No payin’, no gain – Pay drivers in Formula One

By on Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Pay drivers. They’re always in Formula One. Derided by fans and seen as a wasted seat for someone with talent, they’re taken by the team for their financial situation. However, they’re not exactly diabolical. But what constitutes as a pay driver? Fernando Alonso brings with him Santander sponsorship to Ferrari whilst Adrian Sutil brings Medion money to wherever he drives. But you’d call these guys Formula One material, so does it count? To the majority, it doesn’t.

Which brings us on to the real pay drivers – the likes of Sakon Yamamoto, Karun Chandhok and others. Despite claims otherwise, HRT have only taken Yamamoto for his money but there’s a reason for it. When a team is running so woefully at the back of the field, even a superstar driver like Hamilton or Alonso aren’t going to get them any higher up than the back row of the grid. So why go for talent over money when you’re in that situation? Team bosses like Colin Kolles also have to look at the bigger picture – sure, you’re not going to be popular by choosing money over talent, but equally you’re running a business. A team like HRT isn’t going to be attracting sponsors by the bucket load and starting a business from scratch – in such an expensive sport – is never easy. Would you want your business to give money to a team that is at the back? Kolles also has to try and get a better car developed for 2011 whilst ensuring employment for a hundred or so people. Therefore money from Sakon Yamamoto - €500,000 a race from Sanho Human Services - is precious and you can see HRT becoming like the Minardi of their last years. If you look at the bigger picture, a team’s financial situation is proportionate to the quality of drivers. If Renault weren’t in such a less than satisfactory predicament, would they really be hiring Vitaly Petrov? Conversely, would McLaren be able to run both Hamilton & Button if they worried about funds running dry? After all, Vodafone do contribute an estimated £35m a year to McLaren, not to mention their other major sponsors. HRT have their drivers name on the sidepod whilst Sauber went through the 2010 season with a bare livery, based on the old BMW scheme.

But why be so critical of pay drivers? They aren’t all atrocious. Michael Schumacher received $150,000 from Mercedes to drive for Jordan at Spa in 1991. That sort of money to Eddie Jordan was a sum he couldn’t turn down and even though the German’s debut lasted less than a kilometre, his impact had been made and the rest – they say – is history. The only issue is whether there are any like Schumacher in the 2011 field. Petrov has been regularly beaten by Kubica and has ended up in the barriers more often than not. The duo – or trio if you like – are so far off the pace that it’s difficult to judge. Karun Chandhok appeared to raise his credentials whilst the opposite seems to have happened for Senna. But for the Brazilian, how often have you heard the phrase ‘due to an X problem, Bruno had to sit out the session…’ Quite often in fact. Yamamoto does, however, have previous history in Formula One (thanks to equally cash-strapped Spyker & Super Aguri). And both times he was less than mediocre. He still is. But even then, Yamamoto is within around 107% of the pace setting Red Bull’s. And even – as said before – a superstar wouldn’t get near to Q2. To be fair to Yamamoto, he’s no Lavaggi, Deletraz or Inoue, a driver who won’t even be remembered for his woeful pace but for his extraordinary ability at managing to get run over by the safety car – twice. Yamamoto lapped only 0.1s slower than Senna in qualifying in Hungary last year and was second fastest through the second sector of Interlagos in the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2006.

Even though pay drivers have always been a part of Formula One, there haven’t been proper pay drivers in recent years. Yes, Nakajima came free with Toyota engines for Williams for two years and yes Alonso came with lots of Spanish sponsors. But they were because of his past success, he isn’t a pay driver. So why the sudden boom of pay drivers in 2010?

Well, Renault was in a woeful position financially pre-season and didn’t have anyone much better than Petrov for the seat anyway. $15m is also a lot of money to turn down. Lotus was the only new team who could afford to pay their drivers whilst HRT scraped their way to Bahrain with Chandhok’s rupees and Senna’s Embratel money. The global recession hasn’t helped the situation. Lots of sponsors pulled out of Formula One as it was seen as something they could afford to save on. Furthermore, the majority don’t see Formula One as a very environmentally friendly sport so other sponsors may have pulled out to gain themselves some ‘green’ credentials.

F1 will survive with pay drivers. Sure, they’re not everyone’s favourites but even Yamamoto has some fans and despite effectively paying his way to a seat, Karun Chandhok became one of the most popular drivers at the start of 2010.

Already for 2011 we have Petrov at Renault, Karthikeyan at HRT, d’Ambrosio at Virgin and the probability of another pay driver joining Karthikeyan. Not to mention the sponsorship deals that can be done with personalities such as Alonso and Hamilton at their respective teams.

They all have ambitions to be noticed and to move to a better team but that’s always unlikely. Let’s hope that they’re enjoying the thrill of Formula One rather than the results.

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