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Lopez has power of a nation behind him

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Andrew Benson | 14:21 UK time, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

This is a big week in Formula 1. The new Mercedes team was launched on Monday, and new cars from Ferrari and McLaren are due to break cover on Thursday and Friday. But another development that has made less of an impact could prove a seminal moment in a different way.

The announcement on Tuesday that the little-known Argentine Jose Maria Lopez will drive for the new US F1 team in 2010 has had minimal coverage compared to the fanfare afforded Mercedes's public presentation of their new livery and Michael Schumacher.

The general perception will be that this is just another pay-driver getting a seat with a struggling team, and that neither are likely to make much impact in 2010.

That assessment may well turn out to be factually correct - but the Lopez deal is rather more interesting than that. He has secured his drive thanks to backing from the government of Argentina itself. His appointment was announced by the President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

As far as I am aware, this is the first time a national government has ever financially supported a driver's entry into F1 to any significant degree.

"He has got the nation behind him," US F1 sporting director Peter Windsor told me from Buenos Aires on Wednesday. "This has all come through the president's office. The government decided to get behind him and take him into F1, and when they did that a lot of other companies looked at it and decided to do the same. It's snowballed since then."

US F1 team boss Peter Windsor, an interpreter, Jose Maria Lopez and Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de KirchnerArgentina's President Kirchner (right) announced Lopez's (centre) new drive herself

This is information that a lot of struggling young racers around the world, scrabbling to raise the money to further their careers, will find quite hard to take.

That, though, does not make it any less remarkable.

Argentina has had a very tough time economically in the last decade and, although things are improving from the lows of 2001, times are still hard for many Argentines. F1's popularity remains high, though - even though it is 12 years since the country had a race or a driver.

"Obviously football is huge, but motorsport is the number two sport in Argentina," Windsor says, "even with Juan Martin del Potro and Angel Cabrera winning majors in tennis and golf. Jose is huge here.

"A lot of people will say, 'Oh, it's a driver with money.' But that sidesteps the issues of how much time it takes to raise that money - and it's still government money they are spending. I'm very proud of that.

"My feeling is that the thinking is: 'Let's take a driver into F1; it'll be good for the country's morale.'

"They want to win in big sports - that's very important, just as it is in Australia. Here, it doesn't take much to trigger a spark of enthusiasm. Who's to say that the fact they are in economic recovery isn't even more reason to get behind a driver? It's a very optimistic attitude - very different from Europe where it tends to be all doom and gloom."

The chances of Lopez winning in F1, of course, are not great, at least in the immediate future.

US F1 are battling to get their debut car ready. Windsor says he and co-owner Ken Anderson haven't yet decided whether they will make any of the four pre-season tests in Europe, but he says it's likely the car will run only in the US. He insists, though, that they will be ready for the first race in Bahrain on 14 March, while admitting: "It's going to be tight."

And then there's the question of whether Lopez is any good. He did not exactly set the world on fire in the European feeder formulae, but Windsor says he always believed Lopez had talent; the respected driver coach Rob Wilson agrees - and so does Argentine F1 legend Carlos Reutemann.

Reutemann, now an influential name in Kirchner's Peronist party, is an old friend of Windsor from the 1970s and early '80s, when Reutemann was one of F1's leading drivers and Windsor a journalist. Although Windsor says the now Argentine senator - a member of Kirchner's party, but not exactly an ally - "is not really involved at all, other than he thinks Jose is very talented and very fast".

Whatever, all this is further evidence of a major shift that appears to be happening in F1 - as the car manufacturers leave, teams are increasingly taking on national identities, whether by accident or design.

So Brawn has been bought out by Mercedes, who are running two German drivers in Schumacher and Nico Rosberg. McLaren have two English drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. Ferrari have long been considered in Italy as the national team, even if they do little to promote Italian drivers. The new Lotus outfit are effectively a Malaysian team. Then there's Force India - explicitly Indian, even if based at Silverstone. And now US F1, with backing from the Argentine government.

Windsor says he and Anderson chose that name for their team because of exactly this shift.

"The thinking was always, it's beyond car companies and the future will probably be an international element," he says. "And it's possible if we weren't called US F1, we wouldn't be here."

It looks incongruous, then, that there will not be an American driver in the team, but Windsor says the explanation for that is simple.

"No American driver has [the necessary F1] super licence," he says, "apart from maybe [GP3 driver] Alexander Rossi - but that was very recent.

"We had to draw a line. [IndyCar front-runners] Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti haven't got one. They may have been given one, but we couldn't take the risk of finding in the third week of February that they'd been turned down.

"We want to be in F1 for a long time. We'll build a stable platform and then do it (get an American driver) - we've got plenty of time."

"We're going to be doing quite a lot to promote American drivers this year, which we'll announce quite soon. But even though we're US F1, we don't have to have American drivers. We're in a global market place - there are also people who want to promote their company in the US. F1 is very international, but laying claim to a country is quite cool."

Windsor and his team can now lay claim to two.


  • Comment number 1.

    It shows that Argentina has full backing for Lopez whether he'll do well is another matter. Mercedes launched on Monday which proves that i was wrong cos i said schumacher might not come back but now i think about it, i'm quite excited and can't wait to see what will happen. Excited about the car launches of Ferrari and McLaren.

    Do you think Campos Meta problems are serious?
    Please answer back.

  • Comment number 2.

    To f1fantic - yes, I do think Campos Meta are serious. They have engaged a serious company in Dallara to build their car for them, and team boss Adrian Campos is highly regarded in motorsport as a serious and honest person. However, as they have admitted themselves - - they need to find some more money.

    I know Bernie Ecclestone has been quoted saying some quite dismissive comments, but Campos are deadly serious about being on the grid in Bahrain. As to whether they will be, I don't know. But Adrian Campos says they will be, so I think we have to take them at their word.

  • Comment number 3.

    If the USF1 car doesn't look like Uncle SAM ate supersized deep fried star spangled banners for breakfast, had a spin and then vomited all of that over the car at 200 mph... I will be severely disappointed. I hope they don't try and kid themselves and be restrained with the decals.

    The Merc. colours look cool too ... but McLaren will always be the coolest.

    Can't wait to see what the other cars look like...

  • Comment number 4.

    Actually, no precedent has been set.

    In 1948, an Argentine driver called Juan Manuel Fangio arrived in Europe after the Argentine government and the Argentine Automobile Club sponsored him.

    In the 1950s, when the man became legend, the government could sit back, comfortably aware that they had helped boost their profile on the world stage. After all, Eva didn't appeal to everyone.

  • Comment number 5.

    So what?

    Sorry but this is no difference to any other sport.

    Athletes in track and field, swimming, tennis and a whole host of other sports regularly get government backing and funding from their countries.

    The "territorialising" of F1 is also nothing new in sport, most sports that have a clear commercial side are territorial based with teams from major cities, in the more global world of F1 that means countires or even continents. It is purely a case of trying to represent somewhere so that fans have an instant affinity with those teams.

  • Comment number 6.

    To hackerjack - I think the point is that it may not be new in sport, but it is new in F1.

  • Comment number 7.

    Almost all of the technology used in F1 comes from the United States and most of the breaking systems are manufactured here including Brembo. My point is simple, USF1 will be there because of this close proximity to this technology. As far as an Argentine driver relating to a team that comes from the US with the only connection is he came up with the money to secure a seat. I can understand Andrew Benson making that connection with the Mercedes and Mclaren team, but where he gets that connection with USF1 is beyond me.

  • Comment number 8.

    "F1's popularity remains high, though - even though it is 12 years since the country had a race or a driver."

    This isn't strictly true - While Buenos Aires dropped off the calendar in 1998, Gaston Mazzacane was still driving for Prost in 2001. Esteban Tuero was the driver before, in 1998, which I guess is whom you were referring to. Nine years is still a while, however, especially with Brazil's continuing presence in the sport.

  • Comment number 9.

    Andrew, Do you think the Argentine race would return even if Lopez and USf1 succeed? The new GT circuit in San Luis would be brilliant for it, but woul Bernie be willing to prioritse it over, say an Indian or American race?

  • Comment number 10.

    1. At 3:09pm on 27 Jan 2010, f1fantic wrote:
    It shows that Argentina has full backing for Lopez whether he'll do well is another matter. Mercedes launched on Monday which proves that i was wrong cos i said schumacher might not come back but now i think about it, i'm quite excited and can't wait to see what will happen. Excited about the car launches of Ferrari and McLaren.

    Do you think Campos Meta problems are serious?
    Please answer back.

    Mercedes launch was last years car. It was just to introduce the drivers and the new color scheme showing its main sponsors logo. I think the actual car will be launched on Thursday.

  • Comment number 11.

    To Esteffect - yes, thanks for pointing that out. I'd forgotten all about Gaston Mazzacane. Shameful, I know, but I'm sure I'm not the only one...

  • Comment number 12.

    Good to see a country such as Argentina understanding the significance of preserving its once rich heritage in the sport and putting the country back on the map by backing Lopez.
    F1 is indeed a global sport with many emerging countries clamering for the cudos of staging a race.
    Whether Argentina can successfully regain a Grand Prix fixture remains to be seen, but you cannot underestimate, for example, the impact Schumacher and Alonso had in their respective countries in raising the profile of the sport to such stratospheric and exhalted levels never before seen.
    If only we had a modicom of governmental interest here then we wouldn't have had the embarrasement of the whole Donington/Silverstone saga...

  • Comment number 13.

    With regards to a nationally sponsored driver, I can think of one, who I am 99% certain did, (though don't have a link to prove it I am afraid)

    It was Argentina again, and the driver Juan Manuel Fangio.

    Fangio had been a succesful driver in Argentina for some years (in his late 30's by the time the modern grand prix came into existance don't forget) and the government stumped up the money for him to drive a Maserati 8C in 1948 and/or 1949. It is from these performances he was noticed by the Alfa Romeo team, and the rest as they say, is history.

  • Comment number 14.

    Apologies to Kate, I didn't read carefully enough. Don't mind me!

  • Comment number 15.

    "He first came to Europe to race in 1948, funded by the Argentine Automobile Club and the Argentine government."

    Extract from Wiki on Fangio as Kate correctly pointed out.

  • Comment number 16.

    Argentina govt sponsers Lopez into USF1 knowing that there is no ROI. Indian govt ignores Abhinav B who got them Gold medal & Respect.

  • Comment number 17.

    It is true that the Argentine Government did help fund Fangio. From the mid-1940s much of the Peron government's support came as a means to boost the Argentina's profile in the world and also to allow for the country to make progress in the automotive industry and motorsport in general.

    The Achille Varzi team competed in a number of races during the late 1940s. In 1949 the team ran a pair of privately-owned Maserati's for Fangio and his team-mate, Benedicto Campos (the government also had to buy a pair of cars from Ferrari mid-way through the season). Despite this the team was often short of finances, with Fangio himself having to often negotiate freebies from companies.

    Although the Achille Varzi team returned to Europe for the 1950 racing season, Fangio was signed up by Alfa Romeo. However the team did compete in a few of the official GP's in the 1950 season. For example in the Monaco GP of that year, the Argentine Jose Froilan Gonzalez drove the team's Formula 2 Maserati in the race after there wasn't enough Formula One machinery to fill the grid.

    Sorry, I've just realised that i'm wittering on!

  • Comment number 18.

    First government backed driver? What about Alex Yoong?

  • Comment number 19.

    HI Andrew, I guess we are all looking forward to 2010 championship, especially how the much hyped new drivers will measure up to Schumacher, and Alonso in a good car. Just a note of clarification, president of Argentina is Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, not Crista Fernandez...

  • Comment number 20.

    Re Alek Boyd - thanks, duly noted and amended.

  • Comment number 21.

    My son entered car racing in the UK last year and won a National Single seater championship in his first year of racing. We are not the architypal racing family. We are not not rich and live in a council house in Greater (East) London. We worked very hard to get him onto the grid and he in turn worked very hard winning 14 out of 22 races and collecting two championships. An incredible record for a novice. Part of his success was due to some very hard earned commercial sponsorship that we were able to secure but because of the economic climate (despite Government reports of an end to recession) we have now learned these sponsors cannot afford to support my son again this year. So far I have drawn a blank in trying to find alternative funding. Motor Racing is very cruel in the respect that if you are successful at it you earn the right to spend even more money the following year!

    So it looks as though my sons talent will now be wasted and his career over before it really got started. Irony is that as an East London resident and living very near to the site of the 2012 Olympic Games I'm paying a contribution to the staging of those games to the Government through my council tax and yet my sons sport is not represented. Maybe I need to get some perspective but I am continuously frustrated at how the Government here does not recoginise Motorsport and support it in the way that so many of our continenetal cousins do!! (End of Rant)

  • Comment number 22.

    in response to comment 7

    Are you sure about your tech statement? I would imagine since there are no large American car manufacturers amongst the teams (even the teams that have left, and the residual technology from them were Japanese and European) and the majority of teams are based in the UK the American influence on the sport is minimal. (Brembo do have a plant in US but are an Italian company)

    and it's braking

  • Comment number 23.

    #3 Lets be honest, I'm a McLaren fan but the coolest car on the grid is a special colour of red isn't it?

  • Comment number 24.

    Nations backing F1 isn't new, the new development is that instead of countries paying Bernie to add new and exotic TRACKS to the calender, they are now entering DRIVERS. Look out for Andreas Zuber, Karun Chandhok and Ho Pin Tung (from Abu Dhabi, India and China, respectively) to join Lopez. Fauzy, a Malaysian driver, has also been signed by Lotus, despite showing little to no talent in a GP2 car.
    Exciting times once again, I should be supporting Mclaren or U.S F1 (Since I'm English/American) but I still have to give top nod to young Mr. Hulkenburg in one of Frank Wiliams' beauties!

  • Comment number 25.

    Very interesting and well written blog, thank you very much for it Andrew! The notion of F1 nationalizing is very interesting and is definitely a trend that can be seen more and more clearly. Like examples here state, this type of thing has happened before in F1 on some occasions. It also happens a lot in sports in general, yet I can't personally remember F1 being as 'national' ever before, as it is now..

    I wonder if down the road somewhere we come to a place where countries race eachother.. every major F1 country will have a team and challengers will have their own series to fight their way up to F1 from.. Teams could outsource a certain amount of work beyond their borders but the rest (majority) of production would have to be done domestically, as well as teams (countries) of course having to provide the drivers.. I don't know if this would be a good or bad direction for F1 but I certainly don't think it's an unimaginable prospect, especially as it seems that F1 will go in whichever direction is most profitable.. at least while certain people are in charge of proceedings..

  • Comment number 26.

    Having F1 develop into a form of nationalistic promotion and, as such, formalize those feelings to an even greater extent than they presently exist, would be..........sad!

    For many long time F1 fans the sport has always had a kind of purity that tended to rise above political or nationalistic concerns. It would be ashamed if it followed the model established by some sports which seem to bring out the worst kind of fan behavior.

    In this regard it will be interesting to note the level of ongoing support provided by the government to Mr. Lopez if he is perceived to be a "tail-end charlie", especially one who is repeatedly beaten by drivers from that large nation just to the north. Patriotic fervor can certainly be a two edged sword.

  • Comment number 27.

    CNW0429 (COMMENT 9), I agree with you. I think Bernie now needs to think practically and come up with a scenario where every season it is different, why can't all circuits have a joint agreement (nuremberg/hockenheim)??? and (Suzuka/Fuji-before Toyota scrapped funding for Fuji) it would mean more countries get to savour F1 and when it does come to your country it will mean more. It will give F1 a new level of diversity otherwise not seen.

  • Comment number 28.

    Well of course the first example of state patronage was the 1930's, when Auto Union and (more often) Mercedes stood on top of the European Championship...not without generous patronage from one A. Hitler. The ambition was that it would act as a propaganda tool, displaying the Reichs technical superiority. With the Mercedes W125 putting out a reputed 600bhp in 1937, you have to say that it worked! Thankfully history has not tainted these achievements with their undesirable associations.

    I feel that Lopez may be more underwhelming than this, but time will only tell.

  • Comment number 29.

    Do you think any of the new teams will be on the grid?

    Michael Schumacher might stay longer

  • Comment number 30.

    Wasn't Alex Yoong supported by the Malaysian government in 2001 and 2002?

  • Comment number 31.

    @Andrew Benson -- no comment on Kate et al.'s counter-example of Fangio as an earlier driver supported by a national govt (in fact, the same party and country as the current!)?

    @stevenv1999 (#7) -- Brembo is an Italian company. The internal combustion engine is developed mostly in Europe. CFD is certainly big in the States, but it hardly has a monopoly on the field -- and Europeans are probably ahead to when it comes to the application of CFD in motorsport.

  • Comment number 32.

    As an Argentine and an F1 fan I would like to make a couple of comments. If one considers govenmental power as equal to the power of a nation, your heading might be right. But I believe that what we have here is a slightly different story: a populist government in a tight financial situation, whose popularity is on a downslide, trying to boost its image with an endless succession of "optimistic" public announcements. The López/USF1 signing is part of this "panis et circus" strategy. Whilst millions of Argentines are forced to live under shoestring conditions, public finances are in crisis, real figures of inflation are camouflaged, public spending is on a permanent rise, Mrs. Kirchner deems it fit to put up 2M U$S (plus at least that much again under the disguise of private sponsorships!) to boost her faultering image. This, to me, sounds more like the "weakness of a nation".
    On the other hand, it must be admitted that José María "Pechito" López has ignited the imagination of Argentine racing fans (racing is extremely popular here, a close second to soccer) and everyone is rooting for him after his rather underwhelming European experience. Perhaps his rather poor showings in his last GP2 season arose from trying too hard to secure his Reanult F1 drive -added to a sub-standard car- but since returning home he has shown to be extremely fast and consistent, albeit in the three tin-top categories in which he's driven simultaneously (there's practically no open-wheeler racing here). If he and the cryptic USF1 team live up to these expectations -at least rise above the tail end of the field- remains to be seen.

  • Comment number 33.

    Prior to eirwals comments, I just guessed this was a nations attempt to gain a better public image worldwide for somethhing like tourism, try and develop more business opportunities for itself and maybe in the coming years add to that with a Grand Prix again. Afterall, isn't sponsorship there to gain a wider audience for your company/country?

    As for F1 becoming a nations event, I don't think that will ever happen. I would say it is more of a coincidence McLaren and Mercedes have turned out drivers of their own nationality and then the Argentinian government putting their money behind a driver.

    These things come and go, just like when the sport was going to be effectively controlled by the big manufacturers and some, if not all independant teams were going to go to the wall and a breakaway series set up. Granted, the global recession may have helped put paid to that, but it was more of a blackmail attempt to get more money out of Bernie.

    I would like to see our Government put money into F1, perhaps not backing a driver, more a case of helping the industry or the likes of Silverstone/Donnington/Brands or the like. But if they did back a driver because we didn't have one racing or a Grand Prix or a British team I certainly would not complain given the history of the sport in this country.

    Wouldn't becoming a more nationalistic sport have a detrimental effect on companies sponsoring the sport thus reducing funds for the teams to utilise? A Government wouldn't effectively have a open wallet and certainly manufactures wouldn't either and that has already been proved.

    Give it a couple of years and this national team talk will be gone. Good luck to Lopez and I hope he is worth the money. Also goodluck to FFfan @21 in getting sponsorship to keep racing this coming season.

  • Comment number 34.

    REF 21
    What a thing to read....I wish I knew what direction you need to take to further promote your son's talents...

    ANDREW! there must be some advice surely to kickstart a youngster in a potential career in motorsport...

  • Comment number 35.

    Not being in a position to have inside information, nor research the subject as thoroughly as I would like, funding for British Motorsport seems rather subject to the whims of the British people.

    Popularity of British motorsport (especially in the mainstream -namely FIA World Championships) tends to ebb and flow with the presense of stars. Currently we are going through something of a golden era in F1 with 2 world champions and the resultant public interest has resulted in an element of support or at least recognition - see the MBE/OBEs that are dealt at this time of year. Whereas the presence of football, as an example, is most likely to be into perpetuity.

    However in these politically and more importantly economically turbulent times, motorsport has a whiff of the decadent about it, and public pressure on polititians means anyone with a 'green agenda' will be very cagey about giving motorsport overt and generous support.

    The big drive though is funding sports where the pariticpants represent Britain or England. Namely, on the Olympics medal table, as although the individuals get their golds, the end result is for 'Great Britain'. Equally this can be said for funding say rugby and cricket at the grass roots level, as the end hope will be to produce an England team that brings home the Ashes or a World Cup.

    However, motorsport can be seen as a more individual arena with Jenson Button (for example) representing Jenson Button. It just happens he is a Brit. Any established links between individuals and nationality are created mostly by the media. This makes state patronage harder to justify in one sense also.

    I agree it's a shame that more young talent isn't nurtured, especially considering the costs of the sport, as these media links to indirectly bring more prominence to the country through the results for the individual. But sadly doesn't appear to exist in Britain.

  • Comment number 36.

    Re #27 F1isfab

    I would actually go one step futher and say neighbouring/close by countries should share slots on the calendar. China and Korea for example. The Chinese race makes a mass loss every year because very few people go to watch it; surely more people would bother if it was bi-annual. Same could be said for Bahrain and Abu Dhabi and Turkey.
    Other cases: Spain/Portugal, Germany/Belgium(Rumours of it happening circulated last year), Argentina/Mexico (Brazil has to be on every year!) Malaysia/Singapore maybe as well.

    In the long run the 'traditional' races, which in general are not goverment supported, are going to be more sustainable if they are held bi-annually, so they don't have to pay £15 million every year to Bernie. Most tracks hold other big-ish events to bring in some cash in the 'off' years. Unfortunately there are some very long term contracts stopping this happening anytime soon (not complaining about Silverstone's 17 year deal though!)

  • Comment number 37.

    fangio was supported by the argentinian goverment when he came to race to europe in the early 50's.

  • Comment number 38.

    erm mercedes and auto unions from the 30s were backed by the german government, and there were plenty of german drivers for them, does that count?

  • Comment number 39.

    Dear Andrew,
    Correct me if I'm wrong ( which i must admit can be quite often ) But didn't USF1 announce last year ( I think it was sometime in the summer ) That they had sponsorship from youtube? Because I sware I remember quite a big thing being made about it. If so whats happened because they seemed quite desperate to get Lopez's money. If not then which team was it that youtube were thinking of/are sponsoring. Or am I completely wrong? I would really appreciate so much if you could get back to me about this Thank you very much.

  • Comment number 40.

    I live very close to the US F1 team's headquarters. I can ride a bike to iCAR.

    I have been a Formula 1 fan for over a decade now, yet there is virtually zero publicity for the team or the sport here in the states. Certainly there is no local enthusiasm for the team or the sport.

    That's what I don't understand----the US F1 team is news to everyone BUT the US! It's not even a drop in the bucket. There is no mention of Formula 1 in the sports pages or on our sports channels.

    I'm absolutely excited about the team and this season, and I'm a huge fan of Mr. Windsor, but I suppose I was hoping last year the announcement of the US F1 team would spark American interest in the sport, and perhaps even lead back to a Formula 1 race here in the states where nearly all the manufacturers make the majority of their profits from the road cars they sell.

    Is there any word of an impending US GP again? Before I got into Formula 1 the US had 2 races a year. Nevermind the Indy fiasco (I was there fore that), because there are plenty of other places to race.

  • Comment number 41.

    Thank you all for pointing out the Fangio thing. I shall add that to the memory bank.


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