Motoring | Motorsport
Andre De Kock
South African circuit racing has a long and proud heritage, filled with amazing people. Some of them created awesome, unique cars, that came to life specifically to serve the Adrenaline Game gods. One of them was the legendary Tony Viana.
Almost three decades since his untimely death, he is fondly remembered in racing circles. As driver, designer and tuner who headed up BMW South Africa’s local circuit racing activities for a dozen memorable years in the eighties and early nineties, a large part of his legacy was creating two utterly unique BMW race cars.
Viana, who ran a second-hand car dealership in Odendaalsrus, arrived in the local saloon car racing arena in the mid-seventies, driving a modified Chevrolet Firenza. That was soon replaced by a Bill Troskie Motors Fiat 131 in the then new Group One championship for near standard production cars, and later a Mazda Capella Rotary, the most popular weapon of choice in the category at the time.
Early days – Viana in the Group One Bill Troskie Motors Fiat 131. Picture: Kobus Bothma
In 1981 Ford’s Motorsport manager Bernie Mariner lent Viana a Cortina XR6 for the Group N season. Run out of Tony’s new Toyota franchise in Odendaalsrus, the Cortina was often driven to the Goldfields Raceway – just 5km away – for testing, before returning to the workshop for tuning and tinkering.
A local hero, he was repeatedly chosen Free State Sportsman of the Year, and was given his own set of keys to the Goldfields facility. At the end of the year BMW Motorsport manager Richard Leeke invited Viana and Mazda racer Paolo Cavalieri to drive a BMW M535i in the 1981 Kyalami 9-Hour race. They did well and Leeke invited them to run the official BMW Dealer Team’s E12 M535i entries out of Tony’s workshop in the top Group One class.
In its heyday, the Group One championship provided amazingly spectacular racing between the BMW 535is, the Alfa Romeo GTV6s and the Cortina XR6 Interceptors. As time went on Ford came to the party with two Sierra XR8 models, Alfa created the GTV6 3,0, and Mazda joined with the RX7. Viana’s answer to these homologation specials was to create the world’s first BMW 7-Series race car.
This Group One BMW E23 745i, driven by Viana in 1985 was the first 7 Series BMW to be raced in the world.
His Winfield 745i won the 1985 Group One championship for the first and last time, as the category was replaced by Group N for standard cars the very next year. Having done the main homework, Viana built and ran a carburetored version of the BMW 745 in the WesBank Modified Saloon Car championship the next year, again winning the car’s class title. Both the unique BMW race cars have been found, rebuilt exactly to specification and are today proudly owned by Cavalieri.
The arrival of Stannic Group N racing for showroom-specification saloon cars saw a huge resurgence in local tin-top competition, with manufacturers rushing to race what they actually sold. BMW tackled the challenge with their 325i Shadowline and won the Class A title in 1986, courtesy Viana.
That success spawned the arrival of the Opel Kadett Superboss in 1987, with Michael Briggs and Viana emerging as the country’s two top Group N drivers over the next three years. Viana moved to Gauteng in the late eighties and headed up BMW SA Motorsport in Midrand. They continued to build racing cars for Group N and the WesBank Modified categories, with Viana involved as designer, builder and driver.
Viana in action in the Stannic Group N Winfield BMW 325is
In the process he became BMW’s most successful local racer, having engineered and driven the Group One M535i and 745i, the WesBank Modified 745, the Group N 325is and Shadowline, and later a E28 M5, followed by a 335i in the WesBank Modified category.
Viana became ill in 1992 and was diagnosed with cancer, but refused to stop racing, against strict doctor’s orders. He headed up BMW’s programme when Touring Car racing started in 1993, driving their works 318is, plus a 325iS in Group N. Viana won his last Group N race at Kyalami, beating his Winfield BMW team-mate Deon Joubert to the flag by two-hundreths of a second.
Later that year, Viana raced for the very last time, in the rain at the fearsome East London Grand Prix circuit. Taking a colostomy bag as his passenger in the BMW, he won. Four months later he died, at the age of 45.
Viana won the very last race he drove in – this Touring Car BMW 318i E36 SATCAR at the East London Grand Prix circuit on 12 June 1993. He died of cancer three months later. Picture: Tony Alves
“He was really demanding as a team-mate. He was a grafter and a tinkerer. He would put his car on pole position, and then start fiddling with it before the race, never satisfied with its performance,” recalls Cavalieri. “Then, he would win, but immediately say that winning just raises expectations for the next time, and start tinkering again,” Cavalieri adds.
All of which added up to huge success on the track. Experts say great artists suffer from an incurable need to chase unobtainable perfection, and thus never believe their paintings, sculptures, symphonies or books are really finished. “It was a real privilege to be involved while Tony chased perfection in local motorsport. And another privilege to own his two rarest race cars,” Cavalieri concludes.
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