This week’s visit to Kenya by seven-time Formula One Champion Sir Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes team lead driver excited fans of the sport not just in the country but the region at large, despite it being highly secretive and private.
For Grand Prix (GP) fans in Kenya, whether Hamilton acknowledged his presence here or not made no difference as they revelled the fact that he most probably was reacting to the growing interest in the sport here.
One fan went as far as suggesting that Hamilton was probably inspired by comments by his Kenyan fans on social media, just like Jamaica’s world 100 metres sprint champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who confessed that Kenyans on Twitter and Facebook lured her to travel to Kenya and compete in the Kip Keino Classic Continental Tour meeting which took place in Nairobi, early this year.
That notwithstanding, the Safari Rally’s return to the World Rally Championship last year attracted the world’s attention and put Kenya in the limelight of motor sporting and Hamilton's private visit is expected to have a ripple effect in Kenya and the African continent, which more than 40 years ago was active in circuit racing, including in countries like Somalia, where Italian investors had constructed a race circuit in Mogadishu.
Hamilton, a keen follower of the WRC Safari Rally, tagged Kenyan lady driver Maxine Wahome for finishing this year's Safari Rally, the first woman in 25 years to finish a World Rally Championship round.
It’s also worth noting that current rally driver Jeremiah Wahome, competed in Formula Three racing in Britain before returning home three years ago to concentrate on rallying.
The Safari Rally might have ignited increased following for motorsport in general in Africa, but the continent’s love for Formula One exploded a decade ago and has been growing exponentially since.
It, therefore, hardly came as a surprise when Hamilton chose Kenya, Rwanda and Namibia as his August summer break destinations.
As expected, his visit to the Masai Mara, gorilla tracking in Rwanda and desert visit and hot air balloon riding in Namibia was highly secretive and private, keeping with the kind of security accorded international stars and celebrities of his status. But that didn’t stop his fans from tagging him on his social media posts that showed him enjoying himself. He is a big draw wherever he goes, and his visit to Kenya and Rwanda is expected to further grow F1 following in the region.
In an Instagram post Friday on his Rwanda visit, he expressed joy at being able to see gorillas in their natural habitat and meet the community that protects them. He promised to return.
Fans of the sport are so passionate and with no chance of ever having one race held here, Kenyan fans save up to travel to watch the Formula One races in circuits around the world.
“I’ve known members of the Williams Formula One team for the past five years. I always attend the Bahrain Grand Prix,” said Kenyan Manama-based hotelier Winnie Noni. She is lucky that whenever she fails to get a Williams team complimentary race weekend tickets for the race weekend at the Sakhir circuit, her hotel in Manama arranges free staff access.
“I’ve been to the Bahrain GP four times and this year’s race was the best as I got to get a VIP seat and treatment by the Williams team.
“What makes me love Formula One racing is the co-ordination between the drivers and the technicians. They are genius.”
Today, Formula One race weekends find fans at viewing parties in Nairobi, mostly in sports bars and local pubs, resplendent in replica team shirts of their favourite drivers and naturally, seasoned top team performers Scuderia Ferrari, Mercedes AMG Petronas and Red Bull Racing are the most popular with fans.
Hamilton’s visit is also significant coming hot on the heels of South Africa's successful bid to host a round of the Grand Prix as early as next year, at the famous Kyalami circuit in Johannesburg, which last hosted a Formula One race in 1993.
The drive to have South Africa on the Formula One calendar is part of the bid by the International Federation of Automobile (FIA), the F1 Championship organisers to have the competition as a truly global one, traversing all continents.
Hamilton has publicly supported the return of Formula One to the Kyalami circuit for the first time in 30 years, saying he is proud to be associated with an event being held in his “ancestral home.”
“The thing that is most important for me is to get a race back in South Africa. It’s a place that I really feel is dear to my heart. There is a great following out there and I think it would be great to be able to highlight just how beautiful the motherland is,” Hamilton was quoted by South Africa’s News24 when news of Kyalami’s successful bid became public.
Already, Formula One Chief Executive Stefano Domenicali has travelled to South Africa for meetings with officials at Kyalami, seeking to cement the deal that will see Johannesburg join Las Vegas as new hosts on the F1 circuit.
South Africa first hosted a Formula One race in 1934, but it was struck off the calendar because of sanctions against the apartheid rule. Racing briefly returned in the 1992/93 season before the South African round was halted.
Kyalami’s return offers the best opportunity for East African F1 fans a once-in-a lifetime chance as they can drive or fly to South Africa. Already many fans here can afford to travel east to the Abi Dhabi, Malaysian and some even the Australian GP.
It was the dream of former FIA president Jean Todt to see motorsport grow in Africa, and it is expected that current president, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the first Middle Eastern to hold the position, will support the spread of Formula One racing to the benefit of Africa.
F1 is the second most watched sporting event after European top tier league football in Kenya.
- Additional reporting by Elias Makori