Remembering Formula 1's Long Relationship With Apartheid South Africa

By 1985, most sports had long since turned their back on apartheid South Africa, but Formula 1 was still competing there annually. When it finally left, humanitarian reasons may not have been top of the agenda.

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09 February 2017, 4:37pm

PA Images

It feels very strange to call Bernie Ecclestone the former boss of Formula 1, but it would seem that it wasn't a ploy and he really is gone. As such, we can begin to draw some conclusions about his remarkable spell at the helm of the sport.

While defending himself against accusations of racism in 2008 – another story entirely – 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." You may wish to pause so as to process that statement.

One aspect of Ecclestone's reign that came in for particular criticism was the increasingly controversial places in which grands prix were staged. That issue is not unique to F1: global sports have long been viewed as a powerful tool for questionable governments to add either legitimacy or lustre to their regimes. Still, no one does it quite like F1. Scan the 2017 calendar and you'll see Bahrain, China, and Azerbaijan, none of which are on especially good terms with Human Rights Watch. Russia is there too – Bernie thinks Putin "should be running Europe" – and recent developments mean that it would be remiss not to mention the United States' presence on the schedule.

But F1 has done considerably worse than this. Among the examples most often cited when bringing charges of moral bankruptcy against the sport is its long-standing presence in apartheid South Africa. That the annual grand prix continued in a country torn asunder by its racial policy is fact. That Ecclestone pulled it out of there is also true, though his reasons for doing so are rather murkier.

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F1 did not call a halt to racing in South Africa until after the 1985 event. By this time, the near-universal opposition to the apartheid system of racial segregation and discrimination was reaching its peak, though it was far from a new concern. A quarter of a century earlier, in 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan delivered his "Wind of Change" speech, in which he rather gingerly told South Africa that "there are some aspects of your policies" with which Britain could not align itself.

Over the ensuing decades, the world of sport systematically ostracised South Africa. The country was formally expelled from the International Olympic Committee in 1970, though they'd been absent from the Olympic Games since 1964. They were first suspended by FIFA in 1961; president Stanley Rous lifted this, only for South African football officials to suggest sending an all-white team to the 1966 World Cup and an all-black one to Mexico four years later. This was rejected and the country once again banned. Similar bans existed in other sports, though rugby union faced considerable criticism for its own lax policy (England toured the country as late as 1984).

But this was not a one-off tour: F1 was still going to South Africa on an annual basis. In 1985, matters came to a head.

By this time the South African Grand Prix had become a mainstay of the calendar. After three races at the East London track in Eastern Cape Province, it moved to Kyalami in 1967 and remained an annual fixture into the eighties, despite growing international outrage. (Strictly speaking the 1981 race was not part of the world championship, but this was due to a political wrangle within the sport, not what was happening in South Africa). It is probably worth noting that, since 1979, the circuit is believed to have been owned by Bernie Ecclestone.

Jim Clark at Kyalami in 1968, his final F1 win // PA Images

The 1985 race was scheduled to be round 15 of the 16-race season. From a sporting perspective, there was not a great deal to play for. Alain Prost had already sewn up his second world title at the previous race, making South Africa a dead rubber as far as the drivers' title was concerned. The constructors' championship was still alive – McLaren, Ferrari and Lotus were all in the hunt – though interest in this has always come primarily from the teams, rather than fans.

The question over whether F1 should go to South Africa rumbled on throughout the year and, as the race approached, there was growing pressure from all quarters to stay away. The problem seems to have been a lack of top-down leadership. For example Enzo Ferrari, the proprietor of F1's most famous team, stated that he would boycott the race if rivals McLaren did so as well: "We would not want to take advantage of their non-participation," said the il Commendatore. Clearly, Enzo did not wish to lose the constructors' title (and the money that accompanied it) on a point of principle. While Ferrari may well have been opposed to apartheid, his primary objective was to protect his sporting and business interests.

As employees of the teams, the drivers tended not to express their opinions on political matters (plus ça change). Ayrton Senna was perhaps the most publicly bold, saying: "I am personally against the regime. I would not like to go there, but I have a commitment to my team."

F1 teams have always been prone to arguments and getting them to agree with each other is a Sisyphean task. The order to boycott needed to come from the top, but the president of F1's governing body, Jean-Marie Balestre, also swerved the issue. Balestre released a statement in which he said that the race would go ahead, adding that he had "no personal authority to cancel the Grand Prix." Balestre has often been characterised as a man who enjoyed the pomp and ceremony of office, if not the actual work involved, and this incident seems to confirm as much. If the president of world motorsport could not stop the event, who could?

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Ultimately, after much navel-gazing, nothing happened. Once again, F1 would travel to apartheid South Africa. Not everyone complied, however: 21 cars were entered for the race, with two French teams – Renault and Ligier – boycotting the event following pressure from the French government (the former were state-owned, while the latter were almost entirely funded by state-owned companies and relied heavily on the support of President François Mitterrand). RAM and Zakspeed were also absent, though being as they subsequently missed the final race this was more a budget issue than a moral one.

Having found out that he'd miss the race in a newspaper, Ligier driver Jacques Laffite was against the boycott, later saying: "I wanted to race, there was apartheid, but it was always better to go and make it better for the black people." It's a flimsy argument. F1 had been going there for the best part of two decades – in what way had Laffite and his colleagues made things better?

Only 20 drivers took the start as former world champion Alan Jones, driving for the Haas team, withdrew after qualifying. The official reason given was illness, but there is a strong suspicion that this was not the whole truth: in qualifying, Jones' car had run without the logos of its main sponsor, leading to whispers that the team withdrew for political reasons.

Other teams ran without key sponsors, too. Most noteworthy were championship aspirants Ferrari and McLaren, with both losing their Marlboro logos for the event. This drew the ire of journalist Nigel Roebuck, who wrote in his next column for Autosport magazine:

"It is the hypocrisy of it that I can't stomach. It is the selective morality, the careful removal at Kyalami of certain sponsors' names from the cars – despite the fact that their products are readily available down the road, widely advertised beyond the TV cameras' reach."

Nigel Mansell won the race ahead of Williams teammate Nelson Piquet, while third place for Prost edged McLaren closer to the constructors' title. It was F1's last appearance in South Africa until 1992, by which time apartheid was being dismantled and free elections were on the horizon.

Mansell won the '85 race, and was triumphant again when F1 returned to Kyalami seven years later // PA Images

But why did F1 leave after 1985? Ecclestone's assertion that he "pulled F1 out" of the country is true – he ran the show, so he decided where it performed – but his reasons were not necessarily about apartheid. In fact, one biography states he was planning to go ahead with the event again in '86. But, when several TV networks informed him that they would not broadcast the race, his decision was swayed. After all, a grand prix without television coverage made no financial sense. Ecclestone has since stated that he was in favour of cancellation years earlier, but was concerned about legal action being brought against the teams association for failing to fulfil their contract. It seems unlikely that such action would have been successful, but there may be truth in it.

Nevertheless, it is a fact that F1 had financial incentives to be in South Africa. Writing for Autosport in 2012, the South African-born journalist Dieter Rencken explained:

"Politicians threw wads of [cash] at F1 via an Income Tax Act that provided for double tax breaks for international marketers. Thus for every dollar spent on sponsorship of international events, companies received an effective deduction of $0.86 - to the discernible delight of a Bernie Ecclestone/Max Mosley-led Formula One Constructors Association, then starting to flex its muscles."

Regardless of the motivation for staying in South Africa, F1's long-standing relationship with apartheid remains one of the most unedifying aspects of grand prix history. When the cars arrived in Australia for the final round of the championship, the cargo handlers refused to unload them because of where they had come from. It sent a clear message that the world outside the F1 bubble was outraged.

@Jim_Weeks