Kelvin Van Der Linde: The man behind the controversy

Written by Andrew Lwanga Edited by Harshi Vashee 

Norisring, 10th October 2021, Liam Lawson’s Ferrari 488 rolls towards the finish line for the race start. The Kiwi starts from pole position, ahead of the DTM field where he’s been for the most of the season’s second half. Brilliance and consistency has him placing one hand on the title even though it’s the first time the 19 year old has competed in GT cars. 

Lawson crosses the line to start the race, as he takes the first of the 8 turns that comprise the German circuit, a car dives down the inside practically pushing him off the apex of the corner unto circuit’s barrier. Lawson loses all positions bar one with the other victim, teammate Nick Cassidy dropping to last. The perpetrator? Kelvin Van Der Linde.

Kyalami, 28th October 2012. Celebrations erupt from the Ferodo Racing garage. Their number 31 car had just crossed the line in first place for the final time to win the 2012 Engen Volkswagen Cup Championship. A season that had had its fair share of jubilation and disappointment, which included a double retirement in Cape Town, had fortunately ended on a high for the driver of car number 31. 

This was the reward of the sacrifices endured by both his parents to keep him and his brother racing. Having run out of funding in the middle of a season in the past and having to resort to a crowdfunding scheme where people paid to have their picture on the hood of his car. Within a few years, he was now, at 16 years of age, the youngest champion in the history of the series. But then what was next for him, what lay ahead of the young South African prospect that was Kelvin Van Der Linde?

A change of scenery, Van Der Linde left his native South Africa for Germany. In 2013, KVDL competed in the Volkswagen Scirocco R-Cup for his first taste of international competition. The series which ran as a support series for the DTM Championship.

It was another success story.

KVDL dominated, taking five wins in nine races on his way to his first international championship at the ripe old age of 17, saw him again become the youngest ever champion of yet another series.

The back to back titles saw the young Van Der Linde promoted to the ADAC GT Masters for the 2014 season.

The ADAC GT Masters  is a grand tourer based series (GT Cars), this was far different from the Volkswagen one make series  he had found success in. For the first time in his career he was taking on a competitive field that featured a diverse lineup of cars. Corvettes, AMGs, BMWs and Porsches littered the grid. By regulation, the championship is run on a Pro-Am basis. This means that a car is shared by a professional and ametuer driver with a pit stop mid race to swap between the drivers, what exactly constitutes each is governed by FIA.

With it being his first time competing in GT cars, Van Der Linde was classified as the ametuer of car number 10 alongside German, Rene Rast, with whom he shared the helm of an Audi R8 under the Prosperia C. Abt Racing banner. With it being only his first time paired up with Rast who though an experienced racer only enjoyed a midfield presence on the grid, not much was expected from the pair.

They won the championship with a 26 point margin.

This was the third title KVDL had won in three years and once again at 18 years old he was the youngest champion in ADAC GT Masters’ history. The third time he had achieved such a feat in three successive years.

After just one year in GT racing, Van Der Linde was promoted to the role of factory driver with Audi. For the unfamiliar, to be a factory driver (or factory backed) means that a certain driver is under direct contract  with the manufacturer. Whereas others are under contract with the teams that use a manufacturer’s car, be it a privateer or satellite team, a factory driver in effect cuts the middle man. As you would imagine, it is a huge deal to be a factory driver. It means among other things you represent the entire brand and thus it is a role secluded to the best drivers in grand tourers, yet, Van Der Linde had achieved this after just one season in the category.

A busy 2015 was set for the ADAC GT Masters defending champion. Competing in multiple championships, the South African was unable to match the successes of yesteryear and despite a race win, he placed an unconvincing 14th overall in the championship.

2016 yielded more of the same for the now 20 year old, well, less of the same actually. Moving on from Abt Racing to Car Collection Motorsport, the once youngest champion only managed one point in the ten races he competed in.

One can only imagine what went on in the young man’s mind. Just a handful of years prior he had put the grand touring world on notice and earned a factory drive all whilst in his teens. However, while he was expected to continue to set the world ablaze he was more than two years removed from his championship exploits and it had been over 12 months since he won a series he was eligible for classification. In fact, in 2016, the only series he was eligible for classification was the ADAC GT Masters where he placed 54th overall.

Whether it was soul crushing doubt or ever burning motivation that was at the center of KVDL’s being, it didn’t matter, he kept on racing. After all, he had left home for Europe at the same time when most of his agemates were to be concerned with high school, he had effectively put all his eggs in this basket.

2017 was much kinder to KVDL. The South African expanded his portfolio to include the Intercontinental GT Challenge where he placed 5th overall after winning the final race of the season. He replicated the same result in the ADAC GT Masters  this time racing under Aust Motorsport. In addition to this, Van Der Linde made the trek down under to compete in the Australian GT Championship. It proved a successful endeavour with the highlight being a double podium in the not so street circuit street circuit that is Albert Park. KVDL went on to place fourth in the final standings, this despite not participating in the final round of the season. In fact, missing the last round is what forced him to cede third place.

It all seemed that Van Der Linde’s demons were short lived, then came the green hell.

Green Hell was the moniker given to the Nurburgring Circuit by Sir Jackie Stewart. Over the years the circuit has claimed the lives of racers, spectators and race officials. Every year since 1970 a 24 hour race has been held at a section of the track that includes the grand prix track and the infamous northern loop, Nordschleife.

28th May 2017, Rhineland-Palatinate, The Nurburgring. After a gruelling 22 hours, 2 hours remain on the clock for the 24 Hours Of The Nurburgring. The number 29 Land Motorsport Audi of Connor De Phillippi, Christopher Mies, Markus Winkelhock and Kelvin Van Der Linde is at the lead of the race, in fact, it had been for the preceding 125 laps. With less than 10 percent of the race left to run Van Der Linde pulls into the pits for a routine stop, everything is fine but the Audi is slow.

A sensor compels the car to not meet the torque demand. A software feature meant to protect the car denies it from operating at full power, except there is nothing to protect. The sensor is faulty and Van Der Linde is forced back into the pits to reset the sensor. He loses first place, then second and rejoins the track in third place.

Van Der Linde begins the charge towards the leading pair but makes little inroads. With half an hour left on the clock the leading teams come in for their final pit stops. Van der Linde goes in for his final stop where any hopes of a victory at the legendary race track are shattered as an error during refueling causes him to lose even more time.

But then it starts to rain. Further out into the 25 kilometre track rain is being reported. Land Motorsport in a desperate roll of the dice and sent Van Der Linde out on wet tyres. Meanwhile the leading pair opted to stay out on slick tyres and brave the elements.

When it rains it pours. Heavy rain fell on the Nordschleife, the leading pair slowed to a crawling pace, evidently on the wrong tyres. The man on the right tyres breezed past them, jubilation took over the Land Motorsport crew as they saw their man take victory. Kelvin Van Der Linde had just become the first African to win the Nurburgring 24 hours at 22 years old.

2018 saw more success for KVDL in the motorsport discipline that is endurance racing even more so at the legendary tracks of Suzuka and Spa Francorchamps where he placed third in both races. 

He also competed in the Blancpain GT series sprint cup, currently known as the GT World Challenge Europe Sprint Cup, where he scored a win and three podiums on his way to a third place on the standings.

The ADAC GT Masters was special for the Van Der Lindes (yes plural) as this time he shared the cockpit of the Audi R8 with younger brother Sheldon. The South Africans scored a pair of race wins and 6 podiums throughout the season, narrowly missing the Championship by one point. It was the most competitive KVDL had been in the GT Masters since winning the title in 2014.

Whatever slump Kelvin had hit in the period between 2014 and 2018 was a thing of the past as he returned to glory in the GT Masters winning the title in dominant fashion. In fact the gap between first place and second was bigger than second place and tenth.

2020 was uneventful for the South African, not that he was uncompetitive but did not compete at all with the world coming to a stand still as a result of a certain global pandemic. On the plus side, he scored the role of Test driver with the Audi Formula E team.

In 2021 Van Der Linde returned to the GT world challenge Europe for a number of races including the 24 hours of Spa, a race marred by the 4 car horror crash in the opening hour of the race at the top of Radillion. What’s not and frankly should have been extensively covered is the (for lack of better term) put in Team WRT with Dries Vanthoor, Charles Weets and Van Der Linde at the helm. Having had a shocker in qualifying the pair drove from 52nd on the grid to second place, finishing just 3 seconds behind the race winning Iron Lynx Ferrari. If you’re having trouble fathoming how a car that qualified 52nd finished 2nd, welcome to the club but that’s the kind of drives Van Der Linde is capable of, it’s what at a relatively young age earned him a factory status at Audi.

So when DTM decided they’re gonna be GT series for 2021, Kelvin Van Der Linde was an immediate no brainer.

The DTM 2021 season was set to be one of the most unpopular seasons due to its aforementioned decision to be another GT series.

Enter Liam Lawson, fast, young, widely popular. The kiwi was placed behind the steering wheel of an AF Corse Ferrari, for the 2021 season, an additional responsibility to his already existing Formula 2 campaign. The 19 year old carried great repute, he’d won the first race of his Formula 2 endeavour, was consistently in the points and despite being the lower placed Red Bull academy driver in Formula 2 he was held to great regard by Helmut Marko for he was the only one amongst them that was a rookie. Lawson and fellow Red Bull driver Alex Albon brought a lot of eyes to the 2021 DTM season.

Van Der Linde’s DTM season was unveiling itself into something special. Despite having raced GT3 cars for most of his tenure in Europe, the South African was still a rookie in the series. After half the rounds were completed,  Van Der Linde held a 33 point advantage over second placed Maximilian Götz.

Enter speedy Liam Lawson. 5 podiums in 6 races including two victories saw the Kiwi jump from fifth in the standings to Championship lead. Heading into the final round at the Norisring, Lawson was suddenly favourite to seal the title in his first time ever competing in GT cars.

Norisring, 10th October 2021. Liam Lawson’s Ferrari 488 rolls towards the finish line for the race start. The Kiwi starts from pole position ahead of the DTM field.

Lawson crosses the line to start the race, as he takes the first of the 8 turns that comprise the German circuit, a car dives down the inside practically pushing him off the apex of the corner unto circuit’s barrier. Lawson loses all positions bar one with the other victim, teammate Nick Cassidy dropping to last. The perpetrator? Kelvin Van Der Linde.

Van Der Linde would incur a 5 second penalty and a puncture that put him entirely out of contention which in all honesty may have been fair. Götz went on to win the title in a bit of a non race as sister Mercedes cars jumped out of the German’s way to secure the controversial title.

The backlash on social media was immediate, others displeased by the manufacturer orders (for lack of better term) and some wanted Van Der Linde’s head.

Here’s where a line has to be drawn. Many called for the exclusion of Van Der Linde which is fair, what is not fair is the online abuse that has unfortunately become commonplace in Motorsport circles. To express displeasure is one thing, but the only thing worse than the temperature jokes (honestly those suck) is the abuse, some of which is made by people who haven’t the slightest clue on who Van Der Linde is and how great and decorated a driver he is.

Maybe it’s bias but if we were to judge a driver off one particular incident then…. You don’t have to be a racing driver to fill that gap.

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