Heikki Kovalainen is no pay-driver…is he the last man standing?

If you’re a Heikki Kovalainen fan then you have most likely been happy to see him still working with Caterham on a few Friday practice sessions. As a former McLaren driver and most recently a dislodged Caterham pilot (due to lack of money to buy the ride), Heikki is still a guy seeking a slot in Formula One. Heikki told AUTOSPORT:

“We know the reasons I was forced out of Formula 1, and I still don’t want to go down that route – I don’t want to look for money and bring money to the teams – but anyway I’ve managed to keep myself here in the paddock and I think I’ve managed to contribute some stuff to this team.”

Caterham seemed to improve with Kovalainen’s input during testing but is it enough to secure an option for a drive in 2014? Probably not if Heikki doesn’t come with cash falling out of his wallet. Perhaps it is a philosophical issue for Heikki and that would be understandable. There are many in F1 that aren’t jazzed about the idea of a 18-year-old Russian kid getting a ride for 2014 through Dad’s money. You can see what former F1 driver Derek Daly thinks about it right here.

The current Formula 1 model has succumbed to the pay-driver concept and while the sport has had paying drivers for decades, it has become more pronounced since the economic downturn. Drivers like Kovalainen, Nico Hulkenberg and even veteran Rubens Barrichello were impacted by their inability to bring sponsor dollars with them. For Heikki, that notion still isn’t part of his personal program:

“The fact is that I will not bring money, everyone knows that, and if that’s going to be an obstacle again then it’s out of my hands.”

Motorsport is ripe with drivers getting a leg up and cash to promote their driving career. It’s not uncommon but there is the thought that Formula 1 should be the pinnacle of motorsport and while you may need sponsor cash through the ladder series such as GP2 and GP3, the concept of needing bring your own cash to participate in F1 is not popular for many drivers and even some teams.

Lotus F1 boss, Eric Boullier, once commented that if you have any real ambition of being at the sharp end of the grid, you will forget notions of paying drivers and find the absolute best you can. Factoring in a pay driver as part of your budget is a compromise if you want everything to be the absolute best it can be to win.

On the other side of the coin, paying drivers have and do amount to something in Formula 1. While many of F1’s top drivers have had help along the way, they’ve gone on to win races and titles. Young drivers can spend $100,000 or more just advancing through the Karting series as youngsters and the system has become more complex with management, bank accounts and incorporation. They’ve become small businesses unto themselves so the notion of this “business” moving through the ranks as fully-funded entities is a reality in this day and age of motorsport.

Teams know that the track Dad and his son/daughter are motivated to get a ride and even governments back drivers such as Venezuela’s Pastor Maldonado. Even 3-time champion Niki Lauda took out a bank loan to get a ride so the concept is nothing new, just more sophisticated and part of the new system.

Is Heikki Kovalainen a throw-back to the days of old or simply a driver who cannot secure financial backing? Either way, drivers like Jules Bianchi, Charles Pic, Max Chilton, Jen-Eric Vergne and Esteban Gutierrez may have some eating crow if they go on to big things in Formula One. As paying drivers, they achieved what very few drivers achieve…a chance to make a name for themselves in F1 and if it came on the shoulders of giants, so be it.

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