Why An African Formula 1 Grand Prix Will Never Happen

Opinion / 15 Comments

There are simply too many obstacles in the way.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I just don't see a South African Grand Prix being successful.

Yes, it's a lovely concept in theory. Formula 1 will finally be the global championship it claims to be, adding the last populated continent to the mix. And it's the number one politically correct answer whenever somebody asks an F1 driver where'd they'd like to race next, considering there is a spot that needs filling. Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen have both said they'd love to race around Kyalami, but I just can't see it happening.

And this is coming from somebody who'd also love to see a South African Grand Prix because I adore the place. The people are beyond friendly, and the food is sublime. A favorable exchange rate also means the average middle-class American can go to South Africa and live like an English lord.

Kyalami Race Track/Facebook Kyalami Race Track/Facebook

The South Africans will also welcome you with open arms because a large chunk of their income is tourism-based. Unlike some places (I'm looking at you, Paris), tourists are waved in and treated like royalty because the people are genuinely happy that you chose their country as a holiday destination.

South Africa is also safer than you think. It has a bad reputation, which is somewhat justified. As with most other countries, you simply need to be aware of your surroundings and do the proper research before going over. Most of the crime is petty and opportunistic.

What do you expect in a country with an unemployment rate of 35.3%? The government gives the unemployed a social grant of R350 per month, roughly $22. Do you let your kids go to sleep hungry that night, or do you quickly nab a smartphone off a table while nobody is watching?

Kyalami Race Track/Facebook Kyalami Race Track/Facebook

Why am I telling you this? All of the above information is necessary to understand why a South African Grand Prix won't work. There's more, so let's keep on going down this path.

According to South African studies, the average worker in SA earns R23,982, roughly $1,500. At that salary, you're part of an exclusive club. It puts you in the wealthiest-12%-in-the-country bracket. We'll circle back to this in just a minute.

South Africa's national sports also deserve a special mention. They are rugby, a more hardcore version of football, and corruption. Seriously. South Africa has a severe problem with corruption. Look no further than the last time it hosted a significant international event for proof.

After the 2010 FIFA World Cup, a massive corruption scandal emerged. Stadiums were built at massively inflated prices, and now they're scattered across the country like white elephants.

Kyalami Race Track/Facebook Kyalami Race Track/Facebook

The current chairperson of the ANC's (the political party in charge of SA) anti-crime and corruption committee went to prison for corruption. To get the full extent of just how rampant corruption is, just Google South Africa and the name Gupta.

Hosting a Grand Prix in South Africa would cost roughly $25 million if we look at the fees the one-off hosts are paying this year. That's what South Africa would have to fork over just to host the Grand Prix locally. The South African government doesn't have $25 million. It still owes the International Monetary Fund $4.3 billion for COVID-19 relief, most of which was lost to corruption. Recently, the committee charged with investigating how to improve the lives of those hit hardest by the virus made the news after ordering a bunch of expensive cars, like the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Kyalami Race Track/Facebook Kyalami Race Track/Facebook

That means the private sector would have to fork over the hosting fee, and the owner of Kyalami is not willing to do it.

With that much money on the table, the South African government will find some way of getting in on the action. If there's money on the table, you can bet it'll want a piece of it. We're talking here about a government that wants to tax people for solar power. It literally wants to interfere between a private citizen and the sun.

But, even with all of the above in mind, it is possible from a cost point of view. South Africa has a self-made billionaire president, and he can afford the entry fee. I'm also reasonably sure a group of companies can get together and pay the bill, resulting in a significant return on investment in marketing.

Kyalami Race Track/Facebook Kyalami Race Track/Facebook

And Kyalami is a sublime track. It's not ready for F1 yet, but getting it ready will require minimal effort, and Kyalami's owner is more than happy to pay for that. I've been around the track several times in my life, and it's a riot.

In an F1 car, it will be a technical challenge. Kyalami has a straight, but it's relatively short compared to most international circuits. It also has the infamous Mineshaft, where you pick up some great speed, only to get hard on the brakes to make a 90-degree right-hander.

The suburb of Kyalami is also neatly located within spitting distance of the fanciest hotels and facilities in Johannesburg, so the teams have somewhere nice to sleep.

Kyalami Race Track/Facebook Kyalami Race Track/Facebook

But now, back to the bad news. Keep in mind that the total cost is nowhere near $25 million. The host also has to pay for everything else related to it. The track needs security and marshalls. It requires large-scale catering to keep everyone fed, hydrated, and happy. Once you start adding these things together, the total cost can quickly escalate to $40 million.

The host(s) have to make that money back somehow because a return on investment via media exposure won't be enough. The only way to make it back is ticket prices.

This brings us back to the average income in South Africa and the average price of an F1 ticket. Japan has some of the cheapest tickets. The cheapest three-day pass is somewhere in the region of $100 per person. Unless you want to leave the wife and kids at home, you're looking at $400 without factoring in any other expenses.

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Right at the beginning, we mentioned the average South African's income was around $1,500, and that's the wealthiest 12% of the country. Spending $400 is not an easy ask. A recent report suggested that the average South African's salary is spent within five days. Attending a Grand Prix will require months of saving just to get a cheap seat.

I don't see it working, especially considering the primary mission a South African Grand Prix will inevitably have. You want to expose the pinnacle of motorsport to as many people as possible. An entirely new generation of South Africans, considering the last South African Grand Prix took place in 1993. Young people, in other words. The kind still working entry-level jobs and who are obsessed with Drive to Survive.

But South Africa simply can't afford an F1 race in more ways than one.

Kyalami Race Track/Facebook

I say all of the above, hoping that I'm proven wrong. I hope the FIA does Kyalami a solid and cuts the hosting price. I hope the hosts do the South African public a solid and cut the cost of tickets to a level the average South African can afford. I hope government officials are banned from the race. The president can come and hand over the trophy, but that's it.

But the world is greedy, and I just don't see it happening. If it does, I'll be the first to report on it and admit that I was wrong.

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