Saturday, February 13, 2010

Money Talks

A couple of years back, I remember stumbling upon the quite startling claim that the cost of Lewis Hamilton's junior career - from karts to GP2, was on the order of £3mIt's a quite incredible sum of money, and gives some indication of the scale of the obstacles facing a promising teenage karting star who has his eyes set on Grand Prix stardom.

In short, the costs involved in competing in the junior formulae, be it Formula Renault, Formula 3, Formula 2 or GP2, far exceed any sensible estimate of the commercial value to be had in sponsoring a team or driver at that level. A season in British F3, for example, is reputed to cost well north of half a million pounds for a competitive seat, and yet the media coverage and wider public awareness of racing at that level in minimal. Certainly not so great as to be worth spending half a million pounds to have your company's corporate logo emblazoned upon the side of some young gun's car. Millions of potential customers are not going to become aware of your product because it's name is on the side of an F3 car.

So how do racing drivers do it? In many cases, the answer is straightforward - the young racing driver has the backing of vast family wealth. Ever since the earliest days of motor racing, it has been to a significant extent the plaything of the immensely wealthy. In the pre-war days, that might have been the Counts and Lords of the landed aristocracy where these days it is more likely to be the sons of entrepreneurs and city traders. Take for example, Ayrton Senna, the son of a wealthy Brazilian landowner, Niki Lauda, the scion of one of the major movers in the Austrian financial industry, Nelson Piquet, whose father was a senior Government Minister, or, going back further, Stirling Moss, whose father's dental business was sufficiently successful to enable him to buy Stirling a Maserati F1 car to kick-start his career in the sport.

It's not something which has changed. Look at the sponsors adorning the sides of many a young hopeful's F3 or GP2 car and you will see the names of businesses and products with family connections to the driver. Think, for instance, of the Medley Pharmaceuticals logos on anything Xandi Negrao raced, the Conway Engineering stickers on Mike Conway's cars, or the Jelson Builders backing for Stephen Jelley's motorsports exploits. Sometimes it's not quite so obvious, but the backing offered by everyone from Eternit to Highland Spring for David Coulthard's early career is easier to understand when you realise that all these businesses made extensive use of Duncan Coulthard's freight company.

And yet, and yet... Look into the background of the any of the real stars of the last fifteen years or so, Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, Mika Hakkinen or Lewis Hamilton, and it becomes apparent that they were from ordinary working or middle class families and could never have written their own cheques for GP2 or F3 rides. In fact, it's arguable that Ayrton Senna was the last real star of the sport to have come from a background of serious wealth (though I have to confess to being a little hazy as to Jenson Button's back story).

That's not to say that there haven't been an awful lot of moneyed young men in F1 since then, but for the most part, they haven't been quite at the very front, they haven't been the ones to have won World Championships. The aforementioned Coulthard, for example, won plenty of Grands Prix during his time at Mclaren, but was never quite the match of either Hakkinen or Raikkonen when he was teamed up with them. Is it mere coincidence? Or is it simply that, with rare exceptions like Ayrton Senna, those who grew up in opulent, wealthy surroundings are unlikely to have the killer instinct, the determination, which those who have had to fight tooth and nail just to get themselves into motorsport in the first place?

How did they do it? No two of the motorsport's front runners got there in exactly the same way, but the long and short of it is that all were funded to a significant degree by either an entrepreneurial driver manager with an eye on a share of that driver's future earning potential, or by a team, of more commonly, a motor manufacturer, wanting to have first call on that driver's talents at a future date. Michael Schumacher, the bricklayer's son, was the beneficiary of both - the wealthy hotelier Willi Weber helped him on his way, and then Mercedes, for whose sportscar team he drove, bought him his first F1 drive. Fernando Alonso, whose father was an explosives technician in the quarrying industry, was picked up early by Flavio Briatore, a man who has done remarkably well for himself as a manager of young drivers given his professed lack of interest in the nuts and bolts of the sport.

Kimi Raikkonen had perhaps the most unusual route to the top of the lot, being managed by the father and son team of Steve and Dave Robertson, who talked Peter Sauber into giving the young Finn a drive after just a single season of Formula Renault and a few Formula Ford races, at a time when he was the veteran of only 23 car races. Hamilton, by contrast, was perhaps the best-groomed F1 debutant in the history of the sport. As is well known, he was picked out by Ron Dennis while he was still in his early teens, and a karting star and had the full weight of the Mclaren team behind his junior career. Of the other current F1 front-runners, Mark Webber is another who had help from Briatore, while Sebastian Vettel had backing from both the Red Bull and BMW junior programmes and Robert Kubica was helped by the Renault Young Driver Programme - appropriately enough, as he has now wound up driving for the team this year.

It's fair to say, I think, that not one of those drivers could have paid their own way in their junior racing days, and it is perhaps the widespread existence of junior programmes and mercenary managers prepared to invest their own cash in a driver who has caught their eye, which explains how it is that the current F1 grid has perhaps greater strength in depth than any in the sport's history.

And I wonder if it just might turn out to be the high-water mark. The global recession has forced most of the car manufacturers out of the sport and resulted in the slashing of team budgets. The departure of Toyota and BMW has meant the end of their junior programmes, and surviving teams have little cash spare for that sort of luxury. The economic downturn will have had a double negative impact on anyone hoping to rely on the largesse of a gambling entrepreneur like Weber or the Robertsons - men willing to fund promising but penniless youngsters in exchange for a cut of their future earnings if they make it big. Firstly, such people will be thinner on the ground in the first place, and may have less money, but secondly, the knock-on effect of the economic crash has been to reduce the amount of money sloshing around in F1 and by extension, the kind of salaries that the top drivers can command.

All well and good from one perspective. I can't help feeling that something has gone wrong in the world when the likes of Raikkonen or Schumacher can command tens of millions just for driving cars - no matter how good they may be at it. Unfortunately, though, unless it is accompanied by a fall in the cost of competing in the junior formulae, it could have the effect of making it hard for all but the independently wealthy to raise the kind of cash required to compete in GP2. Given the long odds that any particular youngster will turn out to be the new Schumacher, a significant reduction in the kind of sums that even a new Schumacher could earn might make any young star appear a rather less enticing investment opportunity. And that's before one considers that, increasingly, novice F1 drivers are being expected to bring money to cash-strapped teams, rather than draw a salary. See, for example, Petrov and Renault, or (so it is rumoured) Kobayashi and Sauber, let alone those being lined up to drive for Campos and USF1, should they make the grid at all.

Perversely, then, the effect of big money's disappearance from the sport could end up being to lessen the overall quality of the field, by making it harder from quick youngsters without the backing of family wealth, from ordinary backgrounds, to take on the gilded youth of the world's super-rich. A return, in many ways, to the sport's early days. I hope I'm wrong...

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Anonymous Alianora La Canta said...

What I suspect will happen is that the next generation of young drivers won't be as good as the current one, but the economy will bounce back such that the one after that could be better than either. The recession won't last forever, but any driver starting in it will find that their rise through the ranks will be boosted by money more than talent.

When the recession ends, money will gently filter back into the system. The most attractive series will get the money first, which initially will mean F1. Even if it's not the vast quantities teams are used to, the influx of money combined with resource restrictions means that money will be of little use to a driver for the GP2-to-F1 transition. So in 2011/2012 (depending on just how quickly the recession clears up), don't be surprised if we get a repeat of 2008, where the winner of the GP2 championship can't get into F1 because the current talents are seen to be better quality. The money will eventually filter down, so that the 2012/2013 generation of young drivers will easily overpower their older, wealthier but slower rivals. This will give them the confidence to be Hamilton-esque on arrival in F1. However, instead of there being just one driver like that (as in 2007), there will be at least two and maybe half-a-dozen. They will seriously raise the bar between them.

Motorsport is inherently cyclical. As long as the cycles reach ever-upward, there is nothing to worry about... ...except for the unfortunate drivers who are trapped in the money-driven turn-of-decade young drivers' environment. For even the wealthy will struggle somewhat due to lack of quality and the perception that goes with it.

3:28 AM  
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9:03 PM  

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