Kyalami - one of the most beloved of old circuits

Kyalami Racing Circuit is located in Midrand, Gauteng province, South Africa. One of the fastest tracks on the calendar, and it has hosted the South African F1 Grand Prix many times. In recent years, the area surrounding the circuit has developed into a residential and commercial suburb of Johannesburg. The original, sweeping circuit was in use from 1961 until political sanctions (due to apartheid policies) eliminated the Grand Prix after the 1985 race.

When F1 returned to Kyalami in 1992, it was to a greatly changed circuit, badly mutilated, with little of the charm of the previous one left. Only two of the corners, Sunset and Clubhouse, remained original. The new track, generally slow, opened the 1992 and 1993 seasons. Formula One abandoned the rebuilt circuit in 1993, after just two races and a bankruptcy on the part of the promoter; it has not been back to South Africa since.

Kyalami, appropriately, takes its name from a piece of land on its northern border; in the local Sesotro language, Kyalami means 'my home'.

The idea for a motor racing venue near Johannesburg first came to a band of local enthusiasts in the early post-war years. Basil Read was tasked with supervising the design and construction of the circuit and he settled on particular surface dressing for the track to give maximum grip in all weather conditions as well as maximising the view for spectators. At least two-thirds of the circuit could be seen from most vantage points. Kyalami soon became a favourite among the F1 teams and drivers, its laid-back atmosphere proving a popular way to begin the racing year. It's usual good weather also established it as a major winter testing venue.

Notable races included the 1976 Grand Prix, when Niki Lauda and James Hunt crossed the line just 1.3 seconds apart; 1978, when Riccardo Patrese almost won for the new Arrows team and 1985 when Nigel Mansell scored his second win.

During the 1977 race, Tom Pryce was killed when an errant marshal ran out to tend to a broken-down car on the pit straight. Pryce, who was racing at over 170mph, was killed instantly and partially decapitated, when the fire extinguisher being carried by Frederick Jansen Van Vuuren struck him in the head. The Shadow continued at speed, its driver dead at the wheel, to the first corner where it collided with Jacques Laffite’s Ligier, smashing into the catch fencing. Van Vuuren also succumbed to his injuries.

Alan Henry recollects: “I was standing at Crowthorne Corner and Tom’s wrecked car ended up at my feet. Every motor racing journalist has a day when the circus left town. Tom’s death and Ronnie Peterson’s the following year hardened me.”

As Niki Lauda looks back at the time, he says: “I remember when I came onto the podium and they gave me the laurels and I asked what happened in that accident and the guy said Tom Pryce was killed. I just left the podium. I was upset because he was a real nice guy and I knew him well. Afterwards I saw the accident and it was ridiculous. It was terrible”.

Pryce, Wales' 1970s F1 star, died at the age of 27. He had a whirlwind life and a grisly death. “Tom was one of the best drivers out there”, Niki Lauda has said. Humble, fast and handsome – Tom Pryce had it all. Between 1974 and 1977, Thomas Maldwyn Pryce – a shy, Welsh-speaking tractor mechanic from rural north Wales – lit up the gladiatorial years of James Hunt and Niki Lauda in F1. “He was out of the Ronnie Peterson mould, a bit like Kimi Räikkönen – great natural skill and tremendous car control”, in the words of a friend and F1 journalist Alan Henry.

South Africa is a classic in F1 and Kyalami was one of the most beloved of old circuits; a great track before they changed it. Those were the days, now we can only drool in front of the TV.

Jan 08, 2018
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