Formula 1 Racing in South Africa – What Can We Learn from the Past?

The global growth and popularity of Formula 1 racing was clear to see at the most recent Grand Prix event in Miami, Florida, held during the weekend of 6–8 May 2022. The biggest names in sport and entertainment, including the likes of Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Serena Williams, Matt Damon and David Beckham (to name but a few), were in attendance – evidence of the fact that F1 has now gained “must see” status in the United States. For celebrities these races also represent important platforms where they themselves need to be seen in order to signal their own status at the top of the social tree.

Much of this growth in popularity of F1 racing has been the result of Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” documentary series which has now completed four seasons. By taking viewers behind the scenes within the various F1 teams and showcasing the personalities, failures and triumphs of the individual drivers, the series has succeeded in humanising the participants, thereby making them more relatable to the average racing fan. This appears to have had a major impact on the United States market, where viewership has doubled in recent years. Liberty Media, having purchased F1 for $4.4 billion in 2016, has overseen a rapid turnaround for the sport commercially and has boldly set its sights on expanding the series with a particular emphasis on the United States. In fact, 2023 will see a third US leg being added to the series – namely a night race in Las Vegas to accompany the existing legs in Austin, Texas and Miami, Florida.

This naturally raises the question as to whether Formula 1 might return to South Africa at any point in the near future? After all, Africa is the only continent without a Formula 1 Grand Prix and South Africa used to be a fixture on the F1 calendar from the 1960s to the mid-1980s. Dr Gustav Venter, Head of the Centre for Sport Leadership at Maties Sport, argues that there are some significant historical forces that need to be considered when assessing whether a return to South Africa might be feasible in the future. “One of the research themes pursued by the Centre for Sport Leadership entails the historical relationship between sport, politics and society in South Africa,” says Venter. “If one considers the historical arc of F1 racing in South Africa, one encounters some revealing historical elements that can inform the present-day debate.”

His own research recently set about exploring this relationship, which dates back to 1962 – the first year that the South African Grand Prix formed part of the Formula 1 World Championship. That year’s race was held in East London, the birthplace of the South African Grand Prix – the first edition of which took place on a 24km Marine Drive street circuit in 1934. The circuit was subsequently shortened and renamed as the Prince George Circuit, hosting four more South African Grands Prix prior to World War II. After the war it took more than a decade for the South African Grand Prix to make its return in 1960. East London continued to play host to this event up to January 1966.

But as the 1960s wore on there was a power shift towards racing in Johannesburg, particularly after the construction of the Kyalami circuit in 1961. Beginning in 1967, Kyalami went on to host nineteen consecutive South African Grands Prix – all but one of which formed part of the Formula 1 world championship calendar. The last of these events took place in 1985 during the height of political turmoil in South Africa as apartheid was entering its final phase. After South Africa’s re-entry into the international fold Formula 1 briefly returned to a modified version of the Kyalami circuit in 1992 and 1993, with Alain Prost winning the latter event. Nearly thirty years have passed since then, with South Africa yet to host another Formula 1 Grand Prix.

“A couple of interesting aspects stand out when looking at Formula 1 racing in South Africa historically,” says Venter. “Most notable, perhaps, is the fact that the South African Grand Prix was largely unaffected by the international sports boycott applied to South Africa and was therefore able to continue uninterrupted throughout the 1970s and into the mid-1980s during a time when other sport codes such as cricket, rugby and football were increasingly being isolated internationally.” From a structural standpoint Venter argues that it would have been difficult for the non-racial movement to disrupt an event such as the South African Grand Prix since it would have been financially impossible to try and create a non-racial alternative given the costs involved in racing. Furthermore, the Formula 1 circuit very much enjoyed competing in South Africa as local organisers spared no expense to make the teams and drivers feel welcome, with the famous Kyalami Ranch Hotel, situated near the circuit, offering luxurious seclusion to racing visitors from around the world.

However, in terms of assessing the future feasibility of Formula 1’s potential return to South Africa, Venter points to some key historical forces that are still at play today: “First and foremost is the cost of maintaining high level racing circuits on the one hand, and hosting a world championship Grand Prix on the other. Throughout the history of high-level racing in South Africa numerous circuits experienced financial difficulties, including Kyalami itself. It is very difficult to maintain a world class facility for the purpose of one Grand Prix weekend in a year, knowing that there are another 51 weekends on the calendar that need to be filled with revenue generating events. Hosting a world championship Grand Prix – especially today – is not a profitable exercise and incurs massive costs for the local organisers and hosting country. This has very much been the case historically as well.”

Venter’s own research argues that Formula 1’s departure from South Africa after the controversial 1985 event had less to do with the political climate at the time and instead came down to economics. “Media reports at the time indicated that it was ultimately the South African race organisers themselves who withdrew their application to host the 1986 event due to a weak Rand. South Africa’s currency had nosedived in August 1985 in the wake of President PW Botha’s infamous Rubicon speech, thereby creating significant financial difficulties for race organisers given that their hosting contract was negotiated in US Dollar terms.” 

As far as Formula 1’s brief return in 1992-3 is concerned, a key element was large scale financial backing from the South African government keen to market South Africa to international tourists in the immediate aftermath of the apartheid era. “But this proved unsustainable,” says Venter. “The government soon began to scale down its support, and the combination of a further weakening Rand as well as the financial collapse of the Tollgate Holdings Group – a large umbrella company which held various racing interests – meant that Formula 1 was not going to return to South Africa any time soon. The 1993 race was reported to have made a R1 million loss despite government and sponsor backing to the value of R17 million.”

Venter argues that this historical analysis of South Africa’s relationship with Formula 1 racing offers some keen insights on the present-day situation. “The world of Formula 1 racing has become hyper-commercialised to the point where only the wealthiest of nations or most supportive governments are realistically able to attract these events consistently. We have seen the rise of Asia and the Middle East as highly sought-after racing destinations over the last decade or so, coupled with the expansion of the American footprint more recently. This does not bode well for South Africa – a country facing numerous economic challenges and certainly not in a position to take on a sporting event that would likely be described as a vanity project in many circles. Economics has been a decisive historical variable ever present within the world of Formula 1, and it continues to be so in the present day.”