F1 flirts with a return to SA

How different would motorsport in South Africa be if Formula 1 stuck around? Once a popular stop on the circuit, the South African Grand Prix never recovered after it was belatedly pushed out of apartheid’s borders. For years since we’ve been getting the odd hint that it may return,but they turn out to be nothing more than that. Perhaps not until now.

Fuelled by the ambitions of idealistic new owners, the sport has openly flirted with returning to the country; an idea that will have its popularity tested at the first F1 festival on African soil later this month. But is a return something we should push for?

There are no shortage of offshoots to that question. To begin to understand them we put the suggestion of a grand prix in South Africa to Ellie Norman, appointed as the F1’s director of marketing and communications in 2017.

“South Africa has a very special place in F1 history,” she says. “The track at Kyalami is iconic and provided some amazing races in its time, alongside a legend of the sport, Jody Scheckter, who was the world champion in 1979. Additionally, Africa remains the last habitable continent we don’t currently race on and, as we have said before, we remain committed to returning to South Africa in the future.”

When that future is, exactly, is the crucial unknown variable. As committed as the F1 says it is, there is no possibility of making any big move into any region on the continent until it has done its thorough due diligence and determined that it makes sense for its bottom line and global brand.

And why now, 27 years since it last raced in the country? The explanation begins with the state that F1 finds itself in.

When Liberty Media procured the company from rapacious billionaire Bernie Ecclestone in 2017, it soon realised his long-established model was no longer sustainable. Under the business magnate, F1 sought to make much of its income from the exorbitant fees it charged host nations for the privilege of hosting a grand prix and the high sponsorship rates luxurious brands paid to advertise on its platform. The problem is that when that elite well begins to dry up there is not much in the way of a contingency plan.

It was clear the elitist, male-marketed sport would have to find a broader appeal if it was to survive. And instead of relying on a narrow stream of income, it would fish for profits in a far wider audience pond. Streaming, social media and interaction are the cornerstones of the future of most major forms of entertainment and F1 could no longer think of itself as an exception.

First, it needed a facelift, a process that began with the appointment of Norman, the first woman hired as an F1 executive. She has overseen an attempt to bring fans closer to the track and make it easier for them to relate to the drivers they follow. A small but effective example is the interviews now held directly after a race, which showcase the grimy effort its participants have just gone through. The Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive is the perfect microcosm of this new outlook. Also gone are the “grid girls” — the bikini-clad women who served little purpose other than to stand under an umbrella and offer sex appeal before the lights go out at the starting line.

As Noman tells it: “We are focused on serving our fans, creating amazing spectacles, improving the racing on track and utilising new and conventional forms of media to expand the reach of the sport.  We have evolved greatly since 2017.”

Another strategy the F1 has used to broaden and increase its followers is what it terms “destination races”. The idea is to bring grand prix closer to popular tourist destinations and combine them with local entertainment. To this end, the 2020 circuit will feature more locations (22) than we’ve ever seen in a season. That includes next month’s stop in Hanoi, Vietnam, on a street track built specifically for the occasion and the embodiment of the new philosophy.

The reason for F1’s interest in Africa is now becoming clearer. The general feeling in the motorsport community is that South Africa, where the last grand prix on the continent was held, is the obvious choice. But as true as that may be it’s return to the country is not a given. F1 has already confirmed that it has “proactively been approached” by Marrakech, Morocco, to hold a race there. South Africa and the North Africans have a history when it comes to clashes on sports’ bureaucratic stage and it’s not hard to envision the two going at it once again.

All of this comes back to whether South Africa wants a grand prix — and whether it can afford one.

“It always comes down to the funding,” says South Africa’s Desiré Wilson, the only woman to win a F1 race and the co-owner of a racetrack design company with her husband. “We’ve been involved in various negotiations for grand prix — one in China and one in the States — and I can tell you the cost is ginormous. Then you have to have enough people that are going to pay an awful lot of money to go see the event. A basic promoter does not make money. It has to be government funding subsidised like it is in Australia and 80% of the countries. So someone has to come up with an enormous amount of money.”

Just how much money we can’t be sure, because all host negotiations and agreements are kept fiercely secret. Still, there’s been enough leaks and financial disclosures over the years to piece together a good understanding, which is precisely what Forbes F1 writer Christian Sylt did. According to his estimate the annual hosting fee begins at $31.5-million.

Providing an adequate facility is an entirely different endeavour, one that could cost anywhere from a few million dollars to $250-million, depending on what option any potential organisers opt for. That could be a street race, which, as in Hanoi, could involve the construction of an entirely new course , or the upgrade of an existing one — the most likely option in South Africa which has the Kyalami circuit.

But it might not be as easy as it sounds.

“The hoops we’ve got to jump through to get design approval,” Wilson exclaims. “I mean, they literally tell you what you have to have in the control tower; tell you how many offices you have to have; the medical centre has to almost be a small hospital and placed exactly on the track where they tell you to place it. So it’s not just ‘here’s a racetrack, let’s go race on it’.”

What’s in it for South Africa? Well, that’s a little more difficult to calculate. The locals, it’s fair to assume, will not produce a ticket yield that comes close to making up the costs. Rather, the government, should it turn out to be them that foots the bill, will hope for as many foreign visitors as possible — making up the deficit with exposure, hotel stays and the usual tourist benefits. Job creation is another buzz phrase likely to be thrown around.

For Scheckter, South Africa’s most successful racing driver, there’s not much debate to its merits.

“As I understand it, the track is not that far off,” says Scheckter, who is the president of South African GP, an organisation set up with the primary purpose of returning grand prix events to South Africa. “I think they want to have a grand prix in Africa and South Africa is the obvious place, so let’s hope they can put everything together.

“[Yes, it costs a lot] but also it brings a lot to the community and to the country and brings a lot of money in, so they’ll look at all of that to see if it’s worth coming in. It will be a long process, but it has to be worthwhile for the country.”

For now, fans will have to be content with Scheckter taking a spin at Kyalami in his 1979 title-winning Ferrari at the F1 motorsport festival this month. It may not be a grand prix, but the event, which will also feature modern racing technology, is as much engagement as the sport has offered South Africans in a generation. Just how it will evolve from here is a debate you might as well get used to.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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