The nationalistic side of Formula One

By on Saturday, February 18, 2012

Pastor Maldonado - a pay driver, but also a GP2 champion.

Countries are now getting behind their best driver, rather than a driver simply paying his way to F1. We take a look at how this is changing Formula One.

Five Germans, three Brits, three French, two Spaniards, two Finns, two Brazilians, two Australians, a Japanese, a Mexican, a Venezuelan, a Russian and an Indian. No, the next line isn’t ‘walk into a bar’, but rather these are the nationalities that make up the Formula One grid in 2012.

The recent replacement of Jarno Trulli with Vitaly Petrov at Caterham isn’t solely down to money (although it helps), but rather where that money is coming from and how it can be exploited. In the press release from Caterham, team principal Tony Fernandes commented that ‘It was not an easy decision to bring Vitaly in to replace Jarno, but it was one we made to ensure that we give fresh impetus across the whole team and with a realistic eye on the global economic market’, meaning that Russia is a more attractive prospect than Italy. Add to that the upcoming Russian Grand Prix and you can understand how Russia could become lucrative for Formula One. Force India benefitted enormously thanks to their nationality at Buddh last year and Marussia will be hoping to do the same in Sochi in two years’ time.

Formula One in Italy has inevitably been centred on the fortunes of Ferrari, the most famous team in the world, and there has been a dearth in successful Italian racing drivers compared to expectations. 2012 will be the first time since 1970 that there are no Italians on the grid, even if Paul di Resta and Daniel Ricciardo do have Italian blood in them. For a country with such famous car brands, it’s astonishing that their most recent world champion is Alberto Ascari – he died in 1955. Ferrari has never fully grasped the concept of hiring Italian racing drivers, while Flavio Briatore – the man who helped launch the careers of Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella – is a Formula One outcast following the Crashgate scandal in 2009. There are talented young Italian racing drivers out there – including Luca Filippi, Kevin Ceccon and Davide Valsecchi – but there is an increasing need for drivers to bring phenomenal amounts of money to Formula One teams and cash is in fairly short supply in Italy right now.

Yuji Ide and Christijan Albers on the same track. Never a good idea.

Pay drivers have always been a large part of Formula One, except for the short-lived manufacturer era in the late 1990s into the mid-2000s. A few drivers, most notably Pastor Maldonado, are there because they bring huge sums of money to their teams. But that acts as a discredit to the drivers themselves, as even though they pay, they are still very talented. There were days, not that long ago, where pay drivers could barely handle a Formula One car.

Increasingly though, pay drivers aren’t just buying their way into seats, but are moreover becoming someone who is representing their country and being used for teams to exploit their country’s market. If you look down the grid, you’ll see that the ‘nationalistic pay driver’ is becoming more noticeable as the F1 calendar expands from its predominantly European setting.

Ferrari’s Santander sponsorship relies heavily on the presence of Fernando Alonso, while their retention of Felipe Massa has always been linked to Fiat’s desire for profits in South America. Telmex has been heavily influential on the career of Sergio Perez with the country now keen to use Perez’s popularity by bringing a grand prix back to the Central American country. While his presence at Lotus is deserved through his GP2 title, the final piece of the puzzle for Romain Grosjean was Total’s insistence that the Frenchman was on the grid. Venezuelan oil giants PDVSA fund several racing drivers globally and their contract with Williams stipulates that one of their own must drive an F1 car. Step forwards Pastor Maldonado. Similarly, HRT’s use of Narain Karthikeyan last year was down to them being able to use his popularity in India. This isn’t a criticism of the way Formula One has progress, but merely an observation of the changing nature of the sport.

Sergio Perez comes with backing, but would you say he doesn't deserve his place? Photo credit: Sauber Motorsport AG

On occasion, it is positive for the sport. Sergio Perez may be a pay driver, but he deserves his place on the grid through his talent. Conversely, Pastor Maldonado may be a GP2 champion but many were disappointed that his promotion ousted Nico Hulkenberg for 2011. The problem comes with the drivers who aren’t so fortunate to have substantial backing from their country.

While the cream of the crop usually rises to the top – Daniel Ricciardo, Jean Eric Vergne, Sergio Perez; all race winners in highly regarded junior series – others seem destined to miss out both temporarily and permanently. For example, Germany is currently enjoying a boom time in Formula One with five of their own represented on the grid. However, this makes it difficult for others to garner sufficient attention, as demonstrated by the omission of Hulkenberg last year and Sutil this season. Similarly, Spanish sponsors will currently flock to Fernando Alonso: bad news for the likes of Jaime Alguersuari, Roberto Mehri and even HRT. Robert Wickens is one of the best young drivers around, yet Canadian sponsors have shown a distinct lack of interest. Bar a few practice sessions for Virgin, he hasn’t reached Formula One. In the same squad in 2011, Jerome d’Ambrosio found himself at the exit door after sponsorship from Belgium dried up.

So is Formula One heading into more nationalistic territory? After all – forgetting drivers for the moment – we have Force India (even though they are based in Silverstone), an HRT team looking to effectively become a Spanish F1 team while there was also the abortive USF1 attempt in 2010. Motorsport’s elite will usually find their way to Formula One, but there is an increasing tendency for nationalism in the sport.


I am looking to travel to and report from races this season. These features are written in spare time so if you’d like to help contribute to my expenses, I’d be eternally grateful and humbled. Thanks!


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