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F1 no place for motor racing welfare

Published April 23, 2014

The Toronto Star for Wheels.ca

Back when I was actively involved in semi-professional auto racing, there were periodic pushes for the purse money to be distributed more evenly.

This was called “paying more back through the field” and the suggestions were usually instigated by drivers or owners who were perennial losers.

My friend Stanley “Skip” Matczak, whose cars won supermodified championships for years, would scoff every time somebody brought up the subject.

“I am not in favour of motor racing welfare,” he would say.

“If those people at the back want more money, they should try harder.”

That is the message I trust FIA boss Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone gave to the four “small” F1 teams who got together this past week to write a letter suggesting that if Formula One isn’t restructured, they likely won’t be able to continue in the sport. Force India, Sauber, Caterham and Marussia all signed this declaration and demanded that the issue be discussed prior to this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix.

Now, it doesn’t matter if it’s F1, sports cars, NASCAR, Indy cars or Thunder cars at Barrie Speedway on a Saturday night, all motor racing is expensive — some of it prohibitively so. And much as we all love racing, and want to be a part of it, the fact of the matter is, if you can’t afford it, you shouldn’t be in it.

At least half of the challenge of modern day motor sport is being able to attract money in order to race. It doesn’t matter if it’s a driver looking for a sponsor, or a team owner trying to find backing; they must have the ability to source the funding and the moxie to close the deal.

In F1, McLaren is a well-funded team because it has a history of winning. Yes, it’s been around for nearly 50 years but because it’s at the front, or near the front, every time there’s a race means it’s easier to line up the millions of dollars of financial support needed to play in that league.

Ditto in IndyCar, where Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi have enjoyed both commercial success and success on the speedway. And Rick Hendrick, who started small with Geoff Bodine and one car back in the mid-1980s, now has a dominant four-car team in NASCAR (plus a couple of satellite teams) because he insisted on excellence, dedication and commitment from everyone in his organization on his climb up the ladder.

Those four teams in F1, rather than bitching and complaining, should look for lessons from the likes of Hendrick and Penske, whose motto says it all: “Effort equals success.”

Another way, of course, is to do something really ballsy to attract attention, because with attention can come respect, which can lead to commercial success.

In 1989, my friend Brian Stewart of Sutton decided to enter a team in the U.S. Firestone Indy Lights Series. “I really didn’t know what I was doing,” he told me once. “I figured I had to do something that would give me instant credibility, just like the WHA did when they signed Bobby Hull away from the NHL.

“So I hired Tommy Byrne, who’d won the European Formula 3000 championship the year before. People looked at me like I was crazy. It was like, ‘Who do you think you are?’ But when Tommy Byrne finished second in the series that year, everybody knew all about Brian Stewart Racing.”

So why doesn’t Sauber, or Force India, or Marussia borrow a page from Brian Stewart and make Fernando Alonso an offer he can’t refuse? Or pitch Ross Brawn into making a comeback?

It would sure be a lot better than writing a letter to Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone and saying, “Please, sirs. Can we have some more?”

nmcdonald@thestar.ca

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