Don’t write off the old continent just yet

December 15, 2011

By Alan Baldwin

Speaking about the Formula One calendar and the continuing expansion to east and west, the sport’s commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone declared this month that Europe was “finished“.

“It will be a good place for tourism but little else,” he told Spanish Sports daily Marca. “Europe is a thing of the past.”

With the financial pages full of Europe’s woes and the rise of the fast-moving BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) bloc, the 81-year-old was not just being his usual deliberately provocative self.

Formula One has always followed the money and there is still plenty of that sloshing around in the Middle East and Asia.

When it comes to the driver market, the situation is rather different. It has not been a good month for Russians, Indians or Brazilians while French fans can scarcely believe their good fortune.

Romain Grosjean will be Kimi Raikkonen’s team mate at Lotus next year, fellow Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne will be at Toro Rosso and Charles Pic makes his debut for Marussia.

France has not had so many drivers together on the starting grid since 1999 and the first two at least should have a chance of scoring points right from the off.

Brazil, a mature market in F1 terms with a proud and glorious tradition from Emerson Fittipaldi to Ayrton Senna, could be down to just one driver – with sponsors seemingly not rushing to the rescue for veteran Rubens Barrichello and Senna’s nephew Bruno while Felipe Massa is effectively on notice at Ferrari.

India, with two drivers on track at times this year, may not have any for a while now. Karun Chandhok has struggled to find backing from his corporate compatriots while Narain Karthikeyan does have solid sponsors but has lost an important ally in ousted HRT boss Colin Kolles.

Force India, who like to see themselves as India’s team despite their factory being a stone’s throw from Silverstone, have never had an Indian driver and are not about to start now. China has yet to produce an F1 race driver.

And it gets worse. Russia’s sole driver Vitaly Petrov has been dumped for Grosjean by Lotus, who made much of the fact that they were putting talent ahead of cash.

Of course, if any of the new countries were to produce someone truly special it might be a very different story — as it was in Spain when Fernando Alonso emerged a decade ago and transformed the landscape.

It also the case that two of the teams — Caterham and Lotus — are fuelled by Malaysian money.

The fact remains that last year, Europe provided 18 of the 28 drivers who took part in the championship. When the season fires up again in Melbourne next March there could be 18 Europeans among the 24 starters.

The crowds in the traditional European homeland, despite the difficult times, still vastly outnumber those drawn to the newer venues like Abu Dhabi, South Korea and China.

Turkey’s race, technically in Asia, was an embarrassment in terms of attendance and has been axed for 2012 for financial reasons. India embraced the sport and so does Singapore but Europe is where the heart is. All the teams are based there.

It would be wrong to dismiss that lightly.

Picture: HRT Formula One driver Vitantonio Liuzzi of Italy (R) crashes with other cars at the start of the Italian F1 Grand Prix at the Monza circuit September 11, 2011. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

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