Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Wagging the Dog

It seemed like it wasn't quite a done deal for a moment, but Force India have now confirmed that Vitantonio Liuzzi will replace Giancarlo Fisichella at Monza. Those who have long wondered whether he got a fair crack of the whip at Toro Rosso will be pleased to see him get a second chance with Vijay Mallya's team, which appears much improved of late. Certainly it will be interesting to see how he stacks up against Adrian Sutil, who to me remains one of the great enigmas of the F1 grid. Devastatingly quick on his day, especially if said day is very wet, he nonetheless has failed to establish himself as consistently quicker than Fisichella, even as the Italian appears to be coasting towards retirement.

There are those who think that Liuzzi is really rather special. Joe Saward, who has long been a cheerleader for Liuzzi, pointed to his karting performance in a recent article on his blog. Clive Allen has long championed his former team mate at Toro Rosso, Scott Speed, and by extension, must presumably think Liuzzi too was under-valued. It is true, after all, that he was as quick as Sebastian Vettel when they were teamed together at the end of 2007, and he was utterly dominant when he took the final F3000 title in 2004. Against that, it could be argued that the 2004 F3000 field wasn't exactly the strongest the category had ever known, and that while he was as quick as Vettel, Vettel was taking his first steps in F1, while Liuzzi had considerable F1 experience. It will be interesting to see how he fares.

It appears, however, that one Bernie Ecclestone Esq. thinks that Mallya's Force India have chosen the wrong man for the job. He's expressed 'disappointment' that the team have chosen Liuzzi over GP2 racer Karun Chandhok. Now let's not beat about the bush. Chandhok might be perfectly capable of putting in a respectable performance in an F1 car. In the way that Tiago Monteiro, or Giorgio Pantano, or his fellow-countryman Narain Karthikeyan were. There is no way, however, that he would be top of anyone's list of potential future F1 megastars. If it were down to potential alone, he wouldn't even be in my top 10 list of candidates for the vacant seat at Force India. After all, he spent last year being soundly beaten by team mate Bruno Senna at ISport, and in the end, nobody took on Senna, despite his having perhaps the most marketable surname in motorsport. This year, he's generally been out-paced by team mate Alvaro Parente at Ocean Racing Technology, and it's fair to say that Parente himself probably isn't at the top of F1 team bosses' shopping lists either. Among the current GP2 drivers alone, I'd have thought Hulkenberg, Di Grassi and Petrov, to name three, were more obvious candidates for an F1 drive.

To be fair, Ecclestone was talking to the Hindustan Times when he was touting Chandhok for the Force India seat, so he might simply have been playing to the gallery. If there's more to it than that, though, I can only assume Ecclestone's desire to see Chandhok in an F1 car is driven by marketing, rather than sporting, considerations. After all, he's been trying to get a Indian Grand Prix off the ground for some time - or rather, he's been trying to persuade the Indians to pay to host a Grand Prix. He was knocked back last week, when The Indian Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport vetoed a payment from Indian Grand Prix promoter JPSK Sports to Formula One Administration, saying that Formula 1 is fundamentally a commercial entertainment and not a sport. Now, perhaps he thinks that an Indian driver in a competitive Indian car (albeit one built near Silverstone in the UK) will help to change the Indian Government's mind.

Ironic then, that Ecclestone should be pushing for a driver not on the grounds of his sporting prowess, his ultimate pace, or his experience, but on the basis that he's trying to sell the sport to 1 billion Indians (or, rather, perhaps, to whoever signs the cheques there) and could do with a driver of the right nationality to help close the deal. It might be the right decision if we're in the entertainment business, but from a sporting point of view, I can't quite see the logic. Looks like the entertainment tail wagging the sporting dog.

Of course, the lower reaches of the F1 grid has long had its share of drivers there for reasons other than pace alone. If your car is 3 or 4 seconds of the pace, there's little point in putting a guy who can get the last couple of tenths out of it, when money's in short supply and there's someone offering to bring pots of sponsorship cash to the party in exchange for a seat. After all, everyone has to pay the bills. For years, the team now known as Force India has adopted this policy, handing at least one of its cars over to whoever could write the largest cheque whilst still persuading the FIA he was worthy of a superlicence.

Now though, the situation is a little different. Yes, if the rumours are true, they're having cashflow problems and both Ferrari and Mercedes are owed money for their engines. But of late, the VJM02 has been a lot closer to the ultimate pace. Enough to grab pole position in Spa. Enough to start racking up significant points. And under the Concord agreement, points, or rather, one's position in the Constructors' Championship, mean prizes. Having the right driver in the car begins to really matter. And to be blunt, Chandhok was not the right driver. Liuzzi, though? He might well be. Whatever Bernie might think, for those running the team, it's still a sport.

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