South Africa getting serious about F1?

There are reports in The Citizen newspaper in South Africa that a new company called GP Motorsport (which apparently stands for Gauteng Province) has been formed with the goal of bringing Formula 1 back to the country.

South Africa has a long history of international racing, dating back to 1934 when Whitney Straight won the first South African Grand Prix on the streets of East London. The event disappeared at the start of World War II but was revived in 1960 and became a round of the World Championship for the first time in 1962. Five years later the race moved to the permanent circuit at Kyalami, between the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria (in what is now Gauteng). It then remained on the F1 calendar until 1985 when financial problems and anti-Apartheid sentiments led to it being cancelled. Kyalami was revamped and F1 returned in 1992 and 1993 but the promoters ran out of cash and since then F1 has not returned, despite a number of different projects.

According to these stories the ownership of the new company includes the provincial government, which seems to be willing to fund the construction of an F1-standard track and pay the fees that are demanded by the Formula One group. Gauteng Premier Paul Mashatile, who took office only two months ago, was previously in charge of the province's Finance and Economic Affairs and was the man who instigated the deal to sponsor the Renault F1 team in January 2008. As a result there was a Renault F1 Roadshow on the streets of the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton last summer, at which Nelson Piquet and Lucas Di Grassi entertained a crowd of 60,000 people.

Mashatile was also behind a deal that will see Kyalami hosting a round of the A1GP Series in February next year. That deal is believed to run for several years.

The aim of all of these projects is to promote Gauteng as an investment and tourism destination.

Officially, tourism in South Africa is growing rapidly, the government says tourist arrivals in 2007 numbered more than nine million, an 8.3% increase over 2006. However these figures are skewed considerably by the fact that almost five million of the visitors come from Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Botswana and are visiting South Africa simply to shop for products that are not available in their home countries.

The high-spending international tourists that South Africa wants to attract are fewer in number with Britain leading the way with around half a million visitors each year. Germany and the United States provide around 260,000 apiece. Many of these visitors prefer to spend their time in Cape Town and Durban rather than in the Gauteng Province. These numbers are also believed to be reducing because of concerns about the electricity supply crisis in South Africa and because of violent attacks on some visitors. There is expected to be an upsurge in tourist numbers in 2010 with the FIFA World Cup.

The government of Gauteng Province believes that hosting world class events will bring in more people and that this will lead to economic growth.

Also involved in the project is Stephen Watson, a former driver who began work five years ago to try to bring open-wheeler racing back to South Africa, initially with a plan to take Champ Cars to a street circuit in Durban. Watson later became general manager of the A1GP Series and the Durban event ended up being for A1 Grand Prix cars.

The story in The Citizen indicates that track designer Hermann Tilke has been to Guateng in the last month and spent three days looking at a disused quarry near Kyalami which is believed to have been earmarked for the project by Mashatile's government.

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