Money talks, especially if you want to be a Formula One driver.
Just ask Timo Glock, Kamui Kobayashi, Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov who were all pushed out of grand prix cockpits by drivers with bigger bank accounts.
“There have always been pay drivers,” Glock told Speed Week after leaving the Marussia team.
“While I won’t say that they have no talent – [Williams F1 drivers] Pastor Maldonado and [McLaren’s] Sergio Pérez have proved that you can be a good driver and have good partners behind you – but it’s too bad that F1 is increasingly developing in this direction.”
Currently in F1, there are really only four teams that have the luxury of not hiring drivers who bring scads of cash as part of the deal: Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren, and Red Bull. Simply put, the other nine need the money.
German driver Glock was pushed out of his seat at backmarker Marussia by flush newcomer Luiz Razia, of Brazil, while the other seat at the team will be occupied by Max Chilton, whose dad is the vice-chairman of Aon PLC, a U.K. insurance, risk management and consulting firm.
Glock quickly found a home after leaving Marussia last month, signing to race in the highly competitive Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters Series (DTM) for BMW.
Like Glock, Caterham’s two 2012 drivers, Finn Kovalainen and Russian Petrov, won’t be back with the team when testing begins in Jerez, Spain this week, after their F1 outfit found a pair of drivers pushing wheelbarrows full of cash. That team will have 2012 Marussia driver Charles Pic of France, whose family runs one of Europe’s largest transport company, and the well-heeled Giedo van der Garde, who has a pair of Dutch companies writing cheques for him.
Essentially, Petrov's Russian backers got trumped by the new drivers' bigger bank accounts, while 2008 Hungarian Grand Prix winner Kovalainen, who was not a pay driver, was booted to make room for one with money.
Japanese driver Kobayashi also finds himself on the outside looking in after his Sauber team signed Esteban Gutierrez, who is backed by the world’s richest man, Telmex chairman Carlos Slim. Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas is another new face on the grid, taking the spot at Williams held by Bruno Senna. The nephew of Ayrton Senna, the late Brazilian three-time world champion, wasn't able to hang onto his seat with $15-million in backing.
But don’t think that an F1 filled with drivers of questionable talent who buy rides is a new development.
Three-time Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) champion Bobby Rahal stressed that pay drivers were not only common in F1 decades ago, but also in most other top racing series too.
“In CART in the 1990s, there were guys showing up with money who weren’t that special and sportscar racing was the same way,” Rahal said.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, you had to have money to go racing – there wasn’t sponsorship, so this is not something new.”
Back in the 1970s, F1 teams often switched drivers several times a season, with the revolving door stopping at the one with the biggest wallet. Things got so bad that the sport’s governing body changed the rules in the late 1970s to make it tougher for the teams to swop drivers in and out of their cockpits.
Even some of the biggest names in the sport today have held out their hands looking for drivers who could bring some much needed liquidity to the table. For example, the Williams F1 team that has won nine constructors’ and seven drivers’ world championships used pay drivers early on as it tried to find its feet in the paddock. In 1977, it ran Belgian Patrick Nève, who qualified for eight of 11 grand prix that year and scored a best result of seventh in the Italian Grand Prix, a race where only nine cars finished.
As soon as Williams secured flush backers in Saudi Arabia, most notably airline Saudi and the TAG company, it dumped Nève in favour of the more talented Alan Jones. The Australian went on to win the 1980 drivers’ championship.
Oddly, things have now gone full circle for Williams, which has one of the highest profile pay drivers in the paddock, accident-prone Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado, who is backed by Hugo Chavez’s state-run Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA). It also hired Susie Wolff as a development driver despite her lack of results on track. She is the wife of major Williams investor Toto Wolff.
The return to pay drivers for Williams highlights the problem that smaller teams have competing in F1. The series has become so costly that Williams’ estimated annual budget of $145-million is considered modest, since top teams spend more than $300-million per season to challenge for the world championship.
There’s also the issue of the television revenues that are distributed based on points to only the top 10 teams in the final constructors’ standings. that means the outfits lower down the pecking order struggle to make up the shortfall.
And it’s young, talented drivers who pay the price, literally. Most teams in F1’s main feeder series, GP2, demand several million dollars from drivers who want to keep their Grand Prix dreams alive. The other option, the World Series by Renault, is not much cheaper.
In addition, most teams’ reserve and test driver spots go to racers like Wolff, who have easy access to money. There are some who use the spots to develop talent, but it is exceedingly rare.
And teams can’t be faulted for not shelling out huge wads of cash betting on the next star because finding the next world champion isn’t easy.
Fans might recall a hot young driver named Martin Brundle, who battled future three-time world champion Ayrton Senna tooth and nail in the lower ranks before graduating to F1 together in 1984. Senna went on to take 41 wins and 65 poles in 161 starts and be lauded as one of the best ever; Brundle won no races, never started on pole, and only took nine podiums in 158 Grand Prix.
The only team with a sophisticated driver development program these days is Red Bull Racing, although it cannot be faulted for sometimes making choices based more on marketing than talent. After all, its involvement in the sport is ultimately about selling more cans of its energy drink.
When it’s examined closely, the Red Bull program has delivered one big star: reigning three-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, of Germany.
Mercedes reconstituted its young drivers team last year, a squad that includes Canadian Robert Wickens who races in DTM. Mercedes’ DTM program also put Scot Paul DI Resta into an F1 seat at Force India.
Things are worse across the Atlantic in the top open wheel series, where pay drivers are the norm these days. Television is also the culprit in IndyCar, although in its case, the reason is the lack of exposure.
While the series gets a few races on network TV every year due to a deal with ABC for its marquee Indianapolis 500 race, its ratings are dismal. That puts the sponsors in the driver’s seat and, except in a few cases, they can name their price most of the time.
Until there is a good TV deal in place which will, in turn, improve IndyCar’s teams’ financial health, there is little doubt that pay drivers will play a role in keeping the cars on the track.
“Yes, it would be great if all the teams could go out and find all the money they need and then hire whoever they wanted to hire,” Rahal said.
“But I think it’s just going to take some time and as the series becomes more and more successful and compelling, it gives the opportunity for the team owners to go out and sell it.”
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