Motor racing-Formula One grid shows a wealth of talent

LONDON, March 9 Fri Mar 9, 2012 7:29am IST

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LONDON, March 9 (Reuters) - Jarno Trulli and Rubens Barrichello could only commiserate with one another after their Formula One teams replaced them with fresher faces for the new season.

What softened the blow for the veterans was the thought that it was not so much the speed and promise of those young drivers that had tipped the balance in their favour as the financial benefit they might have brought with them.

"Sad to see that Trulli won't be on the 2012 grid...money is dominating everything," Brazilian Barrichello, the most experienced Formula One driver of all time, declared on his Twitter feed after Caterham replaced the Italian with Russian Vitaly Petrov last month.

Barrichello himself was replaced by inexperienced compatriot Bruno Senna alongside Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado at Williams, the former world champions who enjoy hefty sponsorship from Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA.

Maldonado took one point last year, but he can reply to anyone questioning his credentials and calling him a 'pay driver' by pointing out that he won the GP2 support series before then.

Formula One has always followed the money, grabbing it where it can and burning through bank balances as quickly as anything on the track.

When economic times are tough those teams with more fragile finances have demanded that their drivers bring something to the table, or looked more favourably on those with potential sponsors in tow.

Drivers and teams may deny it, not wanting to be seen as paying for a drive or in need of funds from drivers, but the phenomenon has been on the rise after waning during the days when deep-pocketed manufacturers called the shots.

Caterham, formerly Lotus Racing and then Team Lotus last year, are run by Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes, boss of AirAsia and owner of Premier League soccer club Queens Park Rangers.

Trulli, whose seat had been uncertain for a while, had no doubt that he had been ousted for reasons other than his ability behind the wheel.

"I was prepared for a possible divorce from Caterham, knowing that the difficult economic situation would have pushed the team to find an adequately-supported driver," the 37-year-old said.

NO SLOUCH

Petrov, Russia's first F1 driver, stood on the podium with Renault in last season's Australian opener and is no slouch. But he remains dogged by the 'pay driver' tag.

"I think this is not true," he told Reuters. "Even in 2011 they start to ask me about this money, but come on...I hope people will understand this is not just a question of money."

Caterham subsequently announced Russian petrochemical company Sibur as a sponsor.

Senna had also ended last season at Renault, now Lotus, who replaced him and Petrov with 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen and France's Romain Grosjean.

Raikkonen's pedigree speaks for itself while Grosjean won last year's GP2 title. The Frenchman has also been supported by oil company and team sponsor Total for more than six years.

"Total is delighted to give the young talented French driver...the opportunity to fulfil his dream," the company's senior vice-president of communications Jacques-Emmanuel Saulnier said when Grosjean's drive was announced.

Mexican Sergio Perez is a promising driver and member of Ferrari's driver academy whose arrival at Sauber was accompanied by several sponsors from his country.

Indian Narain Karthikeyan, at HRT, has considerable backing from India's Tata Group while Frenchman Charles Pic is well-funded at Marussia.

There may be drivers with more talent and less money who feel sore to be on the outside looking in but there is nothing new in that, with only 24 slots on the grid for this month's Australian season-opener in Melbourne.

There have been some plodders in the past but there have also been some rare talents who owed their first breaks to the power of money. Austrian triple champion Niki Lauda was one such example.

Michael Schumacher, the seven-times world champion and the sport's most successful driver, made his first appearance for Jordan at Spa in 1991 in what was a straightforward commercial transaction.

Jordan's French driver Bertrand Gachot, who had brought significant sponsorship, had been imprisoned for spraying a taxi driver with CS gas. Schumacher arrived as replacement along with a cheque for 150,000 pounds ($236,100).

"Since then of course we have learned a lot more about Michael Schumacher," team founder Eddie Jordan wrote in a 2007 autobiography. "But until that weekend in August 1991, no one had much of a clue." (Editing by Clare Fallon)

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