The Age of Pay Drivers in Formula 1

Timo Glock’s departure from Marussia yesterday confirmed that “pay drivers” have taken control of over a third of the Formula 1 grid in 2013.

Currently there are three seats available for 2013, at Force India, Caterham and now Marussia, and they are all expected to be filled by drivers with vast financial backing.

A total of 8 pay drivers will therefore race amongst a field of 22, with Mexican youngster Sergio Perez the most high-profile.

The newly-signed McLaren driver, hastily appointed as successor to Lewis Hamilton after his move to rivals Mercedes, has backing from Carlos Slim – the richest man in the world.

Arguably, Perez has fully earned his seat at McLaren after a string of impressive drives in 2012 which included two podiums. Had he not ran wide in pursuit of Fernando Alonso in Malaysia, he may well have notched a maiden victory in just his second season in the sport.

His ability to look after the sensitive Pirelli tyres more carefully than any other driver on the grid (while still lapping as quickly as the leaders) is a highly-coveted trait that McLaren deemed irresistible – a point highlighted by the speed with which they swooped for the 22-year-old.

While his talent is obvious to see, his alarming drop in form once he signed with the Woking-based team led some to accuse McLaren of being too hasty in the signing of Hamilton’s replacement.

Another high-profile driver, Pastor Maldonado, has huge backing from Venezuela – his homeland – but has proved to be as reckless as he is quick.

A maiden victory in Spain last season gave him no shortage of confidence, yet it is this confidence (at times unshakable) that continues to undermine his ability.

Maldonado has a history of deliberately colliding with other drivers – notably with Hamilton at Spa in 2011, and with Perez at Monaco in 2012 – and his aggressive driving style also led to a crash in Valencia last season which led to Hamilton’s dramatic retirement from the race.

Perez and Maldonado graduated from GP2, Maldonado impressively so after winning the title, but they have yet to follow Hamilton’s lead and take their driving onto the next level – and this is causing an increasing number of problems in the sport.

Pay drivers are replacing more experienced drivers in the smaller teams towards the back of the grid – and the sport is seeing more accidents as a result.

Take Romain Grosjean for example. The Franco-Swiss driver was involved in seven first-lap incidents in 2012 having won the GP2 title in 2011, and, although he was not signed by Lotus for his cash, he has failed to translate his speed into error-free racing.

It seems also that long-term contracts are no longer honoured as the sport becomes increasingly costly for smaller teams.

Glock’s departure is a case in point. The German’s multi-year contract with Marussia was mutually terminated as the Russian-owned team look for more money to sustain their existence.

Similarly, in early 2012, Italian veteran Jarno Trulli was ousted from his seat at Caterham, despite having driven in the first test at Jerez, and replaced by Russian driver Vitaly Petrov.

Heikki Kovalainen, his team-mate and a highly-valued driver, was thought to be safe after three superb seasons with the minnows, yet Caterham disagreed and a lack of funding has seen his F1 career dissolve with heartless rapidity.

Kovalainen had enjoyed a distinguished career, competing in two seasons for McLaren in 2008 and 2009 (winning one Grand Prix), but his unwillingness to secure financial backing – instead arguing that his talent should be enough to keep his drive – ultimately led to his exit.

At Sauber, a similar story befell the exciting Kamui Kobayashi.

Kobayashi, noted for his daring overtaking manoeuvres, was an extremely popular figure in Formula 1, but again a lack of funding led to his seat being filled by Mexican 22-year-old Esteban Gutierrez, a driver who also enjoys backing from Carlos Slim.

Even a podium in the Japanese Grand Prix, his home race, and a subsequent fundraising campaign by the Japanese public (still recovering from the devastating effects of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami) which raised €8 million to try and keep him in the sport, was not enough.

It is only a matter of time before pay drivers infiltrate the very top teams such as Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren.

Perez is the first man with significant financial backing to take a seat in one of the top three teams, and with expensive new regulations coming into the sport in 2014, he won’t be the last.

Genuine proven talents are being dismissed from the sport as the costs needed to remain on the grid continue to escalate. Sadly, pay drivers are being fast-tracked to the midfield and tailend teams and their inexperience will continue to hinder a sport which once nurtured the brightest talents from the slower teams to the front (think Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, both Minardi graduates).

Until the cost of Formula 1 is seriously addressed, the age of pay drivers, no matter how able, will endure ever longer.

Think of pay drivers as a toxin and Formula 1 as your body. Would you honestly allow these toxins to circulate around your body, poisoning you until your death? Thought not. So why should Formula 1 be any different?

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