Formula One’s Pay Driver Problem

Pay driver is a term that has risen to prominence in Formula One over the last few years as teams have had to tighten their belts following the worldwide recession and the end of the sports big money manufacturer era. However, with more and more teams now being forced to turn to those drivers who bring financial backing to secure a seat, has the prevalence of pay drivers in the sport now started to damage the  image and prestige of Formula One? Dan Paddock investigates. 

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PICTURE the scene. It is qualifying ahead of the 1998 Monaco Grand Prix. Ricardo Rosset has just locked the brake’s on his Tyrrell into the bumpy entry of the historic Mirabeau corner, going straight on into the run-off area. His current fastest lap of 1:25.737 is outside the 107% time he needs to be allowed to start the race on Sunday. So the Brazilian slaps his Tyrrell into reverse and proceeds to roll back up the sloped straight, directly into the path of oncoming cars, before proceeding to drop the clutch and stall.

Just moments later, having managed to restart his Tyrrell on the downhill approach to Casino Square, Rosset was in the wars again as he snatched his right front into the entry to the swimming pool section, spinning his car 180º degrees and blocking the track. In an effort to get his Tyrrell pointing the right way again the Brazilian lit up his rear tyres, but instead simply managed to beach his car on the curb on the entrance to the corner, with the nose pointing into a slip road, leading to a flurry of double-waved yellows. This led Murray Walker, commentating at the time for ITV, to share: “A lot of people here are really debating whether Ricardo Rosset is Formula One material.” To which Martin Brundle, sitting alongside Walker in the commentary booth, replied: “Well, it’s a fairly short debate Murray,” prompting laughter from the veteran broadcaster.

If the embarrassment of his on-track antics had not been enough, Ricardo then found that his mechanics had prepared a treat for him on his return to the paddock. The Tyrrell boys having switched the first and last letters of Rosset’s name on his paddock scooter.

1998 was not an easy year for the Brazilian. His very appointment at Tyrrell, which came courtesy of financial backing from his native South America, had prompted the legendary Ken Tyrrell, who had recently sold his team to British American Tobacco, to retire early. And it was to only get worse for the then 29-year as he would fail to qualify another three times over the course of year, most notably at Tyrrell’s 430th and final Grand Prix. Following which Rosset would never drive a grand prix car again.

You may ask why delve into Rosset’s Formula One past? Well, Ricardo perhaps more than anyone in recent memory emphasises the image of what it means to be a pay driver. A driver whose bank balance is far higher than his talent pool, someone not in Formula One on the merit of their achievements. In recent years more and more pay drivers have started to creep onto the grid one again. The question is what does this do for Formula One’s prestige, and does it reveal a deeper issue within the very sport?

As Andy Young, a Writer for the FIA accredited website RichlandF1 clarifies, the term pay driver itself can be very clouded, reflecting on Michael Schumacher’s arrival to the sport. He said: “I don’t think pay drivers are a bad thing, they never have been. One thing we mustn’t forget is that Michael Schumacher was a pay driver initially. Mercedes paid his way through sports cars and then into Formula One. Even drivers like Michael began as pay drivers.” He added: “The term very much chops and changes depending on who you’re talking about. It depends on the reputation of the driver. You could argue that Fernando Alonso is a pay driver, as his salary is reportedly paid by Santander.”

 For Young, the term pay driver is one that is usually reserved for those drivers who are simply not Formula One material, and because of this the term itself is now considered derogatory. However, he insists that under the right circumstances a driver can remove this tag. “I think the pay driver term needs to be carefully slapped upon someone,” he said. “I mean we had Pedro Diniz, who had Parmalat backing courtesy of his dad, and he carried that from Forti to Arrows and then onto Sauber. Diniz actually built quite a good reputation for himself, he even outscored Jean Alesi in 1999 at Sauber. People will look back at Diniz and not actually see a pay driver, because he had decent results.”

But as Kate Walker, the Editor of GPWeek, explains, there is a difference between actually paying for a race seat, and bringing with you personal sponsorship that can go into the team’s coffers. She said: “Look at Felipe Massa this year, Williams did not sign him because he is a pay driver. However, by hiring a Brazilian driver they now have the opportunity to tap into masses of Brazilian sponsorship. Basically because Globo has invested far to much money in F1 not to have a Brazilian driver, so they have opened up their contacts book of sponsors and advertisers to Williams.”

For Edd Straw, F1 Editor of AUTOSPORT magazine and autosport.com, the idea that a driver can effectively purchase a race seat is not one that sits well with people, and that it does indeed cast the sport in a negative light. He said: “I think in terms of the public perception, it has become a big talking point. It isn’t positive when people are seemed to be buying their way in, and are buying their way in.” Although, he does concede that there are no drivers currently in the sport who are beyond their means in terms of talent. “If you look at it we’ve had the grid filled up, and there aren’t any offensive pay drivers, in terms of drivers who are way, way below the level of people who should be getting into F1,” he said.

For Kate Walker, it is a different case. In her mind, while to those involved in the sport the prevalence of pay drivers may appear as an issue, it is a problem that is self contained, in the sense that most people outside of Formula One will not even be aware of the term. “It depends,” she said. “One of the traps that we kind of fall into in F1, is thinking that anyone in the outside world gives a damn about what we do. Inside the paddock, inside the world of the F1 fan, yes, the concept of a pay driver is a negative thing, and it diminishes the prestige of the sport. But find me one person in this coffee shop that knows what a pay driver is.”

However, in Andy Young’s mind the problem with the recent prevalence of pay drivers is not simply the damage that they can do to the prestige of the sport, but more importantly to the talented drivers that are attempting to progress within Formula One. He said: “To see drivers like Pastor Maldonado and others selected [over drivers such as Nico Hulkenberg] is damaging for the sport, I’d say perhaps more so than the pay drivers flag that some drivers are tagged with.”

As GP2 expert Callum Rowe, the Editor of Callum Rowe’s GP2 Blog explains, the issue highlighted by Young has now started to have a trickle down effect on GP2, Formula One’s Official Feeder Series. He said: “You’ve got the likes of Fabio Leimer and Sam Bird, who were the biggest talents in GP2 in 2013, and they are going to miss out on a seat as they just don’t have the budget, and this is a well known fact, it is not exactly a secret. It is damaging from that sense.”

As he explains, the issue is now so apparent that organisations such as the Racing Steps Foundation – a non-profit fund that supports young British racing drivers as well as motorcycle racers – are turning their attention away from GP2 and Formula One because of the costs involved in funding drivers. Rowe said: “Jack Harvey, who raced in GP3 last year, there was a decision made by Racing Steps to send him over to America to do Indy Lights because they don’t think there’s a chance of him making it into Formula One. People are noticing this now, the very slim possibility of getting there. It is proof from the people who know what they are doing that this is becoming damaging already.

In fact, Rowe concedes that a driver who can bring financial backing is now probably more attractive to teams in Formula One than one who has won the GP2 Championship, as the aforementioned Leimer and 2012 champion Davide Valsecchi have found out. He said: “I’d like to say that winning the championship would give you a fair chance of getting an F1 seat, but then I’d just be lying.”

In Edd Straw’s mind Formula One’s current reliance on pay drivers is simply indicative of the financial situation that the sport currently finds itself in. “It’s a reflection of where the sport is,” says Straw. “It is all down to the fact that it’s very difficult to run a Formula One team financially at the moment.”

He added: “I think the big problem now is say if you look historically, it has always been some of the smaller teams who have struggled. Who have had to effectively run customer drivers. If you look now at the business model of the current teams they are mostly reliant on shareholder investment, rather than sponsorship. So it is becoming key to the survival of very well run teams, as well as what you might call the minnows, those who are really struggling to keep afloat. That’s the big concern, the fact that a team like Lotus is having to do that.”

Kate Walker is in complete agreement with Straw, deriding the fact that teams with the success of Lotus, who have consecutively finished fourth in the Constructors’ Championship over the last two years, are now in such a state financially that they are forced to sign a driver based on his bank balance rather than his talent. Although she does once again emphasises that the issue itself is a problem self contained to the Formula One world: “I think the existence of pay drivers, and the current prevalence of them is indicative of a massive problem with the sport. We should not have seven teams on the grid financially failing. We shouldn’t have teams as high up as Lotus having to take on pay drivers, that is ridiculous. But the man on the street, what do they care.”

Ultimately, until a move is made to solve Formula One’s current financial issues, pay drivers will seemingly be here to stay. Just be thankful that at least on the surface, they appear to be a step up on the hapless Ricardo Rosset.

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