F1’s final race of 2022 was back in November at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – but 59 years ago the South African Grand Prix ended not just the F1 season but the sporting calendar in its entirety. set, taking place on December 28, 1963.
This was at a time when excitement for the sport in the country was at its height. It’s the history of both this race and the national F1 championship that has sustained it.
A used car championship
Given the cost of developing and building an F1 car – officially capped at $140m but, in reality, much more – it’s unimaginable in 2023 that individuals could simply buy one and race it for the pleasure.
But since the early days of motor racing, there has been a thriving market for new and used vehicles. And it wasn’t until the late 1970s that that stopped being true for Formula 1 as well.
F1 in Africa (1958): Hawthorn seeds of Moss in the streets of Casablanca
In previous decades, the sale of cars to wealthy enthusiasts was a substantial source of finance for manufacturers such as Cooper, Brabham and Lotus. All three used the money from those sales to reinvest and build cars that led them to success.
Indeed, these manufacturers were selling so many units that entire multi-race competitions could be run using contemporary Formula 1 cars, but which were separate from the official F1 World Championship.
And nowhere was this more successful than in southern Africa in the 1960s, in the form of the South African Formula 1 championship.
The SAF1 championship ran from 1960 before stuttering in the mid-1970s.
But in 1963 – the year after the first South African Grand Prix of the world championship – it was at its peak.
Races such as the Rand, Cape Town and Natal Grands Prix, as well as events in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Mozambique, attracted fields of over 40 drivers at a time.
Among the Cooper T43s and Lotus 18s there were also a number of locally made cars – although they were often based on the same designs.
There was very little visually to distinguish the car driven by Doug Serruier’s LDS team, say, from a genuine Cooper.
Attendees would include not only local pilots, but sometimes the elite as well. Jim Clark, Graham Hill and John Surtees all won races in the SAF1 series, as South Africa’s hot summer weather meant there were races – and prizes – to be offered year-round. times winter settled in Europe.
The first two SAF1 titles were won by Syd van der Vyver, but he never had the chance to compete in the full F1 world championship due to an accident the week before the South African Grand Prix in 1962.
But many, many other competitors have actually taken the leap to become full F1 World Championship drivers.
Indeed, they made almost half of the grid for the 1963 South African Grand Prix – 10 of the 23 participants in this race being from the South African championship.
The full roster included Serruier, 1962 SAF1 champion Ernie Pieterse, John Love, Trevor Blokdyk, Brausch Niemann, Peter de Klerk, David Prophet, Sam Tingle, Paddy Driver and Neville Lederle – although Lederle, who was now the southern champion – 1963 African, broke his leg in a race before the Grand Prix and was unable to take his place.
Love would go on to win the title from Lederle in 1964 and win it five more times in a row – a feat subsequently matched by Dave Charlton, who would win his last title in 1975, the final year of the SA championship being raced at F1 standards.
Back in the 1963 F1 race, the wider field of Grand Prix regulars had been greatly reduced. Besides the elite teams – Lotus, Ferrari, BRM, Cooper and Brabham – only Rob Walker from the smaller teams also flew away.
The cost-forced absence of Siffert, Scirocco, ATS and Centro Sud left a lot of empty space on the grid to fill.
Also adding to the lack of appeal was the fact that the world championship title had been won by Lotus’s Jim Clark four races previously – the first conclusion there has been to a title run since the championship began in 1950 – and having to miss Christmas with the family.
The practice began on Boxing Day.
In the wider political environment, South Africa had been suspended from Fifa two years earlier due to its apartheid policy. The country will soon be absent from the Olympics, which will not be held until eight months later.
And so the pits were filled by local teams with names destined to become footnotes in F1 history: Scuderia Lupini; Selby automotive spare parts; the Lawson organization.
Indeed, entries were so sparse that when the Lola cars of the Reg Parnell team failed to arrive, privateer Carel Godin be Beaufort – an eccentric Dutch nobleman who took his Porsche F2 car around the world in a variety of races elite automobiles – was allowed to enter.
Although it was a much less sophisticated era of F1, there were still clear differences between the standards of the main teams and the local drivers. Motor Sport magazine noted that “Some of the pit jobs of the locals were very amateurish; for example, whenever Pieterse wanted to increase or decrease his tire pressure, he would change wheels, which meant that no tire wear checks could be done.”
Meanwhile, de Beaufort was getting even worse. Since he didn’t have a mechanic, he had to change the engine of his Porsche himself after suffering a bent valve in practice. To check that the job had been successful, he took the bright orange car to local roads – where he soon received a ticket from a local policeman.
The “more interesting” sedans
All of these factors gave the event even more of a season-ending vibe than usual. And once it was underway, it went exactly that way.
Jim Clark was on pole by just 0.1 seconds – a tight margin at the time – and there was a sense of excitement on race day, with near high winds sweeping the circuit.
But Clark just ran away from the start, unchallenged throughout.
He would end up winning by more than a minute, and second-placed Dan Gurney was the only man he didn’t lap. It was not dramatic.
The magazine also concluded that the first sedan race had been “by far the most interesting”.
Indeed, it was the only South African who was part of the regular world championship – Tony Maggs – who had the most eventful race.
As the laps went by, a mechanical breakdown in his Cooper meant the space below him grew increasingly hot. Halfway through it was unbearable and he had to stop, “losing a place to Bonnier as fluid was poured over those delicate parts of the anatomy”, as noted by Motor Sport.
Another stoppage for the same reason meant Maggs would only finish seventh. It was very unfortunate; Cooper had considered letting Maggs go anyway, and it sealed his fate. He was dropped for the following season in favor of 1961 world champion Phil Hill.
He got practice instead with Centro Sud, but retired from the sport in early 1964 after witnessing an accident during an F2 race at Pietermaritzburg in which an eight-year-old spectator was been killed.
He couldn’t bear the thought of returning to the cockpit after what he had seen, and quit motorsport to focus on his business interests. South Africa would eventually have an F1 race winner, but it wouldn’t be him.