I once knew a driver who paid his way into one of the crown jewels of Motorsport. The driver I knew had class, finesse which is unbeatable ‘til today and an authority that he stamped for himself in and around the paddock, and rest of motorsport – Ayrton Senna. One would argue, the universe made pay drivers in attempts to find another great talent like the Brazilian, but tables have turned significantly since Senna. And all pay drivers really are is what I would term ‘Peddlers’
We all know that pay drivers have existed in Formula One since its birth. Even some of the greats like Juan Manuel Fangio have bought their way into the sport in this way. The Argentinian government supported Juan Manuel Fangio, just like Sergio Perez got support from his country Mexico. But circumstances have worsened since Marussia announced the departure of Timo Glock for “commercial reasons”. It is a sad thing to see when the driver is forced out due to the fact he wasn’t able to bring in enough sponsors and not because he didn’t have the necessary talent.
Now it has reached a point where the smaller teams are choosing drivers solely based on how much cash they can bring to the team. Smaller teams like Marussia can only manage one ‘pay driver’ and one salaried. Back in the day, drivers would pay a team a certain amount and race for them. However, this situation has completely changed in recent times – drivers are not only expected to pay the team, but also bring in sponsors. This puts immense pressure on the drivers and can affect both their racing and the relationship between them and their teams. This will not only cause issues within a single team, but will adversely affect other teams as well. Pastor Maldonado is the perfect example of a pay driver; worth over 45 million pounds thanks to backing from the Venezuelan based oil company PDVSA, he became one the most valuable drivers on the grid. What has the man who is worth more than Nico Rosberg done? Well, next to nothing, winning a measly 16 points this year. He did earn the nickname ‘crashtor’, which he certainly deserved, having been involved in 42 crashes over the past few years. Sergio Perez deemed him “stupid and dangerous” after the crash in the Hungarian grand prix. Thanks to the 30 million pounds he brings to the team, Lotus can’t afford to let go of a driver like him despite his infamous tags. Lotus also finds it difficult to get other sponsors and broaden its base, as sponsors are reluctant to advertise with them due to there chequered past. After Maldonado retires, they will be left with next to nothing in terms of sponsors. They might even have to shut up shop for good. Lotus has gotten itself into one hell of a downward spiral. The day I heard about Lotus extending its contract with Maldonado, all I could think about was how Maldonado was like a recreational drug; might be fun for the night but leaves you with things you wish had never had happened. This clearly illustrates of how much damage a pay driver can do on the grid – the company that brought sponsorship to the championship with their Lotus 49 is now being dragged down to its knees by it.
This destructive cycle is what leads to so many teams quitting formula one. It is even the reason why some fans are steering clear of formula one, since they think the sport has more to do with business than actual racing. This is true to some extent; since it is highly improbable for teams to thrive, they are forced to prioritize finance over true racing, in order to endure the sport.
Formula One is known for its cutting edge technology, but it does come at a cost, very few teams can afford the development costs and racing fees. This is what fuels the fire for the ‘pay driver’. The rules should be able to accommodate the financially challenged teams. Only then will the ‘pay driver’ system be abolished. The smaller teams must understand that hiring a capable driver is better than taking on a pay driver, in the long run it will result in sponsors pouring in as the team advances on the track. That’s how the sport progresses and brings in fresh talent. The FIA should allow teams to pick up sponsors mid-season making it easier for teams to acquire finance and this will also help fuel the competitive nature of the sport.
We all know sponsorship is an important part of the game but this shouldn’t affect the heart of the sport, which are the drivers. Are we going to allow someone to race in formula one just because they can fund? Is this what Formula One has become? Niki Lauda once said, “I don’t need a face to drive, I only need a right foot.”
Do they need just the right foot?