F1 needs Kyalami return, but an historic circuit is set to lose out


F1's imminent return to South Africa signals its intent to engage new markets, but could come at the cost of other much-loved venues, writes Chris Medland

Nigel Mansell, driver of the #5 Canon Williams Renault Williams FW14B Renault 3.5 V10 leads the field at the start of the Yellow Pages South African Grand Prix on 1st March 1992 at the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in Kyalami, South Africa.(Photo by Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images)

F1 looks like it could return to South Africa next year after three decades away – Mansell leads here in '92

Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

We’re only eight races into one of Formula 1’s most intense seasons, and there are already plenty of developments about how it might go bigger and better in 2023.

And one of the plans that F1 is hoping to bring to life stands out more than any other.

As a series that calls itself a world championship, there has been one continent missing for nearly three decades: Africa.

The last South African Grand Prix took place in 1993, and since then it hasn’t realistically looked like F1 was going to make a return as it expanded in other regions, most notably Asia, then the Middle East.

Even now, the sport has been focusing on growing its footprint in America, meaning the calendar has been further expanded by the additions of Saudi Arabia, Miami, Qatar and Las Vegas over the past year, with the latter two becoming permanent fixtures from next season.

But that isn’t stopping plans to get South Africa back on the schedule as early as 2023 from moving apace.

Ayrton Senna of Brazil drives the #8 Marlboro McLaren McLaren MP4/8 Ford HBE7 V8 during the Yellow Pages South African Grand Prix on 14 March 1993 at the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit in Kyalami, South Africa.(Photo by Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images)

South African fans might soon have a race closer to home

Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

After positive discussions over the past few months, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali headed to South Africa this week, straight from the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. His plan was to meet with relevant stakeholders and get a clear direction on how feasible it will be to include the race on the 2023 calendar, with F1 hoping it can get a schedule in place before the summer break in August.

Liberty Media have been keen to finalise calendars as early as possible anyway, but that takes on an added importance at the moment due to the ever-increasing costs of freight and travel. Teams want as long as possible to look at the options from a logistical point of view, so early commitments will certainly help.

Any agreement with Kyalami about a return to the circuit north of Johannesburg is understood to be a number of weeks away, but F1 wants to move quickly and try to have South Africa on next year’s schedule rather than wait until 2024.

With China provisionally set to return too, that would then mean there are 26 races to fit into next year’s schedule, so something has to give.

From the archive

The current agreements only allow F1 to incorporate 25 races into any one season, and the French Grand Prix is set to host its final race of its current deal this summer. After that, Paul Ricard hopes it is able to alternate with another venue in order to stay involved, and the most likely venue it believes it can pull that off with is Spa-Francorchamps.

But the iconic Belgian circuit isn’t interested in such a deal, leaving it in jeopardy of disappearing altogether. Spa’s current contract expires after this year’s race, but it has invested heavily in track improvements and will not want to lose F1 from its portfolio immediately after that work has been completed.

It seems that if Spa can’t reach an agreement with the sport outright, then it may get a reprieve if China doesn’t happen. There is still no certainty that a race can be held in Shanghai post-Covid and without its return then there could be room for Belgium to remain.

Monaco’s position is also uncertain as F1 is unhappy about certain aspects surrounding the running of that event, but the intention is for there to be an extension of some sort signed. That could come in the form of a short-term deal that involves some concessions – with a hope of more following in future – or a longer-term commitment if F1 is happier with managerial and operational changes.

An outside bet involving Monaco would be for it to become one of the European races that alternates with another venue, but it is still deemed valuable enough to the sport to be a permanent fixture under the right circumstances.

Whatever happens, the wide range of possibilities only serves to highlight the demand that exists to host F1 races right now, and host them in a variety of markets that Liberty Media wants to hit.

There were tentative discussions with Sydney as a potential host of the Australian Grand Prix moving forward, but the strong intention is to remain in Melbourne where a massive crowd showed up this year despite it not being the opening round of the season.

Other American venues have also continued showing an interest, while F1 insists it had multiple options to replace the now-dropped Russian Grand Prix later this year but none made sense from a logistical standpoint and so the decision was taken not to replace Sochi, in the middle of what is a condensed schedule in order to avoid clashing with the FIFA World Cup from the end of November.

But all of the above revolve around existing races and regions, that generally look to enhance an already-catered-for market rather than break into a new one. Kyalami does the latter, with F1 seeing significant interest from fans in South Africa who have to travel huge distances at present to have any chance of making it to a race in person.

Image of new grand stand at Eau Rouge corner on Spa-Francorchamps circuit

Spa has undergone significant renovation – into the building of a new grandstand at Eau Rouge / Raidillon

Grand Prix Photo

There’s still work to be done to make that race a reality but negotiations have developed at such a pace that while it was deemed “a way off” by one source as recently as late April, it is now a real possibility to be on next year’s calendar.

Returning to a circuit that has hosted more than 20 races – mainly throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s – will go down well with F1 purists, but that sentiment could well be canceled out by the jeopardy that Spa-Francorchamps faces. Whether the sport’s rapid expansion brings regular alternation of venues or costs some of the most iconic tracks their place remains to be seen.