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Formula 1 in South Africa

THERE has been talk about a Grand Prix in South Africa ever since Bernie Ecclestone met with the then president Nelson Mandela in August 1998. As part of the agreement reached Ecclestone arranged for an F1 test at Kyalami in 1999 and 2000 and said that South Africa could have a slot in the 2001 calendar if everything was in order. The problem for the locals was that the rand has continued to slide in value against the US dollar making a race ever more expensive for them.

Kyalami is also under pressure from a new facility named Phakisa Freeway which has been built with local government money near the Free State town of Welkom, 140 miles south of Johannesburg. This was created in an effort to promote a more active tourist industry in the old gold mining areas where there have been heavy job losses in recent years. Last year Phakisa won a five-year contract to host the South African Motorcycle Grand Prix and this year hopes to add NASCAR to its calendar.

The track is being overseen by Bobby Hartslief who was the promoter at Kyalami in the 1970s. "The owners at Kyalami need to face the sad reality that motor racing is a noisy sport and racetracks just don't exist in built-up areas," he said recently. "There will come a time when the value of the land will be more valuable than the return they get from motor racing."

It is not a coincidence that F1 Race Director and Safety Delegate Charlie Whiting recently visited Phakisa to check the safety standards at the track to see whether it can be used for F1 testing.

There is little doubt that the Automobile Association of South Africa - the owner of Kyalami - realizes that it is fighting a losing battle. AASA president Selwyn Nathan has reportedly proposed that a future South African GP could switch between Kyalami and Phakisa.

The South African government would love to get Grand Prix racing back but is not keen to pay for it. The country needs more foreign investment and F1 could help that happen in the long term.

Interest in F1 in South Africa has also been increased by the fact that Jody Scheckter's son Tomas has shown well in European racing and has just signed for Paul Stewart Racing in the British Formula 3 Championship. He is expected to test for the Jaguar Racing F1 team later this year.

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