The Business of Motorsport - The Simola Hillclimb

With the dust all but settled after the 11th running of the Simola Hillclimb, we sit down with the man behind it all, Ian Shrosbree, to talk about the business of motorsport.

TopGear Reporter
September 27, 2021
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It’s been a good business case for any event organiser in the modern-day South African motorsport story. Now in its 11th running, the Simola Hillclimb builds in strength each year – even in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hill climbs may be new to some but not new to the world and South Africa. Past events like the Paarl Hill Climb and the Gyro Pass Ceres Hill Climb have long since faded away into the history books whereas international events like Pikes Peak and the Goodwood Festival of Speed have thrived. They are the business cases of how things are properly done, and the Knysna Hillclimb is following in the wake. It’s our South African story. Both Pikes Peak and Goodwood Festival Of Speed have attracted not just competitors but manufacturers, showcasing new cars and cars never seen before.

Reaching wider audiences, the Goodwood FOS now features drift cars. Something, the anoraks would have never allowed. ‘Adapt or die,’ they say. It’s no surprise that locally we’re seeing the hill climb gain traction. That isn't purely down to a bunch of cars driven by madmen and women up a piece of a cordoned-off public road. There’s the prudent application of business practices at play that go beyond competitors’ entry fees and the scent of track side boerewors rolls.

A prime example is being able to take the event to the people, where most of the country can’t afford the expensive data required to watch the livestream on YouTube. Motorsport broadcasts on national TV for the first time in 30 years is a big thing. The excitement of young kids witnessing something for the first time as exciting as this is what the sport needs. It’s been non-existent and something sure to attract further attention from big names in the business for years to come. 

It’s no secret that the world of motorsport is largely one of exclusivity, attracting those with money and inspiring those without. It’s the permanent dream state for those in it. Events like the Hillclimb provide the playing field, and as they grow in numbers, create a vacuum for more players to enter the space.

Brent Van Der Schyff sits down with the man behind it all, Ian Shrosbree, to talk about the business of motorsport, how to make any event a success, and the vision for South African Motorsport that includes using the hill climb event to showcase local talent.

Ian’s broad background of involvement in many aspects of motorsport makes him quite the authority in the industry. Racing, being on the Motorsport South Africa board, running events, finding sponsors, as well as motoring journalism, are just some of the things on Ian's vast resume. His passion for motorsport started as a kid listening to the 1973 Grand Prix over the Radio. Jackie Stewart in a Tyrrell-Ford won that day.

Brent: You need manufacturer involvement. This year saw Suzuki jump on board with Jaguar in the past. Are there any other big names in the pipeline?

Ian: The business model has been realigned. Jaguar’s involvement has been great, but the realisation was that if we wanted to run this event with a long-term vision and grow it, we needed all the manufacturers to be part of it. Jaguar wanted to continue as title sponsors, but we wanted to look for a neutral sponsor so that we can get the likes of Toyota, Suzuki, and everyone else on board. We are in talks with other big manufacturers. Going forward, I’m convinced that we’ll have two or three big sponsors. Watch this space.

Brent: Let’s talk about the SABC deal. For the first time in 30 years, motorsport is being brought to the masses on the national broadcaster. Thoughts?

Ian: For us, it’s been a game-changer. Our entire philosophy for the event was to take it to as broad an audience as possible to expose the sport to everyone. The SABC deal is doing just that and that in itself is a huge success. My passion for motorsport was developed from listening to the radio and if I can get one Ian Shrosbree to get passionate about the sport, that’s a goal achieved. Hopefully, through this deal, we can get one, two or 500 new fans. Whether it’s someone wanting to race, become a motoring journalist or just spectate. It can change someone’s life for the better.

Brent: What’s your advice for other events/venues that are looking to host an event to grow motorsport in South Africa?

Ian: Give all your stakeholders as much value as you can. Under promise and over deliver. That’s where a lot of organisers go wrong. I see all too often where people make promises and don’t deliver, or they treat one element in isolation. You must look at the bigger picture. Putting an event on is not just about the competitors, spectators or sponsors. It’s about looking after everyone. Also, no one owes you anything. No matter what level you’re on, it’s a business and you must treat it as such.


Brent: As a general thing in the South African Motorsport scene, we seem to be stuck in the past and not looking forward, as the world changes so fast, what’s your outlook for motorsport in South Africa which can embrace the future and thrive?

Ian: I think there is a bright future for motorsport but you must adapt. We’ve run an Electric Vehicle/hybrid class for the past six years and look to grow it. About the past…. Don’t ignore it. Learn from it and use these lessons to embrace the future. A lot of South African motorsport is stuck in the past and it doesn’t have to be like that.

I believe the key is that Motorsport in South Africa must professionalise. If you look at Australia and Europe, everything is professional. From the drivers to the teams to each series. Again, it always comes back to value. Historically, in South Africa, a series doesn’t always offer value to the competitors, spectators or sponsors. There’s this disconnect and we live in a situation where everyone loves putting blame on everyone else instead of working towards common problem-solving. 

Motorsport suffered from not having big events but looking forward, we have the Kyalami 9-hour back now and we have the hill climb which has the international flavour. It needs that. The higher the pyramid, the broader the base. Lastly and most importantly, motorsport must be an inclusionary sport. It must include all South Africans and not just a minority. We must embrace South Africa and its vast car culture. It’s about solidifying that culture, bringing everyone into motorsport.

Brent: Do you believe that Motorsport in SA is fixable through privatisation, or do you believe a hybrid model could exist in conjunction with the Government?

Ian: We do need government involvement but at the end of the day business moves quickly and private initiatives drive efficiency. 

Brent: Young drivers like Andrew Rackstraw and Byron Mitchell both did incredibly well. This event will showcase the best talent in SA motorsport. What do you hope for the next generation going forward?

Ian: I’ve always supported young talent and I believe that we have the right talent to compete on the world stage as we’ve seen with the van der Lindes and the Binders. With our event, it’s a great platform to showcase talent. As you’ve seen, over the weekend you get 12 runs up the hill and it’s 40 seconds a run of intense pressure where you can’t make a mistake. That is where the good drivers come to the fore. We saw it with Stewart White who went up the hill in the Formula Renault. This past event saw Andrew and Byron do the same thing. The Hill is a scary place; if you don’t possess great talent, you won’t go fast.

Words: Brent Van Der Schyff

Images: Rob Till

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