Sports News

Venezuela F1 driver flies flag for socialist Chavez

CARACAS (Reuters) - As an admirer and friend of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, new kid on the block Pastor Maldonado will bring a rare dash of socialism to the ultra-moneyed world of Formula One next season.

Maldonado, frequently pictured at Chavez’s side including during a visit to flood victims this week, will race for former champions Williams in 2011 after winning this year’s GP2 support series.

The 25-year-old told Reuters that sport and politics could mix happily together.

“Sport should not be kept away from politics, it should be supported, like happens in Venezuela,” he said.

State oil company PDVSA, whose oil revenues have financed Chavez’s decade-long “21st century socialism” experiment in the South American nation, is Maldonado’s main local sponsor.

“We’re backing Pastor Maldonado and his team via PDVSA, so he can race round the world and show what he’s made of,” the sports-loving Chavez said this week, recalling that he approved funding for the driver early on his career.

State phone company CANTV, which the ever-controversial Chavez nationalized in 2007, also backs Maldonado.

The driver has been feted as a national hero, and socialist symbol for the state, since securing the race seat.

“The sporting feats we have achieved in the last few years in this country are thanks to support that was never there before,” Maldonado said of the government’s sports projects.

“Athletes are more important now and are valued more highly....I’m delighted with the support President Chavez has given me, not just economic but moral too. That’s what most motivates a sportsman to defend his national colors.”

Maldonado, who runs a foundation for poor children in Venezuela, will team up with Brazilian Rubens Barrichello at Williams. The team last won a race in 2004 and finished sixth overall this year.

The season starts in Bahrain in March.

Writing by Andrew Cawthorne, editing by Alan Baldwin