The coastal Eastern Cape region can probably lay claim to being the birthplace of motorsport in South Africa and the first home of the Formula One Grand Prix. From races organised on a tourist road to the more permanent facility of today, racing has been held in the region for over 80 years, though the international events of old are now somewhat fading from memory.
Perched on the coast to the south of the city of East London, the track is one of the fastest in the country, with a layout unchanged since its debut in the 1950s. Prime among its challenges is the 220km/h first corner, Potter's Pass, which certainly requires commitment given the lack of camber.
Unusually, the circuit cannot be completely closed off for racing, as it incorporates public road from Beacon Bend to Cocobana Corner.
The original idea for motorsport events came from a newspaperman. When a new circular road was constructed on the West Bank of East London in the 1930s, Brud Bishop, editor of the Daily Dispatch morning paper, went for a Sunday drive. It struck him as the ideal place for a race. English born and with influential contacts, what was mooted as a local event soon took on a national and then international dimension. Originally intended to be called the Border 100, the first event in 1934 began to attract competitors from all around the country and even cars from abroad, soon becoming the first South African Grand Prix.
First racing begins
The competitors set off on December 27, 1934 to complete 18 laps of the 15.2 mile Marine Drive circuit, only a few miles from the heart of the city. First prize was 250 pounds and the 100 guinea Barnes' Silver Trophy. With nothing of its like seen in the country before, support was wildly enthusiastic, with an astonishing 65,000 spectators turning out to watch the cars speed by. And speed was the right term – American millionaire Whitney Straight won the race in a Maserati at a then world record average of 95.43 miles. On the long straights he had nudged past 152 miles per hour, which have must have made for quite a sight for the crowds. Second and third places were taken by JH Case, the popular Queenstown entrant and Michael Straight, brother of Whitney Straight.
The winner was so pleased with the Marine Drive as a Grand Prix circuit that he declared he would be back to defend his title. "South Africa has been placed on the calendar of International Racing Sport, and will in future receive recognition as such from the world's aces", were his parting worlds to the country.
Further South African Grands Prix took place from 1936 through to 1939, after Potters Pass had been introduced to avoid racing through the township of West Bank. This shortened the track to 11 miles and 57 yards and it was thereupon named the Prince George Circuit. It is estimated that a crowd of 82,000 attended the 1936 race. Top drivers from Europe took part, including Bernd Rosemeyer, Dick Seaman, Richard Shuttleworth and the 1939 winner Luigi Villoresi.
Current circuit debuts
World War Two interrupted proceedings and racing was re-established in the 1950s on a street course further to the east, around the Esplanade at East London, as the old circuit had been affected by the introduction of the new airport. Something more permanent was desired and in 1959, with the support of the local authorities, a new course was opened utilising a small part of the Prince George Circuit. Shorter in length at 2.4 miles, it incorporated contemporary pit facilities and was a much more modern facility. Rather uniquely, the course passed through a rifle range, though thankfully shooting activities were curtailed when racing took place!
The first post-war South African Grand Prix took place in January 1960, for Formula Libre cars and drew a crowd of 50,000, who watched the Belgian driver-journalist Paul Frère holding out from Stirling Moss to win in a Cooper-Climax. In December there was another Grand Prix, where Moss took his revenge, winning in a Porsche.
The following year, the non-championship Formula One race drew a crowd of 67,000 who watched Jim Clark edge out Moss, both driving Lotus-Climax cars. Given the success of the non-championship events, it was no surprise when the racing authorities decided to bestow full World Championship status for 1962, when East London played host to the title-decider. An astonishing 90,000 spectroscope watch Jim Clark dominate until an oil leak forced him out with 20 laps to go. Graham Hill took over the lead and went on to win for BRM, taking the title in the process.
East London went on to host further Grands Prix in 1963, '65 and '66 after which the race switched to the newly-constructed Kyalami circuit near Johannesburg, never to return to the Eastern Cape.
The international crowd departs
In its post-Formula One era, East London settled into life as a national venue, largely unchanged since its original construction. Blessed with fairly large run-off areas, the circuit is relatively safe, despite the lack of safety barriers around its perimeter. The only major change was the introduction of a kart circuit in its central portion, complete with its own pit and paddock facility.
With Mercedes-Benz having its South African headquarters and manufacturing facilities in East London, the circuit benefited from its sponsorship in the 1990s and was known as the Mercedes-Benz Circuit for a time. More latterly, the difficult South African economy meant that the circuit had begun to fade from prominence.
Happily, the Border Motorsport Club announced in December 2014 that it had agreed a new 20-year lease with the Buffalo City Metro Mayoral Committee, with plans for a R620-million (£33 million) renovation plan to bring the circuit back to international standards. Backed by three influential East London corporates – Mercedes-Benz, The Kempston Group and the East London Industrial Development Zone – the project will see a revamping of the circuit with new pits, a new pit lane, a VIP and media centre, grandstands and medical facilities, and an ocean-side hotel close by to accommodate visiting race-goers. Mercedes-Benz South Africa, the city's largest ratepayer, has also offered to kick-off the project by donating their collection of historic vehicles to form the nucleus of a motor museum.
After many years in the doldrums, it appears that East London's circuit may well once again be on the rise.
With thanks to Border Motorsport Club for much of the information on this page.