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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.”

Supercross points leader Eli Tomac finds silver linings in interruption

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Though his Monster Energy AMA Supercross championship charge was put on hold, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had a silver lining for Eli Tomac.

Off the road while the season was postponed for nearly three months, the points leader was able to be present as his girlfriend, Jessica, gave birth to their daughter, Lev, on April 26

“A huge blessing for us there,” Tomac told host Mike Tirico during a “Lunch Talk Live” interview (click on the video above) in which he also joked about becoming a pro at busting off diaper changes. “That was one good blessing for us as we had our daughter on a Sunday, that would have been on a travel day coming back from the race in Las Vegas.

NBCSN

“That was probably the only positive out of all this mess was being able to be there for the birth.”

But there also could be more good fortune for Tomac as the series resumes Sunday at Salt Lake City, Utah (3-4 p.m. ET on NBCSN, 4-6 p.m. on NBC).

The final seven events will be held over 22 days in Rice-Eccles Stadium, which sits at just over 4,000 feet.

The elevation could favor Tomac, who was born and lives in Colorado and is accustomed to riding and training at altitude, which is a departure for many Supercross riders (many of whom hail from California and Florida).

COVID-19 TESTING REQUIRED: Supercross outlines protocols for last seven races

“That’s going to be the test for us,” said the Kawasaki rider, who five of the first 10 races this season. “We’re at elevation in Salt Lake, so when you’re on a motorcycle, you have a little bit of a loss of power. That’s just what happens when you come up in elevation. And a lot of guys train at sea level, and we’re at 4,000 to 5,000 feet, so cardio-wise, we’ll be pushed to the limit.

“Most of our races are Saturday nights and back to back weeks, but this go around it’s Sunday and Wednesday, so recovery is going to be key.”

Supercross will race Sunday and Wednesday for the next three weeks, capping the season with the June 21 finale, which also will be shown on NBCSN from 3-4:30 p.m. ET and NBC from 4:30-6 p.m. ET.

Tomac, who holds a three-point lead over Ken Roczen (who also recently visited “Lunch Talk Live”), told Tirico he had been riding for 90 minutes Thursday morning on a track outside Salt Lake City.

“Most of us we can rely on our past riding pretty well,” Tomac said. “The question is if you can go the distance. That’s what a lot of guys have to train on is going the distance. We go 20 minutes plus a lap. That’s what you’ve got to keep sharp is your general muscles. Within two to three days, your brain starts warming up more if you take a few weeks off the motorcycle.”

Here is the schedule and TV information for the rest of the season:

  • Sunday, May 31 (3-4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; 4-6 p.m. ET, NBC);
  • Wednesday, June 3 ( 10:00 pm – 1:00 am ET, NBCSN);
  • Sunday, June 7 (5-8:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Wednesday, June 10 (7–10 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Sunday, June 14 (7-10 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Wednesday, June 17 (7-10 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Sunday, June 21 (3-4:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; 4:30 – 6:00 p.m. ET, NBC).
Eli Tomac rides his No. 3 Kawasaki in the Feb. 29 race at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia (Charles Mitchell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).