The much anticipated Top Gear Festival took place at Kyalami over the long weekend 17 – 20 March. The Gatorback RAM Racing Team was looking forward to the event even more than most, as our replica Porsche 917 race car was earmarked to be one of the stars of the show!
We were excited when we heard that Derek Bell was one of the legendary drivers invited to attend, as we had got to know him when he was previously in SA for a Bentley launch. Derek is a five time winner of the Le Mans 24 Hour race, and he has always been synonymous with the 917 Le Mans spec racing cars. We’ve always been keen to have him drive our 917, and this was our big chance to finally make it happen!
We worked feverishly on the car to ensure it would run perfectly, as we had experienced some niggles when we raced the car in January (see “Diary of a Race Weekend” for details). Final testing at Zwartkops a few days before the Top Gear event left us satisfied that our temperamental sports car would behave herself during her time in the spotlight, and we loaded the transporter on Wednesday morning feeling confident that this reunion between two stars of the seventies would be a happy one.
We set up the Gatorback RAM transporter in the road behind the Kyalami pits, complete with side tent – a good idea, as it turned out, as we needed all the shelter we could get! The Highveld weather delivered the first of several huge thunderstorms on Wednesday afternoon…
Luckily, Thursday was sunny and clear, and with Derek only arriving on Friday morning, I had the opportunity to take the 917 out on Thursday evening for a shakedown with some of the other Le Mans type cars. I spent the first few laps with my eyes on the various gauges rather than the track, until it dawned on me that everything was working perfectly! Paranoia vanished and I put my foot down, the car flying through the corners and reminding me just how much fun it is to drive a race car. The team returned to the transporter with relieved grins and much back slapping, a job well done.
Derek Bell arrived on Friday morning in time to get acquainted with his ride for the Festival. He joined us for an early seat fitting. Just as well, as although we are similar in height and build, somehow the dimensions differed, so we had some work to do in order to get him comfortable. We moved the pedals forward, lowered the seat and did some trimming inside the top of the door. Fortunately, he just fitted, complete with duct tape on his helmet to protect it from the roll bar!
With only one brief session on Friday evening, we watched anxiously when he took the car out for the first time, crossing fingers and holding thumbs that all would go well. We were so relieved when he drove safely back to the pits after the flag!
We planned to head home for an early night, but with so many friends attending the show it was well after midnight before we left Kyalami, a pattern that was maintained for the rest of the show!
Saturday’s schedule was for a track session with other Le Mans type cars, such as the Bailey LMP2 prototype, the GT40 and more. We all hung over the pit wall, watching the cars come through the final turn. The 917 looked great! At the end of the session, Derek, the consummate professional, jumped out and proceeded to give us a rundown on the car: “Not enough feedback from the steering, too much lag coming out of the corners, and why on earth are you running such old tyres??” All in all, though, he was very happy with the car, and we noted each gem of advice with reverence – it’s not often you get the opportunity to learn from a master.
We did what we could to improve the car, adding castor to make it turn better. We didn’t dare to tell Derek that the tyres were actually more than a year old, quite normal for us! The experts from Turbo Direct had a plan to eliminate some of the lag, but unfortunately this problem was not one we could fix on the spot.
The highlight of the last day was a mini race between the Le Mans cars. The driver line up was incredible: Jody and Jaki Scheckter, Sir Stirling Moss, and Sabine Schmitz, amongst others. And the cars could have filled anyone’s dream garage: a racing Ferrari F40, a priceless McLaren, an immaculate Aston Martin from the Franschhoek Motor Museum… the list goes on. Of course, the most beautiful car on the grid was our little pretender, driven by one of the genuine legends!
A very dodgy start saw one of the Ferraris set off before the flag dropped and the F40 stalling on the grid – despite the organisers’ intentions, these drivers had no intention of staging a “demo” race! We screamed and cheered as the 917 moved up the field, finally taking the chequered flag – we won!! Our driver jumped out of the car and straight into a Formula 1 for the next event, giving the Porsche an affectionate pat as he left. We felt like the Red Bull team after winning the Aussie GP, an experience we’ll never forget.
It was a real pleasure having Derek Bell on our team for the four days. He was totally down to earth, and impressed everyone with his friendly attitude, always making time to chat to fans, sign autographs and pose for pictures. He spent all his time in our pit, rather than in the VIP lounge, and entertained us with wonderful stories about his life in motorsport. A total gentleman and a true friend, we’re looking forward to bringing him back to SA to drive with us again.
Despite many negative comments regarding the Top Gear Festival, we saw the efforts the organisers made behind the scenes to bring a very unique and ambitious motorsport event to SA despite appalling weather and complex logistics. We have no doubt that if they are brave enough to do it again, they will do it bigger and better and iron out the problems that occurred this year. Roll on 2012!