South Africa is making another bid to return to the Formula 1 spotlight, with the latest bid proposing a street circuit on Cape Town’s foreshore. F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone is set to meet with event organisers in the next few weeks.
The proposed 5-kilometre layout would run through stretches of Green Point, Sea Point and Mouille Point, all while providing spectacular shots of the world famous Table Mountain.
The bid is apparently one of three from South Africa, but the first to be at the stage of presenting its plans to Ecclestone, following some twelve years of research and development.
A spokesperson for the Cape Town Grand Prix Bid Company has claimed that the circuit layout and location could rival the Monaco Grand Prix for its spectacle. They added that the proposal has secured support from the city and provincial governments, the country’s motorsport body, and “potential investors”.
They added that a street circuit – rather than the alternative of a permanent road course – was preferable on the basis that early investigations showed it to be the cheaper option. Organisers also hoping that the race could occur in the month of September, with the inaugural race earmarked for the 2013 season.
Grand Prix racing actually has a lengthy history on the African continent, dating back as early as the 1920s when races were held in the (then) colonial cities of Tunis, Tripoli and Casablanca. By the 1930s, the southern nations were interested, and the first South African Grand Prix occurred in 1934 near the city of East London.
When F1 entered the modern era, it took a little while for it to make it to the African continent, with Morocco hosting its only Grand Prix in 1958, in which Stirling Moss won and Mike Hawthorn finished second to take the championship title. But the event was marred by the later death of Stuart Lewis-Evans, who died after sustaining burns when his engine below.
By 1960, South Africa played host to its first race at East London, although it would only achieve championship status by 1962 where it played host as the season finale before the race moved to the newly-built Kyalami circuit at Johannesburg.
Run at high altitude on a daunting high-speed circuit with plenty of elevation changes, the race was hugely popular until it was eventually dropped in 1985, when the sport’s powerbrokers decided that the cloud of apartheid warranted the country being sanctioned from many major sporting events.
When apartheid was eventually lifted, the race returned in 1992 and 1993 – sadly on a horribly emasculated Kyalami circuit – but it wasn’t a commercial success and the event’s promoter was arrested for fraud shortly afterwards.
A return to the African continent by Formula 1 has long since been on the cards, but the continued poor performance of the local currency – as well as concerns over crime, HIV/AIDS and the country’s rather-too-chummy relationship with its northern neighbour Zimbabwe – have kept this as little more than a pipedream.
In recent years, however, enough funds in the petty cash tin were spared to host some A1GP races on a street circuit in Durban and on the Kyalami track, and there have also been attempts to build new circuits at Johannesburg and Durban.
But the country has proven – with the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and the FIFA Football World Cup in 2010 – that it can host major international events, and it is hoped that the government’s interest will be sparked by this proposal.
I’ll confess to having more than a little interest in this story, as I was born in South Africa and the first-ever race I attended was the 1992 Grand Prix at Kyalami.
But I harbour some concerns as an ex-pat, and would like to play devil’s advocate…
The first concern lies with the country’s Sports Ministry, which has gone on the record as saying that F1 is not a sport of the people (such as football, for example) and it would therefore be reluctant to support it unless there was a realistic possibility that a black South African could compete in F1. Former GP2 and A1GP pilot Adrian Zaugg (pictured left) was the closest to fitting that bill, but Red Bull dropped him from their academy some time ago and little has generally been heard from him since.
And while South Africa managed to pull off a very successful 2010 FIFA World Cup without too many hiccups, the cost of the event was some 12 billion Rand to the local taxpayers – mostly in the form of the new stadiums that are now costing a fortune to maintain, as it typically the case with many major international sporting events.
Another concern are the rather considerable fees that Formula One Management likes to charge for the privilege of a country hosting a Grand Prix. The weak Rand would see a South African Grand Prix promoter running at a loss unless it could secure a huge attendance figure and do so while charging exorbitant entry fees for spectators. Events such as Malaysia, China and Turkey (and one shortly suspects, Korea) are proof that high ticket prices – combined with a market that doesn’t have a big presence on the international stage – will keep crowds away in droves.
Perhaps the greatest concern is that very little of significance happens in South Africa without some under-the-table wheeling and dealing, where corruption is seemingly a hidden constitutional right. Certainly Bernie Ecclestone is mired in enough corruption allegations at the moment to avoid wanting to be tarred with yet more speculation…
Many of the previous involvements in F1 from South Africa have been mired by allegations of corruption. Recent sponsorship of the Renault and BMW teams by South African government-backed organisations were brought down by allegations of collusion and improper spending. What typically occurs is that a small group of people tend to land up earning the big financial windfall, while the broader enterprise crumbles around them. Just ask former A1GP Tony Texeira (pictured right, a South African) about the failures of that series, and you have but one of many examples…
If these hurdles can be overcome, then a race could certainly happen in South Africa, but it seems – at least for now – highly improbable…