By Tony Dodgins, England
Autosport-Atlas Contributing Writer
David Gant, chief executive of the South African GP Bid Group, was an interested spectator at the inaugural Turkish Grand Prix, where he took time out to talk exclusively to Tony Dodgins about his plans to bring an African Grand Prix to Cape Town by 2009
Q: Is this the first new venue that you have taken a look at?
Gant: "No, we went to Sepang to talk to the Malaysians. That is an impressive facility with nice management and they were very forthcoming about the costs and how they structured their management team."
Q: How far has Herman Tilke investigated the Cape Town site?
Gant: "Hermann has been to South Africa twice and the last time he came was at Christmas. Then there was a provisional layout about two months ago that we've networked back home with the motor sport enthusiasts and the people involved in the sport.
"Now we've got our second layout, which looks to be very close to what we will finally accept, and then it goes on to designing the infrastructure, the paddock buildings and then presenting it to FOM.
"Hopefully, by the time we want to sign a contract with Bernie [Ecclestone], hopefully at the end of the year, we will have all that in place. So we are confident. Maybe naively, but we have committed in terms of laying out the planning and we have a commercial relationship with Hermann now."
Q: Does the project hinge on government backing?
Gant: "We have had some high level meetings with government - both the ministry of trade and industry and the ministry of sport. They are both fully supportive, really enthusiastic, and coming just before the World Cup soccer it's going to be a very nice overture, because we've got that in 2010. Our first Grand Prix, if we are successful, will take place in 2009. And then we will obviously have the sustainability and hopefully enter into a seven-year agreement."
Q: Isn't it only feasible with a long-term agreement?
Gant: "I think so. We are obliged to build a brand new track and Cape Town's tourist appeal is such that it is undeniably the right venue for it. We are going to call it the African Grand Prix, incidentally, as we are the only [inhabited] continent that doesn't have one.
"Now, when you say dependant on government backing, we know that they support it politically and we are still in discussions with them as to how to best structure their role financially. Because it's essential that either the government themselves or what we call our national development agencies will come to the party.
"We've got quite an adequate commitment from the private sector, so we're looking at a public/private partnership and I really believe the government is going to facilitate accessing the kind of funds that we have always allocated in our financial model. So I'm pretty confident that that will happen."
Q: I've seen 500 million Rand ($77 million USD) quoted as build budget. Is that accurate?
Gant: "That's correct. That's our budget now, around $70-80 million. We have social imperatives in our country in terms of housing, hospitals and roads and we also don't have to go out there and make a major statement like the Bahrainis and the Chinese did. So we will have a Tilke track but it will be a working, practical track. And we want to confine the expenditure to more or less that level.
"But it will still be a track capable of hosting 120,000 spectators. It's 20 minutes from Cape Town, right adjacent to the airport and so it's going to be a very easy track to work with."
Q: A bit easier to get to than Istanbul Park, then?
Gant: "Right enough! That's the very first thing I noticed coming out here. We are almost within walking distance of the centre of Cape Town, so that's useful."
Q: There's been a lot of foreign investment in Cape Town, I believe?
Gant: "Enormous. Cape Town's on a roll, with the waterfront, Table Mountain and the wine route. And funnily enough, a lot of the game parks are coming closer and closer to Cape Town, so you don't have to go deep into South Africa to see lions and elephants. The government's financial assistance is not only confined to helping with the build capital, we also need a period of time for the whole project to be financially viable."
Q: How do you do ensure that?
Gant: "We are looking for other international races, we're looking to host national and regional Championships and obviously we have to get more and more South African and African sponsors. During that time period we will ask for financial assistance from government and eventually wean ourselves from it, as I believe the Malaysians and others have done."
Q: What about the Killarney circuit, which you already have in Cape Town?
Gant: "What we hope will happen is that the Western Province Motor Club, which is very active, will move to the new track and that will release around 45 hectares of land which is ideal for industrial development. That adds an economic stimulus to the government, to be able to say that we're sitting on this 45 hectares, so it's a win/win situation for everyone."
Q: Was going back to Kyalami a serious alternative?
Gant: "The president of South African motorsport, Roger Pearce, said that if we had [a Grand Prix] at Kyalami we'd have to flatten Kyalami and start again. First of all, the track is not up to it. And the infrastructure and capacity, even with 40,000 people there, mean it's a nightmare getting in and out. But the main thing is that the maximum benefit for the country comes from maximising the number of overseas tourists and Cape Town's tourist appeal is way greater than Johannesburg. And the final issue is that Bernie says it's Cape Town or not at all, so all the other arguments pale into insignificance!"
Q: What will be developed around the Cape Town site?
Gant: "There will also be a lot of industrial development adjacent to the track. And the airport requires a lot of industrial warehousing, so we anticipate nearly 1,000 new industrial sites emerging from the simple fact that we are having a Grand Prix in our country. Those latch-ons are very important."
Q: In terms of generating revenue throughout the year?
Gant: "There's that, and it's also vital for it to be seen that anything we invest in creates jobs. Unemployment is still a big problem in our country. So if you look at the jobs that will emerge out of the construction of the track, the increased tourism - we expect 25-30,000 tourists - and the jobs arising from the new industrial factories and warehouses, it's a lot of employment."
Q: Presumably the motor industry will use a new facility?
Gant: "Our motor manufacturing industry is one of the major industries in South Africa and they will be very involved in the whole thing. They will want to use it for testing at sea level and it will be a good place for the teams to come. And there will be other events too. We want to expand the use of the track to concerts, political rallies, etcetera.
"From the teams' point of view, the track will be right next to Cape Town international airport and a disused air force base, and our plan is that the teams can come in with their Jumbos and have direct access to the track - it's right next door. The land area is 90 hectares, whereas the land used for the Turkish site is more like 200 hectares. so it's quite interesting the way that Hermann has doubled the track back on itself. We are very happy with the conceptual layout. It looks very good."
Q: What sort of build time are you looking at?
Gant: "If we sign off with FOM at the end of this year it will probably take us another six to nine months to get all the red tape sorted out. There are the environmental impact studies, which we have already started, the traffic impact studies, the land-use change applications, and so forth.
"We will probably start building half way through 2006 and it would be ready by 2008. We will build a team of people and get them trained up. So we'll be ready and we'd like an April/May race, quite early in the F1 season and a good time in Cape Town weather-wise.
"It's a big ask and there are a lot of parallel processes to take place to bring this thing together, but we're going ahead at a good pace."
Q: What is the status of the negotiations with Bernie?
Gant: "I said hello to him here [in Turkey] and I've had two previous meetings. I think FOM is demonstrably enthusiastic about coming to South Africa and having an African Grand Prix. I think the ball is in our court and so long as we go back with a viable financial model, I see no reason to believe they won't want to be there in 2009. It's ours to lose, I think."
Q: So you're hoping to nail a contract by the end of this year?
Gant: "Government processes are slow but that's the deadline we have set ourselves. We've been at it for a long time and you can't keep building up expectations and not delivering, so by the end of this year we'd better be in shape or else we'll lose a bit of credibility.
"The other thing that's interesting in our context is that in South Africa, motorsport is fairly white and fairly elite and it's very difficult to know how to transform the sport. All our sports are undergoing transformation, bringing coloured people in - it's happening in cricket, in rugby, in golf, but motorsport remains an exception.
"We plan to establish a drivers' academy that will offer careers in motorsport to young Africans. We'll network and bring them in. They will undergo various physical tests and see whether they have an aptitude for driving. If the guys are not well, we'll give them medication and drugs - it's an upliftment programme too - and those guys that look good we'll put into karts and train them up as drivers. And also as engineers, race marshals and administrators, so that you actually transform the sport and it becomes representative of South African society. These are really important characteristics of a project like this."
Q: Is that why the time is now right?
Gant: "It's one of the reasons. And another is that our safety and security situation is hugely better than it was immediately after Mr Mandela came in. The capacity to absorb international tourists is really good now, and that's taken time. And of course with the World Cup soccer coming in 2010, there's a lot of infrastructure development that's going to take place anyway. New hotels are going up in Cape Town, new roads, etcetera, etcetera.
"So we should be in really good shape to launch quite a massive Grand Prix. We know that at the highest level in our government the project has got its support, and so it's all about numbers now.
"It's about the final deal one strikes with Formula One. We're comfortable that the financial model we've put on the table with F1 and our government works. But it's a business. We won't get it because our eyes are blue, it will have to be a proper business proposition and I think we're very close to that.
"But we can't afford to throw money at something just because it puts you on the map. There does have to be underlying benefits to the economy. In the 18 months that I've been networking and consulting, I haven't yet met one person who doesn't want it to happen. It's all about the financial package. And we've already spent 3.5 million Rand ($540,000) in just putting the thing together."
Q: If you were a betting man, what chances would you give the race? Better than 50/50?
Gant: "Oh yes. I started off 10/90 against and, as I said, I now think it's ours to lose."
Q: Are you facing stiff competition from other venues?
Gant: "Yes. And places people probably don't even know about. India wants a race; Russia wants a race; Korea; Dubai. But we are the only [inhabited] continent that doesn't have one. And South Africans are pretty motorsport hungry. There was research done recently and our proportion of fans per head of population was very high."
Q: Who comprises the South African GP Bid company?
Gant: There is one of our biggest construction companies, Murray & Roberts, a black economic empowerment company called African Renaissance Holdings, the vehicle financing arm of WesBank, one of our major banks, my own sports consultancy company, a political investment and research company of Dr Dennis Worrell, our chairman, who was the ex-ambassador for South Africa in Australia and London, and then a consultant engineering company, BKS.
"That's the bid company, and if we are successful, it will be transformed into the South African Grand Prix Corporation and that will have a wider shareholding base, which will include government agencies and other members of the public and private sector."
Q: Are you a sports fan yourself or is it purely business?
Gant: "Business is my thing, but I built a golf course in South Africa called Erinvale and I was the promoter of what was called World Cup Golf in 1996, which was won by the South Africans, Ernie Els and Wayne Westner. It's a residential course and well known.
"I brought the Presidents Cup tournament to South Africa and we were involved in round the world yacht races too, so sports marketing, management and promotion is something I've been doing for about nine years. And obviously this is the biggest challenge of the lot. To put it mildly!"
Q: What are your impressions of Formula One?
Gant: "I think it's great. Even if you are not a petrol-head the whole complexity of the business is fascinating. The values that a business can obtain from being associated with F1, the interaction between the sponsors, teams, event, TV audiences, spectators, the transport arms, the corporate hospitality. The whole thing is just fascinating. It's a phenomenon.
"I've been speaking at some conferences in South Africa about major sporting events. We've had the world cup cricket, rugby, we've now got the soccer and we hope we're going to get the F1. We are right on the map as far as hosting major sporting events and to me, the African Grand Prix is the most exciting and interesting of the lot.
"Even forgetting the media impact, the business-to-business networking and even government-to-government opportunities are of enormous value. And for South Africa the association with the most technologically advanced sport just as we're hosting the most popular sport (football), says something about our nation.
"It's more than just a sporting event. It's something huge. We need things like that to fuel the engine of economic growth, to coin a phrase. And these sporting events do that. We can't build more beaches or make more gold. But we can do a lot with tourists."