Circuit type: Temporary street course
Durban has a long but somewhat faltering history of racing on its streets, with a series of different circuits achieving brief popularity but none proving especially long-lived. The spotlight of the A1 Grand Prix series in 2006 and 2007 should perhaps have led to greater things, but sadly has proven to be the high point rather than the springboard to greater success.
However, you need to wind the clock back considerably further to the 1930s to discover the true beginnings of the city's racing heritage. The Durban Motor Cycle Grand Prix was a popular annual event that was organized by the Parkhill Motor Cycle and Light Car Club throughout the decade but for the meeting on 1 August 1938 the organizers decided to include a motor car race on the programme. The event, called the Parkhill 75, was held on the on the Bluff Marine Drive circuit (the layout of which we have been unable to trace). This might have heralded further combined competitions but the outbreak of war soon put paid to any such notions.
As the country recovered after the war, South Africa's motor racing landscape was in need of much rebuilding and it took more than two years for the first post-war race to take place. New venues needed to be found as many pre-war circuits were no longer available and the first motoring competitions were characterized by events like hill climbs, speed trails and gymkhanas.
The enthusiasm for circuit racing had never dimmed, however, and it was the Natal Motorcycle and Car Club (NMCC) that eventually took the initiative to persuade the authorities to allow them to hold a proper race on Durban's beachfront. An L-shaped track was formed, with barriers erected to close off the Snell Parade at the Cumberland Hotel and Country Club ends.
The event was viewed very much as a toe-in-the water exercise by the city authorities, who were perhaps wary of allowing racing on public roads, especially with crowds of up to 20,000 expected to attend. To counter this, the NMCC appointed more than 200 volunteer marshals who worked with the city's police to ensure proper crowd control along the route. Appeals were made to the public to stay off the course and to leave children and dogs at home.
From the start at Snell Parade the racers would head towards the Country Club before turning onto Walter Gilbert Road (today named Isaiah Ntshangase Road) and heading towards a hairpin close to the railway bridge and then doubling back to Snell Parade. Hairpin bends met the racers at each end.
The race was run to a handicap formula and reprieved a title first used elsewhere in 1939, named in honour of the great pre-war driver, Pat Fairfield, who was killed at the Le Mans 24 Hour race in 1937. So it was that the 2nd Fairfield Handicap blasted into action on January 24, 1948. Scrutineering had been held the day before for the majority of the entrants from all over South Africa, with a few late-arrivers getting a going-over on race morning.
Race morning dawned with cloud-laden skies, torrential rain and howling winds, which hardly made for ideal conditions. The race was held over 40 laps and a total distance of 112 miles but using a special handicap system which saw the cars released at timed intervals, calculated to equalise the wildly differing performances of the varied field.
Ahead of umbrella-huddling crowds, the cars were lined up on Snell Parade at 1pm, ready for the race to commence. At 1.15pm the Mayor of Durban, Councilor Leo Boyd, flagged off the two 'limit men', Dennis Cockerell and Chris Culverwell, both competing in Austin Sevens. One-by-one the other competitors were flagged off until the final driver, Basil Beall in an ex-Roy Hesketh ERA R3A, left the start 40 minutes and 16 seconds after the first two competitors. By this point, Cockerell had taken a good lead with very consistent lap times and had already covered nearly a third of his race distance.
So began the tortoise-and-hare chase. Cockerell looked poised to post an upset until he was forced to make a lengthy pit after striking a kerb. A five-lap lead turned into a one lap advantage, which the rapid ERA had no trouble in making up over the little Austin, surging past and continuing onto victory, despite in misfire in the closing stages. So poor had the weather conditions been that only six cars were running at the end, though everyone fortunately escaped their various mishaps without serious injury.
The safe delivery of the race with no major incidents, in spite of the dreadful weather conditions, led to the Chief Constable announcing he would support applications for similar events in the future. Other street races in Pietermaritzburg, Johannesburg and Cape Town sprang up quickly after, so that four major races were eventually held in 1948, all of which played a major part in re-introducing motor racing as a major sport in South Africa.
The Snell Parade circuit was used annually as a racing venue until 5 September 1955 when it was used for the last time. Racing in Natal eventually found a permanent home at the purposely-built Roy Hesketh circuit in Pietermaritzburg.
Durban wasn't done with the street racing concept, however, and in 1988 a new course sprang up for what turned out to be a one-off affair, the Yellow Pages Durban Street Classic. The course was located further inland, utilising the dual carriageway of N.M.R. Avenue and the top end of the Walter Gilbert Road close to the Kings Park Stadium, to create a 2.592km circuit.
The headline event was the International Super Sports Race for historic sportscars, which saw the majority of the field shipped over from the United Kingdom, including the Porsche 917 of Richard Attwood and the Ford F3L driven by Michael Knight. A full event card saw all of the major South African championships included, from Formula Fords, to the Wesbank Modifieds and Stannic Cup touring cars and even Superbikes.
The sportscar race developed into a head-to-head between Attwood's Porsche and the Chevron-Ford of Laurence Jacobsen, who shot into the lead from the start before eventually being overpowered by Attwood to take the win. In the Formula Fords, Basil Mann took the win in one of the locally-built Matador chassis. Tony Viana was never headed in the first race of the Wesbank Modifieds in his BMW M5, despite early pressure from the fearsome Ford Sierra XR8 of Willie Hepburn until the latter dropped away and then pulled over with mechanical difficulties. Ben Morgenrood came home a fairly distant second in his Mazda RX7. Cape Town's Serge Damseaux took the Stannic Cup race in a 1-2-3-4 finish for the works Toyota team.
In the second Wesbank Modified series race, Tony Viana enjoyed stiffer competition from Morgenrood, with the pair swopping the lead several times into the Bearing Man Hairpin and the T&N Esses, before Viana finally eased away to a second victory.
The whole event was broadcast on national television but, despite seemingly packed grandstands, the race was never repeated. A pity, since the track layout seemed fairly conducive to good racing.
It would be nearly 20 years before racing returned to Durban's streets. Various attempts were made over the years, but none seemed to gain serious traction until the early 2000s, when rumours that a round of the popular Vodacom Power Tour touring car package would take place on a new course surfaced. Based around the Suncoast Casino and Snell Parade, the race was set to take place in 2003, but talks stalled and the proposed date came and went.
By 2004, South African racer Stephen Watson was part of a consortium seeking to revive the race as a round of the ChampCar World Series, with a similar layout around the casino and beachfront roads. This was talked up as a genuine prospect for either 2004 or 2005, but again failed to come to fruition.
However, in 2005, it was announced that racing really would be returning to Durban's streets, this time as part of the new A1 Grand Prix 'World Cup' series, where identical Lola racecars would battle it out for the honour of national teams. This time, the project became a reality and - in just six weeks - the roads around the casino were transformed into a racing circuit measuring 1.988 miles by D3 Motorsport Development, who had past experience of creating the Surfer's Paradise street course in Australia.
The new A1 Grand Prix track incorporated an impressive temporary pit and paddock area on Snell Parade, before heading up Sandile Thusi Road through a chicane before joining a stretch of Masabalala Yengwa Avenue (previously named N.M.R. Avenue) which was used during the 1988 race. The course returned to the pits via some sweeping but narrow sections along Battery Beach Road.
So it was that on Friday 27 January 2006, the international spotlight fell on Durban for the first every street race event on the A1 GP calendar - and the first international single-seater event in South African since the F1 race at Kyalami in 1993. Damp conditions greeted the racers for the first day running, but by Saturday conditions had dried out In the final practice session on Saturday morning, Team Pakistan's entry driven by Adam Khan was involved in a serious crash, forcing a helicopter flight to the nearest hospital for precautionary CT scans. He was ruled out for the rest of the weekend.
Team France's Alexandre Premat took pole position and duly took the sprint race, but it was the Team Netherlands entry of Jos Verstappen which took the feature race, working his way up from mid-pack and making a series of great moves to take the lead and the victory on the final lap with a well-timed move round the outside of Team Switzerland's Neel Jani.
The 2006 event attracted more than 105,000 spectators and was voted the best round of the 2005–06 A1 Grand Prix season. It was also one of the biggest sports events in Durban's history, so it was no surprise to see the city welcome the series back for the following two seasons. Team Germany's Nico Hulkenburg cleaned up with wins in the sprint and main races in 2006-07, while Robert Wickens took a sprint race win the following year before Team Switzerland's Neel Jani avenged his previous defeat by winning the main race.
Sadly, that proved to be it for the A1 Grand Prix series, which switched to Kyalami for its fourth and, as it turned out, final series. Instead, Durban set its sights on the FIA GT1 World Championship for 2010, though alterations to the track were required due to construction work on the Moses Mabhida Stadium, which was one of the host stadia for that year's FIFA Football World Cup.
Delays in homologating the revised course meant that ultimately, Durban was replaced for 2010 by a round at Navarra and, while there was initial talk of a race in 2011, this too failed to materialise. In fact it was 2012 before Durban's streets would see motorsport action again, though this time as a support act for the Top Gear Festival, held in the Moses Mabhida Stadium and with a shortened form of the A1 Grand Prix circuit playing host to a series of national level races.
Redevelopment of Snell Parade meant that this was no longer feasible for racing, so instead the cars turned earlier onto Sylvester Ntuli Road, negotiating several roundabouts along the way, before returning as before to Sandile Thusi Road. The track was shorter and much narrower overall and the racing was, at best processional, playing very much second fiddle to the stadium events featuring messers Clarkson, Hammond and May.
For 2013, the Top Gear Festival returned, though this time on a revised course intended to open up the overtaking opportunities. Hairpin bends were added at either end, while a chicane was added at the end of Masabalala Yengwa Avenue. The Production Car National Championship topped the bill for the competitive elements of the event's schedule, though the races were no less processional, with little in the way of overtaking possible.
A Time Attack Invitational headlined the circuit action in 2014, negating the need to worry about the lack of overtaking. A substantially revised course based mainly on Battery Beach Road was introduced in what turned out to be the final year of the festival in Durban. Racing, in any form, has yet to return.
Durban's various street circuits have been located on the public roads near to the beach, casino and sports stadia in the North Beach and Durban Beach areas of the city. As they were all temporary in nature, there is very little evidence of racing having ever taken place here, particularly given the extensive development which has taken place in recent years, particularly along Snell Parade and in the vicinity of the Moses Mabhida Stadium.