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GP Week : Issue 226
OPINION mat CoCh Editor Over the last few weeks I've been talking to a lot of drivers. Though none of them quite made it to Formula One (though one came close) they all told the same story; getting to the top is bloody difficult and incredibly expensive. I'm Australian based, which for the guys I was chatting with locally was an extra hurdle. Not only did they have to raise the cash to go racing, they had to try and sell the fact they were going racing on the otherside of the world. Sponsors were, predictably, hard to come by. One or two of them had been part of driver development programmes of one type or another but even that was a poisoned chalice they said. Often those programmes expect drivers to bring funding with them, even some of the better known ones, and that's a difficult sell. So imagine yourself as a budding young driver. You've taken on Johnny Hotshoe in karting and left him in your shadow. But Johnny has money and is able to continue chasing his career where you rely on whatever funds you and your family can scrape together. A decade later and Hotshoe is racing in Formula One, while you're working as a driver training instructor, as so many aspiring racers do. It hardly seems fair, but that's exactly what is happening. I'm not saying the guys who get to the top do so on money alone but I am saying for everyone one that makes it there are dozens of equally talented drivers who don't. That's especially true in countries like Australia and New Zealand which are geographically isolated from the rest of the world. Simple geography makes the challenge of competing internationally beyond the reach of most. There's another piece to the puzzle too. In a sport where drivers are getting ever younger they need to get themselves to Europe almost straight out of karting. For most, that means heading abroad at the tender age of fifteen or sixteen. At that age they've never lived outside of home and yet are expected to head off into unfamiliar surroundings in a foreign country, usually without a support network, and flourish. It's daunting, to say the least, and yet that's what is expected of these kids to succeed. Compare that against those who grow up in Europe. While they still face the same financial hurdles their lives are simpler because they can continue livng at home. Even simple things like their education isn't as compromised meaning if the racing career doesn't happen they've a better shot at making a good life back in the real world. The risk of failure, while still there, simply isn't as high. It's a state of affairs so heavily stacked against those from outside of Europe that it's little wonder there hasn't been a New Zealander in Formula One since Mike Thackwell. The question is, how can we level the playing field so drivers are not penalised just because of their geographic location? The FIA has started that ball rolling with Formula 4, the first step on a new ladder to Formula One. In Australia it's caused quite a stir, and for all the wrong reasons, with Formula Ford and Formula 3 both feeling hard done by. Formula 4 is a global standard. The cars are the same, the engine is basically the same and the tyres are pretty well the same. It's as close to a spec international series run at a domestic level as is possible. The idea is kids, fresh out of karting, can all compete in the same car and display their talents. The cream will invariably rise to the top where it would progress to regional Formula 3 championships. The next step is the missing link at this point, Formula 2, but ultimately it's about establishing a clear ladder from karting to Formula One. It's not a bad system in theory, how it works in practice is the crucial bit. If it does work there are massive benefits in the system, but there are a lot of question marks around that. One of the biggest benefits is that it reduces the need for young drivers to leave home at such a young age. That setps them up for a better life because they're not being forced to sacrifice their education to the same extent and should go a long way to reducing the cost. It also means by the time these talented youngsters get to Europe they'll have a little more life experience. They'll be a little older, a little more mature and, with a stronger career behind them, a better chance of luring sponsorship. But I think there's one piece f the puzzle still missing. I believe there should be age restrictions on these categories, and on Formula 1. I say that not because I do'nt think the kids are young enough but because it discriminates drivers. If a team has two equally good drivers, one 18 and the other 25, they'll likely take the 18 year old. But for an Australian or New Zealander to make it to Europe and make an impact by the age of 18 is astronomically difficult. By placing an age limit it allows us antipodeans an opportunity to compete on a more level playing field. The best will still progress but they will be the best talent in the world, not just Europe. Right now we're expecting too much of these young men. So lets break down some of these hurdles and make a more even playing field that doesn't discriminate based on geographic location. Only then will we find the next Mike Thackwell. 16 GPWEEK.com // 16 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: OPINION too much,too soon