This weekend Formula One kicked off its 2014 season at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. The winner Nico Rosberg drives for Mercedes and is paid very well for his services, a reported £10 million per year. However towards the back of the grid, there are certain drivers that have caused controversy because they are hired to drive based on the amount of money they contribute in sponsorship.
This is the reality of modern F1, not every team has £250 million to throw at the team every year and they have to struggle to compete in the midfield let alone at the front. With less and less sponsorship being available these days, even front running teams such as McLaren struggle to bring in title sponsors. Bringing in a driver in who brings much needed cash with him is essential. This is not without controversy as many critics of pay drivers say it keeps talented drivers out of race seats. Just this past off season Lotus were criticised for hiring Pastor Maldonado over the highly regarded Nico Hulkenburg due to the approximate £ 30 million sponsorship Pastor brings with him.
Another type of pay driver on the grid is those currently being backed by manufacturers who don’t have seats for them. They offer technical support or an engine deal to small teams and as part of the deal their driver gets a race seat, one current example is Jules Bianchi driving for Marussia as part of the team’s engine deal with Ferrari.
Pay drivers are nothing new. In the mid-1990s Pedro Diniz drove for Sauber and Arrows, and even back in the 50s the five-time World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio was there on someone else’s dime. But what if I told you that Fernando Alonso is a pay driver too? Despite his roughly £20 million salary he is also indirectly backed by Spanish bank Santander who started their partnership with McLaren when he joined in 2007 and then partnered again with Ferrari when he started driving for them in 2010.
So are all drivers pay drivers then? The answer lies in a grey area but leans towards the side of yes. Successful drivers will bring in sponsorship from their own country and even further abroad, but success can be subjective, Maldonado is the first Venezuelan to win a Grand Prix, Alonso is a two-time World Champion. This gives Maldonado much more credence in his homeland than he may get on a worldwide stage and enables him to raise money to secure his race seat.
Many critics of pay drivers say they keep drivers who are more deserving out, such as Paul Di Resta who has is now out of F1 after his former team Force India hired Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Perez for the 2014 season, both who bring sponsorship money with them. However this is Formula One and these drivers have their own racing pedigree to go along with large cheques to the team. Hulkenberg and Perez have been successful coming up through the lower formula as had Maldonado and all of them have performed well in F1 with Hulkenberg a consistant points scorer, Perez already having a couple of podiums in his young career and Maldonado achieving victory for Williams at the 2012 Spanish GP.
The truth is Formula One is a very expensive sport and teams must raise the capital to make it onto the grid, let alone be competitive. Whether it is with sponsors directly attached to a driver (regardless of performance) or sponsors who are attracted to a particular driver’s or team’s success, they make the show happen. Without pay drivers it is quite conceivable that teams such as Marussia, Caterham, Force India & Lotus would not be on the grid this season and even longstanding teams like Sauber and Williams who have endured some tough times would not have survived and may not still be here either.
The World of Formula One is constantly moving and evolving and this costs money. That money has to come from somewhere. Whether they are officially attached or not, sponsors will support teams based on which drivers they have lining up for them. This is not only true of sponsors, sometimes engine suppliers will support a driver into getting a drive, so all drivers need support and it will still be the top drivers that rise to the top. Whether it is a driver who comes through a young driver program such as Lewis Hamilton with McLaren or Sebastien Vettel with Red Bull or a driver who attracts sponsorship through his success like Fernando Alonso, the notion that “pay drivers” are cluttering up the grid and taking up better drivers’ slots is somewhat false. All the drivers have had to come through the ranks and earn their super licence and one way or another they all have to earn their keep too.
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