The question of race

When I began writing this, there wasn’t even a whiff of hope that a ‘so called black driver’ would line up alongside the white boys at Albert Park. So I let the cynicism flow. But Narain’s arrival on the F1 scene came as quite a shock. Especially since I was one of the last to learn about it.

Thanks to my shifting to a new apartment, I hadn’t watched TV or read the newspapers for over 48 hours. Completely oblivious of the media frenzy, I spotted the Times of India gathering dust at my doorstep. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I read it once, twice, thrice! And when it hit me, I experienced a certain sense of pride that I never did before. Not even when India beat England at Lord’s. It wasn’t patriotic fervor, but something far more deep-rooted.

Despite being the world’s second most watched sport on television with a cumulative audience of 55 billion people, Formula One has remained a white man’s domain. Of course there are some teams that can boast of members representing over 20 countries. But it’s hard to overlook the fact that there hasn’t been a black driver for 54 years now.

While black men and women dominate athletics and other top-level sports, their absence in motor racing, and Formula One in particular, begs questioning. Many believe that it’s not because they are prohibited from making an attempt, but because they just don’t make an attempt. But why?

It can’t be down to population distribution. Take football for instance. During the 90s, only 2% of Great Britain’s population was black, but their representation in football was a whopping 20%. This echoed the fact that while black people are under-represented in politics and professions, their presence in sports is often disproportionately high. Again, a lot of people attribute this to their genetic superiority or natural physical abilities. If that is really the case, then the story shouldn’t be any different with F1.

The dark past
Sadly, history has always conspired against the dark skinned. South Africa hosted a grand prix for 23 years, with 15 South African drivers (all white, of course) including world champion Jody Scheckter racing during that time. But the Apartheid system prevented black South Africans from watching the spectacle.

However, unknown to many, there was a black driver who almost made it to F1. The son of a Danish mother and a Jamaican father, Jason Watt was runner-up in the 1999 International F 3000 Championship. When Prince Malik Ado Ibrahim of Nigeria led a consortium to buy a 70% stake in the Arrows F1 team, he made it public that he wished to encourage black participation. It was the perfect opportunity for Jason. But fate had other plans. Just towards the end of 1999, a motorcycle crash during a photo shoot left Jason paralyzed waist down. That very year, Prince Malik’s relations within the Arrows F1 team strained and he quickly disappeared from the scene.

The Japanese Paradox
The only non-white drivers in F1 have been Japanese – the exception being Prince Bira Bhanubandh of the Royal Siam family (Thailand) and more recently, Alex Yoong of Malaysia. The reasons are pretty clear.

Motor racing is bloody expensive. So expensive, that it is beyond the means of most black aspirants, who more often than not, are no match to whites when it comes to finances. For Japanese however, it has been different – too many drivers with too little talent.

Between 1975 and now there have been 16 Japanese drivers who competed in 400 races of which, not even one scored a win. Whether their failure is attributable to racial inferiority is arguable, but thanks to Japan’s contribution to the development of engine technologies, the Japanese have rightfully earned themselves a place in the F1 domain. Quite understandably, the involvement of engine suppliers like Honda, Yamaha and now Toyota fuelled public interest in the sport. This in turn created a need for home heroes.

Is there a lesson?
Surely yes! The Japanese paradox clearly shows how important money and industry participation are in F1. In their quest to dominate the global automotive market, the Japanese continued to push the envelope, which worked in favor of budding domestic drivers. And there’s no good reason why this can’t happen in India or any other third world nation.

With economic potential and technical prowess in its favor, nations like India have everything going for them. The appointment of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) as Ferrari’s partner for the development of their F1 racing car and the selection of Narain Karthikeyan (despite an average track record) is testimony to the importance of economic considerations and not race.

Whether it is basketball, athletics, American football, rugby or golf – you see black people right at the top. As long as there exists a sizable market that can be profitably milked by brands, motor racing will find its next Tiger Woods. In a world where sports are governed by corporate participation and big budgets, there really is only one skin color – green.


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