What's it going to be then, eh?

By on Saturday, February 16, 2013

The continuing financial crisis is affecting F1. Rather than moan about 'pay drivers', the sport must act on why teams are resorting to them.

"They’re richer than God."

"Everyone but Red Bull is struggling."

What’s it going to be then, eh? Do you believe Bernie Ecclestone’s comment that all eleven F1 teams are financially secure and richer than a deity? Or do you agree with Caterham team principal Cyril Abiteboul’s view that everyone bar the reigning world champions are watching the pennies? The majority support the latter.

Despite the success of the 2012 season on-track, HRT no longer exists while Caterham and Marussia have resorted to ‘pay drivers’. There’s been criticism of those teams for dropping experienced drivers for cash-laden youngsters, but that’s a little misguided. It’s easy to adopt the simplistic approach and say ‘well, pay drivers have always existed and that’s that’, and just as simple to say ‘well the other guys had their chance’. The reality lies somewhere in the middle.

Marussia's Luiz Razia. Photo Credit: Marussia F1 Team

Few would disagree that Kamui Kobayashi, Heikki Kovalainen and Timo Glock are good, tenacious racing drivers. Kobayashi possessed fruitful ambition, whose key asset – the ability to pull off sensational passes – was nullified after the introduction of DRS. Kovalainen deserves credit for rebuilding his career with Caterham, but showed little in two years with McLaren to suggest that the sport will long for his return. Glock is in a similar boat to Kovalainen, although he will no doubt be happier in a plum ride in DTM than another season of toil at the back of the F1 grid. All three have demonstrated they are good Formula One drivers, but not great ones. They had their chance and now it’s time to pursue pastures new. Their replacements are not shambolic no-hopers. Esteban Gutierrez has a far more impressive junior reputation than Kobayashi and though his promotion helps satisfy Mexican sponsors following the departure of Sergio Perez, you’d be hard pressed to argue that he doesn’t deserve his seat. Giedo van der Garde, Luiz Razia and Max Chilton all owe their berths on the grid down to some healthy financial backing, but all achieved success in GP2. After all, what goes around comes around and in a couple of years – if not before – the next crop of young drivers will turn up if and when the 2013 ‘pay drivers’ run out of cash.

Gone are the days of no-hopers such as Taki Inoue. Photo Credit: AP

It’s easy to criticise teams for taking ‘pay drivers’. Just this week Sauber team Principal Monisha Kaltenborn was disappointed to see that Kobayashi couldn’t find another seat in the sport. The obvious comments came through on social media sites, but if you have to safeguard the future of your team, it’s a clear cut choice what has to be done. Of course, teams must weigh up the value of hiring a ‘pay driver’. There’d be no use for a team to take £10m from a driver if said outfit then drops four positions in the championship and spends most of the money repairing accident damage. It depends whether slightly less talent but more money outweighs the reverse of that formula. Gone are the days when no-hopers would regularly qualify two seconds off of the pace of their team-mates. It’s an issue that’s even more pressing at the back of the grid, where there’s less TV exposure and less prize money. In an ideal world, the twenty-two (or even, in an even more ideal world, twenty-six) best drivers make up the Formula One grid. Because when you watch Manchester City play Manchester United, you’d hope that the best twenty-two players are going head to head. I can’t turn up with £30m and expect to be given a role commanding the midfield. Or a lesser amount and end up on the substitutes bench. But that’s the way Formula One operates, or at least has been forced to operate. Therefore you can’t criticise teams for doing what’s best to safeguard their future – because even drivers at top teams come with ‘commercial opportunities’ – but the sport has to look at what needs to be done.

HRT shut down at the end of 2012

One team has gone. Two have openly admitted resorting to ‘pay drivers’. Others are also dependant on large financial backing from their drivers. Rumours persist of other teams struggling financially. It doesn’t reflect well on the sport, but moreover you have to look at why F1 – even in the current financial climate – cannot sustain the eleven best teams and twenty-two best drivers in the sport. What’s more concerning is what the future may hold. More of the talking points in 2013 could come off-track than they do on it.

The 2014 engine debate is still rumbling on. The top four have invested millions upon millions in developing their ‘power units’, while the other seven teams are looking at the increased costs with understandable concern. That’s not to mention the current issues with Lithium-ion batteries, which will be a fundamental part of those power units. Circuits are struggling under a mixture of the financial crisis and F1’s inflated race fees. Valencia has given up; Korea is making a huge loss on an annual basis, while a much discussed deal to maintain Germany’s presence on the 2013 calendar only concluded recently. F1 can point to untapped countries that will pay millions to secure a berth on the calendar – almost like on the driver front – but there are a limited number of countries in the world. Eventually, that gravy train will run out.

Austin joined the calendar in 2012. Getty Images.

What will be more worrying for the sport is the falling TV audience worldwide, according to a report in the Guardian. The teams hope to gain a greater percentage from TV income (up to 63% from 47.5%) in the new, seemingly yet-to-be-signed-with-less-than-a-month-until-Melbourne Concorde Agreement. It isn’t just the fact that TV audiences fell, but they fell in some of the markets in which the teams have repeated their desire to succeed. In spite of the huge success that was Austin, audiences in the USA fell by 3%, although the sport will hope that the new coverage provided by NBC Sports should see that drop quickly reversed. Although some will blame the 13% drop in Russia on Vitaly Petrov’s move from Renault to Caterham, such a fall will be concerning, particularly ahead of next year’s Russian Grand Prix and Petrov’s absence this season. Perhaps one of the biggest markets teams want to delve into, China, saw TV audiences drop by a staggering 34%. It wasn’t doom and gloom everywhere, as audiences rose by 11.5% and 15% respectively in Spain and Italy. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why the figure rose, but they’re hardly the markets F1 wishes to exploit. Particularly as if news reports are to be trusted, few people in Spain and Italy can afford luxury cars anyway. Italy and the Netherlands will be following the UK in adopting a subscription/free to view package, which – if the UK is anything to go by – will see a drop in viewers. In France, the sport will be available only on subscription channel Canal+. Lower TV figures could mean that sponsorship is harder to find – especially as deals signed prior to the 2008 financial collapse are expiring - although such an issue may well be negated if teams receive a greater income from TV money, which is expected this year. There’s also another off-track issue that could rear its ugly head for a third successive season in a couple of months’ time…

It seems a shame to be highlighting the negative aspects of the sport, particularly after such a sensational season in 2012 and with the promise of more competitive racing in 2013. But F1 must act on its problems before they are exacerbated to an irreversible level. After all, there have been enough warnings.

What’s it going to be then, eh?

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