Another week, another (South) Africa F1 Grand Prix project; or two and maybe three: No sooner had plans to promote a 2023 South African Grand Prix at Kyalami collapsed acrimoniously over a lack of funding, no fewer than two alternate projects to stage a round in Africa’s most southerly country emerge.
Simultaneously, there is talk of possible Grands Prix in Rwanda and Morocco, the former as part of a pie-in-sky tourism complex on the Equator; the latter riding on the back of Formula E and World Touring events held there previously. Why this fixation with hosting the globe’s most capitalist of sports on the poorest of continents?
African GP push comes from investors
In a nutshell: A determination by F1’s commercial rights holder, Liberty Media, to fill a glaring gap on its world map, a void that has been picked on by activist investors, primarily in the USA. When you’re a public entity relying on institutional funding you take activism seriously, so Liberty President / CEO Greg Maffei in May publicly targeted a SAGP, stating that Johannesburg - read Kyalami - was the most likely venue.
When the top man in a public company makes such public pledges they need to be actioned fast so, by mid-June, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali was off to Johannesburg - despite having been cautioned that the project was wholly unrealistic.
A month later an F1/FIA contingent undertook venue inspections - the word is $15m is needed to upgrade the circuit - sparking some (very) loose talk that a deal was done.
‘Not so’, RacingNews365 continually advised readers, pointing out that the spirit to deliver a race was undoubtedly willing, but that the funding was unquestionably weak. By the end of August it was apparent that the project, headed by Warren Scheckter - nephew of Ferrari’s 1979 World Champion Jody, named Chairman of SAGP (Pty) Ltd - was a non-starter.
The (shaky) Belgian Grand Prix was given a one-year reprieve.
Still, all this irresponsible talk raised the hopes and dreams of tens of thousands of South African F1 fans, but who cared: Such stories are prime clickbait to be exploited across the globe and Liberty, of course, revelled in coverage as such stories implied squabbles for races, in turn boosting FWONK share price.
Hence F1’s commercial rights holder regularly talks up demand, all too prematurely at times.
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Potential options for SAGP
Under Liberty, F1 runs on rumours, hi-octane, Pirelli rubber and share price but not necessarily in that order.
Hence there was 'No comment' as to why the ‘most likely’ race is now most unlikely to happen anytime soon. After all, why dampen sales talk - no matter how unrealistic - when leaving speculation in the public domain feeds shareholder value?
Far from dampening talk, the demise of 2023’s race fed an F1 frenzy: RacingNews365 understands there are currently three ‘SAGP bids’ out there: A consortium working with Miami entertainment and media investor Group 777, another by a mining magnate who visited Singapore’s GP hoping to secure an East London-based race - the Indian Ocean city hosted 1962/3 and 1965 SAGPs - while the third centres on Soweto.
Such schemes are, though, no surprise: Immediately after the 2023 project bombed, I remarked (not so) tongue-in-cheek to senior F1 figures that the easiest way of scoring freebie F1 passes is for wannabe SAGP promoters to announce SAGP plans; equally, claiming to be bidding for a race is a sure way of hitting prime time national news and front page headlines, so emotive (and exploitative) has the issue become down there.
Of these, the 777 ‘bid’ is believed to enjoy (tacit) support from Kyalami, which clearly wishes to rent out its circuit, but only to credible entities. The issue, though, is that 777 are opposition to Liberty, so it is complex. The second project is believed to be a non-starter, being at the rudimentary single-page proposal stage, if that. This leaves the third, punted this week amid much fanfare.
Situated on the outskirts of Johannesburg, the sprawling metropolis takes its name from apartheid-riven SOuth WEstern TOwnship and is allegedly being targeted for a SAGP - to be staged in and around the nearby NASREC exhibition centre.
It is being fronted by Bobby Hartslief, a former wheel bearing salesman/turned Kyalami ‘owner’ whose press release for the Soweto project claims he has been “instructed” to bid for the event.
New South African organiser?
"South African entrepreneur Bobby Hartslief, the man responsible for saving the South African Formula 1 Grand Prix in the early 1980s, has confirmed that he is instructed to put together a bid for a new South African Grand Prix," the release says.
"The event is proposed on a new street circuit to be constructed at the Nasrec showgrounds adjacent to Soweto, south of Johannesburg."
"Bobby Hartslief organised and promoted five South African Formula 1 Grands Prix at Kyalami between 1981 to 1985. He then managed the affairs of three-time Formula 1 World Champion Nelson Piquet, before returning to South Africa.
"Hartslief later designed and built the Phakisa Freeway at Welkom, where once again against all odds, he organised, promoted, and ran six MotoGPs at the Free State circuit."
Maybe so, but said circuits were permanent with none of the set-up costs of street (or arena) layouts, plus the venues suffer enormous disruptions pre- and post the event.
Baku’s circuit build takes up three months annually, while Miami’s stadium circuit is said to have cost $40m. Consider: a metre of Techpro barrier costs around $1000, and these are usually specified on both sides. Add in other costs and numbers quickly spiral.
Still, whatever or wherever the venue - with or without (South) Africa’s socio-economic challenges - it requires more than a bag of gold. In these times of corporate accountability, when F1’s over-arching regulatory framework is decided not in Paris but by New York stock exchange oversight committees and by the whims of investors, it is imperative that any F1 project is squeaky clean and beyond reproach.
Thus, it is concerning that that contemporaneous reports are less than flattering about Hartslief.
In a 300-page treatise A History of Organisational Change: The case of Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), 1946–2020, Oslo sport management professor Hans Erik Nass describes the controversial ‘purchase’ of Kyalami: "The new buyer Bobby Hartslief, who had an anonymous backer, acquired the track for R1.4m."
"Later investigations by South African journalists claimed [Bernie] Ecclestone issued guarantees as part of a deal which included payments to Ecclestone approved by [apartheid-era] Minister of Sport, [and later Prime Minister] F.W. de Klerk.
"Only after it was removed from the [F1] calendar was Kyalami sold to a local company."
For clarity: At the time the circuit was owned by Ecclestone, who acquired the facility at a bargain price in lieu of debt. Thus, local folk spoke about a ‘front’ to enable F1 to race in apartheid South Africa without taint.
Hartslief was again painted in a dubious light by South Africa’s Noseweek magazine in its August 2004 edition, which references alleged irregularities at Phakisa raceway in an article headlined Africa’s Grand Pricks.
"There is nothing in the auditor-general’s report to give the impression of a properly run, well-founded business with long-term goals. It seems much like a smash-and-grab raid on the Free State [province] treasury."
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Hartslief has questions to answer
Saliently, the investigative monthly introduced the article thus: "If you aren’t a Free State taxpayer or true-blue motor-racing enthusiast, you’ve probably never heard of [ex-politician] Webster Mfebe or Bobby Hartslief.
"If you are, their names will probably send you running for crucifixes or silver bullets," adding that Hartslief sidestepped questions about his involvement in SAGPs backed by the then-apartheid government.
The foregoing is but a fraction of what has been written about Hartslief and the tragedy is that South African F1 fans are again having their hopes fanned and emotions toyed with by opportunists, only for reality to hit – as it must.
The Soweto project has already been given short shrift by South African motorsport figures, one describing it as “bullshit” and another as “total rubbish”.
Yet, despite all these ominous signs on the internet, various publications who recently claimed a deal had been done for a 2023 SAGP – even suggesting a date was set and headline sponsor secured - trumpeted the Soweto project, amassing innumerable clicks in the process.
They can point to flowery press releases and ‘exclusive’ interviews as justification, but outlets have a responsibility towards readers to check facts.
Crucially, there is a belief in South Africa that the country has a divine right to a F1 grand prix; that it is the only nation on the continent able to pull off such a feat. Yet consider: there are 200 sovereign states and 24 grand prix, but only 21 host countries - Italy and USA host multiple events - so just 10% of countries get to stage a grand prix each year. Where is the entitlement in that? Grands Prix are earned, not proclaimed.
What South Africa needs above all else is a united and concerted effort to stage a Grand Prix at a sustainable venue, backed by the country’s motorsport administrators, business leaders and local and national politicians and promoted by a credible, well-funded entity doing it for all the right reasons. That means NO ego trips.
The fact is that the South African Grand Prix narrative was loudly driven by Maffei, who did Liberty, F1 and millions of fans no favours at all with his premature claims.
Thus, it is up to Liberty to squash talk about future ‘bids’ until all diligence is done and dusted for a specific project with more than a reasonable chance of flying for the next five years, minimum.
That is the least Liberty owes F1 fans, and not only in South Africa; above all, Liberty owes its investors and partners a ‘clean’ business case, rooted not in activism but realism - whether dealing with Rwanda, Morocco, South Africa or any other country or continent.