Alan van der Merwe shot to fame by winning the British F3 title this year, but it appears his hopes of becoming South Africa’s next F1 star lie largely in the hands of his countrymen.
Mention the surname Van der Merwe to anyone in South African motorsport circles and immediately everyone thinks of that iconic, moustachioed gentleman, Sarel, who for so long dominated the local motor sport scene and also did South Africa proud abroad.
But there is another, unrelated, Van der Merwe, younger and less known to the public, who might rocket South African talent to the forefront of international motorsport. All he needs is a touch of good fortune and perhaps a little support from his native land…
CARtoday.com reported in September that Alan van der Merwe clinched the British F3 Championship at Donington Park. The young driver dominated the 2003 season, winning a total of nine races (14 podium finishes), setting five pole positions, four fastest race laps and three lap records.
Van der Merwe was 10 years old when his father’s career required the family to move to Germany and then the Netherlands. In Holland, Van der Merwe started racing in karts at 16 and then later Formula Ford. Although he now lives in England, the 23-year-old SA national regards himself as a 100 per cent South African and races with the national colours emblazed on his helmet.
Alan and his father Bruce were in South Africa this week to try to rustle up sponsorship to further his career – ideally in the pinnacle of motorsport, Formula One.
British Formula 3 is the focal point for young drivers beating a path toward F1. Nelson Piquet, Mika Hakkinen, Mark Webber, Rubens Barrichello were all British F3 champions. In 2003, Alan surprised the paddock and saw off the challenges of drivers such as Carlin Motorsport team-mate Jamie Green, who was expected to win the championship. Nelson Angelo Piquet, another young charger bearing a legendary name, could also not match the South African over the season and was forced to accept second best.
Alan and his management team have indeed been talking to a number of Formula One teams – McLaren, Toyota and Jaguar - and by all accounts they have been well received. However, it is a little disheartening for the Van der Merwe camp to learn that Williams has gone the nostalgic route and chosen to test Nico Rosberg and Nelson Piquet Jr, despite Alan’s superior performances in F3.
Times have changed, the preferred path to an F1 race seat these days means doing a year or two of testing for the team. But test drive seats cost lots of money: “Jaguar requires a R16-million fee to become its test driver and won’t consider anyone for the racing seat unless they bring along at least R51,2 million,” Alan was quoted as saying.
While many European and South American drivers come bearing gifts of cash to their prospective teams, Alan is simply not in the position to buy a ride. It should be remembered that even Michael Schumacher paid for his first ride in the pinnacle of the sport. That is simply the way the F1 world works.
Thus another South African talent might not make it into F1 through lack of financial backing. Is the time not right for a South African company to take a chance and bridge that gap? Could the government be persuaded to help Van der Merwe’s cause?
But does the idea of financially supporting a South African driver to enter F1 meet the average company’s marketing plan criteria, or the development aims of the country?
“Perhaps not, but before any development driver ever gets to F1 and any South African company can benefit from exposure on one of the worlds largest grandstands, a path needs to be built,” SA production car driver and racing personality Craig Nicholson said. “Van der Merwe is our best hope now to build a bridge and restore South Africa’s position at the forefront of the international stage that is F1”.