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Latin American drivers facing long road to F1

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Sergio Perez will climb into his Force India car on Sunday at the Mexican Grand Prix and race in front of an adoring home crowd.

For weeks, his face beamed on billboards across this teeming metropolis of 21 million as part of a campaign by local organizers to maximize Mexico’s favorite son in a global racing series.

Yet in some ways, he is all alone.

Perez is the only Latin American driver on the Formula One grid and it has been that way for a couple of years. The emerging 2019 lineup is full of European veterans and rookies.

Which begs the question: What is the future for Latin American drivers in F1?

Perez doesn’t know. He can only hope someone will join him. To do that, they will have to overcome financial barriers and the distance of oceans.

“To reach Formula One, and maintain in Formula One, it’s just hard,” Perez said.

Latin America’s history of great drivers is long but long past its prime. Britain’s Lewis Hamilton this week could equal the late Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina with five career championships, second-most in F1 history. Brazil produced champions Ayrton Senna, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nelson Piquet, a lineup that would rival any country in the world. But no Latin American driver has won an F1 championship since Senna in 1991.

There is currently only a handful in the top pipelines to F1. Brazil’s Sergio Sette Camara is the only Latin American driver in Formula 2, where he finished sixth in 2018. Mexico’s Diego Menchaca and Brazil’s Pedro Piquet just completed their rookie seasons in GP3. Colombia’s Tatiana Calderon also competes in GP3.

F1 needs Latin American talent and the drivers need money to thrive in a ridiculously expensive sport, said Stefan Johansson of Sweden, a former F1 driver who raced against Nelson Piquet in the 1980s.

“They have a flair, a high-emotion kind of element around them in racing,” Johansson said. “I don’t think the flow of funding from that region is as good as it has been, all the way down into the junior levels. … In the old days, someone with a personal interest in a driver could help financially with a little bit here, a little bit there, but now that little bit is so big.”

American Tavo Hellmund, who tried to make it to Formula One as a racer 30 years ago and later created the current U.S. and Mexican grand prix, estimates a driver needs upward of $15 million in personal or corporate sponsorships to support several years through karting and the junior leagues.

“There’s 60 world champions out there who never got their shot because they didn’t have the money behind them,” Hellmund said.

Perez had financial backing as a youngster from Mexico’s Carlos Slim, one of the richest men in the world. So did countryman Esteban Gutierrez, who drove in F1 for three years before losing his seat after the 2016 season.

Slim and his family pumped millions into Escuderia Telmex, a racing team designed to support Mexican drivers. It counts Perez, Gutierrez and NASCAR Xfinity Series 2016 champion Daniel Suarez among its stable of drivers.

Beyond the money, young drivers must join the junior circuits near the Europe-based teams. Perez and Gutierrez left Mexico when they were 15.

“We are the ones who that have to go to Europe at a very young age, sacrifice a lot more than the European drivers,” Perez said.

Gutierrez remembers being a scared kid who left Mexico to chase a dream half a world away.

“The heart of Formula One lies in Europe,” he said. “To leave all your country behind, to pursue a racing career in Europe, it’s quite a challenge. I was young, far from friends, far from family, to chase a dream. The chances to achieve your dream are very slim.”

Most important is talent, said Franz Tost, team principal at Toro Rosso. Toro Rosso has 13 drivers in the last 12 years. His team has not yet finalized its driver lineup for 2019.

Tost doesn’t see much coming from Latin America right now.

“We need these drivers,” for F1 to thrive in North and South America, Tost said. “It has nothing to do with the financial package. It’s only a question of performance. As it looks currently, I don’t see it.”

Perez has been on average teams whose cars can’t compete for the top spot. But it also has been years since he has shown the brilliance many remember from his earlier career.

Perez was never hotter than he was in 2012, when he finished on the podium three times with Sauber. Back then, he was expected to maybe get a shot at joining Ferrari, where he had been part of the team’s driver academy.

That call never came. Stops at McLaren and Force India did instead.

Perez has had just one podium in each of the past two seasons. His biggest move this year has been to force his struggling team into administration so that a new ownership group could take over.

“For 2019 we are going to be a surprise,” Perez said. “We will be closer to victory.”

At least he kept his F1 seat.

Gutierrez spent two seasons with Sauber before being released. He was a reserve driver with Ferrari in 2015, watching from the sidelines as fans cheered for Perez when the Mexico City Grand Prix resumed after 23 years.

Haas F1 signed him for its debut season in 2016. He finished 11th five times and was cut. If he had earned just one point, Haas F1 would have brought him back in 2017.

“He was actually a very talented driver. He qualified well,” Haas F1 owner Gene Haas said. “At the end of the season, he wasn’t even able to score one point … We just thought his inability to go from 11th to 10th was indicative.”

The only other Latin American driver since 2012 was Pastor Maldonado, who raced with Williams and Lotus. He was the first Venezuelan to win a grand prix, with his only career victory in Spain in 2012. He was also frequently penalized for track incidents criticized by fellow drivers as dangerous and has been out of F1 since 2015.

“There are some (drivers) coming up,” Perez said. “We’ll see if they reach it or not.”

NHRA 50th Gatornationals winners: Crampton, Hight, Butner, Hines

Gatornationals winners: Hines, Butner, Hight, Crampton. Photos and videos courtesy NHRA.
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Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) emerged as winners of the 50th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals Sunday at Gainesville (Florida) Raceway.

IN TOP FUEL: Crampton successfully defended his win in last year’s Gatornationals with a 3.769-second, 329.89 mph effort to defeat Clay Millican (3.756 seconds, 324.67 mph) in the final round.

Ironically, not only was Sunday’s triumph Crampton’s first win since last year’s Gators, he also finally got past the first round for the first time in the 2019 season’s first three events, going on to earn his ninth career NHRA national event win.

This is just a big race no matter what year you win it,” Crampton said. “There were not too many easy rounds this year. That goes to tell you how difficult this Top Fuel category is.

I think this win is going to take a while to sink in. I’m so lucky to have a team that puts me in a position to win like this. I’m just focusing to be a dependable driver.”

IN FUNNY CAR: Hight keeps rolling along. Not only has he been the No. 1 qualifier in each of the first three NHRA national events, Sunday’s win was the second of the season and 47th of his career.

Hight (3.867 seconds, 331.61 mph) took the win light after Tim Wilkerson (11.165 seconds, 92.63 mph) lost traction shortly after leaving the starting line.

Qualifying No. 1 at the first three races is really impressive,” Hight said. “It shows that we have a really good handle on this car.

We didn’t get the job done on the last day of the season last year (he failed to win the championship, losing to J.R. Todd) and my team worked really hard because they don’t want to be in that spot again.”

IN PRO STOCK: Butner, the 2017 Pro Stock champion, is off to a great season’s start, with Sunday’s triumph being his second of the young season.

Butner (6.505 seconds, 212.29 mph) defeated Alex Laughlin in the final round. Laughlin’s car broke, essentially giving Butner a free pass to the victory.

Butner’s win was all the more sweeter as his fiancee, Randi Lyn Shipp, won the Stock Eliminator class.

I had no shot of winning rounds today,” Butner said. “Second and third round we didn’t get down the track. The guys never gave up and I made the best run of the weekend in the finals. We were real ready for the final.”

IN PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: The two-wheeled guys kicked off their season with an outstanding final round battle between teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec.

Hines earned the 49th win of his career and first since the final race of the 2017 season with a run of 6.752 seconds at 199.17 mph to defeat Krawiec (6.762 seconds, 198.90 mph).

The motorcycle I had this weekend was phenomenal,” Hines said. “It was tracking straight down the track and it responded to all of the changes.

That made it so much easier to focus on going out there and racing, cutting good lights and not really worrying about what could happen the very next run.”

The next national event will be the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, April 5-7 in Las Vegas.

Here’s Sunday’s results and updated point standings:

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Richie Crampton; 2. Clay Millican; 3.T.J. Zizzo; 4. Doug Kalitta; 5. Steve Torrence; 6. Leah Pritchett; 7. Brittany Force; 8. Jordan Vandergriff; 9. Terry McMillen; 10. Dom Lagana; 11. Mike Salinas; 12. Austin Prock; 13. Antron Brown; 14. Scott Palmer; 15. Pat Dakin; 16. Chris Karamesines.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight; 2. Tim Wilkerson; 3. John Force; 4. Jack Beckman; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. Cruz Pedregon; 7. Matt Hagan; 8. Ron Capps; 9. Jonnie Lindberg; 10. Shawn Langdon; 11. Bob Tasca III; 12. Terry Haddock; 13. J.R. Todd; 14. Dave Richards; 15. John Smith; 16. Jim Campbell.

PRO STOCK: 1. Bo Butner; 2. Alex Laughlin; 3. Kenny Delco; 4. Rodger Brogdon; 5. Greg Anderson; 6. Shane Tucker; 7. Chris McGaha; 8. Deric Kramer; 9. Jeg Coughlin; 10. Jason Line; 11. Fernando Cuadra; 12. Matt Hartford; 13. Alan Prusiensky; 14. Wally Stroupe; 15. Erica Enders; 16. Val Smeland.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines; 2. Eddie Krawiec; 3. Hector Arana Jr; 4. Joey Gladstone; 5. Ryan Oehler; 6. Jerry Savoie; 7. Jim Underdahl; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Angie Smith; 10. Cory Reed; 11. Angelle Sampey; 12. Karen Stoffer; 13. Kelly Clontz; 14. Scotty Pollacheck; 15. Hector Arana; 16. Melissa Surber.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Richie Crampton, 3.769 seconds, 323.89 mphdef. Clay Millican, 3.756 seconds, 324.67 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.867, 331.61def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 11.165, 92.63.

PRO STOCK: Bo Butner, Chevy Camaro, 6.505, 212.29def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, Broke.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.752, 199.17def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.762, 198.90.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — T.J. Zizzo, 4.467, 287.84 def. Scott Palmer, 7.510, 92.54; Clay Millican, 3.713, 325.61 def. Austin Prock, 3.996, 311.63; Richie Crampton, 3.783, 318.77 def. Antron Brown, 4.376, 220.40; Brittany Force, 3.712, 304.12 def. Chris Karamesines, 8.179, 68.29; Jordan Vandergriff, 3.721, 322.34 def. Mike Salinas, 3.986, 275.28; Steve Torrence, 3.680, 327.27 def. Dom Lagana, 3.845, 264.18; Leah Pritchett, 3.724, 327.59 def. Pat Dakin, 7.999, 80.28; Doug Kalitta, 3.749, 325.30 def. Terry McMillen, 3.749, 325.22; QUARTERFINALS — Crampton, 3.785, 319.37 def. Pritchett, 3.739, 328.78; Millican, 3.701, 325.69 def. Vandergriff, 10.914, 71.66; Zizzo, 3.764, 325.92 def. Force, 3.751, 326.95; Kalitta, 3.703, 327.51 def. Torrence, 3.708, 329.91; SEMIFINALS — Crampton, 3.734, 326.56 def. Zizzo, 3.844, 297.42; Millican, 3.909, 313.73 def. Kalitta, 4.920, 145.97; FINAL — Crampton, 3.769, 323.89 def. Millican, 3.756, 324.67.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 4.759, 231.48 def. Dave Richards, Mustang, 5.240, 213.43; John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.892, 326.63 def. Jim Campbell, Dodge Charger, 8.295, 78.64; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.933, 326.56 def. John Smith, Charger, 5.306, 150.05; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.869, 331.94 def. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 4.234, 284.03; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.941, 322.58 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 3.950, 324.44; Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.905, 326.79 def. J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 4.353, 255.53; Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 3.924, 325.22 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.966, 323.27; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.910, 324.59 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.969, 316.90; QUARTERFINALS — Wilkerson, 3.872, 329.50 def. Pedregon, 8.110, 84.77; Hight, 3.870, 330.88 def. Capps, 10.137, 77.38; Force, 4.471, 185.95 def. Hagan, 9.028, 77.04; Beckman, 3.898, 329.67 def. Johnson Jr., 3.892, 327.03; SEMIFINALS — Wilkerson, 3.896, 329.02 def. Beckman, 4.211, 267.27; Hight, 3.852, 331.20 def. Force, 3.942, 324.12; FINAL — Hight, 3.867, 331.61 def. Wilkerson, 11.165, 92.63.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.566, 210.97 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.751, 173.63; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.512, 210.83 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.527, 212.39; Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.533, 210.34 def. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.516, 212.53; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.532, 212.46 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.549, 211.63; Shane Tucker, Camaro, 6.593, 209.26 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.571, 211.13; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.504, 212.69 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.625, 208.07; Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.566, 211.23 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.505, 212.33 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 12.777, 67.47; QUARTERFINALS — Brogdon, 6.513, 211.39 def. McGaha, 7.852, 127.58; Delco, 6.555, 210.01 def. Tucker, 6.610, 209.23; Butner, 6.552, 211.76 def. Kramer, 20.651, 37.89; Laughlin, 6.507, 211.00 def. Anderson, 6.506, 213.16; SEMIFINALS — Butner, 8.103, 115.58 def. Brogdon, Foul – Red Light; Laughlin, 6.531, 210.57 def. Delco, 6.550, 210.41; FINAL — Butner, 6.505, 212.29 def. Laughlin, Broke.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.916, 187.89 def. Hector Arana, 7.095, 196.93; Joey Gladstone, 6.873, 194.46 def. Angelle Sampey, Harley-Davidson, 6.884, 195.39; Ryan Oehler, Buell, 6.853, 196.36 def. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.901, 194.04; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.781, 198.67 def. Cory Reed, Foul – Red Light; Hector Arana Jr, 6.815, 197.62 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.916, 192.19; Matt Smith, 6.795, 197.36 def. Angie Smith, 6.850, 196.79; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.803, 198.17 def. Scotty Pollacheck, 6.964, 192.41; Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, Broke def. Melissa Surber, Buell, Foul – Red Light; QUARTERFINALS — Arana Jr, 6.797, 197.08 def. Oehler, 6.886, 198.44; Krawiec, 6.920, 197.68 def. Underdahl, 7.184, 153.49; Gladstone, 6.811, 194.74 def. M. Smith, Broke; Hines, 6.756, 199.14 def. Savoie, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Krawiec, 6.819, 197.08 def. Gladstone, 6.850, 194.72; Hines, 6.758, 199.08 def. Arana Jr, Foul – Red Light; FINAL — Hines, 6.752, 199.17 def. Krawiec, 6.762, 198.90.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1.Doug Kalitta, 246; 2.Leah Pritchett, 204; 3.Steve Torrence, 197; 4.(tie) Richie Crampton, 178; Billy Torrence, 178; 6.Terry McMillen, 166; 7.Mike Salinas, 161; 8.Clay Millican, 157; 9.Antron Brown, 150; 10.Austin Prock, 138.

FUNNY CAR: 1.Robert Hight, 330; 2.Jack Beckman, 225; 3.Matt Hagan, 215; 4.John Force, 200; 5.Tommy Johnson Jr., 191; 6.Tim Wilkerson, 165; 7.Bob Tasca III, 163; 8.J.R. Todd, 159; 9.Ron Capps, 146; 10.Shawn Langdon, 143.

PRO STOCK: 1.Bo Butner, 301; 2.Alex Laughlin, 229; 3.Jason Line, 189; 4.Erica Enders, 186; 5.Matt Hartford, 185; 6.Rodger Brogdon, 184; 7.Jeg Coughlin, 180; 8.Deric Kramer, 166; 9.Kenny Delco, 141; 10.Chris McGaha, 137.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.Andrew Hines, 124; 2.Eddie Krawiec, 106; 3.Hector Arana Jr, 76; 4.Joey Gladstone, 72; 5. Matt Smith, 63; 6.Ryan Oehler, 54; 7.(tie) Jerry Savoie, 53; Jim Underdahl, 53; 9.Angelle Sampey, 35; 10.(tie) Hector Arana, 32; Karen Stoffer, 32; Melissa Surber, 32.

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