Hopes for a South African Grand Prix in 2023 have been dashed after a series of negotiations between Formula 1, the local race promoter and the owners of the Kyalami circuit broke down, RacingNews365.com can exclusively reveal.
Although Formula 1, owned by Liberty Media, is determined to stage a race in Africa, a new promoter is likely to be sought, with 2024 now the revised target date. The current promoter company, South African Grand Prix (Pty) Ltd, headed by Warren Scheckter – nephew of 1979 Ferrari world champion Jody, who is chairman of the company – has been informed of the decision, a source confirmed.
The decision means that the Belgian Grand Prix has been granted a reprieve for 2023, currently facing the axe after its contract expires this weekend, although RacingNews365.com understands that any further Grands Prix at the historic Spa-Francorchamps circuit will be contingent upon a rotational deal with another venue.
An announcement is expected this weekend, potentially as early as Saturday morning, with a provisional 2023 calendar (pending FIA ratification in October) subject to contract completion issued thereafter. The calendar is expected to list 24 races including a provisional Chinese Grand Prix, with the Belgian date back-to-backed with either the British Grand Prix in mid-July or with the Hungarian race later that month.
Why did the South African GP fail to materialise?
The major stumbling block for the 2023 race was a lack of tangible government support, with the South African Department of Tourism having been prepared to contribute via a special tourist levy but not issue guarantees.
Billionaire Patrice Motsepe, South Africa's richest man and President of the Confederation of African Football, initially held talks with SAGP with a view to funding the event on a loan basis, but the company was unable to meet the circuit lease conditions stipulated by Kyalami. Motsepe is the brother-in-law of South Africa's State President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Toby Venter, whose family trust controls Kyalami, has consistently stated that he would welcome a South African Grand Prix at the circuit, but "Not at any cost". He once pointed out to RacingNews365.com that every SAGP promoter had eventually fallen into liquidation…
Motorsport South Africa, the FIA's local sporting authority, had also expressed concerns about the compressed timeframe, pointing out that the country had not hosted a Grand Prix for 30 years. MSA President Anton Roux flew to the Austrian Grand Prix in July to discuss the situation.
Another stumbling block was that the South African circuit would require upgrades costing an estimated $15m to comply with FIA Grade 1 licence requirements. The tight timeframe for construction – an April date was targeted – combined with the promoter funding issues spelt an end to a 2023 race at the Highveld circuit which last hosted a Grand Prix in 1993, won by Alain Prost and Williams-Renault.
RacingNews365.com believes that a separate consortium is investigating taking on the project, potentially with funding from the Miami-based 777 investment company. A representative for the group, which acted as local promoter for Kyalami's Intercontinental GT Championship leg in February, is said to have visited F1 in London on Wednesday to open preliminary discussions.
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Dieter Rencken's insight
As a South African national I desperately hoped that a deal could be struck although I kept my optimism well in check: When a team boss told me in May in Spain, "We're going to race in your country next year, Stefano (F1 CEO, Domenicali) says so," my reply was succinct: "We're not…"
I have consistently maintained this position, so much so that when a media colleague approached me during the British Grand Prix and enquired as to why I was the only journalist – a South African national at that – who had not written enthusiastically about F1's pending return to Africa, my reply echoed that given to the team boss two months earlier.
This was not based on cynicism but on realism: I visited the South Africa in April (and again in July) and had met with folk across the motorsport spectrum, all of whom had expressed the same concerns: "Where will the money come from?" Saliently, this question was initially popped even before Liberty Media told team bosses, "We're going to Kyalami," and was repeated even more stridently thereafter.
Yet, social media posters, clearly desperate for followers, had it that an April date had been confirmed. This despite the fact that the stakeholders – F1, SAGP, Kyalami and MSA plus various government officials had not at that stage (nor to date) – attended a single meeting together! Equally, so flawed was SAGP's business plan that it called for 100k spectators packed in to a venue where 60 per cent of that is a massive squeeze.
I believe the imperative for a return to Kyalami – indeed, anywhere provided it ticked the 'Africa' box – came from activist institutional investors (and Lewis Hamilton) who questioned how much longer Liberty Media was prepared to stage a World Championship without an Africa leg. Thus, sudden pressure on SAGP, and, by extension, Kyalami, despite the country as a whole not being prepared for such an event.
Thus, in the final analysis, the pressure from F1 on South African was too much, too soon – with the only reasonable option being to postpone F1's return to Africa by a year. Still, I have nagging doubts that a further 18 months will prove sufficient unless something changes…
F1 Podcast: What life was like as an F1 mechanic 60 years ago
RacingNews365.com F1 journalists Dieter Rencken and Michael Butterworth are joined by Cedric Selzer, former chief mechanic to Jim Clark in his championship-winning year of 1963.