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South Africa’s Kyalami Grand Prix
Circuit has been in the news recently after being brought up by two of the world’s best Formula 1 drivers. Defending World Champion Max Verstappen said to Oracle Red Bull team’s exclusive fan club, The Paddock, “I’d like to race in Africa. So Kyalami would be a cool addition.” Seven-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton echoed this sentiment in an earlier interview with ESPN, where he professed, “Africa remains the only continent without a race on the current schedule. The one I really, really want to see is South Africa. That's the one I really want to hear next that gets announced.”
With reports that Formula 1 is in talks for a potential South African Grand Prix revival as soon as 2023, let’s have a look at what the Kyalami Race Track is all about, and why legends of the sport are calling for it to be added to the F1 calendar.
The storied history of Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit
Kyalami has actually been a part of Formula 1 since 1967, hosting the South African leg of the Grand Prix Championship. It became infamous for its dangerous track, most notably claiming the life of Welsh driver Tom Pryce in 1977, after which major edits were made to remove the treacherous “Leeukop bend” and “the Kink”.
The South African Grand Prix was discontinued for the 1986 season after sanctions were imposed to protest the apartheid government, and was revived shortly thereafter from 1992 to 1993, the last race of which was won by Alain Prost, who came out best in a huge battle with F1 heavyweights of the time Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna.
In 1993, the costs of holding a Formula 1 event proved too much to justify continuing the race by the South African Automobile Association, which had recently acquired the track, and since then it has not returned to South Africa, let alone Kyalami.
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How soon can the track be F1 ready?
A few decades later, the Kyalami race track has been revamped and modernised, and is currently very close to meeting the International Automobile Federation (FIA)’s compliance standards for Formula 1. Out of all race tracks in the country, moreover out of all race venues on the African continent, it comes the closest to being able to do so.
In an interview with Wheels24 in 2021, Toby Venter, Kyalami’s now-owner and CEO of Porsche South Africa, said, “The most important thing is that it's safer than a street circuit. The FIA would need to come over for inspection, and they'll ask for some upgrades, like installing the sport's hi-tech (Tecpro) barriers here and there.”
Despite having close to the necessary infrastructure, another barrier to entry is the issue of cost: the ultimate reason the race has not returned since 1993. Hosting an F1 Grand Prix is a huge undertaking, requiring a massive capital investment, a competent and passionate event promoter, as well as support from the government. Venter said of this undertaking, "We want to have a race in Africa, and we want someone to pay for it. If the money is there, the race will happen. And, if F1 is desperate to race in Africa, even without the money, we have the track." He added further, "If there is no way the government will fund the sport, we have the track; Formula 1 has the show; there must be a deal somewhere."
What else can you do at the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit?
The 77-acre Kyalami race track property went up for auction in 2012 and Venter’s bid of R205 million clinched the deal. Other prospectors were looking to demolish the structures in favour of building housing complexes, but Venter had a vision to preserve the magic of the track, improve it, and find other ways for the property to bring in more revenue.
As such, the pit building, used for motoring events, is now also the Kyalami International Convention Centre. It hosts a huge variety of events, not just motorsport related, including conferences, exhibitions, private functions, trade shows and more.
Ultimately, one thing is for certain: there is no shortage of die-hard petrol-heads in South Africa who would do anything to see the South African Grand Prix return home once again.
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