The South African Grand Prix meeting was becoming something of a New Year's tradition for the Formula 1 circus, with Kyalami once again hosting the biggest race in the African calendar. The circuit itself had been resurfaced since 1967, with the owners also deciding to widen the circuit to promote better racing. Yet, the circuit would be be the only thing to receive a revamp for the first round of 1968, as the new Grand Prix cars were not ready bar a couple of developmental creations. B.R.M. were one of the only teams to field a new creation, with the Len Terry designed V12 engined P126 available for the team. Mike Spence was now their lead driver after Jackie Stewart had left the team, taking his tartan seat with him, with the Englishman getting first choice of their trio of cars. Stewart's replacement would be Mexican racer Pedro Rodríguez who had signed from Cooper-Maserati, and it would be he who got to drive the new car throughout the weekend.
Stewart's departure was down to the influence of his de facto manager Ken Tyrrell, whom had supported the Scot through Formula Two. Tyrrell had been drafted in to run the new Matra International effort in Formula One, the French Formula 2 manufacturer making the step up to the big time in 1968. Their first full blooded Formula 1 car, the MS9 was handed to their new lead driver, featuring a Cosworth DFV engine as the original exclusivity deal with Team Lotus had ended, although it did not form part of the monocoque. They had Jean-Pierre Beltoise as their second entry, although the Frenchman would be using a ballasted Formula 2 Matra, entered by Matra Sports. Speaking of Team Lotus, their cars were identical to those that had completed the 1967 season, with only a couple of minor sponsorship additions to the livery. Jim Clark had a brand new car for the season, although it was only the latest of the original 49s, while Graham Hill used the car he had driven for most of 1967. Both of the cars had the latest version of the DFV engine in the back, although the team would run with only minor support from Keith Duckworth and his engineers now that their exclusivity deal had ended.
The only team who had looked to be a challenger to the Lotus effort during 1967 had been eventual World Champions Brabham-Repco, and they were also largely unchanged, mechanically, from the end of the previous season. They only entered one car on the original list, that being for new driver Jochen Rindt, whose arrival had given World Champion Denny Hulme the chance to leave the team. Jack Brabham then added his name to the entry list that was eventually submitted for the meeting, with the two Brabham racers using the 1967 BT24.
The World Drivers Champion had taken the chance to join Bruce McLaren's Formula 1 effort, having teamed up with his New Zealand compatriot in CanAm over the previous couple of seasons. The World Champion was the only entrant for the team at the opening round, using the 1967 car, the McLaren M5A with the BRM V12, now painted orange in tribute to their American triumphs. McLaren himself would attend the race to run the team, with the brand new car set to appear in time for the start of the pre-season in Europe. The third New Zealander in the field could be found in the form of Chris Amon, who would be spending a second season clambering into the cockpit of a Ferrari in 1968. The Italian team were finally back up to full strength, signing up promising youngster Jacky Ickx to the team to partner Amon for the season. They also opted to enter a third car for the South African Grand Prix, with Italian racer Andrea de Adamich taking the wheel, as they fielded three 1967 cars, although all of them had updated engines producing 408 bhp.
Another team for whom South Africa would simply arrive too early were Cooper, who were now under the control of John Cooper once again, Roy Salvadori having left the team. They would be using the new B.R.M. V12 for their 1968 machinery, but with the new cars still testing, the team were forced to enter their evolved 1967 cars. It had also been a difficult winter for the team as Rindt, Rodriguez and Ickx abandoned the team, leaving them to sign up Ludovico Scarfiotti and Brian Redman to race for them at the season opener, the latter only confirmed when he went out to practice at the start of the weekend.
The final two entries among the manufacturer field would be two regular runners from previous seasons. Dan Gurney was one of them, using his familiar Eagle-Weslake designed by Carroll Shelby, although it had revised trumpet style exhausts. The other car would be the Hondola of John Surtees, which was unchanged from the Mexico round but entered as the RA300. The rest of the field would be made up of privateers, headlined by the rather beaten up Cooper-Maseratis of Jo Bonnier and Jo Siffert. Other headline names would be Rhodesian pair John Love, who almost won the South African race in 1967, and Sam Tingle, using different cars under Love's Team Gunston banner. Dave Charlton, Jackie Pretorius, Basil van Rooyen and Tony Jefferies completed the field in a mix of modified Formula 1 and Formula 2 cars and engines to represent South Africa.
Practice and qualifying were scheduled together as was usual for Formula 1 in the 1960s, with three days of practice pencilled in, taking up Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Quite a few mechanics would be delayed on a late Boxing Day flight, while a fair number of drivers would miss out on running in the first session as their flight a day later was half a day late. All sessions would last for a couple of hours and run in the late afternoon, with the top runners aiming for the circuit record, set by Jack Brabham when he took pole with a 1'28"3 in 1967. The new, wider, track surface should have meant quicker times from the field, particularly when combined with a season's worth of revisions to a number of cars, even if they were basically the same as the season before. As if to demonstrate this, Jim Clark went out right at the start of the Thursday session, and in just four laps broke through the 1'28"0 barrier, smashing Brabham's record. Speaking of Brabham, he was steadily winding himself up to speed throughout the day, comfortably ahead of new teammate Jochen Rindt who was trying to get used to the new car.
For the rest of the field, or at least those that were actually on the ground in South Africa, it would be a day of problem solving to combat high temperatures. Ferrari saw Andrea de Adamich go second quickest quite early on, before his car began to have fuel temperature issues, the Italian getting the benefit of the fact that Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx were stuck on the plane. Pedro Rodríguez was another absentee, and although Mike Spence was helping to set up his car, the new B.R.M. V12 was proving temperamental in the heat. Also struggling were the now dated Cooper quartet, with the factory cars unable to overcome the times of the Rhodesian racers John Love and Sam Tingle.
The paddock was back up to full strength on Friday morning, although there would be quite a few headaches, physically and mentally, as the temperatures climbed again. It seemed as if the only driver who went without issues was Clark, with the Scot smashing through his own fastest time from Thursday, without having any heating issues. The other impressive runner would be Jackie Stewart in the similarly powered Matra-Ford Cosworth, with the young Scot ending the session only slightly slower than Graham Hill in the second of the Lotuses. Again, Friday would be dominated by trial and error runs for many of the teams as they tried to combat overheating issues, with Dan Gurney looking particularly impressive, until the Eagle-Weslake boiled its fuel pump. Brabham-Repco were having similar difficulties, Rindt managing to close to within half a second of Brabham as he got familiar with the car, while Amon ended the session as the best of the Ferraris. B.R.M. and Cooper were really suffering at the back of the field, their older cars well off the pace while the V12 BRM engine, which the new Cooper would use, was simply being outclassed by the development version in the back of Denny Hulme's McLaren.
Saturday was the coolest of the three days, yet the mechanics were still attempting, and needing, to play around with cooling systems, with some innovative solutions. McLaren, for example, installed a series of ducts and shields overnight, only to find that the additions only aided in deflecting the heat of the engine back towards the engine, while Cooper decided to use a rather viscous cooling fluid that looked like a cherry puree. Most of the teams used the more conventional system of cutting nose cones to allow more wir into the radiator, while Ferrari decided to bolt an additional rad to the side of their cars, although this solution was not overly successful. As for times, nobody was able to touch Clark, with the Scot recording a stunning time of 1'21"6 to beat teammate Hill by a second to claim pole. Stewart also impressed, forcing the new Matra round to get within a tenth of Hill, while Rindt found a couple of tenths over new boss Brabham, the two Brabham-Repcos finally curing their cooling issues by removing pipe work and replacing it with water jackets around the bodywork. John Surtees got the Hondola ahead of the Ferraris, who were led by Adamich, while Dave Charlton was the best of the locals, as almost every driver got within the old circuit record.
Sunday was a day of rest in South Africa, the mechanics were allowed to work at a rather more leisurely pace to prepare the cars for race day, with very little celebration over New Year's Eve. Most teams had been busy either swapping engines or changing cooling parts, with a rush to complete work on Monday morning, as temperatures once again rose, leaving the tarmac at a scalding 130°F (54.4°C). All of the cars were allowed to do a warm-up lap before the start, with the twenty-three strong field lining up on the grid proper for the start just before 3:00 pm.
There would be shock at the start when the flag fell, as Jackie Stewart sent the brand new Matra-Ford Cosworth screaming down the outside of the circuit to take the lead into the first corner, beating the two Lotuses off the line. Jim Clark did get away relatively well to slot into second, although he was someway behind his countryman as the field braked for the first corner, although he was in a better position than his teammate. Indeed, Graham Hill had made a total mess of his start, and only a brave dive on the brakes into turn one saw him stay in the top seven. End of lap one and Clark was already glued to the back of Stewart, with those two already pulling away from the rest of the runners, headed by Jochen Rindt. The Austrian was at the head of a strong looking chase group, with John Surtees, Jack Brabham, Chris Amon and Hill joining him, with a large gap back to the rest of the field. Dan Gurney was the best of the rest, battling with Denny Hulme and Andrea de Adamich to try and break away and catch the leading group.
The second lap saw Lotus make progress, starting with Clark moving past Stewart with a sublime move into Clubhouse Bend. Hill then took two cars in the chase group, moving past Gurney, who had suddenly leapt into the chase group, and Amon, before tagging onto the back of Brabham. There was more shuffling in the second group as Jacky Ickx elbowed his way past Denny Hulme, while Dave Charlton continued to threaten the top ten, until his transmission began to play up, putting him into the pits. Before Charlton was withdrawn, however, there would be an odd incident involving one of the factory Cooper-Maseratis at the back of the field. Ludovico Scarfiotti was forced to stop at the back of the circuit when the front of the car erupted in a cloud of steam, with water vapour pouring over the cockpit. The Italian then leapt out of the car and immediately got out of his overalls, which had been soaked with boiling water, particularly around his legs. An ambulance brought Scarfiotti to the circuit medics before a helicopter lifted him to hospital, with the Italian diagnosed with first degree burns.
The factory Cooper team were soon beginning to pack up their equipment once Brian Redman retired, compounding the miserable start to their season. Elsewhere, de Adamich had got back on terms with Gurney, with the Eagle-Weslake going off colour soon after, allowing Ickx and Hulme to go past a few laps later with relative ease. Elsewhere, Jo Bonnier found himself in an interesting tussle, battling away with Jean-Pierre Beltoise, John Love and Basil van Rooyen, the latter two also in a fight to be the best of the locals once Charlton was out. Back with the leaders and Clark was already on his own, Stewart trying valiantly to keep with him but was simply powerless to keep the Lotus in sight. Brabham, meanwhile, managed to force his way past teammate Rindt without allowing Hill to tuck underneath the Austrian, although his race was ruined by an worsening engine issue. Brabham was beginning to fall away as the lead group further broke up, while Rindt was keeping Hill at bay by over a second while slowly inching closer to Stewart.
Just before Hill finally managed to deal with the Austrian, someone had dumped a lot of oil through the Clubhouse Bend midway round the lap, creating a sizeable oil slick. Hill and Rindt slithered through without issue, as did most of the top ten, until de Adamich came charging through in the second of the Ferraris. It was only the Italian's second Grand Prix start, and when he hit the oil at full speed de Adamich was too heavy on the throttle to correct the sudden understeer. The Ferrari was therefore sent into a pirouette at high speed, the spin only broken by the safety barrier on the inside of the circuit, generating an undamaged driver, and a rather bent scarlet car.
B.R.M. were out of the race soon after this, as Pedro Rodríguez retired the new V12 car after numerous stops to try and cure a fuel vapour issue. Brabham was also out when a valve broke, before van Rooyen dropped out with a head gasket failure, leaving just fifteen runners. Surprisingly not among the retirements was Gurney, whose engine had suddenly picked up and allowed him to breeze past Hulme, just as Ickx claimed Surtees with an excellent move into Crowthorne Corner. Surtees was having goggle issues, and once Hulme and Gurney had gone past, the Englishman was forced to stop for a fresh pair, having neglected to wear a second set which was a dying trend. Further up the road, and Hill had finally moved into position to strike at Stewart, and when the Matra understeered wide through the highspeed Sunset Bend, the Englishman went up the inside for second. Stewart almost managed to challenge into the slower Clubhouse Corner, but it was not long before Hill began to pull a slight gap over the Matra, which was really struggling with understeer as the race came up to half distance.
Just before half distance the field took another hit when Sam Tingle retired, leaving fourteen cars on the circuit, while Gurney lost out to Hulme again after a quick stop. At half distance Clark was reigning in his pace, holding 23 second advantage over Hill, who was now two seconds clear of Stewart. It was not long after this that the Matra dropped out of the race, the engine crying enough in the heat and breaking a connecting rod, ending any threat to the Lotuses at the front of the field. The race was now winding down, the only fight being a slow burner between Jo Siffert and Beltoise, with the Frenchman slowly closing in on the Swiss racer at the lower end of the top ten. Ickx, meanwhile, would end his impressive Ferrari debut when an oil line failed, throwing the Belgian into a spin when it let go, although he was able to keep the car out of the barriers.
Gurney, meanwhile, would never manage to catch up with Hulme after making another stop, the car ultimately retired when the oil pressure disappeared completely near the end of the race. The final laps saw the Siffert/Beltoise fight drag on for a few laps, with the lightweight Matra finally getting the advantage into Crowthorne Corner to get past, into what had eventually become a points paying position. At the front, meanwhile, Hill had eased his pace to the point that Rindt was closing in, and as they started the final ten laps, the Austrian was less than ten seconds back. Clark, rather than Hill, used this as a signal to push on, with the Scot recording a new lap record at 1'23"7 as the final laps ticked away.
Rindt would never catch the back of Hill before the end of the race, getting within five seconds on the final lap as Clark crossed the line to earn a record twenty-fifth career victory. Hill made it a one-two without really being troubled by Rindt, who was a content third on his Brabham debut, over two laps ahead of the next car. The car was the sole surviving Ferrari of Amon, which had been forced to pit for fuel in the closing stages, leaving him just a few seconds up the road from Hulme, who opened his title defence with a fifth place finish for McLaren. Sixth, and the final point, went to Beltoise who held a small gap over Siffert to the flag, with Surtees and John Love the last of those to be classified.
Victory for Jim Clark saw him top the early standings, with the Scot's victory looking fairly ominous for the rest of the runners. Graham Hill was a very healthy second and would potentially be the only challenger to the Scot, having equal machinery, and only time would tell whether the Lotus-Ford Cosworth reliability issues from 1967 would return. Jochen Rindt, Chris Amon, Denny Hulme and Jean-Pierre Beltoise were the other first round scorers. There was a great deal of variety on the board for the Intercontinental Cup for Manufacturers, although the advantage at the top was very much in favour of Team Lotus. They headed the pack with a five point gap over Brabham-Repco, with Anglo-Aussie effort opening a second title defence. Ferrari, McLaren-B.R.M. and Matra-Ford Cosworth were the other scorers, the latter of that trio scoring their first points.