Formula 1?s lost nations: South Africa

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Senna, Prost and Schumacher battle at Kyalami in 1993
Senna, Prost and Schumacher battle at Kyalami in 1993

Last world champion: Jody Scheckter, Ferrari, 1979
Last Grand Prix winner: Jody Scheckter, Ferrari, Monza, 1979
Last Grand Prix starter: Jody Scheckter, Ferrari, Watkins Glen, 1980
Last Grand Prix: Kyalami, 1993

South Africa was a Grand Prix host for many years. But its only driver to attain Grand Prix success was Jody Scheckter – the last driver to win the world championship for Ferrari before Michael Schumacher.

Scheckter was viewed as something of a wild child in his early days as an F1 driver, and with some justification. At the end of the opening lap at Silverstone in 1973 Scheckter spun in front of the pack at Woodcote, triggering a massive, multi-car pile-up that caused the race to be re-started.

Scheckter settled down after he joined Tyrrell and spent the mid-70s with the British outfit, winning his home race in 1975, before switching to Wolf two years later. He made history by winning for the team on its debut in Argentina, but Ferrari beckoned for 1979. Scheckter drove a smart campaign and out-scored team mate Gilles Villeneuve, who eventually had to play the role of back-up driver and let Scheckter take the title. He retired after the 1980 season, when Ferrari produced a car so poor Scheckter failed to qualify it at one round.

The first world championship South African Grands Prix were held at the East London circuit, a venue which today faces demolition. The event soon moved to Kyalami, near Johannesburg. The rapid track was popular with the drivers and it often served as either the season-opening or closing round.

In 1968 it opened the Grand Prix season on the very first day of the new year ?ǣ Jim Clark scored his final F1 victory. Sadly, the track is also remembered for one of F1?s most appalling accidents in 1977 in which Tom Pryce and Frikkie Jansen van Vuuren, a marshal, were killed.

In the 1980s the race was affected by different brands of politics.The struggles for power within Formula 1 led several manufacturer-backed teams to abandon the 1981 race. The governing body later announced this race would not count towards the world championship. In 1982 most of the drivers refused to participate, in a protest over restrictive new terms in their contracts. The deadlock was eventually broken and the race went ahead.

As the 1980s went on international political pressures had an increasingly severe bearing on the race. Several other sports had already ceased activities in South Africa in protest at the brutalities of the Apartheid regime. F1 continued racing at Kyalami until 1985, though some teams boycotted that final race and several sponsors had their branding removed. (Read more about that race here).

Kyalami returned to the F1 calendar in 1992 but it was a greatly changed circuit, with little of the charm of the original left. F1 only returned once, and since then has not been back to South Africa.

South Africa?s F1 future

There have been rumours in past months about a return to South Africa ?ǣ either at Kyalami once more or another venue. A1 Grand Prix makes its first visit to the former F1 circuit next month.

The prospects for a future South African F1 driver seem slim. Adrian Zaugg made it as far as GP2 but he is racing in A1 now. Scheckter?s son Tomas seemed to be on course for F1 but lost his place as Jaguar?s test driver after appearing in court ?ǣ he has raced in America since.

Do you think South Africa will return to the F1 calendar? Have your say in the comments.

Read more about Jody Scheckter: Jody Scheckter biography

Formula 1’s lost nations

Jody Scheckter won the 1977 Monaco Grand Prix for Wolf
Jody Scheckter won the 1977 Monaco Grand Prix for Wolf

Images (C) Sutton, Ford