Formula One will come to Cape Town, but not as a street circuit

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Updated: July 16, 2010

Following the successful hosting of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the nation is chasing other major sport events with renewed vigour, and Formula One is no exception.

Over the weekend, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone reaffirmed his belief that Formula One will come to the African continent this decade, and the leading city is Cape Town. Eccelstone told BBC radio that “We’ve been talking to the people in Cape Town…We’re talking about building a circuit. It’s probably about three years away. That’s what I would like to see. I would hope so. I’ve been hoping that for five years.”

South Africa enjoyed a healthy dose of Formula One from the inception of the sport. Cape Town was the first city to host an international Formula One Grand Prix in 1960 at the Killarney Race Circuit. The following year the saw the likes of Sterling Moss compete at the same facility but poor financial planning by the promoters lost the event for the venue.

The last time a Formula One race was held in South Africa was in 1993, at the Kyalami circuit in Midrand, north of Johannesburg. Kyalami also held a race in 1992, and from 1967 through to 1985. Prior to that, the Prince George Circuit in East London held events in 1962, ’63 and ’65.

The financial benefits are seemingly obvious; Formula One is the single most expensive sporting code per event on Earth, and returns to each track year after year. Mega-events like the Olympics come along once every few decades and place considerable strain on a city’s finances. It has been suggested that Athens 2004 played a considerable role in the Greek financial crisis which struck only this year.

The news spread rapidly and inevitably Dave Gant, CEO of the South African Grand Prix Corporation, was asked to clarify or even ratify the statements.

Gant has spent the better part of the last decade working to bring Formula One to Africa, and in particular, Cape Town. He has spoken to Ecclestone a number of times on the potential of adding Cape Town to the F1 calendar. Plans for a racetrack facility near the airport were in advanced stages about three years ago but were squashed by the former cabinet of the Western Cape, who backtracked after formally getting behind the project.

Speaking to 567 Cape Talk’s John Maytham late yesterday afternoon, Gant confirmed that the project is very much still alive. “The focus has now moved to a multi-purpose facility, which will include a racetrack as well as industrial and wider business opportunities, with a particular focus on socio-economic upliftment for the area concerned.”

This was the proposed facility near the Cape Town airport.

While he was unable to elaborate further due to sensitivities with the ongoing negotiations, he did detail the financial difficulties of staging a Formula One event: “While the event represents a huge earning opportunity, the license fees and the cost of promoting it mean the facility has to be cross-subsidised.”

This is one of the reservations he has against a street circuit in Cape Town. “While I agree that a street circuit in the Mother City would rival the very best, even Monte Carlo, for beauty and spectacle, it remains a romantic idea which I think is not financialy viable. There is no way for the promoter to capture the crowd, something which Durban learnt the hard way [after staging the A1 Grand Prix].”

Ecclestone has made a direct contribution to developing motorsport in South Africa, through his involvement with the South African Kart Racing Academy, SAKRA, a Section 21 charity training youngsters from all backgrounds for a possible career in motorsport, with the ultimate aim of having a South African in a Formula One car in the near future.

Gant feels strongly about the growing the culture of motorsport in SA, and in that sense, by staging a street race, there is no way to leave a legacy behind once the Formula One roadshow packs up at the end of the race weekend. A purpose built facility has the potential to become a foundation for all motorsport.

While Ecclestone mentioned 2013 as a possible date, Gant believes 2015 is more likely: “I feel it is inevitable that Formula One will come to South Africa, most likely in the next five years, and most likely to Cape Town. I don’t think it will be a street race, but rather at a purpose built facility, of which I hope to reveal details soon.”

Ciro De Siena

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