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July 21, 1999


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'Black Prince' seeks to storm Formula One

Alan Baldwin

Prince Malik Ado Ibrahim is chasing a motor racing dream.

A dream to take Formula One, the sport notable for millionaire lifestyles and beloved of the white European aristocracy, to the heart of Africa.

The 38-year-old Nigerian arrived among the elite in motor racing in January this year when he led a consortium, financially backed by Morgan Grenfell Private Equity, which bought a 70 per cent stake in the Arrows team.

He declared at the time that there was ''no reason why the next Michael Schumacher can't be black'', and the man promptly dubbed ''Black Prince'' has been literally standing out from the crowd ever since.

Malik, black Africa's only Formula One player and a businessman who dresses from head to toe in black, has inevitably raised the colour element.

''There is not a racist element in the sport but it is a fact that because it is European-based and European developed, it does not have that aspect of colour in it,'' he said in an interview at this month's British Grand Prix.

''It was inevitable that colour was going to come into the sport eventually.''

Prince Malik's dream, as an African and as a businessman, is to explore new markets with Arrows and try to open up a continent generally overlooked by the sport, but which nonetheless provided Ferrari's last world champion.

''Africa has had a world champion, at least a South African and a white South African at that, and driving for the biggest name in Formula One, Ferrari,'' he said, referring to Jody Scheckter.

''But in those days, blacks could not even go to the stadium to watch the race.

''We've missed out on that part of history that we should have embraced. I think we will push as hard as possible to get a race on the continent again.''

Malik floated the idea of a Grand Prix of the Nile, to be held in Egypt, as a gateway to West Asia.

But South Africa's Kyalami racetrack, unused for Formula One since 1993, would be the most obvious venue.

Kyalami was used by British American Racing and Williams in February for a pre-season test session and Malik said the response to that was proof of a huge untapped market.

''It was quite incredible because they had 30,000 people watching three cars each day,'' he said.

''And the majority of them were black...The market and the hype will bring people of all creeds and colours from other parts of Africa,'' he said.

''It's almost like uniting everyone, I'm sure everyone can do it. I'm very sure of that.''

Malik, who is also a keen polo player, says motor racing has been in his blood since his boarding school days in eastern England when he watched Formula One on television.

After studying business in London and California, the Nigerian competed in the Le Mans 24 hours race under a pseudonym in a Lamborghini but realised he was not cut out to be a competitor on the track.

Coming from a family with extensive business interests in Africa, Malik also helped to broker the sale of the Lotus car company to Proton of Malaysia and currently holds GSM, satellite communications and internet licences in Nigeria.

He says that buying into Arrows, one of just eleven teams on the grid, has allowed him to combine business and pleasure.

''In so doing I have exposed a whole continent to a sport that they have never looked at before. A whole race of people who from Nascar to rally cars are not even interested,'' he said.

Malik's arrival in the paddock was accompanied by much whispering about where his millions come from, suggestions that he says betray clear racial prejudice.

''Even now I'm hearing all kinds of rumours...And I just think it is quite amazing the doubt will always be in people's minds, that a person of colour can't do this and shouldn't do this,'' he said.

''You try and borrow 5,000 pounds from your banker and see what he puts you through.

''And then try going into partnership with your bank and asking them to put 44 million out of a total 77 million. They will scrutinise you more than your doctor can.''

The Arrows team has a record of 329 races without a win and has struggled again this season, gleaning just one point with Pedro de la Rosa's sixth place in the opening race in Australia in March.

But they announced this month, at the half-way stage in the season, that they would abandon their own engine for the Renault-based Supertec next year and Malik was confident of better things ahead.

He said the fan club had grown substantially since he appeared on the scene, attracting many supporters in South Africa, and he was excited by the marketing possibilities ahead with a new line of branded merchandise.

''A lot of people have ignored it (Africa) and looked away thinking, 'ah, the dark continent','' he said.

''Basically it's invisible to them, for want of a better word, a black hole.

''But most of the teams in F1 have an African involvement. Shell has 25 percent of its global profits coming out of Nigeria. Nearly every company here has an involvement.

''I'm going to try and harness that.''


Mail Sports Editor