2021 Simola Hillclimb winner Pieter Zeelie shines at FIA International Hill Climb Cup in Germany

One of the big-hitters of Knysna’s Simola Hillclimb – South Africa’s premier motoring and motorsport lifestyle event – has made his mark on the international stage. Pieter Zeelie, 2021 King of the Hill winner in the Modified Saloon Car category, competed in the prestigious FIA International Hill Climb Cup in Osnabrück, Germany at the beginning of August – and, to say that he did South Africa proud would be a huge understatement.

Driving his locally developed, highly modified and impeccably prepared Toyota MR2 Super GT V6 Turbo, Zeelie became the first South African to compete in a European hillclimb event against some of the top competitors in the world, with the line-up featuring a total of 185 entries from 14 countries across the various classes.

Despite this being his first international event, Zeelie powered his way onto the podium by finishing second in the highest Performance Factor class (PF1) and third overall in the Production Car category. This exceptional feat was achieved on the tight and very technical 2.03 km Osnabrück hillclimb course in Lower Saxony, with this year being the 54th edition of the event which attracted around 25 000 spectators.

“The Osnabrück hillclimb is similar in distance to the 1.9 km Simola Hillclimb, but has 13 corners versus approximately eight of Simola, depending on which you regard to be corners as some are taken as straights,” Zeelie says. “The corners at Osnabrück are generally much slower and, accordingly, the total elapsed time is in the order of 60 seconds versus Simola’s 40 seconds for saloon cars.

“The road surface of Osnabrück is phenomenal, and traction, therefore, is equally exceptional. It caught me out a bit as I did not know how much one can push the car,” Zeelie explains. “The same applies to positive cambers in some of the corners which allows more g-forces to be pulled. One, therefore, needs to do a few runs before you will know where to push harder and where to be more careful. The track is narrow with barriers on the edges of the tar surface, whereas Simola has some space if you go a bit wide, and I initially found this to be daunting but got used to it. Tyre warmers aren’t allowed, so we also struggled a bit with traction.”

Another challenge for Zeelie was all the trees along the road which produced a lot of shadows, making it difficult to find the optimal braking and turn-in points on his first time at the event. “This was especially tricky in the approach to the first corner where I had to brake from over 200 km/h into a tight hairpin, and I braked too early every time. I wish that I could have had two more runs to get used to the track,” he says.

What made Zeelie’s podium finish even more impressive was the limited time he had to familiarise himself with the course, as competitors only have three test runs on the Saturday, followed by three competition runs on the Sunday. The two fastest times on Sunday are added together to determine the final podium positions.

By comparison, at the Simola Hillclimb drivers have four practice runs and the first three qualifying runs on Saturday. The Sunday programme starts with a morning warm-up, followed by the three remaining qualifying runs, Class Finals and Top 10 Shootout that determines the winners of King of the Hill – thus the competitors that make it into the final have a total of 13 runs up the Simola Hill.

Despite just six opportunities to get used to the 2.03 km Osnabrück course, which has an elevation change of 75 metres from start to finish, Zeelie proved his sheer class with his two best runs of 1:02:014 and 1:01.44, giving him a combined time of 2:03.458. This placed him a fantastic third overall in the Production Car category, with the win going to Frenchman Nicolas Werver (1:59.871) in his purpose-built Porsche 911 GT3 R, achieving a best run of 59.490 seconds.

Czech driver Dan Michl was second overall in his super lightweight 750 kg Lotus Elise powered by a Hartley V8 engine, which is a mating of two Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle engines, similar to the engine used by SA’s Franco Scribante in his Chevron B26.

Michl posted a fastest time of 1:00.397 and a combined time of 2:01.584 to take the PF1 class win by a margin of 1.874 seconds over Zeelie. Italian driver Luca Gaetani had to settle for third in PF1 in his Ferrari 488 Challenge behind the South African driver, being relegated to the final step on the podium by 0.188 seconds.

The Performance Factor classes are determined by the FIA, using a scoresheet that factors in the engine, aerodynamics, drivetrain and chassis. Competitors are then placed in one of five Performance Factor, or PF, classes, and Zeelie competed in PF1 for the most powerful vehicles.

“The level of competition in the FIA International Hill Climb Cup is extremely high, with so many specialised cars and experienced drivers in the series,” Zeelie explains. Werver’s Porsche, for example, has a highly modified engine with almost the entire vehicle, including the roof and pillars made of carbon fibre. There’s a BMW M3 E30 Turbo with more than 1 300 hp, a lightweight Opel C with a 5.7L V8 race engine that revs to 9 500 r/min, a variety of GT and DTM racing cars, and numerous highly tuned Audi S1 quattros and Lancia Delta Integrales.

There’s also a big turn-out of single-seater and sports racing cars, classified as Competition Cars. “There were 38 competitors in this class, with top-level manufacturers such as Osella competing with their own professional drivers,” Zeelie says. “These cars are very impressive, and are close to F1 levels of engineering.”

As extremely competitive as the series is, the organisers and fellow drivers made Zeelie and his team feel very welcome. “Despite coming from numerous countries it’s evident that the competitors are a close-knit community, and all of them came to introduce themselves which made it a fantastic experience for us,” he says. “It was special to meet several of the fastest hillclimb drivers in the world, some of whom compete professionally such as Christian Merli, Sebastian Petit and Alexander Hin.”

Simola Hillclimb – truly world-class

The Simola Hillclimb is renowned locally and abroad for its exceptionally high standard of competition, featuring some of the most powerful and quickest hillclimb cars on the planet that are easily on par with the best in the world.

“South Africa has some really special production and GT cars competing at the Simola Hillclimb, and we have some very fast drivers,” Zeelie says. “I’m sure that at least five of our driver and car combinations could compete with the international teams and be in contention to win the FIA International Hill Climb Cup. It would be great to see more South Africans competing internationally.”

It's no surprise that the Simola Hillclimb has caught the attention of competitors around the world, and particularly in Europe. “Simola is very well known amongst the European hillclimb drivers and spectators that I had contact with, and I was asked about our event during the press interview,” Zeelie says. “Several people spoke to me in detail about our cars, particularly my Toyota MR2, Franco Scribante’s Nissan R35 GT-R, and Dawie Joubert’s Ferrari-powered Lotus. They also know about Wade van Zummeren’s wild Nissan GT-R too, and refer to him as the mad driver.”

As an enthusiastic competitor and supporter of the Simola Hillclimb, Zeelie has already convinced some of the European drivers to attend the event next year as spectators, which may become part of a longer-term plan for them to compete in SA. “Reto Meisel is regarded as the fastest hillclimb competitor in the world, and he has indicated that he would like to compete at Simola if he finds the required sponsorship,” Zeelie says.

One thing is for sure – Zeelie and his distinctive red and white Toyota MR2 will be back in action next year for the 13th edition of the Simola Hillclimb, which takes from 4 to 7 May 2023. “Simola remains a priority event for me, so I’ll definitely be there.

“Now that we know what to expect and the process to compete overseas in the FIA International Hill Climb Cup, I would like to do more events in Europe, including Osnabrück. I will be talking to other South African drivers to join us next year as well,” Zeelie says.

He will also be setting his sights on the FIA Hill Climb Masters, which takes place every two years. By winning the 2021 Simola Hillclimb, Zeelie was guaranteed an invitation from the FIA to compete in the 2023 event against hillclimb champions from around the world – and we have no doubt that Pieter Zeelie will keep the SA flag flying high!

To view Pieter Zeelie in action at the 54th Osnabrück Hill Climb, click here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4npqji0hVw

The 13th edition of the Simola Hillclimb takes place from 4 to 7 May 2023.

More information on the Simola Hillclimb is available on the website: www.simolahillclimb.com

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