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FIA/F1 delegations visit Kyalami as deadlines loom for South African GP

Talks are continuing over F1 making a possible return to South Africa, but there is no deal in place just yet, a Motorsport SA chairman has confirmed. RacingNews365.com Editorial Director Dieter Rencken provides an update on the situation.

Two delegations representing Formula 1 and the FIA respectively are due to visit Kyalami in South Africa this week as talks about returning the country to the F1 calendar continue. RacingNews365.com understands that F1 Sporting Director Steve Nielsen, Craig Wilson, F1 Head of Vehicle of Performance and Richard Springett, F1 Principal Engineer - Circuit Engineering, are due to visit the circuit for facility and circuit checks today, Monday the 18th of July. The FIA's Head of Circuit and Rally Safety, Stuart Robertson, is scheduled to inspect Kyalami's eligibility for a Grade 1 (F1) licence on Tuesday. The circuit currently complies with Grade 2 standards and is believed to require considerable upgrading to meet the higher standard, including asphalting over 50,000 square metres of runoff areas, currently gravel. Some corners are likely to need reprofiling and their runoff areas extended, while team garage access is too restricted by F1 standards. As per FIA protocols, the medical heliport will need to be relocated away from the paddock, out of sight of prying eyes and cameras. The area behind the garages is said to be too tight for team hospitality and administration – none of these issues are insurmountable, but cost money to rectify. Although the circuit would not provide details, a source with knowledge of the situation estimates the total costs of upgrades to be: "Between four and six million dollars, depending upon exactly what needs to be done. But the problem is time: It is now almost August and they're targeting an April date."

Circuit upgrades required at Kyalami

Of greater concern is the funding of any upgrades: Kyalami’s owner, Toby Venter, has repeatedly told RacingNews365.com that he is fully in favour of returning F1 to the Highveld circuit by renting the circuit to a promoter willing to stage the race, but not at any cost. SA Grand Prix (Pty) Ltd, headed by Warren Scheckter, nephew of 1979 World Champion Jody who is chairman of the company, holds a tentative agreement with F1 to promote a Grand Prix, but does not currently hold a contract with Kyalami. It is unclear as to which party would cover the costs of upgrades, given the venue is fully booked throughout the year and the majority of upgrades would be F1 specific, while the work required could result in the track being closed during the upgrade programme – with subsequent loss of business for the circuit. Equally, the South African government refuses to be directly involved with the event. Furthermore, of greater concern to SA stakeholders is that no deals are in place yet, with Motorsport SA chairman Anton Roux late last week telling SA media outlets: "While all parties are in [verbal] agreement and are pushing hard to get a deal together, no legally binding agreements have yet been signed. We are hopeful of finalising matters within weeks and making a subsequent announcement."

Deadlines looming for prospect of SAGP

Asked about widespread news and social media reports that a five-year SA Grand Prix deal had been finalised, Roux said: "Unfortunately, there is a lot of fake news about the event." Indeed, in true South African fashion fake tickets are already on sale! Some of the 'news' reports have it that the event is to be title sponsored by freight giant DHL, an F1 commercial and logistics partner. However, DHL SA spokesperson Megan Collinicos has denied this to be the case, telling Johannesburg's Beeld newspaper: "Any rumours about the race are just that." While Scheckter's SAGP company would be promoter of the event, in terms of FIA protocols MSA is the organiser, being responsible for ensuring the event complies with FIA standards, regulations and formalities. Roux, an FIA Senate member and successful South African businessman, last week attended the Austrian Grand Prix, where he held discussions with FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem and F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali. Kyalami last hosted a Formula 1 Grand Prix in 1993, having previously staged events from 1967-1993. Africa is currently the only inhabited continent without an F1 leg, although the FIA's World Rally Championship and Formula E series have rounds on the continent. Hence the imperative for F1 to be represented in Africa, particularly given its equality push. No race in Africa makes a mockery of that. In order for F1's 2023 calendar to be finalised during the sport's summer break, all agreements – including financial guarantees – need to be in place by end-July. The Belgian Grand Prix, currently out of contract, is said to be on standby.

Dieter Rencken comments:

This weekend I returned from a private visit to South Africa where I met with various SAGP stakeholders, plus spoke to local F1 fans across the spectrum. The phrase that best describes the overarching sentiments is 'optimistic cynicism' – optimism a deal will be struck, cynicism that a) a Grand Prix will eventuate, and if so b) the timeline and restraints are such that they fear a shambles. The other thing I picked up is that there is considerable frustration about the lack of tangible progress: Almost six weeks have passed since F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali visited South Africa to engineer a deal, at time of writing at most four weeks remain before the 2023 calendar needs to be finalised. Some spoke of even tighter timelines: the deadline for completion of agreements is said to be 31 July. Forget not that SAGP (Pty) Ltd was formed in 2016, so has had over six years to get overarching agreements in place, yet not even a circuit usage deal has been agreed, nor who will pay for the upgrades. All this means there is now a race against time – at the height of a recession in a country hit by massive unrest and natural disasters – to secure funding to meet expectations fuelled by F1 bosses and Liberty Media suits. I consider it strange that, due to stock market regulations, F1 and its parent company Liberty usually shut down all speculation about forthcoming events – such as the Miami and Las Vegas Grands Prix – until deals are done and dusted, yet in this case they carry on as though bullet-proof agreements are in place when they patently are not. Being privy to some of the details, I am also absolutely astounded about the inaccuracy of some media reports, and all more so that the record is not put straight by those who know better. True, a SAGP may still eventuate, but at this stage nothing formal exists, only sheer optimism and unbridled enthusiasm for the event. F1 is, of course, sitting pretty: By publicly punting a race it is seen to throwing its all at plugging a glaring hole on the world map; if no deal happens, it points to its attempts to stage a race in Africa, then turns to any number of its fall-back options such as Spa all while South Africa and Kyalami are potentially left with shredded reputations. Yes, (South) Africa should by any standards be included on the F1 calendar, but to force through a fixture at such short notice does nobody any favours: not F1, not the country, not Kyalami, and last but not least, those passionate South African F1 fans who have regularly had their expectations boosted then been badly let down. Better all-round to take a long-term view and slot Belgium in for 2023 while readying South Africa and Kyalami. Who knows, there may be dropouts by 2024, enabling Spa to remain on the calendar, ultimately delivering the best of both worlds, not least for me: Being a dual national, I'd have two 'home races.'

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