Down the track
25 April 2012 | BRUCE DENNIL
In his recently published autobiography, SuperVan & I, champion racing driver Sarel van der Merwe mentions his alter ego (the more aggressive, reckless SuperVan, a sort of proto-Stig), and underlines the role that the persona plays in helping him (Sarel) avoid responsibility for his crazier moments.
So who handles the interviews?
“I think I have the interviews because of SuperVan,” Van der Merwe chuckles.
“But we can’t have him around all the time. I still race now and again, but that’s the only time he pitches up nowadays.
There’s nothing off the track, but that’s okay – the only fights I ever had there were with the motorsport authorities.”
The details of those fights are among the many things detailed in the book, which has been released at a more appropriate time than is often the case with sportsmens’ life stories.
Van der Merwe is largely retired and has decades’ worth of wonderful anecdotes to share, as opposed to, say, 20-something footballers whose only entertaining stories include buying three different cars every week, simply because they can.
“I was nagged into doing this book,” Van der Merwe says.
“It seemed like such a final thing to do. It could have come earlier, though. I retired from championship racing in 2002, but I still felt like I had more to do.
There’s been pressure since – my wife and buddies have been saying, ‘When? When?’.
“So when Steve Smith [who wrote SuperVan & I with Van der Merwe] started driving the process, it was good. It turned out to be a much better process than I'd expected.”
Van der Merwe’s reputation as a maverick made the idea of an alter ego a useful way of abdicating responsibility, Van der Merwe smiles.
“I took the flak for a lot of stuff because I was more outspoken than the others, even if it wasn’t always me at fault,” he says.
“Whatever we drivers broke, we had to pay for – the hotels we stayed for must have looked forward to a chance to redecorate.
“But generally, I wasn’t a renegade. I was just in conflict with some specific people, and many of them are fans now.
I always said what I thought at the time because I felt I was right, not because I was trying to be difficult.”
Some of the fights Van der Merwe began then are still going on now – most notably his quarrel with the local motorsport administrators.
“Motorsport in South Africa is a professional sport being run by amateurs,” he spits.
“I went after them for that, and if nothing changes, I won’t stop. Now, I’m not deriving any benefit from any of it; it’s just for the good of the sport.”
Among Van der Merwe’s concerns is the sidelining of the central figures in his beloved sport – the drivers – thanks to the mass of technology that surrounds them.
“The computer age has affected motorsport,” he confirms.
“There’s a whole battery of people who work computers now.
They’re not mechanics, but they do control everything – from the pits! Drivers don’t make the decisions they used to.
What they thought used to be worth about 70% of a win.
Now it’s half that, at most, and the closer you get to the top, the less input you have. You don’t have a chance to show off your talent.”
Van der Merwe’s career could not have happened in this context, and he’s bent on making sure young drivers have some of the chances he had.
“South Africa is using European formulae in our racing industry, but we’re paying for it with African money, so we can’t afford the best stuff,” he says.
“We have to have an African championship, and I’m going to start one next year.
Cars will be standard models – we’ll add a seatbelt and a roll-bar, that’s all.
It’ll be affordable, so we’ll have decent fields, and that’ll give us a good chance of finding a new star.”
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