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

  1. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 15th February 2013, 17:26

    A lot of positive feedback on this one – thanks everybody!

  2. Alex (@smallvizier) said on 15th February 2013, 19:37

    To me the key question isn’t how bad the worst drivers getting into the sport are. It’s whether the best drivers are still guaranteed to make it.

    As long as the best 2 or 3 young drivers each year make it to F1, we’ll eventually see the best talent at the front of the grid.

    But if we ever reach the point where all of the rookies get their chances at the back – and all the teams at the back hire pay drivers – then the logical conclusion is that some of the (potentially) best drivers never reach F1 in the first place.

    If that were the case, then we wouldn’t even know what we were missing…

  3. Swordsman_uk (@swordsman_uk) said on 15th February 2013, 19:41

    Very good article Keith. Agree completely.

  4. Dane (@n0b0dy100) said on 15th February 2013, 21:13

    How about instead of Bernie sucking up all the income from his deals with the venues, he pays the teams who are putting on the show?

  5. verstappen (@verstappen) said on 15th February 2013, 23:16

    More money can roughly be handed out 3 ways: everybody the same, the winners more or the losers more.
    So in the end roughly all teams end up with more money. Meaning that if you’re among the last two, it might still be healthy to hire a pay driver, because not even an Alonso can bridge second-gaps.
    It doesn’t matter what teams get, but the big difference matters.
    Maybe a budget cap would work? But then you get all other issues…

  6. muz (@murray1964) said on 16th February 2013, 0:40

    I can see both sides of the story. If I was the owner of a struggling team and had the opportunity to have a “pay” driver come in with sponsorship to let me run for the season I know what I would do. However I dont think teams should forced into this approach. F1 has always been at the cutting edge of technology and a lot of day to day things we see on our cars now is a direct result of F1s innovations and that does cost money. No easy answer on this one. I also think Bernie has to be careful on these new pay tv deals. It may generate money in the short term but may in the long run decrease viewing public and interest to other forms of motor sport.

  7. Jono (@me262) said on 16th February 2013, 5:50

    Formula 1 was born out of wealthy men going racing…that will never change in our age

  8. FormulaLes said on 16th February 2013, 10:09

    I agree with the opinions but forward in the article, but what continues to baffle me is this; some of these pay drivers have some serious corporate backing paying for their drive, rather than family wealth. Which leads me to the question, what is that these drivers are able to do to convince these corporate backers to part with their money, that the marketing departments of struggling F1 teams cannot?

    I know nothing about running a Formula 1 team, but I imagine having the best of the best marketing, salesmen, and negotiator type people in your team is just as important as having the best engineers, technicians and mechanics. Is it possible that some of the struggling teams are not understanding this?

    In essence, you need people to find sponsors to put on the car, they don’t need to know a thing about motor racing, they just need to know how to get sponsors to part with their cash, and then you need people to build the car and make it go fast. As an outsider it seems like some of the teams figure once they make the car go fast, and they win races, the sponsorship will take care of itself. Problem is it’s next to impossible to get your car into a winning position without a serious amount of money, so you need the money first.

  9. JerseyF1 (@jerseyf1) said on 16th February 2013, 15:03

    The main thing I disagree with many of the posts on this topic are the belief that the amount of money Bernie (CVC) takes out has any bearing on this. In reality the overall cost of competing is determined by the teams and how much money they have, there is no significant minimum ‘cost of competing’.

    Take the cost of developing the new 2014 engines, for example. There is not some magic number which defines the cost of development but rather the manufacturers decide their own budget and then try to build for that cost (part of that budget calculation will be estimating how much they can get away with charging customer teams). The engines can be designed and built for a budget of $5m or $500m but clearly the more spent the better the likely outcome so you spend as much as you can afford in a commercial context.

    Lets say Bernie decides tomorrow that 100% of profit goes to the teams. So Lotus and Caterham have more money, but then Ferrari and Red Bull have lots more too, their spend goes up proportionately and the backmarkers will still spend all of their resources struggling to keep up and perhaps marginally staying in business. Pay drivers will still win the day (although the % impact the money brought may be slightly reduced since the same sponsorship now represents a slightly smaller proportion of the budget). Commentors also overlook the fact that the teams are actually benefiting from what Bernie has achieved in terms of revenue, without Bernie the teams know that they might have a larger share of a much smaller pie (and probably less direct sponsorship too due to the smaller audience).

    In reality only a change in the way funds are distributed between teams is likely to make a meaningful difference. I don’t tend to have socialist leanings but the reality is that a more equal distribution (I would hate to see no meritocracy at all) would improve things. Winning would still provide positive financial results for the big teams since other revenues (sponsorship, merchandising etc) will still be driven by success.

    I don’t know what the current situation is, but I remember that teams used to get their race freight paid by the commercial rights holder if they scored a championship point in the previous season. My guess is that this type of rule stemmed from the days when there were too many teams and clearly only serious outfits should be funded since there were always enough cars to fill the grid. The current reality is that the sport needs the teams more now and paying freight costs for all teams who competed at every round in the previous season (and therefore contribute to the show) would suffice. This type of benefit could extend to other things (subsidised engine supply, catering & hospitality etc) leaving the teams to focus on building and running the cars with the remaining budget.

  10. Can I make a suggestion regarding the headline for this article? Rather than saying “The pay driver debate needs to move on@keithcollantine please say, “The pay driver debate needs to evolve.”

    At first I thought you were going to suggest that we move on from the debate/discussion as if it was a closed topic. Then in reading the article it became apparent you were pressing for a more nuanced discussion, which I agree with 100%.

  11. Still camileon (@stillcamileon) said on 23rd February 2013, 22:57

    if you look at f1 then much of it is back to front, f1 cars are surpposed to help make road cars more efficient but a road car manufacturer can make a 120 mph car for a little over £10000,a tyre manufacturer can make a tyre that lasts 15000 miles while f1 tyres last only 15 or twenty laps, long gone are the days of Chapman and the rest who would try new things on a shoe string budget and make it work, now the biggest budget is the only answer and as a consequence f1 teams will look at pay driver over employing a genius of design making more from less and yes to do this you are a genius much like Chapman and the rest of yester year, So how do we stop the onslaught of pay drivers well its easy just inforce a budget cap so the most efficient and innovative teams cannot only survive but win too.

  12. Ahmed Razmi said on 28th February 2013, 19:56

    Well, this is usual for a sport and pay drivers are nothing new and when there is 2 drivers equal talent, you can select 1 based on some additional factor, which can be money or a new market…but what i feel is..
    F1 is the highest level of motorsport, when young racers spend fortunes right from the karting to every ladder in the step to reach this point of ultimatum called F1 and also bringing a huge money for F1 seats devalues all achievements and track records the driver has done so far. When only half of the drivers are paid and others have to pay for seat means the sport is not healthy and will kill the fan following..it will lean and eventually come to a close. The term doing it for survival itself brings a negative image for motorsport in general. The term sport will have to be removed if the playground is not fair. It will become like a pre scripted story. Drivers like Senna who came from nowhere to being a legend highlighted the sport, thats pure talent. Pay drivers get too comfortable and lazy and eventually will not help the sport.

    It happened with Fashion Shows when Cosmetic companies selected Miss Worlds and Miss Universes based on new and uptapped markets . Now when people know the truth that its all with commercial interest of cosmetic companies, they dont care anymore about it.

    Same is happening with Cricket in India, the over commercialized and over saturated IPL 20-20 totally collapsed the cricketing balance in the nation. Now people seldom watch one day matches or 20-20s, it was not like 5years ago. Cricket was the most popular but it is not now..its going down because of this money game.

    At one point time we have to see the bigger problem to selfish issues. Its like killing the Goose for the golden egg. Wisdom is less used nowdays.

    From a team’s point of view its ok..because they have to survive..but what FOM is doing? What happened budget cap..If Vodafone, Santander and RedBull doesnt want reduce costs, then it will only be 6car F1 championship..it is like that now..and boring.. last year tires made it better than boring but it was not the best. Pure racing was not there..either overtake on DRS or due to tyre wear.. F1 is not just a championship of who mastered the tires better.. An average F1 fan think F1 is the richest sport and all racing in it are rich, but when they realize a driver have to pay $200 million for a seat then they turn away from the sport thinking its a money sucking game and nothing to earn from it. People always like to earn a fortune and not loose a fortune. Pay drivers are not at all healthy for the sport and that too for the top level like F1..

  13. James (@speedking84) said on 21st July 2013, 20:54

    Don’t people understand the difference between a pay driver and a driver that has attracted sponsors. Romain Grosjean won the 2011 GP2 championship then got a seat at Lotus, however he gives the team money as he has private sponsors. So is a driver that has outraced and outqualified a world champion in the same car considered a pay driver? Also an F1 team like Marussia or Caterham need pay drivers to survive, I would rather there be ‘pay drivers’ than a championship with 6 teams.

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