F1 needs an African expedition

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Despite Formula One's seemingly endless global expansion in recent years, there remains a glaring hole in the calendar of the self-titled world championship: Africa, the second-largest continent on the planet, has not hosted a grand prix in the current century.

The omission has hardly escaped the attention of those responsible for assembling the calendar, and not a year goes by without some rumours of a future race in South Africa doing the rounds.

Speaking to South Africa's Eyewitness News, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone last week reaffirmed his desire to see Formula One back in the country, but said that he had yet to be met with a viable proposal for putting on a grand prix.

"If somebody sits in front of me today, with a pen, and wants to sign a contract there can be a race next year," the 84-year-old told EWN. "I think it's really a case of someone getting behind this and saying, 'we're going to make it happen' because unless somebody does that it will just bumble on like it is with a lot of interest, and when it really comes down to it nobody is really making the effort to do anything."

Asked to rate the chances of a Cape Town street race in the near future, Ecclestone said: "Impossible to say, because I think there's a big percentage of having another meeting and another conversation which will produce nothing. There's been various suggestions over where the race should be: the one that I thought was sensible for Cape Town and everything was a street race in Cape Town which looked as if it was all going to go ahead, and then didn't go ahead. Someone needs to be, and speak about this, who's in a position to make a commitment and there hasn't been anybody."

When F1 first raced in South Africa, it was the age of post-colonialism across the African continent. The 1960 South African Grand Prix (not a world championship round) took place in East London in a year that saw 17 former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa declare their independence. It was the beginning of an era of upheaval, of years of (often unstable) change that was incompatible with such frivolities as motorsport.

South Africa, with its apartheid regime, was a more familiar environment to the largely European racing community. Abhorrent governmental policies meant that a certain level of 'stability' (read: control) could be assured, while the privileged ruling classes had created for themselves a network of hotels, restaurants, and other entertainments familiar to the racing community. By 1967, F1 had moved from East London to the Kyalami Circuit just outside Johannesburg, its home until objections over apartheid saw the sport depart in 1985.

A short-lived return to Kyalami in the early '90s was F1's last sojourn anywhere on the African continent. In the last quarter century, mentions of Formula One in Africa have always been preceded by the word 'South', despite the fact that Africa in the 21st century boasts a wealth of countries capable of putting on a grand prix, many of which have active and vibrant motorsports communities, from the grassroots level through to professional competition.

Modern F1 does not require a purpose-built circuit, so the lack of Grade I FIA homologated race tracks on the continent is no obstacle. These days, the sport's requirements are easily accommodated by any nation currently equipped to host large numbers of tourists: adequate hotel stock; restaurants and nightlife opportunities to feed and entertain workers and spectators alike; decent international air connections; and a government willing to smooth the passage of the sport's freight in and out of the country.

According to the World Economic Forum's Travel and Competitiveness Report 2015, the top ten 'tourism-ready' countries in Africa are South Africa, Seychelles, Mauritius, Namibia, Kenya, Cape Verde, Botswana, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia. While it would be impractical for F1 to push for races in the Seychelles or Mauritius, the African continent has many more options for grand prix hosting than the broken record that is South Africa. Perhaps the time has come to start exploring them.