BBC SPORT | Motorsport | Formula 1
Lopez has power of a nation behind him
Post categories: Formula 1
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."
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.
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