The most famous man in electric vehicles is South African. But while Elon Musk may be great at generating almost cult-like brand devotion, despite controversies, he isn’t interested in motorsport – and with Tesla’s operations being located in California, there isn’t much of a link back to his home country.
South Africa has a history of hosting Formula 1 Grands Prix, with a track in East London (a coastal city, not where we’re going for the Formula E season finale this year) having run Grands Prix since before they were part of F1, and Kyalami hosting races through the seventies and eighties, as well as during a brief return in the early nineties. Despite repeated encouragement from FOM to organise a return, costs were considered just too high and the whole African continent dropped off the calendar.
Rumours about a Cape Town E-Prix started last year, with the December TBC slot that disappeared under calendar pressures this season linked to the city, as well as Brazil and some other southern hemisphere locations. That would have been premature – but reflected that an interest in running a race in Cape Town had gained momentum, with a company called e-Movement started to work on the bid last July.
Formula E has been in talks with and engaged with a feasibility study into a Cape Town E-Prix for season seven or eight, with a credible group led by the CEO of the Laureus Group designing a progressive, ambitious event involving climate change talks and a technology festival.
Inside Electric met with Iain Banner, executive chairman of E-Movement, the company formed as the Cape Town E-Prix’s promoter, and CEO of the Laureus Group, in Marrakech to discuss details of the project.
Asked how the Cape Town bid had come about, Banner said it had been a rapid process since July last year, “We’d heard about [Formula E], we thought it might be a good idea and so we entered the feasibility stage and that resulted in us paying what we had to pay to do a feasibility study and we started that in July last year.
“We’ve moved, in relative terms, quite quickly, Formula E representatives including the track designer came down in September and we started working on the potential of what this might look like and I’m delighted to say we’ve made great progress with the city, with important meetings happening yesterday and on Tuesday [March 3rd] – I think 2021 is ambitious but it could be realised, potentially. If not then 2022.”
We asked why Cape Town – neither the economic capital of South Africa, which is Johannesburg, or the administrative capital, which is Pretoria, or say, Durban, which had hosted A1GP races in 2005 to 2008.
Banner told us that the motivation went beyond a pretty backdrop, “Cape Town is probably the most progressive city [in terms of emobility] and they’re discussing banning combustion vehicles or at least, petrol or diesel vehicles from sales by 2030 in favour of electric, hydrogen, etc. That’s just talk, it’s not legislature but they want to be seen as a green city and it’s very much an objective.
“The why is – there’s lots of boxes that need to be ticked to justify putting on an event like this. For South Africa, it’s a very expensive exercise – but if you can promote the country, if you can promote alternative energies, if you can really get people to start thinking differently as a consequence of the race then that’s what matters.
“The race will be great – but our objective is to do more than a race, we’ve called our company E-Movement for a reason, we want to have everything electric; business to consumer events, a big exhibition where people can come and see everything electric – car manufacturers, skateboards, bicycles, everything. And have an activation zone potentially on the track or within the track or in the stadium adjacent to the track. “
That’s the kind of thing Formula E tries to do in a lot of places – but the onus is on the race promoter to make peripheral events happen. In theory, the mission of Formula E extends way beyond just proving that electric technologies are cool and fun or even just organising a competitive race series but that’s easily a big enough job to occupy people over a short weekend, FE’s ability to succeed often contingent on being able to recognise what’s realistic.
Most of us don’t cover it because it’s just another race series, though. And if a country is going to commit the resources to running the racing, there should be a positive impact beyond that – entertainment for entertainment’s sake is cheap on YouTube and Netflix without leaving your house or needing planning permission, after all.
Justifying that in a country with (relatively, to some on the calendar) pressured resources takes more joined-up thinking, from skateboards to international economics, “Our thinking is to have two days of an alternative energy symposium and conference, two days of mobility where we have all the vehicles and electric goodies on display for consumers to come and see – with an activation zone, on or near the track – a day of a climate change conference, together with members of the World Bank that we’ve been talking to and inviting heads of state to come down.
“Then on the Saturday, the race becomes a celebration, an expression of the energy and potential from all of that and something to excite people for the future.”
The E-Prix isn’t guaranteed – and the best-laid ambitions can turn different in their realisation – but in an increasingly unstable world, the mostly not-real existential battle between Formula E and Formula 1 is a stark economic reality for race viability.
Banner, who had been involved in Formula 1 throughout the nineties and didn’t come to the sport a bleeding-heart environmentalist, said the maths was just impossible for a South African Grand Prix now, “In 1995 Bernie said he was very keen for a race in South Africa and he mandated myself and Johann Rupert to see if we could get support for the race.
“We went to see the minister of sport and he loved the idea but having just come out of apartheid there were so many other priorities there was no way he could direct a very limited budget in any way towards Formula 1. Bernie asked me again in 2001 to have a look and see but by that time it had become unaffordable for the country, as far as I was concerned. It just couldn’t be done.
“There were many people that spoke about Formula 1 and I always said look, I’ll get the contract and I’ll show you what it costs and that’s just to secure the opportunity and that’s hard currency in a soft currency market. “
There’s cynicism around motorsport going to places outside the perceived (mostly European) ‘heartlands’ – assumptions that there isn’t an audience or interest in countries that haven’t traditionally hosted rounds. Banner said what we’ve experienced, in most ‘new’ places Formula E has gone to, which is that absence makes the enthusiasm, if anything, stronger.
Same as going to an A-List gig in Bristol rather than London, the ennui of overload doesn’t really affect audiences who haven’t seen six secret album reveals this week already, “The difference in a remote – or relatively remote – market like ours is that people are dying to have something like this. We just had Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal playing each other in Cape Town to 51,000 people. The whole country went crazy to see two guys playing tennis against each other.
“We hosted an ATP tournament, in the 70s. But the country can’t afford it anymore, the country can’t pay what’s required these days – but that doesn’t take the hunger and the interest away, wanting to experience these things.”
Nevertheless, Nadal and Federer are – with the best will in the world towards Formula E – somewhat more likely to be recognised as a pub quiz answer than who won the Punta del Este E-Prix 2014. Something that has to be taken on, along with the financial and logistical barriers to the race still.
Banner said TV rights, in particular, are a focus, “One of the challenges that we’re going to have to address is that very few people in South Africa know about Formula E. It hasn’t been on our TV channels – it has, in a limited way and we’ve had the CNN highlights and we will, I’m working with Formula E at the moment to get it on air and that will definitely improve interest.”
Formula E costs much less than it’s elder(ly) sibling, but still needs some investment and cooperation to work, as an event. Which, like anything, needs a selling point and a focus – for a series self-declaredly hellbent on disruption, that’s pretty much got to be a rallying cry to something new in staid European markets.
Or something softer, more hopeful, maybe. Banner’s experience with Laureus and the sport for good is a clear guiding hand in what he wants to do, beyond get people considering the benefits of electric scooters.
“For us to pull off a race, I believe we’ve got to look holistically at a movement for change, a movement for good.
“We need cause-related stuff, to be part of this. We need to have causes to raise money for things that are going to help children, primarily – give them an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise had or help them get through their daily grind with the counselling ad support they need and deserve.”