Time for a level playing field

Lance Stroll

For me, the saddest comment of 2016 came from a newcomer Lance Stroll, telling us that Williams F1 had offered him a drive based on his talent. I have no doubt the lad sincerely believes this, but the reality is somewhat different. Twenty million quid different, to be accurate. That’s not taking into account all the money spent in the junior formulae, ensuring that good results paved the way to an F1 opportunity.

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Then we have young Lando Norris setting the world alight across several series. Considering the budget that his dad has coughed up so far, it would have come as a huge shock if Lando hadn’t delivered some success. Formula 1 teams will be rubbing their hands already.

If I were a hungry young racer today, without family money behind me, I’d be really worried that motorsport is becoming increasingly elitist. The term “level playing field” is not one of the most commonly used phrases to describe the sport. In motorsport, money does indeed talk. But then it’s never been any different, I can hear you saying. So that makes it acceptable, does it? I know that motorsport is, by definition, different to sports like tennis, football, cycling or athletics, where virtually anyone can afford to compete. I believe that our sport is paying the price for the unwillingness of those with the capability to introduce change to do just that, whether they are running the sport or operating commercially within it. The goal of a more level playing field is further away than ever.

I spend considerable time training senior personnel in sports associations such as the ICC, World Rugby and the Paralympic Committee in the skills of sponsorship acquisition. It allows me to hear about innovative steps that other sports are taking to ensure growth and youth development. I’m increasingly feeling that motorsport looks like a dinosaur by comparison.

In a recent issue of Paddock magazine, I talked to MSA General Secretary, Simon Blunt, about the increasing need to grow and develop motorsport. I feel so strongly about some of the issues facing the sport that I’m going to make no apologies for continuing to discuss this topic.

The increasing level of elitism and lack of a level playing field is creating scepticism within the business world, resulting in a detrimental effect on the use of motorsport sponsorship as a business-development tool.

This is of real concern because if there is a solution to helping a young driver compete on a level playing field with wealthier counterparts, it’s through the acquisition of commercial sponsorship. If that option is now adversely affected by the “rich dad” syndrome, we really are in trouble.

Alarmingly, the problems that I’ve identified at the entry-level are also having an impact on new blood coming into the sport, as can be seen from the sport’s negative growth statistics.

It brings me to another serious aspect, the way that costs have been allowed to escalate in the junior levels of motorsport and in particular, single-seater racing. This is one of the reasons why so many young drivers are looking at sports car racing or production cars as an option. Ginetta has made a great contribution to introducing several affordable racing programmes, but for those drivers who see a career beckoning in single-seaters, the options start at a minimum of £150,000 per year. Despite Ford Motor Company’s genuine efforts to help keep costs down, British F4 budgets have been blown sky-high by the astronomical costs some professional teams are demanding and getting. You can’t really blame the teams, but something needs to be done to stop this mockery of a level playing field that is blighting our sport.

Why is it so expensive to compete at the junior level? A primary reason is that cars can only be run by a professional racing team with the right level of equipment to manage all of the state-of-the-art electronics and set-up data. So the drivers are faced with no alternative but to use a team, instead of running the car themselves. It’s crazy and doing the business world’s perception of motorsport no good at all. It needs to be controlled and it can be, but only from the top.

When I asked MSA’s Simon Blunt for his views about the topic of elitism in motorsport, he commented that you can’t stop rich drivers racing for top teams. He’s absolutely right, of course. However, there is a lot that can be done to prevent today’s and future young racing drivers becoming ever more disenchanted with the way in which elitism is ruining motorsport, other than perhaps within genuine club level racing.

For motorsport to grow, it has to be both attractive and affordable to young people, without alienating the interest of those already participating. Youngsters’ tastes are changing dramatically in so many ways. Is our sport adapting or changing to suit them? Online simulator racing attracts a huge following these days and has helped several drivers into actual racing. Should we be looking at further progress with this route? I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that something needs to change, dramatically and quickly, if our sport is to increase its popularity.

Alarmingly, the problems that I’ve identified at the entry-level are also having an impact on new blood coming into the sport, as can be seen from the sport’s negative growth statistics.

So what’s the next step? As I see it, there are two options: one is to do nothing and listen to all those telling us that motorsport has always been like this and don’t change it. The alternative is to follow the example of other leading sports and make bold, imaginative decisions about how to design a sport that is attractive (1) to the business world in respect of attracting increased sponsorship at all levels within the sport and (2) to young people in respect of growing the number of participants entering from a range of diverse backgrounds.

I’m sure that many of you will disagree with the solutions I’m about to propose. That’s fine, but please don’t tell me that the chronic situation in which motorsport finds itself today can’t be improved. It can be and needs to be. We need to introduce three innovative, really low-cost entry-level series, for single-seaters, sports and productions cars, in the same way, that the original Formula Ford 1600 encouraged so many drivers into the sport. Why was it so incredibly successful?  It was because the cars were cheap to buy and drivers could prepare them themselves or with the help of a parent or mechanically-minded friend. Second-hand cars were still competitive. Competitors could change their own engine, change the gear ratios, repair the car after a shunt, put the race car on the back of a trailer and tow it to the circuit with any old car. OK, so these race cars might not have wings, slicks or look like mini Formula 1 car, but this would drastically cut costs, encourage close exciting racing, teach race-craft and bring new people into the sport.

Key to the success of these three categories, the MSA must fully endorse and support them, as being the officially recognised first-step series. These are just a couple of ways that I feel would launch a shift in approach and attitude by those running a sport about which so many people are passionate.  Most importantly, let’s not just accept the status quo!

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