Grand Prix
The 1985 South African Grand Prix - Hot Air, Cold Choices


Politics of a kind had been no stranger to Grand Prix racing from the early 1980s, with the FISA/FOCA war affecting several races near the start of the decade. However, in 1985 there was controversy for the first time regarding international politics, with the French government leaning on Renault and Ligier to skip the race in protest at the apartheid system.

Marlboro made the half-hearted gesture of removing their name from the McLaren cars
- but not their distinctive colours.

The first thing to get clear is that it goes without saying that apartheid was an appalling discriminatory system and that anything which drew attention to it was worthy to some degree. However, the half-hearted nature of the French teams' withdrawal and the general amount of hot air compared to actual protest made everyone involved look somewhat foolish.

One was the attitude of the drivers. Ferrari's Stefan Johansson was interviewed by Barry Sheene in the pitlane at the rescheduled Belgian Grand Prix summed up most drivers' attitudes - if the team were going to South Africa, he would be driving at Kyalami. Now, a case could be made for the defence here. Without wanting to pick on the likeable Swede, at the time he had not been confirmed as a Ferrari driver for 1985, and could perhaps be forgiven for toeing the party line - though if he hadn't, that would have been nice. Most of the other drivers also had some sort of self-interest on show, be it finding a drive for the next season at this crucial time of year, or wanting to improve their championship standing. This would also be the argument for the Ligier driver Philippe Streiff, who already knew he didn't feature in the team's plans for the next season. However, he signed to drive Ken Tyrrell's second car for the South African Grand Prix instead of joining the boycott. Ayrton Senna had planned to boycott, but instead changed his mind and drove as normal for Lotus. Senna, Nelson Piquet, Keke Rosberg and Johansson all ignored calls from their home governments to miss the race.

Grand Prix drivers are among the most selfish professional sportsmen in the world, the nature of the competition makes them that way - even the 'nice guys' have a single-minded competitive streak a mile wide due to the demands of a team sport which also pits individuals within those teams against each other. However, one man stood out as being particularly weak-willed in attending - outgoing World Champion Niki Lauda. The Austrian had been vocally against the race taking place in the months before, but still turned up to drive his McLaren. This was strange for two reasons - firstly, he had announced his retirement earlier in the season, and it was difficult to see what punishment Ron Dennis or FISA could have inflicted on him beyond a fine which would surely be nothing compared to his wealth (and would likely not have been handed out to avoid world-wide condemnation). Secondly, he had injured his wrist at the Belgian race and missed the preceding European Grand Prix entirely, and could simply have claimed he wasn't fit. And yet he was there, for the sake of 8th on the grid and a retirement in the race.

Niki Lauda returned from injury to race.

Self-preservation ruled for the teams too. There were lucrative placings in the constructors' cup to be taken and sponsorship deals which had specified attendance at all the races (not to mention exposure in one of the series' only African round). Had, say, Tyrrell skipped the round and Osella attended and scored points which overhauled the former (as well as netting them substantial media attention), it would have left the team out of pocket - besides, there were already four fewer cars to beat. FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre (himself with a contract to fulfil with the organisers) had said the race would go ahead at full championship status, and none of the teams wanted to risk fines or suspension.

Sponsors' protests were just as half-hearted. The most pointless came from Marlboro, who demanded McLaren remove their names from the cars for the race, and from patches on driver overalls. The only problem was they said nothing about the highly recognisable red chevrons, something which the company had used to good effect in races such as the German Grand Prix where tobacco advertising was prohibited. The pattern was so strongly associated with their cigarette brand that the word Marlboro was almost a detail, and anyone watching the race at the circuit or on television would have been left in no doubt as to which tobacco multinational was bankrolling the McLarens. Had Marlboro been truly sincere, rather than attempting a public relations gesture, they would have asked for the cars to be painted in plain white, the patches to be removed and their name removed from the entry list.

Another bothersome moral question was "Why now?". Apartheid had been in place since before the post-war South African Grand Prix had began. While the argument could be made that the world was a different place then and the question was better late than never, the fact remains that South Africa had long been ostracised from world sport (amongst many other areas) because of apartheid. The country was barred from the Olympics in 1962, FIFA had banned the South African football team in 1964 and the ICC had suspended their cricket team in 1970. While Formula 1 was not the only sport to take as long (the rugby union team, for instance, continued to entertain touring sides at the time), it was certainly behind other bodies. The controversy in 1985, and removal of the race for 1986 onwards, seemed more a belated reaction to growing public outcry rather than a genuine gesture. There had been no sign of Formula 1 having a conscience about apartheid 18 months before at the 1984 race.

This point could also be applied to the boycott of the Renault team. Like Lauda, the team had announced they were withdrawing at the end of the year, and for many at the company it was a year too late. The 1985 car had been hugely uncompetitive and all involved wanted the season over and done with, so there was little loss in missing one race.

Mansell expressed unease about racing in South Africa, but showed no sign of it after winning.

This was a far cry from previous years when Kyalami had been a Renault stronghold, especially in the difficult early days when they were the only team with a turbocharged engine - a distinct advantage given the circuit's rarefied atmosphere. Where was the French government's conscience when Prost was challenging for the title at Kyalami in 1983, or at the start of 1984 when the team fully expected to be championship contenders? Even Ligier, while having a better year than they had done for some time, had relatively little at stake in the race, with their government connections ensuring no-one would pull out of a sponsorship deal.

The real irony was that Renault were present, due to their customer engine deals with Lotus and Tyrrell. Unlike Marlboro, they didn't even bother removing their names from the cars, and seeing as the Lotus-Renaults were front-running cars which had comfortably beaten the factory machines all season their name was still mentioned frequently in all coverage of the race. Renault and Ligier made little difference to the shape of the weekend. While it made the grid smaller (as did the absence, for non-political reasons, of Zakspeed and RAM), the race was largely as normal, won by Nigel Mansell from his Williams team-mate Keke Rosberg. Media coverage was of the usual standard, with the BBC showing much of the race live through their Grand Prix strand, with the controversy attracting little attention.

FISA's line had always been that sport had nothing to do with politics, one echoed by the specialist press (for example, the venerable Dennis Jenkinson of Motor Sport) - in many ways a laudable aim. The problem came from the drivers making a fuss about it ahead of the race, only to entirely fall into line when push came to shove. It was a stark contrast to their behaviour at the 1982 South African Grand Prix, when they had united against injustice when it directly affected them.

Unhappy with the negative press attracted, in early 1986 FISA belatedly announced there would be no South African Grand Prix until apartheid ended, quite aside from more lucrative markets in Eastern Europe (Hungary would host the first Eastern bloc Grand Prix in 1986) and Asia (Japan would return to the calendar in 1987) to explore. With the lifting of apartheid, the series returned to an emasculated Kyalami in 1992, riding on the world-wide feel-good factor which erupted following the release of Nelson Mandela. By 1994 it had disappeared, replaced by a more lucrative race at Aida's TI circuit.