Formula 1 Insight

Michael Bartels Stirs the Pot
A minor story yesterday sparked a surprising amount of comment in the forums: Michael Bartels complained that Mercedes seems to ignore German drivers when a seat at McLaren goes begging. He points to the recent choice of Kovalainen over Nico Rosberg and Adrian Sutil as examples, even mentioning Ralf Schumacher as a possibility, and contrasts this with BMW and the string of young Germans given a chance by the Bavarian/Swiss team.


Although the reaction from F1 watchers has been scorn at Bartels' apparently blind patriotism, we should not criticize him too strongly. The fact is that, although F1 enthusiasts tend to rise above questions of nationality when considering drivers, the press and its public are much more aware of a driver's national origins. We only have to look at the fuss in the British press over the rise of Lewis Hamilton to remind us of how nationalistic things can get in the wider world. The reporters' job is to sell newspapers and they know that their readers will lap up anything that supplies their need for a national star.

It is not a phenomenon confined to Britain; after Senna's death, Brazil was desperate for a driver to continue his domination and they turned to Barrichello as a possibility. That mantle has passed to Massa now and may well have something to do with his excellent form when racing in his own country.

Fernando Alonso seems to have created a F1 fanbase in Spain almost single-handedly, confirming that success will bring thousands of new viewers to the sport. It is nothing new that nationalism has a part to play in F1.

Bartels' comments also remind us that McLaren is regarded in Germany as the Mercedes team, thanks to their investment in the team. Remember how there was discussion in Germany early in 2007 about how the German anthem, rather than the British, should be played on occasions of McLaren victories. That seemed a strange idea to the British fans, so accustomed to seeing McLaren as essentially "their" team, but the Germans had a point; Mercedes involvement with the team is sufficient for it to be considered Anglo-German at least.

But I think Bartels is getting it wrong on two points. Most obviously, it is not Mercedes that decides on the drivers for the team; they leave that to Ron Dennis and McLaren policy has always been to select the best drivers available regardless of nationality. One could even make a decent case for the team favoring Finns over the last decade or so - hardly a nationalistic attitude from a bunch of Brits and Germans.

And that brings us to the greatest misconception revealed by Bartels' comments: the suggestion that Mercedes has a policy when it comes to drivers. Although, like many other manufacturers, it has run national youth schemes in the quest to find new drivers, if it has a policy at all in F1, it is the same as McLaren's - to hire the quickest driver it can. That is why they leave the choice to McLaren.

Nationalism is something that no team can afford in F1. Even though Vijay Mallya has made it clear that he would love to have an Indian driver in the Force India team, he also has the sense to know that it will not happen until one of his countrymen has demonstrated the talent and experience to compete with the best. All teams depend on success to ensure survival and picking a driver because he happens to speak the right language is not the way to go.

I can think of only one instance where a team was deliberately nationalistic in their choice of drivers - and that was more a case of reverse nationalism. Enzo Ferrari preferred not to hire Italian drivers for fear that they would be killed in one of his cars. There were exceptions over the years but they were few and far between.

So I think Bartels is merely using the press to gain some publicity. He must know that it's an issue that is bound to have support in Germany and, if stirring things up a bit gets his name on the front pages, no harm is done.


I remember when Alain Prost bought Ligier there were rumblings that he was trying to create a "French superteam", which he went some way to forming (Peugot, Michelin, Panis, Alesi). The team was doomed.

Where is the French talent in F1 now?
Date Added: 03/01/2008

Yes, I remember the rumours that Prost was building a purely French team (it would be the French, wouldn't it?). But he had quality drivers to pick from in those days, thanks mainly to the Elf young drivers scheme. I doubt that he would have limited himself to the French alone if they did not have some top class drivers at the time.

There is, perhaps, an ambition in some teams to favour their own nationality of driver but this is usually overcome by practical considerations like competitiveness and money.
Date Added: 03/01/2008

Number 38
I love your writings Clive, you've got a command of the English language I can only envy, however, once in awhile, I find little glitches, in this example the use of TOO MANY words:

" That mantle has passed to Massa now and may well have something to do with his excellent form when racing in his own country."

That sentence would be more appropriate without the last words 'in his own country'. Massa is just plain 'excellent form when racing'.

And another point, true or not:
" Nationalism is something that no team can afford in F1."
I'm not dis-agreeing with that remark but you ought to wear my shoes and mention Sato and Super Aguri in the same sentence. I've been lambasted on several sites, ALL have reminded me Super Aguri exists SOLELY to keep Sato on the grid. If that were the case and nationalism played that big a part maybe Davidson and Nakajima ought to trade places.
That would put my boy in a better car, but alas nationalisn doesn't really play the part we might like.

Fisichella in a Ferrari, Montagny in a Renault, Button in anything English, some of my favorite names in "home" cars.
Nationalism is nice but it's also only a dream.
Date Added: 03/01/2008

There are also rumblings that Ferrari are trying to boost it's Italian employee list and return the multi-national squad into a more one-nation team. I am yet to see any evidence of this, aside from Todt's promotion and Brawn's leaving, but it is interesting none-the-less.

I prefer teams to be multi-national. It sends out a good message and creates a great mix of cultures within a squad. McLaren are right to choose the best driver available irregardless of their nationality. Formula One is not A1GP, it is the pinnacle of international motorsport.

Regarding Duncan's question about French talent: I think Franck Montagny is okay (not special, but okay) but made poor decisions (Toyota). Sebastien Bourdais is now in F1, and hopefully he'll show Vettel a thing or two. Unfortunately it will be hard for them to shine unless STR pull a stunner of a car out of the bag, but then Red Bull will surely slap them down.

Great post Clive. I glossed over this story initially so thanks for posting about it.
Date Added: 03/01/2008

Steven Roy
I am surprised non-one has picked up on the Anglo-German point. Mercedes owns 40% of the shares and they are the only German shareholders. The only British shareholder is Ron Dennis with 15% so 45% of the team is neither British nor German. Mansour Ojjeh has the same shareholding as Ron and he is variously described as Saudi Arabian or even French/Saudi Arabian. The final 30% belongs to Mumtlalakat Holdings from Bahrain. So really it is Anglo-German-Saudi-Bahraini with a little bit of French and of course McLaren was a New Zealander. So the only logical nationality that can be applied to it is the country it is located in.

The media is obsessed with nationality to a ridiculous extent. Unfortunately this has rendered many people unable to decipher reality. Having been subjected to the British media most of my life I find it very odd that there is a strong anti-Lewis Hamilton movement when he is clealry the best British F1 driver for 30 years. Although according to the hype in the media he just another in a long line of legendary F1 drivers like Jenson Button, Damon Hill, etc etc. The British media does not distiguish between genuine ability and lesser ability and as a result now that Britain has a genuine world class driver people don't realise it and think that this is another Jenson Button who may never achieve anything.

I find all the obsession with nationality ludicrous. It reminds me of the recent nonsense over whether or not a foreigner would make a better manager for the England football team. Picking a football manager or racing driver by nationality is like deciding the winner of a singing contest on hair colour or awarding the Nobel Prize on the basis of shoe size.

I assume Michael Bartels is struggling for a drive or sponsorship for next season and needed some media coverage.
Date Added: 03/01/2008

Thanks for the kind comments re writing, Number 38, but I must admit that I am unconvinced still by Massa. It's hard to say why, since he competed well with Kimi last year - perhaps a suspicion that he buckles under pressure.

I am one of those who suspect that Montezemolo is in the process of "Italianizing" Ferrari, Ollie, so you may be right that it's a case of nationalism over good sense. But even there I see no preference for any particular nationality in the drivers employed - perhaps that would be one step too far for Luca.

The reason the Anglo-German point was missed, I think, is that we tend to see McLaren as a team with British personnel and German engines, Roy. Shareholders factor less in our perceptions, particularly as they are rarely in evidence and appear to have little say in decision-making. But you're right - McLaren is a an international company and team, as are so many teams these days.

Which just goes to show how irrelevant nationalism is in the sport, never mind what the public think.
Date Added: 03/01/2008

Pink Peril
I must say that I used to have an irrational hatred of Jenson Button, and I could never figure out why.

Lately I have come to realise it was the constant droning on about him on the ITV coverage - largely from James Allen - that just gave me the irrits so much, that I completely turned against him.

Now that Allen has focused his drivel on Lewis, I quite like Jenson !

It just doesn't pay to be too myopic about these things.

But does the name Force India drive anyone else crazy? I mean, go play in the A1 if you want an Indian team, Malla.
Date Added: 03/01/2008

That is exactly how I have felt about Button, too, Peril! But that's because I'm an awkward cuss, always looking to support the unpopular viewpoint... ;)

As for Force India, I hate the name but think it's a great idea that Mallya underline the "Indian-ness" of the team. F1's following in India is growing at an incredible rate and they will provide important funding, talent and teams in the future - and Mallya's contribution to that expansion will be huge.
Date Added: 03/01/2008

Anyone fancy the name Force India Jaguar?
Date Added: 04/01/2008

Pink Peril
Is there a huge F1 following in India - or are they 'creating' it with Indian drivers, a GP & a team named Force India?

The cynic in me says there was no demand there until it was foisted upon them.

I know quite a few Indians & Cricket is the sport they are passionate about (I know - about time the poor loves were introduced to something interesting ;) hey ), not motor racing.

After all, a good proportion of Indians live well below the poverty line, and have no hope of even being able to afford to watch a GP, let alone buy one of the cars marketed expensively at them.

But everyone can play cricket.
Date Added: 04/01/2008

I agree with you when you say "Nationalism is something that no team can afford in F1." But I do think it's surprising that Mercedes, who nurtured the likes of Michael Schumacher, Karl Wendlinger and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, have conspicuously missed out on some of the most promising German F1 drivers of recent years - particularly when they picked Kimi Raikkonen over Nick Heidfeld.

Having said that it's 14 years since an Italian raced in a Ferrari in F1 so there's much to be said for total blindness to nationality.
Date Added: 04/01/2008

I'm British and I'm hopeless at Cricket! ;-P

From looking at the Formula One blogs and websites out there, I would say a fair few of them are run by Indians; they appear to have developed a real taste for the sport in recent years. And with Force India, an Indian Grand Prix and a progressing economy, I see India playing a huge part in the future of Formula One. There's certainly a big enough audience out there!

Countries like Spain and even the UK will generally follow the sport if their is a national driver competing and doing well (Alonso and Hamilton). When drivers retire and there is no substitute, I see popularity falling in these countries.

And I don't think too many 'Westerners' can afford a £250 mousemat, even if it is made of carbon fibre!
Date Added: 04/01/2008

Ollie's absolutely right, Peril - India has been changing fast while our attention was elsewhere. It has a huge computer programming industry and is probably the leading supplier of programmers to Silicon Valley now. Interest in F1 has grown at a phenomenal rate, as evidenced by the number of Indian F1 sites and their participation in F1 forums. Their influence in the future is likely to be as great as is the Japanese at the moment.

I was quite surprised at Bartels' statement regarding how long it is since Mercedes picked a German driver, Keith. But I do think that is a reflection of the fact that their involvement in F1 is tied to McLaren, rather than being a wholely-owned effort like BMW's. If they were in charge, I do not doubt that they would be giving German drivers a chance, at least in the second car.

But your example of Raikkonen and Heidfeld looks slightly suspect - it would seem that the right choice was made in view of Raikkonen's championship and reputation. Hopefully, Nick can prove me wrong on that one this year!
Date Added: 04/01/2008

Hmm. I wonder if Nick Heidfeld had been driving McLarens and Ferraris instead of Prosts and Saubers he'd be a World Champion by now? He did beat Raikkonen in the championship when they were both at Sauber.
Date Added: 05/01/2008

And that's something ignored by those who don't think Heidfeld has what it takes to be world champion, Doctor Vee. Which is why I hope he surprises everyone by becoming champion next year. It has to be his best chance ever.
Date Added: 05/01/2008

Number 38
Nick Heidfeld OWES someone........his career was going backwards scoring fewer and fewer points each year until Williams took him on to please BMW. That saved quick Nick
and then his change to the parent BMW teams became the thing dreams are made of. Championship? I don't know Clive, he's got to get pass Massa first ! (For international readers that's an inside jest between Clive and me.)
Date Added: 05/01/2008

The luck of the draw, Number 38. Raikkonen got picked by McLaren, Heidfeld didn't. As a result, Kimi had a chance to show how good he is while Nick suffered years of driving uncompetitive cars. Eventually getting the BMW drive was really no more than Nick had earned through hard work and perseverance.

Massa's problem next year will be that he's driving a Ferrari. Mind you, Kimi will have the same problem.
Date Added: 05/01/2008

Pink Peril
Ok Ollie, I am willing to stand being corrected ;)

Besides, cricket is so dull no wonder the Indians are looking for something with a bit more excitment !
Date Added: 06/01/2008

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