Tennis I need a racket and a ball, football some boots and pair of shorts, Hockey a stick and a pair of skates. This and determination and God given talent can get you to the top in most sports, the structure of which allows teams to gather income from attendance, sponsorships and TV contracts to fund its balance sheet. The better you do the more you get from all ends, therefore the best team you can put together has a direct impact on your income, so it literally pays back to hire the best athletes.
I’m pretty sure I’m not on Man Utds list no matter how much cash I have in my pocket and unfortunately Motor racing is not structured to work this way. It’s been said that motor racing, bullfighting and mountain climbing are the only true sports and the rest are just games, I don’t think this true and as we go further into pay-to-drive racing we are hovering on the brink of it being a fast paced hobby of a very expensive fun ride experience.
Paying to drive a race car is nothing new, but as Martin Brundle said they are now creeping up toward the front end of the grid in F1. Ever since I started trying to go racing it was always with the knowledge that to really get into the professional ranks of single-seaters you would need to get a sponsor to bring to a team (kind of makes the “professional” tag a little wrong doesn’t it) but sadly the structure of most racing series in the world does not allow for teams to run on prize money alone so something or someone has to a pay for all the expenses it takes to run.
Way back in the day before sponsors came into the game, team owners were generally wealthy enthusiasts who wanted to be involved in what was then an extremely expensive sport and they would then bring on talented drivers to represent them, these people are few and far between nowadays which is why we should kiss Dietrich Mateschitz on the mouth for being one of the last and his Red Bull young driver program (one of a kind since the tobacco money was shut out) is a fantastic opportunity that I wish was taken on by other companies. Just look what he got for his trouble!
Perhaps this is due to the safety of racing being at a much higher level therefore enabling the everyday rich to feel comfortable out on the track rather than cheering from pit-lane, but even some very talented drivers need to bring those type of people and their money to co-drive in the top sportscar series else they would also be watching on TV. That is why at 20 or so I had decided the only way to keep driving was to go the tin top route. With tin tops or sports cars the manufacturer involvement is much larger and the varied disciplines allow for a larger number of professional or subsidized rides so playing the numbers game it is a much better shot, but this is about F1 so let us move on.
Single seaters do not generally get much manufacturer support till you get to F1 and that’s been made even harder with the advent of a spec series ladder (engines , chassis & tyres) which guarantees no support and even then only Ferrari & Merc are 100% so that’s just 4 seats out of 22. All these teams are now built around the driver/sponsor combo and although there are still some rides in the lessor ranks that are subsidized by the team owner, the first question is always “how much money can you bring” no matter the drivers pedigree.
So how do you get the experience and chance to show yourself to be the next wunderkind? Well you have to have a very rich family who can pay or somehow get a company who are willing to help you out (begging on hands and knees isn’t that effective, I tried it), unfortunately the lower ranks do not get even come close to enough exposure to warrant the cost so the art of getting that check most often relies on smoke and mirrors and a few massaged demographic charts. Then at the end of every year you have to start at zero again for next years budget!
This is why you will find the modern racing driver to be very intelligent (no not Pastor of course), creative & unrelenting (or at least someone behind you who is) as you have to be or you will go nowhere. Remember this is all before you can even think of getting to the track, a great number of very fast drivers have been passed by mediocre talent just at this first step.
This structure and DNA therefore will carry on all the way to F1 so it makes sense that the issue is getting larger. To stop this we really need a major overhaul. I’m not sure it could ever happen, but I think there is a way to make the need not so great. Business is business and unfortunately the sport of it all is not, but we are teetering on the edge of making the claim of the top drivers in the world a very tongue in cheek statement. There is a lot of money being funneled right out the door and also to the “already haves”, leading the “not very muches” to be on the brink of collapse.
The championships, in my opinion, shouldn’t be about the prize money as about the prize itself. The F1 drivers championship doesn’t bring anything at all in fact and I’m sure most of the teams wouldn’t lose their drive and desire for success if the money wasn’t as high only at the top spot. How about making that dispersion of cash a little more even, and lets not leave a team fighting every day to stay on the grid out in the cold, don’t we want more teams fighting for the points? Tough task when you don’t have a pot to piss in at the end of a weekend.
Cost control is a must although the way to execute it correctly is an extremely difficult task, I know we don’t want to take away the ingenuity of F1 teams but I think more stringent rules on the things we will never see or care about (yes I’m looking at you naughty little winglets and aero pieces) a good first step. Building a car from scratch is a formidable task so we will always see the best team succeed, but the need to bring 5 front wings and leave 5 in the trash every week is such a waste of cash that I would rather see spent on the drivers who deserve to be there. A few friends of mine have indeed been paid single-seater drivers but this is on the sprint & midget car oval circuit where the prize money and cost of racing is balanced and where success brings the money to run, so the teams can hire the best drivers and they get the return on that investment. If the back woods of the US can make it work, how come the $40,000,000 a race F1 circus cannot?
As I said it has been the case for decades with the likes of Lauda and Senna not immune to the need to buy into the sport initially, unfortunately even at the lower ranks the costs of racing far out-pace’s the cost of inflation so year by year it gets more difficult to pave your way in. Teams have become businesses themselves instead of an enthusiast’s passionate crusade. But I know only the strong survive and whether we like it or not the mixture of backing and skill are needed to succeed.
It does make me sad that racing isn’t like other professional sports but I still think we have a very strong line-up of talent on the F1 grid. So should we be so tough on the guys who more outwardly buy their way in? I don’t think so, as when you get that sponsor it is simply the means to be able to show what you can do, and that is exactly what the Chiltons of the world are there doing, but they do have talent as well.
I also feel there are ways to make the scales of talent and funding balanced in the correct direction. F1 should be the most pure, the place where the proven can find a professional and paid drive and where the supporters of the talent on their climb up through the ranks get to benefit from their investment. Perhaps the teams should control the series rather than the banks looking for a good return, but that’s’ a whole other story!