first Drive RFS Motorsport BMW X3
There’s something different about off-road racing drivers. Some say that’s because they’re not “all there”. You know – upstairs. But those in the know reckon it’s because they’re the most talented of all racers, and what seems crazy to us is actually pure driving genius. Anzet du Plessis got the chance to be a passenger in Hannes Grobler’s X3 – an experience she hopes to repeat in the near future
Text: Anzet du Plessis
Photography: GG van Rooyen
The only sport watched in our house was motor racing. We were never rugby people, or cricket people – much to the dismay of our proudly Afrikaans, sport-crazy extended family. We grew up knowing very little about tries, and even less about wickets. What we did know was that weekends brought the sounds of Formula One and Moto GP to the house; and by the time we were in high school, we knew that the month of January, in this household, was more or less equivalent to being at the Dakar.
Where other homes became divided between Cheetahs and Sharks, ours was consumed by debates on whether Schumi should quit or, more recently, whether Hamilton should be on the track at all.
When it came to the Dakar, we watched the production vehicles, the trucks, the bikes – the whole thing, day by day.
Very little has changed. The kids have left the house, but messages begin floating between family members shortly after New Year’s Eve – who’s going to win, what happened in today’s stage, and so forth. We’ve added English football to our banter fodder, but motorsport remains the one thing we all love to watch.
It’s no wonder, then, that I found myself in clouds of dust a few years ago, covering local stages of the SA Off-road Championships for small newspapers – for free – before becoming officially involved in the automotive industry. Little did I imagine that within a few years I would be sitting next to the legendary Hannes Grobler, in his RFS Motorsport BMW X3.
The buildup had been killing me. Oom Hannes (I call him that, much to his dismay) had been tuning his racer all morning. We were out in the middle of nowhere – where no one can hear the X3 grunt – with both his and Christiaan du Ploy’s Beemers out in the dust for some testing.
I somehow managed to talk myself into a joy ride. Shotgun, which is normally not my favourite position, had never looked so good. The team was fidgeting, measuring and altering – and all the while the plaasmeisie hovered around.
Oom Hannes must have sensed my excitement. “Take her on your next round, Christiaan,” he says, and winks at me. “Dankie, Oom.”
They strap me in, the engine barks as the starter ticks over, and we speed off. My heart sinks into my shoes – for the wrong reason. There’s a problem with the intake, and there’s very little power. So, we take a few slow rounds on the course, which I use to prepare myself. I’m no newbie to the madness of off-roading, or to the mad genius that is Hannes Grobler, and I can only imagine what it’s like, being on the inside with him. At every bend in Christiaan’s X3, I prepare myself for the sideways approach I know Hannes is likely to take. I watch every tree, every pole sticking out the grass, so as not to embarrass myself when it’s my turn to ride shotgun with Hannes.
As most readers will know, Hannes is part of South African rally driving and off-road royalty. A former teammate of Giniel de Villiers, he has raced just about everything – even cars that don’t technically exist. When Nissan didn’t have a vehicle to fit a specific class or race, Hannes simply built it.
He began his career in 1977 with a Datsun 160U SSS, and promptly won the Transvaal regional championship. He would go on to win the SA Amateur championship twice, and later ran Nissan’s motorsport workshop. He converted a front-wheel drive Langley into a rear-wheel drive rally car and built the “Sideways Skyline” – a car that made him a spectator favourite, if he wasn’t one already.
Hannes and his navigator, Piet Swanepoel, made SA motorsport history in 1986 when they won the SA National Rally Championship and the Off-road Championship in the same year – with the Skyline in Class B of the rally and a Nissan Safari in the off-road event.
When Nissan lagged behind Audi’s Quattros, Hannes simply built a four-wheel drive Skyline for the 1988 season, and managed to beat Sarel van der Merwe at least once, in the Cape Swartland Rally, before mechanical issues retired his newest creation.
Hannes would win the SA Off-road Championship four more times before buying a Nissan dealership in Hermanus in 2005.
It’s not his accomplishments that make this man a legend, however. His passion for what he does is evident to anyone who meets him.
“Do you like it?” he asks when we return to the spot where they’re working on his Beemer; pointing to the bright orange vehicle that can only just be called a BMW, thanks to the X3 badge and the bodywork. I nod, and smile. “Hopefully you’ll see just now why I like it so much,” he says, laughing to himself.
There’s more to the beast on the bright orange tarpaulin than meets the eye. Under the bonnet lurks a powerful 4,4-litre V8 motor – the one that was in the previous generation X5. That’s about as stock standard as it gets.
Everything is tuned according to Hannes’s specifications. “Make fifth and sixth a little longer,” he asks a crew member. The man, who is walking around in the veld with a laptop, nods and taps away.
“If only it were that easy,” I think to myself. With these racers, it needs to be. Once they’re finished tuning the eight Reiger shocks (two on each wheel) to Hannes’s latest preferences, he gestures for me to jump in. He’s chuckling to himself the whole time – which serves to excite and petrify me each time I look at him.
He starts up the engine and taps the fuel pedal – the bark is louder and somehow more wonderful just because he’s driving. My feet are planted firmly on the floor of the passenger seat usually occupied by navigator Hennie ter Stege.
Oom Hannes selects first with the sequential gear lever, moves forward off the mat, and stops. With more than 30 years experience under his belt, he takes off from our imaginary start line as if he’s back at the Dakar, racing trucks, and finally my heart sinks into my feet – for the right reason.
With 235 kW under the hood and a massive, disconcerting, awe-inspiring 440 Nm of torque rushing through the monocoque chassis, he’s not pushing nearly as hard as I know he can – and probably wants to.
He takes the X3 down the straight, lightly comes off the petrol to tap the brakes, gears down to third and thrashes the racer into the corner. There’s no slide, however, so I catch my breath and wait for the next one. Light as a feather he runs through the gears, as if the sequential gearbox hasn’t been giving him issues all day.
We fly over bumps, Oom Hannes courteously warning me before each one. He’s talking. I’m not listening. I nod and smile and reply where I can, but I’m waiting for the slide.
We blow through corners, and I hold my breath each time we narrowly pass a photographer, but we’re still going straight way more often than I know Hannes Grobler prefers.
We come up on a lovely S-bend – one I’d book-marked in my brain on the first few rounds. Hannes doesn’t slow down. He doesn’t brake. This is it, I can feel it. Trees fly past my window and I’m waiting for the slide.
Hannes is still talking, but I stare at his feet instead of listening to his words because of something Christiaan said about a secondary clutch, and being able to change gears without needing to engage the clutch pedal. I’m waiting for Hannes to gear down. I’m waiting for the slide.
The bend is right in front of us; the trees seem like they’re inside the cabin. He gears down, let’s the back end kick out, and goes into the bend sideways. I completely forget to breathe, but the smile comes naturally.
Mid-slide he swings the whole thing around, controlling it perfectly through the second bend, and we exit the other end of the S-bend the same way we came in – sideways, and somehow in one piece.
When we get back to the rest of the group, I thank Oom Hannes and reluctantly stumble out. He gives a report or two. The fifth and sixth gears need to go back to where they were, the brakes are much better, the suspension’s almost where he wants it…
I envy his ability to tune this monster of a machine, bending it to his unique driving style and stubborn will.
“How was that?” he asks.
“Great,” I reply, “but I think Oom took it easy with me on purpose. That was too much like a ride in a vinnige plaasbakkie!”
I’m joking, of course. My eyes are still adjusting to still-standing scenery. The machine beside me is worth millions and far more adept than any production vehicle, but Oom Hannes takes the bait.
“I’ll have to take you out again,” he says with a smile.
This man lives to be behind the wheel, and it shows. But we’ve run out of time, so we leave the RFS team to their testing. I’ll ride shotgun another time – I’m definitely taking him up on it. Until then, I’ll have to take up my old position in the dust and watch that slide from the sidelines.