Yoong plays down sponsor's role

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Alex Yoong yesterday dismissed suggestions that he is the latest driver to buy his way into Formula One.

The Malaysian, who becomes the first Asian non-Japanese driver in Formula One since Prince Bira of Thailand in the early 1950s, will make his debut with European Minardi next month after being granted his super-licence by the sport's governing body, the FIA, following testing at the Mugello circuit in Italy.

He will replace the Brazilian Tarso Marques, who is being retained as test and reserve driver, for the final three grands prix of the season. He brings with him an influential sponsor in the Magnum Corporation, who run the Malaysian state lottery, and they are understood to be backing the 25-year-old to the tune of around £6m.

Yoong, who has spent six uninspiring years in Formula Renault, F3, F3000 and Formula Nippon – where in two years he has yet to finish in the top six – said : "It doesn't matter who you are these days, you have to bring some form of sponsorship with you to help the team. I will be bringing in money from the Asian market, and I can see it helping Minardi off the bottom of the grid."

* Michael Schumacher has been cleared to race this weekend in Belgium after a crash in testing at Mugello last week left the German driver with a stiff neck.