BMW M6 GT3 for Walkenhorst Motorsport, another for WTM Racing powered by Rinaldi in a Ferrari 488 GT3, and last but not least, young gun Jordan Pepper, who was behind the wheel of a Bentley Continental GT3 for Bentley Team M-Sport.
The revival of the Kyalami 9 Hour was an extremely long time coming, but I’m so happy it was such a success.
Best of all, I think it really lifted the spirits of South African racing fans. Finally, we don’t just have to watch all these awesome cars and races from the couch – we can experience them in person, the way it’s meant to be.