Top Gear Festival Durban

Words: Simon Bruton | Photos: Simon Bruton & Kevin Sawyer,

Durban was transformed into a petrol-head heaven for two days as motoring enthusiasts from KwaZulu-Natal and beyond descended on the Moses Mabhida Stadium to catch the world’s most popular motoring show when it returned to the east coast for a third year.

Photo credit: Kevin Sawyer

Held on 21 and 22 June, the 2014 Top Gear Festival had high standards to maintain following the success of last year's show, which reportedly attracted 67,000 enthusiasts from all over South Africa.

As I walked through a packed parking lot at Kings Park Stadium and saw that every second car was the performance version or, at the very least, had racing stripes, low profiles or after-market accessories, I knew this was no ball game, and my steps quickened. At the entrance, my 2012-entry-queue woes were quickly dispelled, and after surveying the layout changes, I set about securing a good viewing spot for the Street Circuit show.

I'll never forget the spine-tingling experience in 2012 of listening to the Mercedes Petronas AMG F1 car tearing around the street circuit; the distant echoes as it tore past Suncoast, a momentary silence on the last hairpin bend, and then the rapid-fire gear shifts down the long, main straight. The noise and speed were terrifying, but most mind blowing of all was standing at a hairpin bend and watching the F1 car approaching you at breakneck speed, the throttle open until virtually the last moment, and you are thinking, "Oh no, surely he is making a mistake?" Despite the screaming howls of the engine and crazy speeds reached, you could see and hear that the driver was unable to unleash the full fury of the F1 car on the tight and bumpy street circuit.

Back to this year, my anticipation turned to disappointment when the Street Circuit show ended with no sign of an F1 car. But not for long because it was time to grab our front-row seats for the Top Gear Live show. I guess one of the oldest stage tricks to win over a crowd is to say, "This is our favourite venue in the world." But in Jeremy Clarkson’s case, at least, it’s no lip service. The proof is in the photos and his comments about 'the prettiest stadium in the world' that he posts on Twitter without fail on each visit to our sunny shores.

The Top Gear Live show didn’t disappoint, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats and in fits of laughter. One of the many highlights of the show was seeing James May in his ‘eco friendly’, self-designed and constructed electric car made out of old washing machines. The uncontrollable laughter was sparked by the sight of James sitting in the drum of an old top loader, with only his head sticking out, while being rocked about in the old, poorly-balanced washing machine. And if that wasn’t funny enough, he came hurtling past us out of control because Jeremy had inadvertently (or so he claimed) set the machine to spin cycle!

The live show included an exclusive world premiere video celebrating their most chaotic and dangerous moments over the past 12 years, which reduced any die-hard Top Gear fan to tears of laughter and pride.

Photo credit: Kevin Sawyer

Buzzing with excitement after the stadium show, I went in search of some more motoring delights at the various stands and actions zones. There was a veritable feast for every motoring taste, with many interactive activities on offer, including the Auto Trader drift rides, the Toyota Yaris extreme thrill ride, an AMG master-class demo and Harley Davidson demonstration rides. There was also an F1 simulator drive, where if you beat the Stig you stood a chance of winning a trip to France for a Lotus F1 Team experience.

While on the hunt for more action, I came across a Lotus F1 car dangling vertically from a crane that was more than 120 m high. This was the Stig's much-anticipated bungee jump in an F1 car. It looked like the crew was setting up and testing the bungee jump rig by lowering and raising the car and then bouncing it until the nose stopped just short of the ground. But wait, is that a white helmet up there in the car? Is that the Stig in there or just a dummy? Surely not the Stig, as the car had been dangling vertically for more than 10 minutes. Finally, the F1 car was lowered back down and onto terra firma. There was no movement, so it couldn't have been the Stig. Then, just as if a switch had been flicked by remote control, he stood up and climbed out of the racer and into the back seat of a waiting car. It all happened so quickly that there wasn't enough time for even the most skilled mobile phone addict to snap a selfie with the famous white figure in the background.

At one stage, while exploring the action zones, I was sure I heard the distant but unmistakable sound of a F1 engine firing up. Taking no chances, I sprinted through the crowds to the street circuit. No sooner had I secured a good view than the mix of various racing machines slowed to red flags, indicating an accident. This is the second Top Gear show where I’ve witnessed an injured F1 car suffer the indignity of being towed away, perhaps a victim of the tight and bumpy circuit. The first occasion was in 2012, in a spectacular, nail-biting race between a brave Colin Lehmann on a Kawasaki ZX10 race superbike and Sam Bird (Mercedes test driver) in the Mercedes Petronas AMG F1 car. A misunderstanding (and lack of indicators on F1 cars) saw Colin sliding into the side pod of the F1 racer, which was making a hasty retreat back to the pits. I guess these pedigree F1 steeds are just not made for South African roads.

Overall, the organisers did a great job and if the show returns in 2015, I will definitely be there.