07 November 2011

There are many days when I remind myself that being a motoring writer is the best job in the world; and I don’t just mean because of the regular opportunity to drive nice cars.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to sit in on press conferences with true sporting superstars. First, Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull Racing headquarters shortly after winning his second F1 title and then, this weekend, with skippers at the start of the 2011/12 Volvo Ocean Race.

I don’t know enough about either sport to ask an intelligent question but it was a privilege to be there and observe. Vettel came across as a young man remarkably unaffected by the adoration and affectation that surrounds him; the Volvo skippers displayed the kind of laconic, dry humour they must surely need to lead a team of 10 men in a nine month endurance race around the globe.

The two sports share similar technology. The Volvo boats are carbon fibre, as is the 100 foot mast and rigging. Speed is all about reducing drag (even the bits holding up the mast have an aerodynamic shape) and cutting weight.

The stresses on the equipment and the men and women (in the case of sailing) who control it are enormous. Only the power source and speed are different.

Volvo owns the Ocean Race and clearly faces questions about why a car company should spend quite so much money (they are coy about the exact figure) on an unrelated sport in these difficult times.

The answer is that ocean racing, like F1, is a truly global sport and, while it may fail to excite British audiences beyond a core enthusiast market, it has huge pulling power in other parts of the world. The previous race (2008/09) achieved a global TV audience of 1.3 billion viewers, 89 million web visits and 3.8 million visitors to in-port stopovers; that means massive global exposure for the Volvo brand.

And, of course, ocean racing – like F1 – is intrinsically dangerous. But ask an ocean race skipper like Mike Sanderson his biggest fear and the answer comes back loud and clear: “Our biggest fear is being slow.”

In that respect, too, I suspect he shares much in common with Sebastian Vettel.

Rupert Saunders

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