Talking Money

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This week’s racing press has seen perhaps the biggest split since Ayrton Senna died, between those who ‘get’ racing and those who do not. I cannot believe those who comment that Kimi Raikkonen should have jeopardised a potential Grand Prix win by changing his damaged tyre.

Newsflash: Raikkonen is a racing driver and he is paid to win. He took a calculated risk which, had the suspension lasted another five kilometres, would have paid off. I should add that Raikkonen is paid many millions of pounds to take such risks. Raikkonen and McLaren should be applauded for taking the chance, and for taking such a pragmatic view in the aftermath. Let us not forget that the new tyre rules have transformed F1 this year, and turned Sunday’s race, which last year would have petered out, into a thriller.

Furthermore, to the many whingers on the Autosport letters page – you’ve all obviously never seen a Formula Ford race at Brands Hatch. If you had, then you’d realise the Raikkonen incident was tame. If you don’t like it, sod off and watch golf instead.

A similar ignorance has been displayed by all those complaining and questioning why British driver Dan Wheldon is racing in the USA and not in F1. Firstly, had it not been for his stunning victory at the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday night, Wheldon would remain in relative obscurity, known to the connoisseur but few others.

Secondly, quite simply the answer is money. Had Wheldon not been able to continue his career in the USA he could not afford to be a professional racing driver.

Wheldon’s story is all too familiar to so many talented British drivers, except that in Dan’s case it has a happy ending. Few people remember, or even realise, that Wheldon was Jenson Button’s closest rival in British Formula Ford in 1998, but whereas Button enjoyed a meteoric rise to F1, Wheldon has had a rather more convoluted route to Indy glory. A friend in the racing world once told me Button spent ???1m on PR alone, prior to his entry to Formula One. That’s pounds, not lire. True or not, it says a great deal about British single seater racing (where the ‘entry-level’ Formula BMW series will set you back roughly ???200,000 for the year).

Now there is no doubt that Jenson Button is an exceptionally talented driver and worthy of his place in F1, but let’s not forget he finished 3rd in the 1999 British Formula 3 championship. Button went straight to F1, whereas title winner Marc Hynes has had barely ten races since. Hynes’ talent was certainly equal to, if not superior to, Button’s, and he remains perhaps the greatest talent for many years to have been so completely overlooked. Then we have the cases of Alan Van Der Merwe and Robbie Kerr, both dominant in Formula 3 and both currently unemployed beyond the odd outing.

Whilst there is no doubt that most of the drivers in F1 are exceptionally talented, it is also arguable that they are by no means the best available. In today’s racing environment PR and sponsorship are essential. Failing this you need a rich daddy (Pedro Diniz) or that’s it – career finished. There are literally hundreds of drivers out there who were stellar in Formula Ford or Formula Renault, and way more deserving of a drive than others who have gone all the way, whose careers have petered out.

I discovered this first hand racing in the BRDC Formula Ford series last year. Of the top four in the championship, only two have found regular drives (one of those is the champion whose prize was a career enhancement fund). All four had the ability to be competitive in F3 at the very least.

In contrast, some of the less able drivers (so bad even I was thrashing them on a regular basis) have sailed into drives in which, quite frankly, they are way out of their depth. Even at the most junior forms of motorsport, money talks.

A more high profile example is this year’s Formula 3 Euroseries and GP2 Championships. British drivers in the form of Lewis Hamilton and Adam Carroll respectively are comfortably the series stars. Hamilton has been funded by McLaren (and recently Mercedes), since karting and has never been in an underfinanced, uncompetitive car (I’m reliably informed his winter testing budget in Formula Renault was in the region of ???200,000).

Carroll has struggled his way through the ranks, finishing second in last year’s British Formula 3 championship to Nelson Piquet Jr. by doing deals on a race-by-race basis (Carroll’s budget for last year is probably less than Piquet Sport spent on snacks), and is now competing in GP2 on a similar basis. Both are deserving of an F1 race seat, Carroll is arguably the better driver, but I guarantee you it will be Hamilton on the Grand Prix grid. He has better PR and a history of manufacturer backing. Game, set, match and pair of Oakleys.

There have traditionally been two exceptions to this rule: the USA and Japan. Here sponsors back winners rather than family friends. The Japanese F3000 series has been renowned for producing F1 drivers (Eddie Irvine, Heinz-Harald Frentzen), but the Asian recession means it is not the gold mine it once was. It is now the USA which is the primary place of refuge for the fast-but-broke brigade. Wheldon has shot to prominence this week, but Darren Manning, Dario Franchitti and Justin Wilson have all achieved success in the USA at a time when their British driving options were limited to minicabs.

This is a complex issue and one that has historically dogged motor sport. This is a sport as accessible to the common man as is polo. Likewise to reach the highest echelons of motor sport you must be fantastically talented.

Zsolt Baumgartner may not stack up too well against Michael Schumacher, but he’d kick your arse at the local kart track. Furthermore, motor sport, and especially F1, is business.

The Ferraris of this world don’t want introverted dwarves (most racing drivers are very short) driving their cars, they want charismatic, attractive, marketable people like?????? um??????. Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello.

It is easy to knock pay drivers. But please bear two things in mind. First, F1 champions such as Niki Lauda started out as pay drivers, and second, if you had the money you’d be doing exactly the same thing. Or at least I would. So if anyone has a few million burning a hole in their pocket, please send cash or cheques made payable to Ben Evans.

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Ben Evans
Motorsport commentator Ben is RaceFans' resident bookworm. Look out for his verdict on the latest motor racing publications on Sundays....

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  • 2 comments on “Talking Money”

    1. You were a racing driver, @keithcollantine?

      Wheldon’s story is all too familiar to so many talented British drivers, except that in Dan’s case it has a happy ending.

      So sad.

      Carroll is arguably the better driver, but I guarantee you it will be Hamilton on the Grand Prix grid.

      Do you still stand by that assessment, or was it just more easy to sympathize with the guy who never had it easy?

      1. @adrianmorse No, this was by @Ben-Evans. It went up before we had author IDs on here so I’ve just added the correct one.

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