Pay Drivers, What’s All The Fuss About
“But it’s disappointing when you see a driver like Paul di Resta getting booted out of F1 when you know that others are in because they’re bringing cash.” As stated by a Martin Brundle while on stage during Autosport’s 2014 International show. He finishes the thought up with this: “That’s the bit I’m getting uncomfortable with.”
As the title of my post suggests I am not quite in agreement with the one time F1 driver and now commentator and pundit. This issue of the pay-driver most recently came to the fore in the wake of the 2007 economic downturn. As was the case with several high-end or luxury pursuits, Formula 1’s finances suffered. In turn this sent teams which were not funded by a super company ala Red Bull energy drinks, a major auto manufacturer such as Ferrari or Mercedes, or a team such as McLaren who were financially established, scrambling to make up lost sponsorship via new drivers coming into the sport.
At first glance Brundle has a very good point and there is no denying F1 is too costly in its current iteration. There is no secret F1 needs to address the extremely large amounts of money it spends to go racing and the rather small return it receives from its organizers. There is a case to be made in which F1 would do well to “put more money into ensuring that the most talented drivers come through the junior series.” as Brundle also says. One of my many complaints about F1 currently is there are not enough Vettels, Alonsos, Hamiltons and Raikkonens to go around. However this is not the point of my post.
Instead I would like to present a counter argument to the growing hysteria about pay drivers and why I feel they are no more prevalent today than in the days when Brundle was a young driver entering the sport. Finances are always a part of a driver’s career and what we are witnessing right now in Formula 1 is just a bending of a few degrees of importance, due to current economics.
The idea that talent is not making its way to Formula One due to the teams’ over-reliance on money just does not ring true to me. For as long as I can remember drivers entering the sport always needed to have the backing of someone or some sponsorship. Have not many drivers had to bring funding to the table in order to even be considered a possibility to drive for a team?
If we are to believe the recently dramatized movie Rush, Niki Lauda could be considered a pay-driver due to the fact that he bought his way into the team March. To Brundle’s credit he touches upon this very fact and goes on to state, “One way or the other, the racing’s got to be paid for. Whether it’s with Santander following [Fernando] Alonso, or Vodafone when they had [Lewis] Hamilton and [Jenson] Button for the British market, somewhere it’s got to be paid for.”
And this is exactly what I’m trying to say. All drivers must bring money or sponsorship or both to a team at some point. It takes shape in different forms and depending on what career stage a driver is in this backing can be viewed in many ways. The aforementioned Alonso is connected to the Spanish Bank Santander. Santander has a sponsorship deal with Alonso’s employer Ferrari, it is a multimillion dollar package and Santander gets to put their name on the more important parts of Ferrari’s race car. However one must assume a large portion of this package goes to Alonso’s almost 30 million dollar retainer. Could this not be interpreted as a pay-driver situation?
Not to put too fine a point on it but by Brundle’s own admission he states that while in negotiations with an employer: “I promised Ken Tyrrell 150,000 pounds I just didn’t have in 1984. I was just winging it. And eventually he said to me ‘I know you don’t have the money but I want you to drive for me anyway’.”
Let’s look at the case of Pastor Maldonado vs. Paul di Resta shall we? One has the backing of a state-owned petroleum company from Venezuela (Maldonado’s home country) and in the case of the other, well, he does not have backing at all.
With respect to Maldonado the moniker pay-driver unfortunately has been applied. But lets take a closer look at his history. He is a race winner (while holding off one Fernando Alonso in a Ferrari no less), which is more than can be said about some non-pay drivers. In GP2, F1’s feeder series, he collected six wins, five fastest laps, eight podiums and 87 points on the way to a championship back in 2010. Does that sound like a pay driver to you?
Now for di Resta. Prior to F1, while competing in his last year for Mercedes in the very popular German Touring Car series DTM, he managed three firsts, four seconds, a total of seven podiums. In this same year (2010) di Resta won the championship with 71 points. If you have watched any racing from DTM then you already know it is a scrappy series and the racing is very close. To succeed in DTM you really have to have something special. I have said it a few times, even posted about it last year; Paul di Resta deserves to be in F1. But not necessarily at the expense of Maldonado who it must be said spent much more time in Formula One-like car due to his years in GP2.
As for the arguments against either of these drivers, neither of them put together a very good season last year. Maldonado was 18th with one point to his credit and di Resta was out of the all-important top ten and could only manage 12th on 48 points. There are reasons that can be cited in both cases for the lackluster performances, but as we all know in F1 it is your last race or year that really counts.
Can we really say that di Resta is significantly more talented than Maldonado just because he came in 12th instead of 18th? He had to drive for Williams after all, who really didn’t have a decent car last year. So lets call them roughly equivalent. Given that they’re basically equal, money did become the deciding factor. Pastor Maldonado will now drive for cash strapped Lotus F1 and di Resta will return to DTM and compete for Mercedes in the coming 2014 season. But lets not call this an issue where a ‘more talented’ driver got the shaft because he didn’t have a sponsor, that’s not the case here.
Maybe some very fast and skilled drivers miss an opportunity to pilot an F1 car because they don’t have the backing that other skilled drivers do. However, many very talented drivers miss out on this opportunity for other reasons as well. I have already mentioned Alonso, but take someone like Lewis Hamilton and his backing by an organization such as McLaren International. Would they have been so loyal to someone that was not British? Probably not. Let’s not forget Sebastian Vettel was supported by many cans of Red Bull until he became the driver he is today. Did they favor him because he came up through their young driver program? Absolutely. The simple fact is all drivers need money, aka support, in the beginning until they are proven entities. Until they are genuine race winners. Until a team deems them enough of a benefit to spend 5 or 10 or 20 million on them at which point they become a paid-employee instead of a pay-driver.
So let’s all calm down about the pay driver issue and keep looking at the big picture. Although I think Martin Brundle’s assessment is slightly off the mark regarding pay drivers, I do agree he is on to something when he says, “When a team like Lotus, the only one to really challenge Red Bull consistently last year, is short of money then something is fundamentally wrong.”
-jp- (and did I really call Alonso a pay-driver, I need to have my head checked)