Name South Africa's top five race car drivers, ever. That was the brief for this article, and we smelt trouble. This story is going to create enemies and controversy – not for what is in it, but for who is not. Being ego-driven, almost every local racer, past or present, will claim to belong on the very short list. Equally, expert observers of the local Adrenaline Game will have varied ideas about this contentious and subjective subject. They will doubtlessly let us know about their opinions and objections. But I just work here and orders are orders. So, here are...
Name South Africa's top five race car drivers, ever. That was the brief for this article, and we smelt trouble. This story is going to create enemies and controversy – not for what is in it, but for who is not.

Being ego-driven, almost every local racer, past or present, will claim to belong on the very short list. Equally, expert observers of the local Adrenaline Game will have varied ideas about this contentious and subjective subject. They will doubtlessly let us know about their opinions and objections. But I just work here and orders are orders.

So, here are our five choices- and we stress that the order of their appearance does not necessarily denote their ranking in importance.

Sarel van der Merwe

Who is South Africa's greatest ever racing driver?


Sarel Van der Merwe Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

We start with Supervan because, after all these years, he is still the best known South African racer. Also, his career boasts incredible versatility. He won the South African Rally Championship 10 times, in a Datsun, Ford Escort BDAs and Audi quattros.

He drove a March 84G Porsche in the American IMSA Camel GT series, winning the 1984 Daytona 24-Hour race with Graham Duxbury and Tony Martin. That led to invitations to drive Porsche 956 and 962 models for various teams in rounds of the World Sports Car Championship, and later a Chevrolet Corvette GTP in the IMSA series.

He also won the South African Saloon Car Championship four times in both two-wheel drive Fords and all-wheel drive Audis. Though officially retiring at the end of 2002, he still races in Historic Car events and Endurance races, being absolutely competitive in both. Ask people with no interest in motorsport to name a local race car driver, and they say: "Sarel van der Merwe".

Jody Scheckter

Who is South Africa's greatest ever racing driver?


Photo by Gallo Images / Die Burger Archives.

Scheckter is the only South African driver to ever win the Formula One World Championship, with Ferrari in 1979. It will be long, long time before it happens again – if ever. He made his way overseas in 1970 after winning the South African Formula Ford title – the prize was a Formula Ford drive in Britain.

He rapidly ascended through the overseas single-seater ranks and won the American Formula 5000 title in 1973. After driving for McLaren in selected Grands Prix that year, he joined Tyrrell in 1974, and stayed there until 1977. There were various Grand Prix wins, with a huge highlight a victory in the 1974 South African Grand Prix at Kyalami.

He switched to the Wolf equipe in 1977, scored various victories and left for Ferrari in 1978. In 1979 he took the world title via three victories and a series of consistent points finishes – Ferrari's last title until 2000, when Michael Schumacher did it for the Prancing Horse. Scheckter retired from F1 and the sport at the end of 1980. His official F1 scorecard lists 112 starts, 10 wins, three pole positions and five quickest race laps.

Giniel de Villiers

Who is South Africa's greatest ever racing driver?

Winning the Dakar Rally overall is the stuff of dreams – and Giniel de Villiers achieved just that in 2009, driving a works Volkswagen Touareg.

He started his racing activities in the late 1990s, driving first a Ford Laser and then a Nissan Sentra in the then Stannic Group N championship as well as in the erstwhile AA Fleetcare Super Touring series in 1995 and 1996 . The Nissan factory team signed him, and he rewarded them with South African Touring Car championship titles with a Primera from 1997 to 2000.

He then switched to off-road racing and made his Dakar Rally debut with a Nissan Navara in 2003. He finished fifth on his first attempt – the first of many top 10 finishes in the world's toughest motorsport event. When Nissan withdrew from off-road racing at the end of 2005 de Villiers was head hunted by Volkswagen, for whom he drove until 2012, with the highlight his Dakar win in 2009.

In 2012 Toyota South Africa became involved, and team manager Glyn Hall had no hesitation in appointing de Villiers as the number one driver in their Hilux race bakkie. The combination has since scored a series of top 10 finishes, with not a single retirement.

In fact, de Villiers has started the Dakar Rally 17 times, and finished 17 times, with 13 of them in the top five places./\r\n/
His story is by no means finished, and South Africans should eagerly watch his progress in international Cross Country races for years to come.

Ian Scheckter

Who is South Africa's greatest ever racing driver?

/\r\n/
To a degree, Ian Scheckter's racing career was overshadowed by that of his younger bother Jody. However, he deserves to be here on merit – mostly regarding the domination of the South African Drivers' championship.

Scheckter won the South African Formula Ford title in 1971, after which he switched to the then South African Formula One title chase with a Lexington-sponsored Lotus 72. He won races, but could not wrest the title from reigning champion Dave Charlton. Scheckter competed in the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami from 1974 to 1976, in the Lotus and a Tyrrell 007 respectively, while 1975 included the Swedish and Dutch Grands Prix for Frank/\r\n/
Williams.

When South Africa's premier circuit racing category changed to Formula Atlantic in 1976, Scheckter found his niche and won the title the next six years in a row, driving Chevrons for Team Gunston. Every single schoolboy in this country had a Team Gunston Chevron sticker on his school suitcase, and Ian Scheckter became a national hero.

Travelling between South Africa and Europe, he also joined the Rothmans March team in 1977, but the cars were dismal and broke in all but two races. At the end of the year, he was refused entry to Japan for the last race on political grounds, and decided to concentrate on his South African career.

Later he drove BMWs in the South African Saloon Car title chase, and was involved in the country's best known televised crash, when his BMW 535i and Sarel van der Merwe's Ford Escort plowed into the bank in Kyalami's scary-fast Jukskei Sweep. He was signed by Ford to drive a turbocharged Sapphire in the 1989 Super Saloon Car championship, but retired from the sport after a tragic crash with the Nissan Skyline of Hannes Grobler that led to the death of pit-lane personnel at Killarney.

George Fouche

Who is South Africa's greatest ever racing driver?


Still grab from YouTube

He obtained his first South African competition licence at the age of 16, tackling both Group 1 and Formula Atlantic racing. At the age of 17, he raced in the 1983 Kyalami World Sportscar 1000 kilometre race in a Kremer Porsche.

Fouche joined the Kremer team the next year, and took overseas residence while tackling Le Mans, the World Sports Car Championship and the Japanese Long Distance Series every year until 1997. He contested the Le Mans 24-Hour race 14 times, with his best results three fourth places, and also managed to race professionally in the tough international sports car racing arena for 14 years. It might be a long time before another Sourh African can say that. He received Springbok colours in 1984.

In 1989, Fouche received a "Hero Award" from the Japanese Automobile Federation after saving an unconscious Oscar Larrauri from a burning car at the Fuji Raceway. He returned to South Africa in 1998, where he drove Fords in the Super Saloon Car and WesBank V8 series. In the early 2000s, spells followed in the ill-fated NASCAR-like SASCAR series before his eventual retirement.

So, there you go. We know youngsters like Kelvin and Sheldon van der Linde plus Jordan Pepper are doing great things in the international GT3 arena, but their stories are still being written. Perhaps we should do this exercise again, in another 10 years.

 

For more news your way, download The Citizen's app for iOS and Android.