Our news story from a few days ago (link here) announced our involvement at the 2023 Simola Hillclimb. Our managing editor Sudhir ‘Banzai’ Matai returned from the event with a massive smile after his first taste of hillclimbing.

It’s tough to know where to begin. But I guess it goes back a few months to a call I received from a senior staffer at Suzuki Auto SA (SASA). The head of Marketing and PR from SASA asked if I’d like to participate in the 2023 Simola Hillclimb. Her call was dangerously close to April 1, so I didn’t quite believe her. However, when she emailed to confirm a few days later, I knew they were serious.

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Reality Sinks In

There was a flurry of email activity between the various parties involved. Company logos, race suit-, helmet- and race boot sizes had to be obtained, travel arrangements made and countless other details to firm up. A few weeks before the event I was needed in Gauteng for a photoshoot. It was only when I saw the Swift Sport in full Double Apex livery did the seriousness of it all really sink in.

The Build-Up

Fast Forward a few weeks and I was jetting off to Knysna, which would be our base for the 2023 Simola Hillclimb. In the little seaside town, famous for its oysters, we met with the Suzuki crew as well as reacquainted with our race steeds for the weekend.

The pre-race build-up included mandatory scrutineering of all racecars. Our trio of completely stock, road-going Swift Sports sailed through with flying colours. All we needed to go racing were our race numbers and timing transponders.

The Race Weekend

For the most part, I tried to maintain a sense of calm coming into the event. The car is not the most powerful in the field so there was no real expectation for us to be challenging for major honours. In fact, our little pocket rockets boasted less than half the power of our main rival in Class A1, the recently released Honda Civic Type R. 

I did, however, learn that the manual Swift Sport I was tasked with driving was the daily driver of SASA MD, Teruo Katakawa. That’s a fact I wish I hadn’t learned before the weekend. Katakawa-san was even in attendance, keeping a watchful eye on his pride and joy.

Nerves Set In

The nerves really set during the early part of Saturday morning. We did the final checks on the car before attending a mandatory drivers’ briefing session. There I suffered a very sudden case of ‘imposter syndrome’. 

In that pack of drivers I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with countless racing champions and giants of SA motorsport, not to mention a WRC and FIA RX world champ as well as former F1 pilots Petter Solberg and Mika Salo. But, I had a job to do and needed to focus.

Warming Up

The SHC format has been cemented for many years. Cars start off in class order. Standard road cars head off first followed by modified road cars, specials and then bespoke single seater machines. This meant that I’d be one of the very first to head up the famous hill on Saturday morning. 

The first few runs are timed, but don’t really count for anything as these form part of the warm up… and just as well. My first run up the 1,9 km course was a new adventure. I had seen cars race up there countless times on telly, but never had I driven the track. So off I went, not completely knowing what to expect. 

Tricky to Learn

A hillclimb course is unlike a racetrack in that there is minimal room for error. There is no run-off on this road and the tar is lined by steep embankments on one side and sheer drop-offs on the other. One has to balance ‘finding the limit’ with ‘staying safe’, while still setting a fast time.

With all that in mind, I was circumspect at first, not committing to massive speeds before working out which way the track went; and a good thing, too. Near the top of the course I was sure the track went right, but it didn’t… Just as well I wasn’t at full pace. 

Click here to check out some of the close calls from the 2023 Simola Hillclimb.

Quali Sessions

There are a few warm-up runs which are followed by multiple qualifying runs on Saturday afternoon. I learned more about the car’s limits (I’d not driven a Swift Sport ever until that weekend) and the course with each passing session.

My confidence built and with each pass I chipped away at the time I set before. Our little intra-team battle between the three Swift Sports (see table) was interesting to follow as the day progressed.

2023 Simola Hillclimb

The track seemed to deliver more pace later in the day. While the ambient temps stayed cool, the tar was continuously baked by the sun, not to mention covered in a growing layer of rubber shed by expensive slick tyres.

The leading Swift Sport driven by Wesley Greybe, and I both set our quickest times at the very end of the day. He dipped into the 54-second bracket and I was in the low 55s. Our teammate, Kumbi, who set an impressive early pace seemed to be stuck in the 56-second bracket.

Race-day Sunday

The excitement levels, and adrenaline, of Saturday were still fresh in my system when I heard the unmistakable sound of rain falling on the roof of my hotel room in the wee hours of Sunday morning… bugger.

The skies were grey and the tar underfoot was still wet when we arrived at the road adjacent to the Simola Estate. Slivers of blue sky gave us hope but the SHC regulars were already making car set-up changes with the more serious teams already checking pressures of their wet/treaded tyres.

No More Pace

Sunday started with a single warm-up. This would be followed by a few qualifying runs. Conditions underfoot (underwheel?) were nowhere near as quick as on Saturday. Intermittent rain and a slick surface left us all second guessing the levels of available grip. 

No one would set a time that was quicker than clocked on Saturday afternoon. The class finals (top three from each) is determined from the quickest time set in any qualifying run. That meant Greybe and I were going through to the finals along with (former SA champ) Deon Joubert in the Type R. 

More below the gallery… Special thanks to Greg Dennis, Rob Till and C.I Photography for the images

  • 2023 Simola Hillclimb
  • Scrutineering forms
  • All smile after the 2023 Simola Hillclimb
  • Branded race gear
  • 2023 Simola Hillclimb drivers
  • In full Double Apex livery
  • Ready to go...
  • 2023 Simola Hillclimb
  • At the start line
  • 2023 Simola Hillclimb
  • Getting ready
  • Getting away from the start.
  • 2023 Simola Hillclimb
  • 2023 Simola Hillclimb
  • Good to go
  • Team Suzuki at the 2023 Simola Hillclimb
  • A trio of Suzuki Swift Sports at the starting line
  • 2023 Simola Hillclimb
  • At speeeeeeeedd
  • A wet surface
  • Close to the bollards
  • Through the Esses
  • 2023 Simola Hillclimb
  • Just after the start line
  • 2023 Simola Hillclimb

The Finals

The class finals take place after the Sunday lunch break. As time for our runs drew closer, light conditions overhead dimmed and my heart rate quickened. The gathering clouds looked ominous. However, there was nothing left to do but kit up and head out.

The windscreen of my car was slowly but steadily being covered by rain as I sat in the staging area. Wipers on, I was ready for the final run. The rain got steadily heavier as the seconds ticked off… 

When the flag fell I was the guinea pig for completely unknown conditions ahead. I tried to push through the early part of the course, a high apex speed is crucial on the opening corner sequence to get a fast run up the steepest part of the hill. 

The lower part of the course was completely soaked, which really comprised the run. A lack of grip meant pushing on was not on the cards. The upper part of the hill, however, was quite dry but I lost a lot of time already.

In The End

We finished with a final run that was nowhere near the pace we had earlier in the weekend. The iffy conditions played havoc with times across the field, removing some of the usual frontrunners for the final shootout. 

Slow final run aside, which left me third in class, the weekend was incredible. I am truly thankful that Suzuki Auto SA made that call a few months ago. They placed a great deal of faith and trust in me to race the MD’s car flat out up the Simola Hillclimb. For that, Double Apex is eternally grateful.