SA is an F1 non-starter

2011-04-09 19:16

April Fools’ Day sparked a frenzy with news that Formula 1 (F1) would be returning to South Africa. But as the race goes on in Malaysia today, local fans can only lick their lips.

While it was a mere joke, it has left F1 enthusiasts wondering why this country is so far away from letting its people enjoy the race from a local circuit.
Many might not be aware of SA’s rich racing heritage.

The very first major racing event took place in 1934 on the Prince George Road Circuit, near East London, in Eastern Cape.

The Kyalami Grand Prix circuit saw F1 for the first time in 1967, right through to 1985 when F1 decided against any further visits due to apartheid.

Sadly, we’re a long way from bringing it back, not for any political reasons, but because it has such huge cost implications and a lack of “international standard” infrastructure.

Motorsport South Africa chairman Francois Pretorius says if any F1 event is to come back here, it has to have lasting benefits for the country.

“Just like the (Fifa soccer) World Cup left us with brand new stadiums, F1 would have to leave a legacy for South Africa.

“But first we need to develop and grow the sport here. Most importantly, we have to get the youngsters into it,” he says.

Pretorius adds that there have been a number of initiatives that haven’t yet been successful.

“We’re nowhere close to even putting a date down on paper.

“There have been ideas and talks to the powers-that-be, where F1 is concerned, but we just can’t meet the requirements at this point – mainly because it’s just too expensive,” he says.

Pretorius also says South Africa would need about R65 million for the F1 plan to materialise.

“And that’s just for the rights to host the event here.

“We would need a five-year contract with bank guarantees in place and detailed guarantees just for the first year of the event – and that’s only a
proposal,” Pretorius says.

“I attended the final F1 race in Abu Dhabi last year and there was some serious money spent. We’re talking at least R3 billion just for one race.”
The other problem is that none of the current circuits in SA comply with F1 regulations.

Says Pretorius: “It would be cheaper to build a brand new circuit than to improve the safety at Kyalami.”

Motorsport veteran journalist Peter Burroughes concurs with Pretorius that the country has no circuit capable of hosting an F1 race and that a huge amount of money would be needed.

He says: “We need to build a circuit from scratch and that would cost more money than the government might
have to give. That’s a figure of R200 million.

“Then we need to pay Bernie Ecclestone (president and chief executive of F1 Management and F1 Administration) to bring his circus to town.”

Burroughes also says the rumour during the Top Gear Festival that David Coulthard’s (former Williams, McLaren, Red Bull driver) visit last month was to scout the country for an F1 venue was not true.

“That is utter rubbish as the only person who gives the go- ahead is the F1 circuit inspector, Charlie Whiting.”

One need only look at the list of titles next to Whiting’s name (race director, safety delegate, permanent starter and the F1 technical department head) to get an idea of the important status he occupies.

The man basically manages the logistics of each F1 Grand Prix, inspects cars before a race, enforces FIA (International Federation of Automotive) rules and controls the green-red lights at the start of each race.

Burroughes adds that the government doesn’t understand the infrastructural needs to host the F1 here.

“The realities are clearly defined by the FIA Formula One. There’s a company trying to push Cape Town as a venue. Its plan has been to build a circuit around the V&A Waterfront and the Green Point Stadium for the longest time now, but it’s just not viable,” he says.

“While SA requires more important things such as housing, sorting out education, job creation and crime, F1 won’t be coming our way any time soon.”

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