A couple of weeks before the Top Gear event in Durban, I had a call from one of the event organisers: would I like to drive a car in one of the street circuit events as part of the show?
Now, although that might sound like one of those opportunities you immediately jump at, there were a few strings attached… firstly, I had to pretend to be a grey haired granny. After some thought, I felt I could probably do with some practice in acting my age. The second condition was a little harder to accept: they wanted me to pretend to be an Australian. This was a big ask, as Aussies fall somewhere between crime and corruption on most South African popularity rating lists! However, having got to know some of the Top Gear team quite well at last year’s Kyalami event, I knew it would be a lot of fun working with them again so I swallowed my pride and agreed.
I flew down on the Thursday before the weekend and headed to the circuit to collect my accreditation and renew some friendships. The first person I ran into was Martin Clarke, an event organiser who ran the Kyalami pit lane with total calm in the face of total chaos. He filled me in on some details: I would be driving one of six Mazda MX5 cars, each one allocated to a country in an “A1 GP on a (tight!) Budget” event. The other cars would be driven by Sabine Schmitz (Germany), Sam Bird (UK), Tomas Scheckter (SA), Shane Lynch (Ireland) and Sun Moodley (India). As the hated Aussie, I would have to start at the back of the grid in each of the four races (two on Saturday and two on Sunday). The cars were street standard, with road tyres fitted, open top but with roll cages installed. After a quick seat fitting, I drove the car around the underground parking garage and realised just how much fun it would be to pedal such a basic car around the tight street circuit!
We all gathered at the stadium on Friday morning to get to know each other before the rehearsal. The other drivers proved to be extremely friendly and down to earth, and over the weekend we got to know each other well. Although the original plan was to have two rehearsals, time ran out and in fact we had only one, with a mini race of five laps. The circuit was a shortened version of the original A1 track, with a very narrow and tight back section followed by a long, wide straight to the finish line. The little Mazda was huge fun despite a general lack of power and no brakes to speak of – it needed to be driven like a kart in order to carry as much speed through the corners as possible!
I was given a truly horrible reddish brown wig to wear along with a headscarf. I thought the overall effect was quite good, as I looked a bit like Shane Warne on a bad hair day, but the show producer wasn’t happy and decreed that the wig be sprayed grey for the weekend shows as I didn’t look old enough. I hid the resulting grey mop in my helmet and went home for an early night, as they were expecting up to 60,000 people over the weekend and I needed to get to the stadium early on Saturday morning.
It was awesome to see people streaming in to the Moses Mabhida stadium the next day – if only we could pull such crowds for our own motorsport events! They had a full day of motoring entertainment to look forward to, with everything from F1 demo runs to supercar races planned for the show. Our two inter nation races proved very popular with the spectators and went off without a hitch. The wig did the trick and I don’t think anyone recognised me in my disguise – probably a good thing as my car proved to be dog slow on the fast straights! I had two great battles with Sun Moodley in the India car, as I was all over the back of his car in the corners and he ran away from me in the straights. We ended the day with a score of one race each, with the other drivers some way ahead of us. We all stayed out of the walls, though, much to the relief of the Top Gear technical team, who assured me that all the cars were exactly the same when I muttered about my lack of straight line speed.
I was invited to join the Top Gear crew to watch the stadium show that evening, and we had great seats in the VIP area. It was weird meeting Jeremy, Richard and James in the flesh. I somehow expected them to be different to the characters we see on TV, but it was nice to see that the chemistry between them is real – they were joking with each other and teasing Hammond exactly the way they do on the show! The stadium was beautiful at night, and I felt real SA pride under my Aussie exterior. The show was sold out and the crowd loved every minute of the entertainment, which ranged from stunt driving to car football, and I went back to my hotel with a new understanding of the complex logistics involved in putting on an event of this magnitude.
Back at the stadium on Sunday morning, the technicians confessed that they had test driven all the Mazdas the night before, and sure enough, my car had different gear ratios to the others. At some stage in its life it must have had a gearbox change – they had scoured the UK to find six identical cars, but this was something they had not thought to check. Feeling vindicated, I tackled the two Sunday races with the idea of having as much fun as possible. In the first race, I chased Sun through the corners and watched him disappear on the straights again. In the second race, I managed to dive through on the first corner and then drove like a real Aussie, making my car as wide as possible while weaving about on the straights. Being the gentleman he is, Sun didn’t take me out and I managed to hang on until the finish – so much fun!
Looking back on my experience, I’m really pleased I agreed to become an Australian granny for a weekend. It was a privilege to meet and race with some of the top drivers in the world, and it was great to spend time with the Top Gear crew again. Hopefully I’ll be invited back again next year to participate in some way – it would be great to get our Gatorback RAM drift Mustang out to entertain such an enthusiastic crowd!
Credit to QuickPic (www.quickpic.co.za) for the images.