The Hugo Chavez - Formula One Connection

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 4/16/2011 03:07:00 PM
It seems colourful regimes and Formula One go hand in hand given that the latter is already populated with several colourful characters. From S&M fetishists to crash artists, F1 has all the shenanigans going on. Given that it is one of if not the world's most-watched sport depending on who you're listening to, there's also the allure of a vast global audience. While watching the qualifying session for tomorrow's Shanghai Grand Prix, my early morning daze failed to dim my awareness of one of Williams' sponsors: PDVSA. That, of course, is the national energy company of Venezuela and a vehicle for various Hugo Chavez pet projects. Remember when Hugo Chavez made the PDVSA-owned CITGO chain in the US sell discounted heating oil to poor American citizens to show up el diablo Jorge Bush?

Just as Fernando Alonso brought Spain's Santander Abbey from McLaren to his current team Ferrari, drivers tend to bring their national sponsors with them for obvious reasons as the home audiences tune in to watch their compatriots. And so it is with Williams F1's new driver, Pastor Maldonaldo, the reigning GP2 champion. Our man Pastor's website is swathed with Venezuelan flag colours, while nearly all his sponsors are affiliated with the Venezuelan government. As a vehicle for jingoism, sports has few peers, and so PDVSA signed a long-term contract with Williams F1 worth $14M at the start of the year:
Williams has followed up its signing of driver Pastor Maldonado with a long-term sponsorship deal with Venezuela's state-owned oil company PDVSA. Venezuelan driver Maldonado took the GP2 title last term and will drive alongside veteran Brazilian Rubens Barrichello in 2011. And the cars will carry the livery of the world's fifth largest oil exporter.

The country's president Hugo Chavez announced the deal in Caracas and team owner Frank Williams feels it will make a huge difference to their competitiveness following the loss of a number of sponsors at the end of the 2010 season. "They are a substantial partner and can make a meaningful difference to our fighting ability," Williams said in a statement.

PDVSA's head of corporate affairs Julio Gonzalez added: "Pastor will fly our flag this year and carry the hopes of an entire country in this new chapter of his career." Williams finished sixth behind the dominant Red Bull outfit in last year's Constructors' Championship.
Although it has fallen on hard times in recent years without a major engine supplier, Williams is a storied name in F1. It has won 9 constructors and 7 drivers titles. It is also a paragon of British motorsport, with Sir Frank Williams obviously having been knighted. Certainly, there is political risk being involved with an outfit like PDVSA that may result in reputational damage.

In particular, I am thinking of another storied British institution that decided to accept funding from another oil-rich country with a chequered past. For Williams' sake, I hope it won't become another LSE-Libya episode. Meanwhile, the Guardian has a wryly amusing take on Hugo's newfound fondness for bourgeois recreational activities alike motor racing:
Chávez has embarked on a little revisionism, recognising the importance of sport to his nation's economy and the value of having Venezuela represented on the global sporting stage. This year the state-owned oil company PDVSA will put $14m (£9m) into the Williams Formula One team, which will this season have the Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado as one of its drivers – a decision that led to Chávez being accused of hypocrisy (capitalism surely has no greater sporting expression) and misusing his patronage (Maldonado is an avowed supporter of the president).
Last, I found it curious that the description of PDVSA on the Williams website states "Between 2004 and 2010, PDVSA contributed $61.4 billion to social development projects across the country." I'd settle for exchanging this sort of braggadocio for rising not falling Venezuelan petroleum production and not sending away auditors to hide this fact.