One of the most thought-provoking statements the new CEO of Formula One Stefano Domenicali has made since assuming office in January 2021 has been the announcement that there “will be an F1 race in Africa within the next five years”. That unequivocal pronouncement led to speculation as to whether this meant a return to Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit, the premier motorsport facility on the African continent, or whether one of the other fast-emerging countries in Africa would be vying for the national prestige that comes with staging a global event like an FIA-sanctioned Grand Prix.
Ever since the last Grand Prix was held here in 1993, there has been much talk of another South African Grand Prix and several possible venues have been touted. Perhaps the most intriguing from a tourist-showcase point of view is the idea of a street-circuit GP, with Cape Town’s Waterfront and Sea Point areas being the most viable. Another far-fetched idea is that of creating an entirely new circuit at a venue in the Elgin area, just beyond Sir Lowry’s Pass, while Durban has also been mentioned as a possibility.
Probably the most significant event in rekind‐ling global interest in a South African Grand Prix occurred the day Toby Venter, CEO of Porsche South Africa, bought Kyalami race circuit at auction in 2014. Venter and his team have since invested a significant amount in Kyalami (the investment figure, including the purchase price, currently runs to ±R600 million) to bring it in line with Grade 2 FIA requirements to stage international sportscar racing events. The two Kyalami 9 Hour races held were hugely successful, although until recently, Venter has said on record that hosting a Grand Prix at Kyalami would be a fantastic coup for the track.
Domenicali’s African announcement in March this year, however, naturally put the focus back on Kyalami as a possible venue and when we contacted the circuit owners, we were referred initially to a company known as SAGP, which has been in existence since 2015, formed with a specific goal of hosting and promoting a South African Grand Prix after a hiatus of some three decades.
Warren Scheckter is the man heading up SAGP. Those who have at least a passing interest in F1 history will know his name has huge significance in South Africa motor racing. Warren is the son of multiple South African champion Ian Scheckter, who won four consecutive Formula Atlantic drivers’ titles from 1976 – and nephew of our only F1 champion, Jody Scheckter. Jody is on the board of SAGP, along with Keith Doig, formerly corporate financial director at brewery giant SAB-Miller as well as Jabu Mabuza, former chairman of Eskom and Sun International who recently passed away from COVID-19 complications.
Warren grew up with motor racing in his veins and, after moving to the US in the 1990s and obtaining a master’s degree in sports business management as well as an MBA, he worked for NASCAR, a US race-circuit management company, and Wayne Taylor Racing in the IMSA series, where he was involved in sponsorship procurement for more than a decade. He is currently based in Europe.
“After forming SAGP, we looked at possible venues for staging a Grand Prix, including Cape Town, Durban in KZN, and others. We soon realised the only venue that made sense was Kyalami, not just because of the historical significance of the track, but almost everything we need to host a Grand Prix is already in place,” says Scheckter.
“Since then, we orchestrated visits to the track from top F1 officials; most notably Chase Carey, who was CEO of F1 after taking over from Bernie Ecclestone in 2017. Delegates from the FIA also visited the track. During these vis‐its, SAGP facilitated meetings between F1 and many top South African government officials.”
Kyalami’s proximity to Johannesburg was taken into account because to stage a Grand Prix, you not only need circuit infrastructure, but also access to the track and accommodation for approximately 90 000 fans, many of whom will be travelling from overseas.
“The question has been asked: does South Africa need another Grand Prix? The answer to that is an emphatic ‘yes!’ It sends out a message that South Africa is still the major player in Africa as far as being an economic power‐house and, not insignificantly, as a tourist destination. We have proved as a country we can organise a mega-event when we hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2010. As the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, a Grand Prix in a few years would be just the sort of boost the country needs,” adds Scheckter.
Of course, the cost is massive, running into the hundreds of millions of Rands. The question about funding was addressed by Scheckter, who explained staging a South African Grand Prix would be extremely “costeffective”.
SAGP is looking to raise much of the funding from the private sector, although some will need to be provided by government, either nationally or provincially. “The Gauteng Province is probably our most likely partner. The SAGP would provide thousands of jobs in the province, bring in tens of thousands of tourists and would not just be a one-off event. Typically, F1 negotiates contracts for a race to run for at least five years.
An independent economic impact study has confirmed the benefits in tax revenues alone from the event would easily offset the costs.”
SAGP was all set to host the F1 Festival in Sandton last March when the pandemic hit. This is a street course-based event that involves generating excitement for F1 outside of an actual race. Pukka F1 cars (the previous year’s specification) had been committed by Mercedes, Red Bull and Renault. “This is an F1-hosted event and SAGP was the contracted promotor.
We had several sponsors in place, as well as all the infrastructure. We had shipped out historic F1 cars to South Africa, such as Jody Scheckter’s 1979World Championship-winning Ferrari. We were just two weeks away from the event when we were forced to pull the plug as a result of the global lockdown.”
SAGP now plans to run the F1 Festival in 2022, probably mid-year. More importantly, Scheckter says Kyalami could be hosting an SA Grand Prix as early as 2023. The promoter stresses every effort will be made to ensure a large portion of the planned 90 000 tickets will be made affordable for the man on the street.
“We are hoping to secure a GP date towards the beginning of the 2023 season.”
As for Kyalami’s circuit owners, Toby Venter and company have played host to F1 and FIA delegates who have visited Kyalami with a view to greenlighting a South African Grand Prix. “The FIA has done simulations of the required changes to the circuit which would involve reprofiling some of the corners to promote overtaking. New Tecpro barriers will also need to be installed – which would be expensive – and further grandstand facilities need to be erected.
“As yet, no contracts have been signed but we have worked closely with SAGP to this point, and have had some encouraging meetings with the people from F1 and the FIA. I am quite confident we will have a South African Grand Prix; it’s not a matter of if, rather a matter of when.” Venter says he and his team continue to make improvements to Kyalami, and the track is close to the level required to achieve a full Grade 1 FIA rating. However, he stresses he would not enter into any sort of agreement that would put the future viability of Kyalami at risk.
“It’s not just about money. We want to ensure Kyalami remains a racetrack long into the future and do not want to be forced to turn the venue into a shopping centre or commercial business park.”
Venter says the track has shaped his whole life. He first visited the venue back in 1967 as a 12-year-old when John Love nearly won the South African Grand Prix. “I remember wondering why he was so upset because I thought it was brilliant for him to come second driving an old Tasman Series Cooper against the top F1 teams at the time.”
He agrees a Grand Prix at Kyalami would reignite the passion for racing that existed all those years ago, for people of all ages and all races. “That’s what Kyalami has always been about: a 9 Hour endurance race and a South African Grand Prix.”
The history of Kyalami
The last Grand Prix held at Kyalami in 1993 saw two of the all-time F1 greats duelling it out for the lead (pictured on page 104). Lap after lap, Ayrton Senna in a McLaren-Ford held off Alain Prost in a vastly superior Williams-Renault, but eventually the inevitable happened and Prost drove to victory.
That race was run 31 years after the first F1 Grand Prix was held at Kyalami, the 1961 non-championship event won by the late Jim Clark in a Lotus. The first World Championship Grand Prix at Kyalami was in 1967 when it was almost won by Rhodesian John Love in an outdated Cooper-Climax before he had to stop for extra fuel.
Mexico’s Pedro Rodriguez was the winner in a Cooper Maserati, the last GP win for both Cooper and Maserati. So yes, the track has a storied history. Niki Lauda scored his first comeback win in 1977 after his fiery Nürburgring accident the previous year had nearly claimed his life. Two years prior, Jody Scheckter won his home Grand Prix in a Tyrrell, to the wild acclaim of more than 100 000 fans.
It is interesting to note how much planning is required to run a modern Grand Prix in contrast to 60 years ago. In March 1961, members of the SA Motor Racing Club gathered at a farm in Kyalami, midway between Johannesburg and Pretoria and decided it would be a good venue for Jo’burg’s new track. By May of that year, the first cut of the proposed circuit was made by then mayor, Dave Marais, at the helm of a bulldozer and the circuit was officially opened on 4 November 1961 with a 9 Hour race. On 9 December 1961, the first (non-championship) Rand Grand Prix was held at Kyalami, just nine months later.
Jim Clark of Scotland won that first race for Lotus, and two years later he would be world champion. Clark also won the 1968 South African Grand Prix for Lotus; it would be his last Grand Prix win. These first and last wins at Kyalami bookended the career of greatest racing driver of his era. Sadly, a few months later he lost his life in a Formula Two race at Hockenheim, Germany.
By Stuart Johnson