Did Bernie Ecclestone really pull the South African Grand Prix over apartheid?

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Nigel Mansell won the 1985 South African Grand Prix amid outcry over the race
Nigel Mansell won the 1985 South African Grand Prix amid outcry over the race

The disquiet over Bernie Ecclestone’s remarks on racism that appeared in several newspapers recently has apparently calmed down after Ecclestone cleared things up with Lewis Hamilton and his family:

I meant [the supporters who targeted Hamilton in Spain] were a joke, clowns… I’ve spoken with Lewis’s dad Anthony and he understands, everything’s fine.

But some other remarks by Ecclestone about why the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami was dropped after 1985 caught my attention.

Speaking about the 1985 race – the last F1 event to be held in South Africa before the end of the racist apartheid regime – Ecclestone said: “People should remember I was the one who pulled F1 out of South Africa because of apartheid, so no one can say I am against black people.”

I don’t believe that Ecclestone’s original comments were intended to condone racism, nor would I claim he is ‘against black people’.

But from what I’ve read of the circumstances surrounding the 1985 South African Grand Prix (which I wrote an article about in February), it seems Ecclestone really pulled the race due to financial reasons. In a biography of Ecclestone Terry Lovell argued Ecclestone tried to keep the race going until the television companies pulled out, then claimed he had been against continuing it all along:

For the next eight years [from 1978] Ecclestone continued to ignore mounting international pressure on South Africa, until, finally, even he had no choice, although his decision was not due to any political consideration.


Apparently, ignoring the political pressures and flak that was coming from all sides, Ecclestone continued to insist the South African Grand Prix was on – until, that is, several international television networks, facing internal pressure from unions, announced they would not be broadcasting the race. It was only then, when the race was faced with the loss of all-important television coverage, that Ecclestone announced the Grand Prix would not take place. The power of television succeeded, it seemed, where all other efforts had failed. But Ecclestone claimed today that such public perception did him an injustice. He had been fully in favour of cancelling the race but feared that FOCA [the Formula One Constructors’ Association] would have been sued by the promoters, Southern Suns Hotels.

I am too young to remember the race and perhaps someone who was following F1 at the time can help build a clearer picture of what happened. But I don’t think I’ve read anywhere before that Ecclestone dropped Kyalami over apartheid.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of him dropping a race for any reason other than money.

Read more about the 1985 South African Grand Prix

13 comments on “Did Bernie Ecclestone really pull the South African Grand Prix over apartheid?”

  1. bernie would have a race in a war zone( how long before the iraq GP??) as long as he is paid a large amount of cash and as soon as that stops, he takes his ball somewhere else. if he cared about the down trodden people of the world, then i’m sure we will never see the china GP ever again………. not going to hold my breath!!

  2. A gift Bernie has just like Mosley, is the ability to take other peoples ideas and claim as theirs.

  3. Next he’ll be claiming the U.S. GP was dropped as a sign of opposition to the Iraq war :~)

    I don’t think Bernie’s a racist, he’s never given that impression anyway, but I’m with jay, all he cares about is money & if they’re willing to pay he’s happy to be paid.

  4. Bernie needs to get paid!

  5. Money walks… and Bernie talks!

  6. I think, If the F1 wasn’t this expensive, we could have several more teams. so Bernie: MAKE F1 CHEAPER… is better for your broadcasting because more people wil look at the races and it wil be more fun to look as F1-fan as well…

  7. As Pitpass points out this morning, Ecclestone was the first team owner to give a test drive to a black racer, Willy Ribbs, in 1986. More here: First black Formula One driver…

  8. theRoswellite
    8th November 2008, 14:54

    No question really…Mr. Ecclestone doesn’t judge people on anything as superficial as skin color; and he should be allowed his own bit of revisionism, it being so difficult to judge motive after such a period.

    He is what he is, and that is a business man with few peers…which should not be necessarily taken as a compliment.

  9. Whatever his reasons were for pulling the SA grand prix. Bring it back please!!! Might be my only opportunity to see a live race. Keith, any chance of that happening?

  10. Bernie doesn’t care about the colour of peoples skin, he cares about the thickness of their wallet.

  11. Bernie: We need this SA GP to go on!!
    TV Networks: No, not going to broadcast.
    Bernie: How about giving me the money then.
    TV Networks: No, sorry.
    Bernie: You all are racists! To the color “green”. I am moving the GP somewhere else.

  12. Babur comments are the best

  13. GURoadrunner
    6th January 2009, 9:42

    First, and foremost, it was Jean-Marie Balestre who gave the final command to not run in South Africa after 1985. He made the announcement days after the ’85 race.

    Bernie is overstating as his words in history speaks differently. In 1985 in advance of the race he said: “There isn’t anything called sport left in Grand Prix racing,” said Brabham Team owner Bernard Ecclestone, president of the Formula 1 Owners Association. “Formula 1 is a commercial entity under the sporting power of the FIA (Federation International l’Automobile). It’s a business, not a sport. We have contracts with promoters which say we must take part if a race is scheduled, otherwise we are in violation of the contract.” — Citation: Gordon Martin, “The Apartheid Controversy Reaches Formula 1 Racing.” San Francisco Chronicle. Sep 17, 1985. pg. 63.
    Maybe he had a change of heart, but at that time Bernie was all business AFAIK.

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