Is pay-to-drive the future of F1?

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The current F1 driver market has been changing over the last several years. The Pay-to-drive scenario is nothing new to F1 but that was usually a gambit left for smaller teams needing supplementary budget reinforcement and picking up a sponsor-backed driver was an easier way to claw some additional dollars in lieu of team sponsorship.

The pay-to-drive format has been tested and found successful for smaller teams but as for the success of the driver, and the sponsor who is backing him, it’s more difficult to say. Many drivers who paid their way to F1 have now left with empty pockets and little to show for their time in the series. Drivers such as Alex Yoong, Zsolt Baumgartner, Christian Albers and Tiago Monteiro served their time in F1 but achieved very little in which to further their career and one suspects an equal ROI for their sponsors.

As recent as 2008, F1 had no pay-to-drive drivers after the Spyker team was purchased by Force India boss Vijay Mallya. Yet in 2010, it is replete with pay-to-drive drivers and seems to be growing with the rumors of Williams possibly parting ways with Nico Hulkenberg in favor of a paying Pastor Maldonado. Vitaly Petrov, Sakon Yamamoto and Karun Chandhok represent a new host of paying drivers in which personal sponsorship is rapidly becoming a major factor in F1 opportunity.

Paying to drive in an F1 teams is nothing new but it is becoming a disturbing issue for me as it seems that many teams are now looking to supplement their lack of sponsorship with drivers who have personal sponsorship. Drivers also know that personal sponsorship can be the dangling bait that could secure a ride where other drivers, potentially more talented ones, will be left wanting. In essence, when money trumps talent but isn’t that the way it is in the world today?

ART co-owner and driver manager Nicolas Todt explained his concern to day in a very nice piece at AUTOSPORT (quoting Autosprint). Like Todt, I fear that the system is straining under economic pressure and teams, once intent on paying for merit, are now looking for quick cash infusions to prop up their organizations. While it is nothing new, Todt does believe it is getting out of control.

“I’m very worried because, up to a few seasons ago, drivers would step up to Formula 1 on merit,” he told Autosprint.

“The drivers who got there thanks to financial guarantees were sporadic and it mostly regarded small teams.

“Because of the global economic crisis and the relative difficulties for medium and small teams to find the budget, even the most deserving young drivers are now struggling to find their way in the grand prix world.

“In my work as manager, where considerable investments are required in lesser formulas already, obtaining important and prestigious results is no guarantee to plan a future in Formula 1.

“Paradoxically it’s more difficult to step up to Formula 1 nowadays, even though there are more available seats.”

The times shift to match the team economics and I certainly understand that notion. Rule number one in business is that you have to get profitable at whatever level you are selling at. If you were a $100mm team but now are only an $80mm team, then you have to cut expenses and look for other revenue sources to stay profitable. A paying driver is a big addition to that equation. It could potentially save jobs and help development. Those are salient points to a team’s P&L but it does have a knock-on effect as far as drivers and the future of F1. As Todt says:

“In the future I see concrete chances for those drivers able to combine results and sponsors, or for those that tie themselves from a very young age to Red Bull, McLaren or Mercedes, who can guarantee a debut in the circus without economic support,” Todt said.

“It will be a lot more difficult for the rest.”

Keep in mind that this is a man who canceled his bid to enter F1 in 2011 because he knew they did not have the long-term financial backing they would need to do it right. I admire that about Todt and assume that he wasn’t taking an ill-prepared leap based upon the notion of paying drivers to prop up a half-baked attempt at F1.

The team driver development program may be the only way forward for drivers who lack personal sponsorship but possess the talent needed to drive in F1. That concept seems feasible but I met a young Irish driver at the Petit Le Mans last month that was in the Red Bull program and it’s a vicious world even within those confines. The system chewed him up and spat him out and one can see that even brining personal sponsor dollars to that program would look good on your CV.

If Williams F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg is not retained at the team for 2011, it means that being a GP2 champion and having a high level of skill is not enough in F1. It seems that merit alone has not always been the measuring stick for a team’s decision to hire a driver. They look at all aspects of the driver. A driver’s marketability, skills, ability to learn, communication style and size of his wallet have to be factors in hiring. The question is, if we weighed all of the teams hiring criteria, what percentage would personal sponsorship be against personal skill and merit? I fear it may be scalable from the back of the grid moving forward.

If we assume that personal sponsorship weighs 100% for HRT and 0-10% for a team like McLaren or Ferrari, the question is, what is it for Toro Rosso, Williams F1, Renault, Sauber and Virgin Racing? A gambit usually saved for the smaller teams is now creeping up the ladder and affecting the mid-field teams. Is it the new F1 or more a sign of the economic times? What do you think?

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