Glued to the screen for the Belgium Grand Prix at Spa on Sunday, I was surprised by a carousel news flash stating that Spa will be back in 2023. Just like many South Africans, I was left feeling a little empty at the thought that Kyalami will not happen next year. . But why? I thought everything was going well, or at least that is what a few media publications had sold us.
Chatting to the promoter on a WhatsApp conversation throughout the process and around the reasons it's not happening, a statement around any concrete details will not be shared. That is something we can appreciate, given the complexity. But this does leave us to deduce for ourselves the reason behind 2023 not getting the green light.
The fee to host a Formula One race is about $35-million. That’s a lot of money for anyone, especially in a country that is 10 000km away from Europe, where most of the action happens. Think about packages ordered from Europe and the costly import costs and duties to get them here. Now multiply those efforts to match what it would take to get an event like Formula One with all its infrastructure to South Africa. The trucks, the equipment, the spares, the team infrastructure? Mind blown yet?
Well, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) organises its logistics run plan a year in advance. A lot needs to be shipped well in advance. This is all in a shipping industry environment that has seen its fair share of issues in a post-covid resurrection. The main items get flown in and comprise about 1 400 tons of car parts, fuel, broadcasting equipment and hospitality materials on a fleet of cargo planes. This logistical headache is best resolved by a proper lead time. Do you see why this could be the most expensive travelling circus?
Logistics aside, Kyalami itself is just not ready yet. According to excerpts of reports, about $10m is needed for track upgrades. The focus in Formula One, especially since Romain Grosjean's fiery accident in Bahrain 2020, has heavily centred on improving driver safety. Sure, Monaco gets away with it, but they're firmly established into the Formula One circle. Despite having last hosted F1 in 1993, we're outsiders needing to conform to the rules. Significant adjustments such as adding increased run-off room are required. The tec-pro barriers must be sourced and shipped into the country, which takes time.
Kyalami remains a world-class venue. Chatting to a friend that races in the Le Mans Cup in Europe on tracks like Imola, Monza, Portimao and the Red Bull Ring, Kyalami is right up there and, in some cases, better. That sort of assurance is something valuable to add into the conversation. As well as my witnessing first-hand the success of the Kyalami nine-hour endurance event earlier in the year and just how well the GT racing scene was catered for and how well the event went. World-class comes to mind, and then if these events have been used as testing material for a Formula One race, I can assure you that we're well on our way to making this something special.
It's critical to understand that behind each organisation are prudent business leaders who will not make rash or financially risky decisions just to make something happen. Toby Venter has said, "I'm in for it but not at all costs". Those words speak volumes.
While we're all caught up in the aura of hosting one of the world’s most exciting sporting events, it is reassuring to know that the organisation behind it all is sound and level-headed.
For me, that says something positive. It says, "Yes, we want this to happen, but if we are not ready for it to happen, we need to face that realisation, allow more time for the right course of action to follow and, most importantly, not rush anything.”
Although it is frustrating to those like myself that wanted something to happen sooner, this approach will stand us in better stead. This is not just a once-off event, but possibly an event that will recur long after young guns like Lando Norris retire.
Even with the debacle, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the obvious disappointment,this entire exercise shone a spotlight on the desperate hunger for world-class entertainment. It also showed the enthusiasm from all invested parties, including Formula One boss Stefano Domenicali. Seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton and reigning champion Max Verstappen have both voiced their keen interest to race in South Africa.
At no point am I trying to make any excuses around this organisation. What I'm trying to convey is the sheer gravity of the efforts required to make something like this happen and with that comes time. Rushing anything never works out the best.
So for now, 2023 is a no-go, but as for 2024, that is very much still possible. Until the eventual green light, let's keep supporting and building that excitement for when it does happen. We will be properly entertained.
Words: Brent van der Schyff