By Michelle Hambly-Grobler
Our very proud and very illustrious motor racing history gives all petrol heads in our beautiful country of South Africa hope. Hope that one day we will see a proudly South African Grand Prix once more. Hope that either Cape Town, with its possible street circuit,
or Johannesburg, with its World Class Kyalami race track, may host this premier event. Hope that a generation of young and eager petrol heads in this country will one day be able to witness, yet again, an event that was part of the international circuit for so long. Hope, that by hosting world class events, we will continue to be a world class travel destination for many more tourists, bringing prosperity and investment for all citizens of South Africa.
Why bring Formula One Racing to South Africa you may ask? To understand why we would have to look to our past, our history. We have to chronologically track the men and women, over time, who have participated and grown the racing culture in South Africa. Instead of attempting a synopsis, which would not give these incredible talents enough kudos, I would rather like to extol a book written by Greg Mills titled, ‘Agriculture, Furniture and Marmalade: South African Motorsport Heroes.’ Mills’ book is a brilliant and masterful chronicle and ode to the history of Motor Sport Racing in South Africa. The book covers those Southern African stars who made it as drivers, engineers, mechanics, and promoters in international motorsport. From Woolf Barnato’s three victories in the Le Mans 24 Hour classic, to the era of Sarel van der Merwe. The title, you may be wondering, was inspired by a conversation between Jody Scheckter, our only Formula One World Champion to date, and Jackie Pretorius. On his departure for fame and fortune to England in 1971, Jody was advised by Jackie to learn some ‘big’ words to impress the Europeans. The three he insisted on giving were, ‘agriculture, furniture and marmalade,’ preferably to be used in conjunction with
South Africa, one must remember, is already on the map internationally. It is a destination that truly delivers. We have the most glorious weather and a very eager and enthusiastic car ‘verskrik’ (crazy) culture. I myself, being an ex race car driver and car collector, form part of this environment and know that there are many of us eager to participate and facilitate in turning this dream into a reality. The Kyalami race track, located in Midrand, Gauteng has been used for Grand Prix and Formula One races in the past and was the host for the South African Grand Prix many times. We have done it before, why not again? Among some of the prestigious events hosted at the Kyalami track, was the 1975 South African Grand Prix, which saw our very own World Cup champion, Jody Scheckter, win the race. We saw British driver, Jim Clark, winning the race four times and Niki Lauder, from Austria, taking the South African title three times.
Kyalami is firmly cemented in the hearts and minds of racing fans from around the globe. This became very clear to me when I had the privilege of meeting the American former racing driver, Danny Sullivan. We were at Laguna Seca and I was delighted to hear him speak so fondly of the great circuits of his career, including our very own Kyalami. He was so impressed with our beautiful country that he even contemplated relocating here when business interests arose. Clearly, Kyalami and its magic amongst racers and spectators, is still palpable. Our first race in Kyalami was on the 29th of December 1962 and was won by Graham Hill, before I was born, and continued till the last race of 1993. It was this race that saw the battle between Ayrton Senna, my total hero, Prost and Michael Schumacher, which finally resulted in a win for Prost. The track was then sold and bought by the South African automobiles association. Our sad history of apartheid and political atrocities firmly shelved us in the racing game. A sad reality is that, as the races became more and more exorbitant, we began to fall off the list and could no longer qualify to host a Grand Prix.
This is a depressing fact when it is clear, through my own observations and conversations, that the desire for the race to return to this wonderful track is much desired. From interviews with mechanics to street sweepers, Porsche collectors to budding race car drivers, it is very evident that South Africans are eagerly awaiting a Formula One return… We can host a street race in Cape Town and with our world class facility in the original and only Kyalami, we are just about ready. The Kyalami track has been extensively upgraded and, as we have mentioned, the facility boasts an enviable place in the hearts of racers from around the world. LSM Distributors, who own the track, are actively encouraging a host of motoring events and ensuring it is in tip top condition. They have revamped the track and have encouraged motorists to make use of it. Porsche use the track for high altitude testing as do a host of car manufactures. Andrew Golding, from LSM Distributors, was recently seen on the BBC talking about the track and our chances going forward.
An emerging country like South Africa, with its massive youthful population, have shown a huge interest and passion for cars, similar to Mexico. To transport oneself with a car, however, is still a privilege not all South Africans have access to. The Grand Prix, such as in Mexico, serves as a way to encourage and give hope to such communities. By offering races in emerging countries we can perhaps inspire the youth to work towards their passion. The Mexican Grand Prix is regarded, by many in the country, as the highlight of their calendar year. This race is particularly exciting for the race car drivers as well, because of the youth and their exuberant, unbridled passion and love for Formula One. Such energy is no longer as visible in the older more established centers around Europe. It seems, in order to make the sport more accessible and appealing to the American owners, it is important to look toward emerging countries and economies, allowing for the calendar to become more varied and more equitable. Aspiring young people, who are motivated by their dreams, will find much aspiration when they actually see the possibility of their dreams coming true, such as a Formula One race on their own home turf. We cannot begin to imagine, from our perspective of comfort and privilege, the true meaning of such dreams.
If we as a country want to play on the international forum and be seen as a first world destination, events like Formula One will bring attention and focus to our very real issues and allow for global recognition. Passion, such as for racing, focuses individuals and the collective on positive events and festivities and gives us a joint purpose which can go a long way. It is in such celebrations that barriers are broken down and the passion unites all. Our country will have the world’s attention and global media will be back on South Africa once more, bringing tourists but also eyes on our political atmosphere. It was Muso, my very talented gardener, who said “the trains ran on time and the busses were working when there was the Soccer World Cup in 2010!” Such world class events forces our country into action.
There is certainly a long road still to be traveled for this dream of Formula One racing returning to South Africa and it was Gareth Crossley, Marketing Director of the motoring specialist business Crossley & Webb in Cape Town, who had to gently remind me, “Michelle, baby steps.” The next step is perhaps looking at how to include the big players who will serve as the financial backers of this dream. The costs of hosting a Formula One, if we are being realistic, is going to require substantial funding from both government and private investment. We will need big headline sponsorship, government intervention and affordable entrance fees, which make it a big ask for a small country like South Africa. One can only dream and I believe with enough determination and passion such a dream will eventually become a reality.