Sunday 18 February 2024

South Africa's 'only card to play' is the absence of an African F1 race - Roux

Kyalami Grand Prix circuit main straight, and pit facility. 
PHOTO CREDIT: Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit
Long, twisty, and undulating, are but a few words to describe South Africa’s journey to bring Formula One back to the African continent after nearly 31 years. 

South Africa's Grand Prix history dates back to 1934 when races were first held in East London, before a move to Kyalami in Johannesburg.

As the years ticked on, the day finally arrived, and in 1993 Formula 1 hosted its final Grand Prix in South Africa, which was won by Alain Prost in a Williams at Kyalami. But, despite the departure of F1, motorsport within the country continued to thrive, with various tin-top championships, and single-seater races continuing, including the MotoGP Championship that raced in the southern tip of Africa until 2004. 

Whilst MotoGP also departed, in came the A1 Grand Prix championship, which was first held in Durban, before moving to Kyalami, but as the years progressed, the 4.529-kilometer circuit located in Midrand, Gauteng fell into disrepair, and came close to being sold to property developers. However, a late bid from Porsche SA's CEO Toby Venter, meant the iconic circuit's future was secure. And with further investments, to the value of R100 million, Kyalami began their facility upgrade project, broadening the pitlane, constructing bigger garages, and a state-of-the-art conference facility.

With the upgrades completed, in 2016, the Kyalami Grand Prix circuit earned FIA Grade 2 certification, which means the circuit can host the FIA World Endurance Championship, as well as MotoGP, but to secure a Formula One return, Grade 1 certification is required, and to achieve this minor changes are required, mainly: run-off zones, and paddock facilities. 

Like many countries, there are governing bodies overseeing motorsport, and in South Africa,  Motorsport SA (MSA) sanctions all events in relation to rules and regulations, that emanate from the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC), as well as its membership with the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA). This in turn means that no international event, or no acknowledged international event can take place within South Africa without MSA issuing a permit. 

The revamped 17-turn Kyalami Grand Prix circuit.
Circuit Map Credit: Kyalami Grand Prix circuit. 
Speaking to Slipstream SA about Formula 1 at Kyalami, Anton Roux, MSA Chairperson and FIA Senate Member explains the changes required to the track: “They are small. It’s not an insurmountable problem. There are other bigger challenges that we would need to overcome, but the actual circuit is not the issue. The changes to the circuit are minuscule, it’s small!"

South Africa returned to the international spotlight in 2017 when the FIA World Rallycross Championship made its debut in Cape Town at the Killarney International Raceway, and just years later, the Intercontinental GT Challenge announced the revival of the famous Kyalami 9 Hour. 

In 2023, single-seater racing returned to the African continent in the form of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship, which raced in Cape Town, before it too departed, with hints of a possible return in the not-too-distant future. 

With South Africa well and truly propelled back onto the international stage, talks began regarding a potential return of Formula One to the Kyalami Grand Prix circuit, but if we were to rewind to 2011 when talks first emerged to host F1 in Cape Town, those talks never truly got off the ground despite the support of Anthony Hamilton, the father of seven-time F1 World Champion Sir Lewis Hamilton. 

However, renewed hope came in 2019, when former F1 commercial managing director Sean Bratches spoke openly about Formula One’s intentions to host a Grand Prix in South Africa, and soon after, talks were initiated to host Formula 1 at the Kyalami Grand Prix circuit, with Formula 1 CEO, Stefano Domenicali, visiting the country in 2022, where he got a taste of the 4.529-kilometer track on a hot lap with Toby Venter.

When asked by SkySports F1 about a return of Formula 1 to Kyalami, and why a deal has not been struck, Stefano Domenicali said: “Africa is still a continent that we are working very hard on. As I always said, we need to find the right partners and the right middle-term plan. What I want to avoid is that we go there for one year and then forget it. We are working, trying to find a solution for the best of the sport, for the best of the country."

Whilst initial talks proved fruitful with the South African Grand Prix (Pty) Ltd promoter, and Formula One Management (FOM), Anton Roux exclusively tells Slipstream SA that a deal to host Formula One at the Kyalami Grand Prix circuit “was incredibly close. I think everything was agreed.”

The South African Grand Prix (Pty) Ltd promoter came extremely close to sealing a deal with FOM, however, those talks were put on hold when South African President Cyril Ramaphosa deflected calls to have his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin arrested when he was set to visit the country for the BRICS summit after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin in March over war crimes related to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent war between the two nations. And, as a member of the ICC, South Africa is theoretically required to arrest Putin under the court's warrant.

Roux explains that “to bring a Formula One event to South Africa, you need all the parties. These parties are, the Formula One organization, the FIA, an international promoter, and a local promoter for such an event. And then obviously, you can't host such an event without approval from the government, and that is on a national as well as a provincial level.”

"So all of those agreements were in place” but “what you must remember is that Formula One belongs to Liberty Media, which is a listed entity on the New York Stock Exchange.”

He adds that “unfortunately at the time our government made comments that they're not quite sure if they would arrest Mr Putin if he were to arrive in the country for the BRICS summit. There was uncertainty around that, as well as the Lady R event that took place in Simon’s Town, Cape Town, where we had a Russian ship docking in the South African Harbour.”

“And, clearly when you've got the Formula One organization, and you've got a host of countries and cities around the world wanting to host a Formula One event, we were placed at a huge disadvantage and therefore they decided to pursue some of the other options.”

Asked whether talks between FOM and the South African Grand Prix (Pty) Ltd have restarted, Roux says he “doubts if it will”. 

“Cities like Las Vegas are putting down 500 million dollars to host an event. Now, if you are the owner of the series, then you’ve got to make a decision as to where you're gonna put future events. There's a financial benefit in it, as the owner of the series. So, we have a significant disadvantage, and the only card that we've got to play is that there's no event taking place on the African continent. That's actually all we've got!”, he explains. 

Factoring in hosting costs, according to, the highest 2022 Formula One hosting fee is 55 million dollars, which equates to over R1 billion for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, to 15 million dollars for the Jewel in the F1 Crown, Monaco. So, with that in mind, it’s quite expensive to secure high-level motorsport events, which requires a lot of investment and support from the local government. 

There is a tremendous hunger for Formula 1 in South Africa, as seen at the recent Cape Town E-Prix, with thousands of fans wearing team merchandise, including MotoGP fanwear, so there is no better time to see the return of either F1 or MotoGP to South Africa.

Slipstream SA asked Roux whether Kyalami could host a MotoGP race, to which, he said: “I’ve had no discussions with MotoGP whatsoever. So, I’m not in a position to comment on that.”

Brad Binder lapping the Kyalami Grand Prix circuit on his KTM Factory RC-16.
PHOTO CREDIT: Red Bull Content Pool
Whilst there are no talks, excitement reached fever pitch, when in 2022, South African MotoGP race winner Brad Binder returned home during the mid-season break with his KTM Factory Racing RC-16, aiming to set a new benchmark lap time around the Kyalami Grand Prix circuit, where no official track record has been set for a modern era MotoGP bike, and with a benchmark of 1:45.00 to target, Binder set a 1:42.26. 

When asked by Simon Patterson if Kyalami is ready to host MotoGP, Brad Binder said:  “Kyalami has the best pits, I think, out of most of the tracks we go to. So, as far as the actual facility is concerned, it's insane! It'll be perfect. But, there are a couple of areas where they need to move the walls back. So, that's the main thing that can stop us from returning to South Africa. The only thing they need to do is, there are two points in particular where they need to really give us a little bit more run-off. And, if they do that, I think we can go back.”

Despite Binder's positive endorsement of Kyalami, it is worth keeping in mind that deals are not struck by the click of a finger, but what bodes well for the country is that costs could be more affordable than F1. According to “In 2011, Motorland Aragon paid Dorna 6 million euros, rising to 7 million in 2012, for 41 million euros (which equates to R835 million between 2011 and 2012).”

Along with affordability and initiating talks come track alterations to cater to the specific needs of MotoGP, for example, and therefore, we asked Kyalami Spokesman Christo Kruger, are there any changes required to host MotoGP at Kyalami, to which, he said: “An event like MotoGP will require FIA inspection and approval. It is difficult to ascertain what changes may be required without professional telemetry simulations and analysis.”

“Kyalami is a host facility and not event promoters, so we have not reached out to MotoGP to assess the appetite/cost for a Kyalami race,” Kruger added.

QUESTION: Would you like to see Formula 1 and/or MotoGP return to South Africa? Please, let us know in the comments section! 

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