The pay driver debate needs to move on

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Start, Circuit of the Americas, 2012In professional sport the viewing public expect the competitors to be the best in their discipline.

If I were to turn up at Old Trafford with 20 million quid I would not be able to buy myself a place in Manchester United’s starting eleven. Nor would my wad serve as a ticket to the middle of an England rugby scrum or get me in the starting blocks alongside Usain Bolt.

My imaginary budget pales in comparison to the enormous revenues Formula One generates every year. And that is precisely why a lot of people have a hard time accepting the place of pay drivers in Formula One.

A cause for concern

The subject of pay drivers has been a theme of the off-season. Experienced drivers like Heikki Kovalainen and Timo Glock have been shown the door while the sport has welcomed drivers whose passage through the lower ranks owes much to their funding as well as their ability.

It’s a debate which provokes some unsatisfactory knee-jerk responses. The first is that it is nothing to worry about because there have been pay drivers in F1 before.

Of course it is true that drivers have bought places in F1 before. And many of them were more egregiously unqualified for the job than those who are paying their way in today.

But as long as there are objectively better qualified and less well financed drivers being left on the sidelines, the disquiet over pay drivers will not go away. The sport has greater media exposure today that it has ever enjoyed, and unpalatable facts like these one are less likely to be glossed over.

Others respond to the pay driver debate by pointing out that there are still many fine drivers in F1. This is certainly true as this recent article makes clear.

But if F1 is not going to be about the 22 best drivers in the world then how few are we prepared to settle for? Eleven? Five? Two?

Fernando Alonso may not be in imminent danger of losing his seat to Channoch Nissany. And Ma Qing Hua is not about to be announced as an 11th-hour replacement for Sebastian Vettel.

But at the other end of the grid drivers who were being paid are being replaced by drivers who are paying their way. And I do not believe any argument which says that is a good thing for Formula One.

Survival, not greed

The most unhelpful debates are those where opposing sides don’t engage with each other. That’s what I feel is happening when I read comments from fans complaining about the rise of pay drivers and responses from journalists saying ‘it’s OK, F1 has had pay drivers before’.

I agree that paid drivers being replaced by paying drivers can only be bad for the sport. And I agree that there have been paid drivers in F1 before. Can we accept that both these points of view are reasonable, not mutually exclusive and move on to the next point?

F1′s smaller teams are not getting rid of their experienced drivers and bringing in well-heeled rookies out of greed. They’re doing it to survive.

The sport has already lost one team over the winter. The rise in pay drivers is not just bad for F1′s reputation as a professional sport, it’s a sign that its financial model has become unsustainable even with a less than full field.

It’s time for the pay driver debate to move on and become a discussion about why F1′s huge income is apparently inadequate to sustain what should be the 11 best teams and 22 best racing drivers in the world.

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166 comments on The pay driver debate needs to move on

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  1. mattshaw85 (@mattshaw85) said on 15th February 2013, 9:26

    Fully agree with this. I suppose it’s easy to get caught up on one issue when it’s the one that seems most prominent – but as you say it’s more a sign that the greed cannot be sustained. Circuits not being able to afford to stage the races, dwindling attendances in places (germany for example?), and the simple fact that teams have to resort to employing the most valuable driver rather than the most talented point to this.

    The nature of greed though, I think will mean not much will change until it absolutely HAS to.

    • Estesark (@estesark) said on 15th February 2013, 15:43

      You’re right to bring the circuits into this – the bigger picture needs to be considered.

      Formula 1 has left many of its traditional homes in Europe behind to head for pastures new in any country rich enough to hold a race, such as Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. Presumably Bernie Ecclestone is charging the organisers of those races a fortune, because he knows he can. Meanwhile, the remaining traditional circuits are feeling the squeeze of the year-on-year fee escalator. All of that means that the teams should have more money than ever before, yet only a few of them are able to employ drivers purely on merit, with no financial considerations. Why is that?

      I think it comes down to two things. Firstly, I think the teams aren’t getting a large enough share of the cake. But that’s largely their own fault – every attempt at collective bargaining so far has unravelled when one or two teams realise they can get more for themselves by going it alone. Secondly, I think they need to control costs a lot more effectively than they have been doing. As someone said a year or two ago, fans don’t care whether the teams are spending £2 or £2000 on each wheel nut, as it doesn’t affect “the show”, but any team rich enough will still spend £2000 on each one if they feel it gives them even a one-hundredth of a second advantage, while those who aren’t rich enough will start to look for extra income so that they can keep up. Again, the teams could quite easily sort that out themselves if they really wanted to.

      I don’t think the situation will change as long as Ecclestone is in his job. He is too powerful and too shrewd a negotiator to give anything away to the teams, and they in turn are too greedy to look beyond their own short-term self-interest for the good of the sport.

  2. melkurion (@melkurion) said on 15th February 2013, 9:30

    Completly agree with that statement Keith!

    It’s rediculous to see how much money is pored into f1, from sponsors, teamowners, televisionrights, hosting fees etc. It amounts to billions of euro’s/dollars/pounds….

    Which just goes to show that tyhe money is not going where it should, and by that I mean Bernie’s backpocket

    • Todfod (@todfod) said on 15th February 2013, 12:37

      I think the sport’s younger and poorer teams can survive without resorting to pay drivers, but most of that help would have to come from the FOA. Maybe changing the payouts to teams of television rights and points to cash allocation system needs to be tweaked to give the smaller teams a chance.

      I do not see any of this happenning while Bernie is around though..he seems way to concerned with hoarding all the money he can before he pops it.

      • HoHum (@hohum) said on 15th February 2013, 13:03

        I have been banging on about the financial drain foisted onto F1 by B.E. so long that I worry other readers are going to brand me a grumpy old fart and skip my comments. This is a serious threat to F1.

    • @keithcollantine – you can rightfully give yourself comment of the day, well done sir!

  3. Drop Valencia! said on 15th February 2013, 9:32

    Maybe we should let these pay drivers actually drive a GP or 2 before we **** can them….

    • The issue isn’t the drivers themselves, but the reasons they get the seats, surely it should be results and talent that attract them opportunities in F1, and not their wallets.

    • Maksutov (@maksutov) said on 17th February 2013, 1:36

      There is a regulatory process already in place when obtaining a super license. All drivers wishing to race in F1 must meet those requirements. So I say, if drivers meet those requirements then they deserve to be in F1, be it a paying driver or not. So the only thing that can really have any influence to “paying” drivers is the FIA and their rules.

  4. Aldoid said on 15th February 2013, 9:35

    I wholeheartedly agree with this article. The fair distribution of F1′s significant earnings is a topic that needs to be addressed. If not, only a handful of teams will be able to survive, & the sport cannot survive with just a handful of teams.

  5. Why is it upsetting to see less capable pay drivers take the place of great paid drivers? It’s us fans that romanticize F1 and think of it as a drivers sport. But I don’t think it is. It’s a team sport, so F1 doesn’t need to have the best drivers in every car. The teams have different objectives, for some, it makes sense to put in a pay driver.

    I don’t worry about it. My attention is focused towards the front of the grid. The regular drivers there are paid drivers.

    • AlbertC (@albertc) said on 15th February 2013, 11:51

      I don’t worry about it. My attention is focused towards the front of the grid. The regular drivers there are paid drivers.

      Well, isn’t that a bit short sighted, if not naive? If the trend of increasing number of pay drivers continues, the “front of the grid” too will consist of pay drivers in a not too distant future.

      Besides that, if you don’t see this as a problem anyway because “it’s is a team sport”? Why would your attention only be on the front of the grid where “the regular drivers there are paid drivers”?

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 15th February 2013, 12:35

      I don’t think it “romanticises” any sport to suggest that at its pinnacle it should not be contested by those who are less than the best. It’s not as if there are many other major international sports where that is the case – certainly not those F1 likes to compare itself to in terms of popularity such as football or the Olympics.

      • HoHum (@hohum) said on 15th February 2013, 13:11

        Another often overlooked fact about past pay drivers is that they often purchased their “customer cars” from a top team and ran as amateurs alongside (behind mostly) the full field of teams.

    • Azwing (@azwing) said on 15th February 2013, 16:36

      I tend to agree with this.

      I think most of us probably overemphasize how much the driver really contributes anyway. It’s kind of hard to measure because of the qualifying format, but how much is the back of the field off the pace of the front? Three or four seconds, maybe?

      Okay, how much of that is the driver and how much is the car? Honestly, we can never entirely know. But, the cars at the back of the field are not capable of competing with the front, or even middle, of the field. Insert Alonso, or Vettel, or Hamilton into a Marussia and they’re not going to miraculously put that car in the top 10. People may bring up Senna, but what he was able to do happened in a much different era and he was clearly a talent beyond the norm.

      I think if a “pay” driver were really terrible and incapable of holding his own, first he wouldn’t even get a super licencse, and second, his pace would be so far off the field, he wouldn’t meet the 107% rule.

      Ultimately, just becuase someone is paying for a seat does not mean they’re not a good driver. That just seems to be the perception.

  6. Matthijs (@matthijs) said on 15th February 2013, 9:44

    It’s a shame that formula 1 is about money and about surviving, but all the so-called pay drivers at Marussia and Caterham have proven their racing skills in lower formulae (in my opinion that is).

    The debate has reached it’s peak after Kovalainen was replaced by Van der Garde. Although Giedo spent way too much time in lower formulae, he did manage to win races and/or fought for the championship in every class he has competed in. Mainly because of this he managed to attract sponsors rather than the other way around. It’s not like the pay-drivers from today are the new Nissany’s, Hua’s, Belmondo’s, Rosset’s or Délétraz’s, are they?

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 15th February 2013, 12:36

      @matthijs It’s true that the quality of drivers paying their way in is better than it has been some times. But I don’t think it’s good enough that a driver can tread water in junior championships for year after year courtesy of his sponsors, then get a seat at an F1 by dint of the fact that more capable drivers have been priced out of competing.

      • Matthijs (@matthijs) said on 15th February 2013, 14:57

        I agree with you in the basis. I believe that drivers as Kovalainen, Glock and Kobayashi are too good to be replaced, so in that way it is a negative development. But it’s not like (future) world champions are being replaced by idiots. Furthermore, Maldonado fits your definition of a driver that treads water in junior championships for year after year courtesy of his sponsors, but appears to be a valuable driver now.

        So, I agree with you on the negative trend, but in the end the trade-off in talent is not that big.

  7. Scott Joslin (@scott-joslin) said on 15th February 2013, 9:45

    I think Commercial rights holder (CVC) should be made to have a proportional share holding in each F1 team – That way they would be reluctant to drain their assets of as much money that they do and ensure they have an eye on increasing the value of the teams rather than compromising it.

    That said, F1 teams receive massives revenues and alot is spent on drivers salaries, top managaement salaries and expensive marketing activities. The whole sport needs to have a look at its self and get some regulation in place to ensure that if the current financial climate continues that there is a sport in 5 years time.

  8. Slr (@slr) said on 15th February 2013, 9:55

    I do sometimes ask myself whether the teams how too much power over Formula One. Barcelona and Real Madrid don’t have any power over the rules of football, so I don’t really understand why teams in F1 should have power. Perhaps the FIA need to give the teams the impression that the teams need Formula One, more than the FIA needs them and if any team threatens to go, then the FIA should stand their ground and let them. If this happens, then there would be fewer problems in implementing budget caps.

    Perhaps I’ve missed something here, but I don’t like how the teams can protest against changes in the rules.

    • JCost (@jcost) said on 15th February 2013, 10:27

      Barcelona and Real do can protest rules change, they just act under a more stable framework. Plus, Spanish football economics is just as bad as Formula 1, it’s a club with two very important member who eat 80% of the pie leaving the rest for the rest…

    • Red Andy (@red-andy) said on 15th February 2013, 12:35

      I agree that the teams have too much input into the rules of the sport at the moment. Lots of the proposed aerodynamic changes have been watered down at the teams’ insistence, because the big teams are afraid of losing their position at the top of the pecking order. We could have ground effects back by now if not for the teams.

      FOTA has made things even worse – the teams operating as a bloc has meant that the big teams have subdued the smaller ones. At least in the old days the dissenting voices of smaller teams like Jordan and Minardi (under Paul Stoddart) meant that the big teams couldn’t change absolutely everything to their advantage.

    • BasCB (@bascb) said on 15th February 2013, 15:02

      When one looks at the reluctance of Spanish justice to give information on other sporters using dope from doctor Ferrari (claimed to have contained a lot of Real Madrid players), I doubt that in effect these teams have much less influence in Spain than teams like Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren have in F1 @slr

    • matt90 (@matt90) said on 15th February 2013, 15:26

      It’s a very different situation- the rules in football don’t regularly change to anywhere where the same degree. Changes in F1′s rules can dramatically affect teams, and sometimes (not always) they are best placed to argue why a particular change might not be for the best.

  9. Girts (@girts) said on 15th February 2013, 10:00

    Valentine’s Day might be over but let me say that I truly love F1 Fanatic for articles, such as this.

    I’m a Kovalainen fan but I don’t think that I’ll stop watching F1 just because Kovalainen has left to give way for a combination of less talent and more cash. And I certainly won’t stop watching F1 just because the current GP2 champion isn’t on the grid, while four guys, who were behind him are going to make their F1 debuts this year. Even more, I wish all the rookies best of luck and hope that they are going to do well and exceed expectations. One could also say that most fans cheer for the best drivers and the top teams so, as long as McLaren, Ferrari, Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton are there, everything’s fine.

    But the trends are worrying. If there are persistent rumours that McLaren hired Perez (instead of Hulkenberg or di Resta) because of his sponsors, then something has clearly gone wrong here, even if these rumours are not true. Is the current business model of F1 sustainable? Who will replace Hamilton and Alonso when they retire? Who is going to come in place of Red Bull, Mercedes and Lotus if these teams drop out of F1 for whatever reasons? Small teams with more pay drivers or maybe no one? These are the questions that we should ask ourselves today and saying that HRT were miserable anyway and that Glock was no world champion anyway won’t help to find the answers to them.

  10. Osvaldas31 (@osvaldas31) said on 15th February 2013, 10:08

    I also agree that pay drivers shouldn’t be driving in F1. If a team cannot survive without pay drivers, than it shouldn’t be on F1 grid either.

    But one thing that I read a few weeks ago in BBC article about F1 astonished me. It said:

    “F1′s entire global TV rights income is about the same as that of the Turkish football Premier League – in the region of $490m.”

    Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/formula1/21194933

    F1 is one of the most popular sports in the world, it’s viewing figures are about 600 m (correct me if I’m wrong) and Bernie is trying to sign very profitable agreements with tracks around the world and he knows how to do business. So I don’t get it, why they can’t earn more? What’s the problem?

  11. Matty No 2 (@mattynotwo) said on 15th February 2013, 10:11

    I think thier is to many pay drivers in f1 and I think it sends a bad message out about F1.

  12. DavidJH (@davidjh) said on 15th February 2013, 10:12

    The comparison to football is a little unfair. The fact is that F1 is about the performance of driver, team and machinery. It’s not just about individual raw talent. Indeed, this complexity is precisely what draws most of us to F1. If the difference between a good an great driver is say 0.4 seconds a lap, and a good driver can bring to a team the investment required to produce a 0.5 second per lap improvement, then it makes sense for the team to take this ‘pay driver.’ That’s nothing to be ashamed of: it’s part of the sport and should remain so, in my opinion. There are formulae out there in which everyone races in more or less the same car, and in my view these lack the on and off track excitement and fascination of F1.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 15th February 2013, 10:16

      @davidjh But they aren’t making that determination based on a few tenths of a second here versus a few tenths of a second there. They’re making it based on “if we don’t get in someone who can pay we can’t go racing”.

      • Azwing (@azwing) said on 15th February 2013, 16:39

        Well, then that’s the difference between 0.4 sec per lap and 1’21.345 per lap, isn’t it?

        • @azwing yes, which is brings us on to the topic of costs. That is a whole other discussion though.

          I definetly think that that money shouldn’t influence who gets a seat – money doesn’t buy you talent. When it comes to two drivers who are very closely matched but one brings £10m in sponsorship I have no gripes against the team taking the funds but when we are seeing drivers like Chilton, who definetly aren’t the best drivers out there, something needs to be fixed.

          Perhaps if the junior leagues put less emphasis on money and more on talent we would see more great drivers coming through the ranks as apposed to living sponsors, enough to justify the extra talent over the speed which money undoubtably brings. So maybe this is an issue that needs to be tackled in the embryonic stages, which is what John Surtees has rightly highlighted.

      • I agree with David’s comment, that just because one driver has to pay for a seat in a team while another draws a salary doesn’t mean the first driver is lesser of a driver than the second. There are corporates who like to be associated with particular drivers, for example there is a Spanish bank that liked to be associated with Alonso, so whenever he shifted teams, they would cancel their sponsorship with the ex-current team and shift to the new one. It wouldn’t surprise me if all of the top drivers have corporates that do this. No one thinks this is wrong.

  13. Jarv F150 (@jarvf150) said on 15th February 2013, 10:15

    I don’t mind pay-drivers too much, there are staff bills to pay after all and some of them are pretty handy behind the wheel. These teams have hundreds of staff with all hopes resting on the talents of two drivers, I suspect they don’t hire those with no skill at all.

    What I really object to is all the money that comes into CVC only 47%* of it reaches the teams.
    If that is true that means around £500,000.00 is going disappearing to the hands of speculators and other venture capital types.

    —-
    As you mention it Keith; considering the debt of a lot of football clubs I wager that if you turned up with 20 million quid in a few years time they would let you kick the ball for a few minutes towards the end of the game if the result was secured.

    * (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/formula1/21463651)

    • Jarv F150 (@jarvf150) said on 15th February 2013, 10:21

      £500,000,000.00 even

    • Dan Brown (@danbrown180) said on 15th February 2013, 12:13

      I was thinking that too. Drawing comparasions between pay drivers in F1 and paying to play at Manchester United or Real Madrid is unfair. If you think of these teams as the Ferrari’s, Mclarens, and Red Bull’s – they don’t take pay drivers.

      My football team play in the Blue Square Conference. I can pretty much guarantee they’d sign me up for a season if I gave them £20 million quid. Infact, there’s rumours of it happening in the past. (Players being kept on because their fathers funded the youth teams for example).

      When you get to the level I follow football at, our budget deficit runs at around £1.5 million a year. You’d be mad to think that the chairman wouldn’t be happy to plug that with a pay-to-play player. Whether anyone would want to on the other, based on how fans and teammates might react is another matter.

  14. JCost (@jcost) said on 15th February 2013, 10:18

    I’m not as young as I’d like to be but being just under 30 doesn’t qualify me as “old” enough unless I’m a professional athlete. But I started watching F1 in early 1990’s when I was a kid and by the end of 1990 I was already addicted to F1 and I struggle to recall a grid without the so called “pay driver”.

  15. StefMeister (@stefmeister) said on 15th February 2013, 10:20

    I don’t think the pay driver issue is any different today than its always been, Less funded teams have always brought in at least 1 driver who has backing.

    I also think that the concept of a pay driver is different now compared to what it was in the past as you have drivers who are part of a driver development program or have backing from companies aiming to assist local talent etc….

    Also the drivers who do pay there way into F1 today tend to actually be decent drivers who have had success in lower categories such as GP3/GP2 & WSBR.
    In the past pay drivers simply brought there way into F1 having done nothing in lower categories & were clearly well out of there depth in F1 & that simply doesn’t happen now.

    Also there’s this illusion that F1 only features the very best drivers in the world, In reality that has never been the case & likely never will be.

    • MaroonJack (@maroonjack) said on 15th February 2013, 10:41

      I don’t think the pay driver issue is any different today than its always been.

      Did you read the article? We all know that there have been paid drivers in F1 before. It’s not a secret. It’s not some obscure fact that needs to be pointed out every time. But it’s not an argument. This is still a negative phenomenon and we should try to reduce it. Just because it’s a part of the status quo, doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing.

    • AlbertC (@albertc) said on 15th February 2013, 11:59

      Two rongs don’t make a right!

      • OllieJ (@olliej) said on 15th February 2013, 12:15

        @stefmeister Maybe the pay driver situation is not worse (or even better) than the situation 10-15 years ago, but the reason I and probably many others are so annoyed about it this time is that there was a period in the 2000s when pay drivers had all but disappeared from the sport. In fact 2008 was probably the only season in history when every driver uarguably deserved his place in Formula 1 merit (yes, even Piquet), either based on past F1 acheivements or success in junior formulae. The pay driver plague of the 90s had been all but eradicated but now it’s back, and there are fewer teams to soak up the chaff.

        • Ilanin (@ilanin) said on 15th February 2013, 14:33

          You mean to say that in a sustained economic boom with a massive amount of commercial revenue flowing into F1 (which was also buttressed by several manufacturer teams), there was an almost total absence of pay drivers? And now we’re in a prolonged period of austerity and low growth teams are beginning to employ them again?

          Shocking.

          • OllieJ (@olliej) said on 15th February 2013, 14:45

            Well now you’ve put it like that @ilanin I think it’s perfectly fine for my favourite sport to compromise its quality and it doesn’t bother me at all that wastrels like Razia and van der Garde are taking drives from quality drivers. I mean, what’s the point of getting passionate about anything when you can just look at in the context of the wider economic climate and shrug.

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