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November 9, 2022

What a Formula 1 return to Africa could mean for the sport and the continent

F1 appears to be close to returning to South Africa, with Stefano Domenicali in talks with Kyalami circuit officials.

By Tom Subak-Sharpe

The first South African Grand Prix was held in 1934 at the Prince George Circuit located in the coastal Eastern Cape region of the country. 11 races were held at the circuit before the grand prix was moved to the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in Midrand, Gauteng, just north of Johannesburg. A further 21 races were held at this circuit between 1967 and 1993 before South Africa was pulled from the F1 schedule.

Since the removal of the South African Grand Prix in 1993, the African market has remained mostly untapped by F1. However, the recent Netflix docuseries Formula 1: Drive to Survive has been a big influence in growing the sport across Africa over the last few years. After a 30-year wait, it looks likely that F1 will return to the continent in the near future, with the series’ chief executive Stefano Domenicali having begun talks with Kyalami circuit officials. Domenicali has stated that he is hopeful of announcing the new race in South Africa as it is a key part of the company’s long-term agenda.

In the last two years, three new grands prix have been added to the F1 schedule – the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, the Qatar Grand Prix, and, most recently, the Miami Grand Prix. A reinstated Las Vegas Grand Prix will also feature on the F1 calendar in 2023, which has been met with huge fan anticipation and a great deal of media buzz as it promises to be the ‘American Monaco’ race.

The expansion of the F1 calendar is largely due to the growing popularity of the sport across the globe. With more people becoming fans, more countries are looking to host events. F1 has also identified that adding races in the Middle East and North America will deliver significant commercial benefits. These growing markets offer F1 substantial opportunities in terms of sponsorships and prize money.

A grand prix returning to South Africa would allow the country access to the many benefits gained from hosting them. F1 races are broadcast across the globe and attract over a billion viewers every year. This major global audience would provide South Africa with the chance to showcase their country. Regions can also generate major tourism revenue as hosting cities open up to a new audience and tens of thousands of people travel across the globe to attend races. This would benefit Gauteng province and Johannesburg in particular within the hospitality sector through increased footfall for restaurants, bars, and hotels.

A report by the Applied Analysis consultancy on the inaugural 2022 Miami Grand Prix demonstrated the benefits that hosting a race can have on local economies, revealing that the area was able to generate $349 million. The overall economic impact included support upwards of $100 million in salaries of roughly 3,000 local workers. During race week, $150 million was also estimated to be generated from visitor spending, with 243,000 spectators having attended the Miami race weekend.

The Miami Grand Prix was able to attract huge investment for the rights of the race’s title sponsorship. A nine-year deal was signed with the cryptocurrency exchange company Crypto.com worth an estimated $180 million in total. Although Miami and Gauteng are very different commercial locations, highly profitable deals like this will surely excite prospective organizers as they look to build a lucrative sponsorship portfolio.

One of the main factors in F1 looking to reintroduce the South African Grand Prix is the probability that the yearly race will be one of the continent’s most-watched domestic sporting competitions. In South Africa, one of the nation’s biggest competitions has experienced mixed results regarding television viewing numbers. The South African Premier Division soccer league has seen a fall in viewing figures ever since the outbreak of Covid-19.

With F1 attracting roughly 70.3 million television viewers globally for each race during the 2021 season, this is a big indicator that a South African Grand Prix could become Africa’s most-watched sporting event worldwide. F1’s biggest Africa-based sporting competitor in generating the highest global television audience would be the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament. F1 will be encouraged that they will be able to deliver a sporting product to Africa that will capture a viewership of tens of millions of people, including a large slice of new fans to the sport.

One of the main benchmarks by which the return of the South African Grand Prix will be judged is the long-term legacy that the event has on not just South Africa but the African continent. Since F1 began in 1946, the sport has had a total of 17 South African drivers. However, the country has had no drivers in the sport since the nation’s only F1 World Champion Jody Scheckter retired in 1980.

Organizers of a reinstated South African Grand Prix will hope that the enormous spectacle of an F1 race in the country will inspire young South Africans to take part in motor racing and that in the long term the nation can produce F1 drivers. This should increase the appeal of the sport across Africa, boosting F1’s viewing figures and attracting more brands from Africa and across the globe to partner with the South African Grand Prix long term.

The long-awaited return of F1 to Africa will attract the sport’s global fanbase via their TV screens or even in-person at the circuit. South Africa’s economy should benefit enormously from races returning to the country, with tourism and hospitality revenues rising when fans arrive. The chance to have one of the biggest yearly sporting events in Africa is a huge opportunity for F1 to grow the sport’s popularity in the continent.

Image: Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

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