Thursday, 27 January 2011

Talent Over Money? Fernando Is Richer Than You!

The days of swashbuckling drivers pitting their skills against man and machine, in a bid to establish who was the fastest and most skillful driver of all, may seem to be distant memories of better days.

These days Formula 1 attracts headlines as often for its controversy and politics as it does for daring overtaking manoeuveres or epic battles to the chequered flag. It may still be one of the world's most popular, if not most popular, form of motorsport, but is it in danger of losing touch with its legions of fans?

In a sport that inherently contains more barriers to participation than any other of the same popularity, due to costs and opportunity, those on the inside of the sport are in danger of pushing those on the outside further and further away from the sport they love. Formula 1 is the domain of the privileged, and in the world of the privileged money talks.

Corporate sponsorship always has been, and always will be, an integral part of Formula 1. The costs of running a Formula 1 team mean that, unless you are a Russian oligarch, help is needed from big business - and help from big business can often involve selling your soul, or the soul of your sport. It is no longer just about results, its all about getting the right results.

Last year the season was marred by the bizarre and now infamous radio transmission from Rob Smedley to Felipe Massa at the German Grand Prix. "Fernando is faster than you." The accepted reason for these thinly disguised team orders were that Fernando Alonso had a greater chance of winning the driver's championship than his team mate. It is safe to say that any driver who can rely on their team mate being ordered to give way has a better chance of winning the driver's championship. However, with the greater marketing potential, investment and backing of his team, perhaps it would have been more accurate for the transmission to have said "Fernando is richer than you."

Marketing, backing and sponsorship are wresting control of the sport away from the racing principles upon which it was built. As the sport struggles to cope with rising costs and the increasing difficulty in attracting sponsorship in the challenging economic climate, more and more drivers are acquiring seats based upon the amount of money they bring with them to their teams rather than down to pure driving ability. This is not a new occurrence. It is doubtful whether Pedro Diniz would have gained a seat in Formula 1 without the help of his father's supermarket empire. However, this year alone there are three new drivers who may not have entered the F1 circus without the money that they bring with them.

In the face of such financial factors, the news that Paul di Resta has gained a seat with Force India for 2011 is a refreshing breath of fresh air. For once skill has taken precedence over money.

Not only is di Resta not bringing money to the team, but Force India will need to compensate Tonio Liuzzi for the loss of his contracted seat with the team. The Scot has proved himself in lower formulas. Now he has the opportunity to prove his ability at the highest level.

For a sport that can never really claim that its champion is the most gifted in the world, but rather only the most gifted to have been given the opportunity, this promotion of skill over money is a beacon of hope to those who are desperate to see the sport return to its sporting and competitive roots.

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