It could have been Bain’s Kloof Pass, but I blinked … The Wheel Deal invites a South African racing legend to go for a spin in an Aston Martin Virage
So, it’s a Wednesday morning and I am cruising through the Cape winelands. I should be relaxed, enjoying this brief reverie away from the office, but instead I am feeling unusually stressed. This is because I am moments away from meeting the undisputed god of South African motorsport: a hero whose trademark moustache and black aviator sunglasses have been synonymous with speed, champagne and checkered flags for about as long as I can remember.
His name is Sarel van der Merwe, but many know him as SuperVan – an alter ego that was invented way back in 1973 by another motoring journalist named John Oxley. Like some grizzled bad guy plucked from the frames of a Tarantino movie, SuperVan takes no shit, pulls no punches and tells people exactly where to get off.
So I am hoping and praying like crazy that the person who answers my nervous knock at the door is plain old Sarel. Luckily it is. And this is probably because I have come armed with something that Mrvan der Merwe can appreciate. No, not a Hawaiian Tropic grid girl but an Aston Martin Virage with 365 kilowatts.
Now for somebody who has driven some of the best racing cars ever produced, I was expecting the 1.9m giant to be more blase about the prospect of strapping in behind its steering wheel. But the grin etched across the man’s face tells me he’s been looking forward to this visit for some time.
“Hell, but this is a beautiful machine,” he guffaws while crunching my digits with his vice-like handshake. “Look at those lines – it’s completely orgasmic.”
Determined to stay in his good books for as long as I can, I give Van der Merwe the key and tell him to take us for a quick spin on his favourite road. To hold no quarter and put the Virage through its paces like only a Daytona-winning sports car racer can. But as soon as the words leave my mouth, I kind of regret saying this.
“Ja, okay, let’s head up Bain’s Kloof Pass then,” he says without falter, “that should be a good test.”
Now I happen to know this piece of tarmac and it’s seriously treacherous. There are rocks. Steep drop offs. Cruel cliff walls. Not to mention troops of wayward baboons. In other words, things that’ll reduce a R2.8-million sports car to a flaming wreck quicker than you can say “hier kom kak” (here comes shit). I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. Whatever. It’s a while until we get there, so I ask Van der Merwe, who is now 65, where his love for motorsport began.
“When I was about 10, really,” he says with one hand perched on the steering wheel. “My father took us to the races at the now defunct Palmietfontein racetrack outside Johannesburg. And it was the best thing I had ever seen.”
Van der Merwe would consequently spend a lot of his spare time soaking up the golden age of South African motorsport: an era in the 1950s and 1960s when it wasn’t unusual to bump into superstar drivers such as Stirling Moss, Jim Clark and Graham Hill.
“It was at that early age when I decided, sjoe, this is what I want to do. And so everything from then on was focused on getting there.”
And get there he did. After being kicked out of the South African Air Force (“how can we trust you in the air if we can’t even trust you on the ground?”) and experimenting with a BCom, Van der Merwe shook the early 1970s rally establishment with his talent and enthusiasm.
Initially starting out as a privateer in cars he purchased himself, the lanky Pretoria resident scored a factory-backed drive with a car manufacturer he was also working for at the time, Datsun.
This was followed by brief stints at Alfa and Toyota until, after yet another showing at Datsun, he was given a chance to partner up with the all-conquering Ford team in 1978. Winning five South African Rally Championships on the trot with navigator Franz Boshoff in what is still one of his favourite cars of all time – the BDA Escort – SuperVan was then headhunted by VW/Audi South Africa to drive a machine that is probably most synonymous with the Van der Merwe franchise: the flame-spitting, yellow-and-white Audi Quattro A1.
“Ja, look, all this rally driving was fun,” he says as we trawl through Wellington, pedestrians straining to catch a glimpse of the silver Virage, “but what I really wanted to do was get big into circuit racing”.
Until then Van der Merwe had done his fair share of circuit racing in local series such as Group 1. But his break would come in 1982 at the annual Wynns 1000 international sports car endurance race at Kyalami. Thanks to a last-minute sponsorship deal struck by Danny Chauvier, the South African entrepreneur who started Kreepy Krauly, Van der Merwe would be sharing a drive in a Porsche 935.
“I had always told my first wife that I would give my right ball to drive a Porsche. And that Monday after the race – we came fifth by the way – she called up and asked, ‘so, do you still have all your nuts?’”
My laughter quickly subsides as we reach the base of Bain’s Kloof and the Sarel I’ve been chatting to suddenly gives way to SuperVan. Punching the Sport button, he goes on to show the sort of fearless control that put him on the map in the first place. ”Hey, man, but this car is wonderful,” he says. ”Besides the performance, it handles every bit as well as the Vantage, if not better.”
Trying hard to keep up with the G-forces, I point out that Top Gear didn’t like it. That they thought it was too hard.
“Well you know Top Gear is such a kak programme,” Van der Merwe barks, “and that Clarkson can’t drive worth a shit. In fact, none of them can drive. So they’re not qualified to tell me whether a car is good or not.” Ah yes, here’s that famous outspoken personality coming through. Just like some of those Nascar drivers he raced back in the 1980s, SuperVan isn’t afraid to run his mouth.
No doubt it was this devil-may-care attitude that helped him to win the 24-Hours of Daytona with fellow South African drivers Tony Martin and Graham Duxbury in 1984. ”When we won Daytona, it was seen live by 48-million people on ABC. This basically opened the door to my international career.”
Indeed, a few months after the champagne settled, Van der Merwe would be charging down the 7km Mulsanne straight at the 24-Hours of Le Mans. In this first showing, behind the wheel of a Porsche 956, he would finish third overall. Le Mans would also be the place where SuperVan would come agonisingly close to meeting the Grim Reaper.
“Back in 1986 I came into the pits for a driver change. My teammate, Jo Gartner, got into the car and 45 seconds later he was dead. The rear suspension collapsed. The car spun, turned upside down and hit the Armco barrier at about 200km/h. The impact cut him clean in half. One more lap and that would have been me. In real terms, that’s probably the closest I got to death.”
Now at the summit of the Kloof, the Virage unscathed, we wait for our photographer, who has been chasing us in a hire car. ”I hope he wasn’t trying to follow us,” Van der Merwe mumbles. I tell him that he was. While we wait, I grill SuperVan on the other facet of his racing career we have heard so much about – the women.
There’s a pause and then, smiling hard into the windscreen, he says: “It was a wonderful time, you know? It was the heyday of motorsport and there was no shortage of groupies.” So which country had the best?
“Well the Americans were by far the loudest, while the French were always very petite and well- manicured – they don’t have that reputation for nothing. The Germans, well, the Germans were difficult. But having said all this, I don’t think professional sports and marriage are compatible. If I could change anything in my life, I think I would have married less.”
For the record, Van der Merwe has been married four times.
“Ja, but the first one doesn’t count. She was a barmaid I paid £50 to marry so I could stay in England a few more months.”
And then there were the parties. “As with most sports, we partied hard. And it was great because there was none of that Twitter or Facebook kak back then. No gossipmongers. We could do what we wanted, as the press were on our side.” So did SuperVan ever race with a hangover?
“Absolutely, ja. I often used to qualify with hangovers. But it wasn’t so bad because you just had to keep your shit together for one lap. Then you could come in and collapse.” Yeah right. In SuperVan’s case “collapse” probably meant striking up a Rothmans and cussing his slower teammates. Sounds like a pretty hectic lifestyle.
“Well it’s something that eventually made me stop international racing,” says Van der Merwe. “Back in 1986/87, I was competing 42 weekends a year, all over the world. And this means you’re either in an aircraft or on a track. Don’t get me wrong, the competition was wonderful. But constantly sitting around airports, living out of hotel rooms – that got me down.”
After bowing out of the international racing scene after the 1990 24-Hours of Le Mans, Van der Merwe returned home, where he continued kicking butt until his retirement in 2002 at the age of 56. I ask him if he misses it. ”Every day of my life. I’m getting back into a bit of racing every now and again [he occasionally drives a big V8 Ford Galaxie in the Historic Series] but, at this age, you can’t really compete like you used to.
“I spent 40 years building a reputation, and it’s easy to blow it like Michael Schumacher did. When you retire from the top you cannot just walk back in there and think you’re going to take over again.”
Having said this, though, SuperVan decides to put in one more ballsy appearance before our flip in the Virage comes to an end.
You know, a testament to his “skrik vir niks” (no fear) attitude that remains after all these years.
And so, on an arrow-straight strip of tarmac somewhere outside Wellington, that foot goes flat again and the speedometer needle doesn’t stop climbing until, well, until my mind starts conjuring up images of a protracted legal battle and/or the sort of speeding fine that makes front page news.
Then, at a figure that is simply way too high to print upon these pages, he turns to me and says, while grinning like some victorious cowboy gunslinger: “What a wonderful machine.”
[All Pictures: Ruvan Boshoff]
Meeting Supervan must be quite a lifetime experience. There are so many championship titles to this guy’s name. Supervan aside, I’ve taken a ride in my friend’s Aston Martin Virage. This heavy equipment has a delightful exterior, but I do think that it is slightly uncomfortable and boxy in the inside. Still, it handles excellently on the road.