Local 2021 King of the Hill winner takes podium in European hill climb

In his locally developed Toyota, Pieter Zeelie made his mark on the international stage by coming second in his class and third overall in the Production Car category.

As if being the first South African to compete in a European hill climb event was not a big enough accomplishment, businessman Pieter Zeelie did one better by taking two podium positions. He has now been invited by motorsport governing body FIA to compete in the Hill Climb Masters in 2023.

Zeelie, 2021 King of the Hill winner in the Modified Saloon Car category in the Simola Hillclimb, 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 2.03km Osnabrück hill climb course in Lower Saxony, with this year being the 54th edition of the event which attracted around 25 000 spectators.

“The Osnabrück hill climb is similar in distance to the 1.9km Simola Hillclimb, but has 13 corners versus the approximately eight of Simola, depending on which you regard to be corners, as some are taken as straights,” Zeelie said. “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 is therefore equally exceptional. It caught me out a bit as I did not know how much one can push the car,” Zeelie explained. “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 that 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 200km/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 said.

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 who make it into the final have a total of 13 runs up the Simola Hill.

Despite just six opportunities to get used to the 2.03km Osnabrück course, which has an elevation change of 75m 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 750kg 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 the 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 explained. 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 300hp, 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 turnout 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 said. “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 said. “It was special to meet several of the fastest hill climb 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 said. “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 hill climb drivers and spectators that I had contact with, and I was asked about our event during the press interview,” Zeelie said. “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 said.

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 May 4 to 7, 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 said.

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 hill climb 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:

Photos: Daniel und Uwe Gerken

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