The discussion over paying drivers is an interesting one in the press this week for a couple of reasons. It is mostly leveled and mentioned with regards to the Williams F1 car launch replete with their new driver lineup of Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll with Robert Kubica as the reserve driver. It’s not lost on me that many fans wanted Kubica’s return to F1 with a full race seat at Williams but was retained only as the reserve driver in favor of Sirotkin.
I’ve read a few reports suggesting that Sergey brings $15m per year to his driving program and the comments on social media haven’t been the most positive about his assignment as Stroll’s teammate. This left deputy team principal Claire Williams a bit cross:
“It’s nothing new in F1 that drivers come with money, and thank goodness that they do,” said Williams.
“It would be incredibly naive for anyone to make that statement, saying ‘He’s just a pay driver.’ It’s great if a driver has financial interests from partners – it’s great for the team, it’s great for the driver.
“This is an expensive sport, not just F1 but at grassroots level as well. We’d miss out on so much talent coming into F1 if drivers didn’t have financial backing supporting them through the junior formulae, and bringing them into F1.
“Partners want to partner drivers, because of their nationality or because of their character or gravitas in a certain market.
“It’s nothing unusual. Fernando Alonso, prime example. Santander followed him around every team that he’s been to. You could suggest that he’s a pay driver – I wouldn’t do such a thing.
“I think the terminology or the vocab used around pay drivers is wrong, it’s inappropriate and it’s unnecessary, and it puts negativity round a driver that we just should not be doing in this sport anymore.
“There are commercial issues of course, but we make our driver decisions based on talent, based on what Paddy [Lowe]’s engineering team needs in order to take this team forward, not about any potential financial backing that they have.”
We’ve discussed this before, pay drivers have been around a long time. Ayrton Senna was a pay driver. As Claire points out, at one time so was Alonso. There are also drivers who are supported by teams such as Charles Leclerc and Lewis Hamilton. Without that support structure, they may never make it to F1.
It is also worth mentioning that F1 teams do not have the revenue streams from sponsors that they used to, and it does seem to come in the form of a driver backed by sponsorship these days as well as direct sponsorships.
I think Williams F1 is that one team that some believe should be there or thereabouts but the last several seasons they’ve chosen pay drivers and haven’t had the success that Williams fans would want. The notion of Kubica making an historic return to F1 also played a large roll but that didn’t materialize.
Stroll and Sirtokin may be young pay-drivers but in the case of Valtteri, it worked out well. I also think Sir Frank has always been less concerned by the driver than the team and car. Sure, having the best driver he can get is critical but not above having the team financially viable.
Last year they had the same issue with Stroll and the harsh words from F1 fans about his “rich” father and how he wasn’t good enough to warrant the ride. This year it is Sergey’s turn. Why this is a more negative reaction in regard to Williams F1 versus other team, I’m not quite sure other than to say that fans expect Williams to be in the same sandbox as McLaren and not trundling around at the back with pay drivers. The business viability is clashing with the desire and commitment to win and get the best driver as well as make a great car. At some level, I think fans can sense this and it manifests itself in criticism. Just my opinion, of course.
Hat Tip: Autosport