The pay driver debate needs to move on


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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167 comments on The pay driver debate needs to move on

  1. Not to play the devil’s advocate, but to me, Kovalainen and Glock being ousted for paydrivers isn’t ‘just’ a sign on the feeble economics of the smaller teams. Let’s not forget Hulkenberg was ousted from Williams for Maldonado, while Williams is generally considered to be a team with a long term commitment to F1 and financially stable. I’m not sure why that case, or Senna for Barrichello is overlooked in the current debates around the web. Heck, Hulkenberg scored more points than Maldonado in a car generally considered to be less competitive than the Williams.

    F1 is simply massively expensive, and I think Whitmarsh had a good point in stating it’s a leftover from the ‘endless economic growth’ hype in the 80s and 90s. Up until Mosley started about it, if an F1 team fell over, it simply didn’t have enough money. When Sauber replaced Herbert with Diniz, nobody cried out about experienced drivers losing their seats to paydrivers. (Herbert might be a bad example since he had a fall out with Sauber, but then again, Kovalainen also didn’t do himself any favors.) The global economic situation has changed and F1 teams are playing catch up, with the top teams having to do much less so than the midfield and especially the newcomers.

    Governing budgets isn’t going to reduce the number of paydrivers, I think. We’ve often seen teams like Tyrell hire drivers for the sake of an engine deal and a lot more teams hiring a driver because he has a large sponsor. If teams can get a driver for free, who can score points AND bring in a couple of millions in sponsorship or other deals, it’s a good economic deal. Imagine you’re Sauber. You’re 15 million short on your max 100 million budget. Sure, you can decide to ‘stick to your guns’ and hire a driver who will increase that gap to 15.5 million, or hire a driver with promise and a few million in sponsorship. As I said, sometimes hiring a paydriver is a great economic deal regardless of budget cap, the top teams spending less, etc. Look at the Caterham or Marussia, I think we all agree they could use some more sponsors, and if a driver brings that to them, it doesn’t just mean money, it also means money for development, hospitality for new sponsors, performance, etc.

    I’m not going to just repeat ‘we’ve had pay drivers before’, because in many, many cases, the paydrivers of the past simply cannot be compared to a paydriver like Perez, Maldonado, Gutiérrez, Pic, van der Garde or Razia. They have all done reasonably well in feeder series, have shown not to be 5 seconds off the pace to their team mates. If anything, they should remind us of other drivers in their pay driver days, guys like Alonso. Let’s not forget, if pay drivers were banned from F1 from the start, I don’t think guys like Damon Hill, Schumacher or Hakkinen would have entered F1 when they did, how they did. Heck, even Niki Lauda took out a loan to keep BRM afloat.

    If we look at the 1995 season for instance, how many non-paying drivers were there on the grid during a GP? 10? 12? 1995 is considered a decent to good season, with pay drivers all over the place, replacing each other and small teams fading due to financial difficulties, despite the pay drivers. The teams were of another caliber, and I think you’re insulting any modern pay driver (even Karthikeyan) by comparing them to Deletraz, Inoue and the likes. Drivers like Katayama, Suzuki, Gachot and Diniz are in my opinion also doing much less for ‘the best 22 drivers in the world’ than Pic, Razia, van der Garde and Chilton are.

    Money is a big part of F1 and pay drivers help pay the bills. It cannot be compared to another sport, because physical performances matter much, much more than in F1. Usain Bolt is not concerned with the costs of the development of his shirt getting in the way with getting in the way with the costs of getting a haircut, while an F1 driver can help his team afford more development time by having a personal sponsor. Besides, every feeder series, from Formula Ford to GP2 has pay drivers too. For F1 to be different, especially in this economical age, would be very weird, unless Bernie and the teams manage to turn it into a self-sufficient community somehow. Imagine that; Formula One no longer needing sponsors because they can do everything by themselves, that’s the only situation where I can imagine pay drivers would be less likely.

    Again I say that pay drivers of today need talent to get in F1 as much as they need the money. If a driver who finished 20th in GP2 in 2010, 15th in WSR in 2011 and had no drive in 2012 were to knock on any team’s door saying ‘hey, I have 35 million per season going for me, but I haven’t won a race since karting with friends at age 8′, they’re not getting in F1. Meanwhile we have Sauber doing the best they can for Robin Frijns, Sauber hiring Hulkenberg instead of another paydriver, Williams replacing Senna with Bottas, Force India maintaining Di Resta while its sponsors are in trouble and with HRT gone, probably 0 drivers not making the 107% rule in Melbourne. I’m ok with that, having seen the likes of Rosset, Takagi, Tuero, Nakano, Diniz, Marques, Mazzacane, Burti, Yoong, Ide and Yamamoto struggling to stay on the track, get out of the way of leaders and to not wreck more cars than their sponsors can afford.

    • Journeyer (@journeyer) said on 15th February 2013, 13:07

      @npf1 It’s a long comment, but I’m glad I read the whole thing. Well said. :)

    • I seem to have forgotten to elaborate on the Kovalainen/Glock point in the beginning: in my opinion, they simply didn’t perform well enough to keep their seats. Let’s be real here for a second, where are the mid field teams trying to lift them from their contracts with the backmarkers? If it wasn’t for Lotus/Caterham, Heikki’s career was over after 2009. Everyone praised him in 2010/11 for beating Trulli, but once Petrov started closing in on him, I think everyone dropped Heikki as a favorite backmarker. Timo was under threat by d’Ambrosio and Pic sometimes during 2011/12 and simply should have signed to Renault in 2010. That would have saved his F1 career, now, all he could do was sit out his Marussia contract and hope a midfield team would pick him up at the end of it.

      Dozens of drivers with promise, but a lack of F1 results to back it up have lost their seats to paydrivers with minimal performance gaps. Sadly, I don’t think Raiza and van der Garde are going to do worse than Glock and Kovalainen did.

  2. Fernando Cruz said on 15th February 2013, 12:58

    The huge costs of F1 are no longer sustainable in the current global economic situation. Top teams should agree a significantly cut on costs but they only think to win whatever the costs. So most of the teams have to rely on the money drivers can bring to compensate. That is why some rookies are getting seats they wouldn’t get on merit. They can be good enough for F1 (way better than the real pay drivers of the past) but should never replace good and solid F1 drivers if it wasn’t for the money they bring.

    Even so many fans and commentators are wrong when they frequently talk of “pay drivers” and how they only get seats because they bring money to the teams. Because almost all young talents coming to F1 now have to bring money and most of them would have deserved to get good F1 seats on merit, thanks to the results they got in junior series.

  3. Garns (@) said on 15th February 2013, 13:13

    “In professional sport the viewing public expect the competitors to be the best in their discipline”.

    This is by far the best comment I have ever read on this site!! Well played! Unfortunately not happening in F1 for now, and a long time to come. We have Pastor as a ‘ pay driver’ and now an F1 winner- and FAST- and has deserved his seat. So after winning in F1 is he still a pay driver??

    I am an accountant, so by definition a tight **** :) But I think F1 is the ULTIMATE we have in racing and really dislike ‘costing models’ and ‘budgets’ etc. It is the only form of motor sport where it should be do at all costs. All sports are now run as a business- this is not good!. BE is perhaps the smartest business man since Buffet- how how he controlled and made multi-billions for so long is a credit to him- but now Timo has no seat and rookies like Dan Riccardio work for about $250K in their first year!! Not right IMO!

    That sounds harsh when we have teams like Ferrari, McLaren and now Red Bull with huge budgets. I know we have had the GFC but surely there is enough cash floating around that 12 teams can go racing at the top level??
    And to keep Timo & Heike on the grid……??

  4. WesselV1 said on 15th February 2013, 13:19

    The difficulty to compare this with other sports is that in motor racing, unlike sports like football, rugby or you name it, there are only a few seats at a certain time. The scarcity of available spots makes a big difference. Let’s take football as an example. An average football team has more player in it’s squad than formula 1 has as a whole. So, players can easily be substituted by others, as there are many many good player around and many teams that are more or less equal or have a decent chance to beat another team.

    Also, in Formula 1 a big budget is needed to compete. In football, when a team has an exceptional day, any Premier League team could beat another. Not so in formula 1, as has been shown by Caterham, HRT and Marussia the past few years. More revenue is not generated by attracting more fans, but by attracting bigger sponsors. So, the role of the driver as a source of money is far greater than in football.

    And even so, the pay drivers who act in formula 1 nowadays are by no means terrible drivers. All of them have performed well in junior classes. I think it is fair to say that all players are at least in the top 100. Just take a look at the top 100 in other sports. Sure, many of them are in the top leagues but there are players who aren’t. Is this any different from the current situation in formula 1? Not that much.

    I’d say the existance of pay drivers is indeed unfortunate, but also something that can’t be ruled out. There are simply far too few spots available for all good drivers and there is no competition that can be compared to formula 1. The only solution I could think of it either the budget cap or the return of big manufacturers like Honda and BMW, but that’s pretty obvious.

  5. Brace (@brace) said on 15th February 2013, 13:32

    One word: Bernie. Don’t look further for the cause of your problems. That’s the one who needs to step back from the table a bit.

  6. What about the overall package. Maldonado is very fast and brings 40m a year. Alonso Vettel et al need to be paid 20m so 60m more for Williams to spend on development. Would this extra development fund potentially allow a Maldonado Williams package be faster than a Alonso Williams package. The gap in driver pace more than being overcome by the additional development fund. Of course with a near unlimited budget team like the very top laws of diminishing returns mean the difference in budget may not change overall performance much but for Williams etc it may make a faster package.

  7. Shimks (@shimks) said on 15th February 2013, 13:59

    Excellent articles from yourself, Keith, and the BBC. Thanks.

  8. superralli (@superralli) said on 15th February 2013, 14:07

    Thank you very much, Keith for this article. I could not agree more with you and underline all your words 100 percent.
    A small note in addition to what you told…
    Yes, it is true that there have been pay drivers throughout the history of F1 and the World Championship. But this was mainly during the times where we did not have 22 cars participating in a Grand Prix weekend, but 30 or up to 39 cars! (1988/1989).
    And as you said, in those times we could be sure that the best drivers in the world were definitely on the grid, unless they did not decide to stay out of F1 on their own.
    So, we can definitely not compare all that with the situation in F1 right now.
    The more and more dangerous and respectless driving with its countless crashes also speaks for itself. Lacking skills and not F1 worth attitudes like that would have taken many lives in the past.

    Again thanks, Keith, for holding on to this really important topic for every real F1 enthusiast and expert.

  9. I have to say, this is well worked artice and makes me think, instead of arguing if pay drivers should be on the grid over paid drivers, should we be arguing why teams need pay drivers. Now we know why these teams need pay drivers, so ultimately, should we be arguing the overall finances of F1 in this modern era?

  10. kbcusa (@kbcusa) said on 15th February 2013, 14:27

    Great article Keith! You hit the nail squarely on the head and explained it better than any I’ve seen. Be sure to forward it to Bernie and Jean Todt.

  11. Rennan said on 15th February 2013, 14:41

    One thing that I can never quite understand is..why the heck young and not so talented drivers can garner so much sponsorship and money (I’m not counting those ones with family money), when talend and proved drivers can’t? It is more beneficial for companies to attach the name to underperforming youngsters?
    I can’t understand, good drivers and whole teams can’t find any sponsorship, while young and not so talented drivers can move millions? why?

    • Ilanin (@ilanin) said on 15th February 2013, 15:00

      Because attracting sponsors and developing commercial relationships is a skill, and it’s one a lot of F1 drivers are too proud to develop.

      • Dan Brown (@danbrown180) said on 15th February 2013, 16:53

        There’s lots of different elements at play, although I’d say nationalism is certainly a major one. Afterall, a Mexican telecomm company for example, is far more likely to back a poor driver from mexico than they are an average driver from Brazil etc

  12. Kelsier (@kelsier) said on 15th February 2013, 15:47

    We should not really be debating pay drivers as they are only a result of a bigger problems, it would be just as relevant as debating why Marussia has started buying cheap generic coffee insteed of the best.

    The question is really why a sport with this number of spectators generate so little money. And you would think that most of the money that is being generated would go to the teams and circuits as that is the whole of F1. Insteed Bernie probably has a bigger budget for toupées than Caterham has in total per year.

    I think that the teams should stick together and be tougher in negotiations with Bernie and CVC. Its really a shame that (mainly) Red Bull and Ferrari don’t care about this problem: they would rather get less money and therefor less competition.

    I really think that they should change the prize distribution in F1 so that all teams get much more similar figures. Who really think that the competition between Red bull and Marussia gets better because Red bull gets 100 million more? Just for winning? They would still want to win even if they only got a trophy and nothing else. You could have only top 3 teams in a season getting slightly more money and the rest equal shares.

  13. This article leads to assumption that Raikkonen lost his seat at Ferrari because of Greedy not Survival.

    • Brace (@brace) said on 15th February 2013, 18:44

      Raikkonen lost his seat simply because there was a better driver on offer. Even though said new driver got a bigger paycheck then Kimi too.

      • Then why not Felipe Massa? Some people told Kimi to bring Finnish giants to match Santander offer but perhaps he is not that kind of guy..He doesnt want to give sponsors empty hope.

  14. Carl Craven said on 15th February 2013, 16:52

    I don’t know what the big deal with pay drivers is all about. F1 is all about money and it always has been. The first people to race cars were the wealthy and elite. Not the best racing drivers. That was probably the case until the 60s or even later. How many working class accents were in formula one in the 70s. Zero I imagine.

    These days talent equates to how much money can I make for my employer. If I am fast I can do two things, I can draw in sponsor ship because the cameras tend to point at exciting racing at the pointy end and I can win money for the team by scoring points.

    F1 is the peak of the world of motorsport. Not a creche for development. Lower formulas should be that stepping stone.

  15. Russell Gould (@russellgould) said on 15th February 2013, 17:12

    Thank you, Keith, for writing this. It is a boring non-debate.

    The reality is that it takes money, and lots of it, to be competitive in F1. Part of that is running the team. If I take $10 million to put someone in the car instead of paying, say, $5 million, that swing of $15 million is around 10% of a team’s budget at the sharper end of the grid.

    It is a competition. And this is an expected outcome in any economic model.

    • Brace (@brace) said on 15th February 2013, 22:19

      The reality is that it takes money, and lots of it

      IT takes money? Bernie takes money, to be more precise, and lots of it as you say. And that’s the problem.

      I mean, anyone with a half a brain would stop to think how in the world are they all ending up so short when the sport is supposedly making insane amounts of money, and that is increasing many times faster then team’s budgets are growing.

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