For decades Sarel van der Merwe, or Supervan as he was affectionately known, was a household name in South Africa. We caught up with the racing legend to take a look at his large collection of trophies and racing memorabilia and, of course, to enjoy listening to his stories!
Words and images: Wilhelm Lutjeharms
It is the perfect room in which to have a conversation about one of the most significant South African motorsport careers. The room is lined with (at a guess) around 150 trophies, pictures of a five-decade long racing career, drawings by artists, a thank you letter from Porsche and advertisements focussing on Sarel’s success.
There is even a notebook of Sarel’s late father, full of pictures and racing details from the first half of the century. What's more, you'll also find the oldest motorsport trophy in South African in his collection. The anecdotes and stories are almost overwhelming and you can’t help but ask questions as Sarel recalls some of his most colourful career events.
After a brief walk along the walls and peeking up at a picture showing Sarel drifting a 1978 Ford Escort MKII rally car, we sit down, him lighting a cigarette and me drinking coffee, ready to learn more about his incredible career.
“I stole my dad’s car, a Ford, for the first time when I was 12. He was also a racer and took part in rallies, so I grew up in the motorsport world and I was also very interested in it. The first competition I took part in was a hill climb that happened back in 1967 in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in Mozambique. This event took place after the Total Rally and there I won my class in a DKW Junior. I was marshalling at the event and then decided to enter the DKW which was actually my mother’s car!
“After I returned from military service, my father asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I said I wanted to become a doctor, so he then calculated how much those studies would cost. He came to me and showed me the amount. I then asked him whether I could rather have the money and go racing. He replied by saying I must be absolutely mad!
“So, I decided to go and complete a BComm degree, which is only a three-year study. I started taking part in private rallies, but then I realised that you needed to have a dedicated rally car to race in. I then started working in the accounts department at Datsun. At that stage I was driving a Toyota, but I was told I couldn't work at Datsun and drive a Toyota!
“I struck a good deal with them and bought a Datsun to rally with, but after I started winning races they gave me a works drive. The result was that I was being paid the same amount to race than I was for working in the office. I was called in by my boss who asked me to make a decision, whether I wanted to work or continue ‘playing with cars’. I told him I’d be resigning.
“My dad thought it was a terrible idea, but he still came to watch me race at the rallies. He used to hide in the crowds or behind trees so I couldn’t see him clearly. Soon I started winning championships.
“Climbing the racing ladder is a natural progression. The better you get, the better cars are offered to you.”
Sarel points in the direction of Porsche 935, complete with the massive rear wing on top of its elongated bodywork. “That is the first Porsche I drove. It was Moretti’s car and they came to race the 9-Hour in South Africa. They asked me whether would like to experience the car. I basically had an orgasm!
"That car was incredibly quick. It would pass Porsche 956s on the main straight at Kyalami. In those days that 935 had 520kW, while the 956 had around 460kW.
“You know, you get to be a big fish in small pond over here in South Africa. Then you go overseas and you realise there are a whole lot of fish around!”
I wondered which type of racing Sarel enjoyed the most, on gravel or tarmac?
“The rallies are more difficult than racing on a track. There weren’t pace notes in my days, so it was more of an adventure. But, I think the one complements the other. In rallies you race in the rain and mud. The result is that I was quite good when a track was wet. On the other hand, racing on track teaches you about clean lines which you can then implement in rallies.”
Sarel might be turning 75 before then end of the year, but there is no stopping his enthusiasm. He still races in selective events, but what interested me more was a recent restoration project he has completed. That very same 1978 Ford Escort MKII that he slides around a corner in a rally stage, has recently been completely restored. It is a car he raced in 1978 and 1979.
“I found the car around three years ago, it was outside Nelspruit. We flew up, including members of the original team, and we had a good look at the car and within minutes, looking at the way the seam welding was done, we knew it was my car.”
Over the last couple of years the car was completely resorted and the engine was also fully rebuilt. It has not been the only race car Sarel has been after, but as is often the case, the owners don’t all want to sell their cars...