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Track day time travel

by Ian McLaren on 14/08/2009

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Track day time travel

Usually when there’s mention of track time in the programme of a local launch it translates into a few hot laps around one of the country’s established circuits. The introduction of the new Audi S4 offered up a special experience, however…This week we were given the opportunity to step back in time and get a small taste of what it must have been like to race in the “good ol’ days” of SA motorsport.

The Roy Hesketh racetrack in Pietermaritzburg is a little hard to find these days, and even when one locates it, the circuit seems out of place in its surroundings. The fact that the housing development that now flanks the track would have been the out-of-place feature while the track was fully operational, between 1953 and 1981, is an indictment on how land development has little time for nostalgia. Indeed, only 80 per cent of the original track has survived, but what an 80 per cent… Enough to still give huge pleasure to those afforded the opportunity to sample it.

Named after the racing driver by the same this track once hosted the South African Driver’s championship, the famous Springbok series, national Formula Atlantic, a three-day Easter and even Formula One races in the ‘60s. It was also a popular track for motorbikes racing. Famous names such as Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini plied there trade there, which Hailwood said to have considered it his second home.

Currently 10 metres wide at some points and some 2,3 kilometres in length and only Angel’s Angle and Sweep corners have been affected by the housing development. Famous corners carrying names like Quarry, Henry’s Knee, BP and Beacon Bend, as well as Maritzburg Straight remain intact. An obviously new corner, featuring smooth tar and a shiny new Armco, now links a shortened straight, after Beacon corner with a spectacular new chicane at what was previously Henry’s Knee.

Switching the traction control out on the S4 and placing the new seven-speed S-tronic transmission into its manual mode (allowing for shifts via paddles on the steering wheel), I had to smile at the thought of what those legendary drivers, who would have raced here back in the day, may have thought about all the technology included in cars such as the new S4. Apart from the dual clutch transmission, speed-sensitive power steering, 17-inch brakes and a Quattro system that can divert torque from the rear to the front wheels and back, the S4 has an optional Sport differential. The system distributes torque between the rear wheels, sending more shove to an appropriate wheel should the system detect a loss of traction.

Leaving the makeshift pit area in an anti-clockwise direction, there’s a chance to experience some of the 245 kW and 440 N.m of torque available between 2 900 and 5 300 r/min on offer before braking hard for the first corner. The left-handed BP bend is banked and wonderful to experience. Stacked hay bails are the extent of the protection offered on the outside of the corner, but one senses it would take a serious act of silliness to disturb them while alone on the track. In the heat of battle however, I could imagine that this corner offered up a number of racing lines, and the track is certainly wide enough to go in at least four abreast. In its day, it must surely have been one of the best spots to watch some paint swopping action.

If the exit of BP seemed a long way coming, the right-handed Beacon up next has two apexes, the last of which is a long way around the corner. You’re heading uphill at this point and it’s great to arrive at the summit of the hill and the apex at the same time.

On the approach to the new section there is just enough time to exit Beacon nice and wide before heading back to the right of the track to get the breaking point right for the new sharp left-hander. With the track no longer in competitive use some sections have been left to weather a bit and an unfortunate series of big imperfections, caused by the roots of one of the many trees that now align the asphalt awaits at exactly the braking point. The S4 has a fairly firm sports suspension, but I couldn’t imagine hitting these bumps in a rock hard racing car could be much fun.

The new corner, whose name I did not catch, sports brand new, smooth tar and is nice and tight before opening out towards a long and steady right-hander. I tried hard to get the S4’s tail to wag under acceleration on the exit, but only managed a hint of oversteer before the trick differential pulled things straight again.

A wonderful, full throttle sweep to the left delivers you onto the back straight with a sinking of the suspension and plenty of lateral force in the cockpit. There was time to reach fifth gear before braking hard for the left-handed Quarry. I would love to have seen the kind of overtaking manoeuvers attempted into that corner in the closing stages of a main race, but I chose to stay out wide for a while before turning in and flooring it towards another late apex and exit onto the main straight again.

What strikes you most about an old circuit like Hesketh is the character that it still possesses. You can almost close your eyes and still imagine the calibre of men and machine that tore up the track. Run-off areas are non-existent, but then, you wonder whether a sand trap may have simply been something that children played in to these drivers. There were surely some big accidents, and tragic loss of life in those times, but then, in these conditions, you have to consider just how brave all who competed were, and just how great the champions must have been.

View a gallery of the new Audi S4.