Are pay drivers bad for Formula 1?

In recent years, “pay” drivers (drivers who are backed by financial sponsors who pay teams in order to help secure a seat for the driver) have become more and more common in Formula 1, with only the biggest teams able to avoid hiring drivers based on the money they offer rather than on pure merit.

One such driver is Pastor Maldonado, who is backed by Venezuelan oil company PDVSA and brings a hefty sum in the region of $50 million to any team that offers him a seat.

Maldonado, who won the Spanish Grand Prix for Williams in 2012, certainly possesses some talent behind the wheel, but despite his status as a grand prix winner, the perception remains that it has been his sponsors rather than his talents that have kept him on the grid since his debut back in 2011.

Indeed, this perception is so widely shared that the Venezuelan could reportedly lose his 2016 race seat at Renault (who recently purchased the Lotus team for which Maldonado raced in 2014 and 2015) due to the fact that the required payment from PDVSA is several weeks overdue.

To be frank, the loss of Maldonado would do little harm to the quality of the grid, because while, to be fair, he drove an excellent race in Spain in 2012, there has been precious little to celebrate from him since.

If Maldonado were to lose his seat, he would be neither the first (nor, in honesty, the last) pay driver to meet an abrupt end to their F1 career. It has become an almost predictable cycle in the sport: a new batch of pay drivers arrive, and after their sponsors abandon them due to unimpressive results, they are swiftly replaced by more pay drivers and never heard from again.

Maldonado is arguably the most well-funded pay driver Formula 1 has had in many years, and with five full seasons behind him, one of the most long-lived. The possibility of him losing his place in the sport raises several interesting points for discussion about pay drivers in Formula 1 and about the sport in general.

Are there too many pay drivers in Formula 1?

In short, yes and no. While both fans and paddock observers have raised concerns about the presence of pay drivers on the grid, it is important to remember that the concept of pay drivers is not a new one. They have been present in Formula 1 since its inception, and while the trend has become more prevalent in recent years, this can be attributed, in part at least, to the sport’s growth and its transformation into a global spectacle over the past decade or so.

Furthermore, it is difficult to develop an accurate set of criteria to determine who is a pay driver and who is not. After all, Fernando Alonso (who is undoubtedly one of the most successful drivers of his generation) was accompanied by a handy sponsorship deal from Santander (a large Spanish bank) when he joined Ferrari in 2010.

Another example is Sergio Perez, who is backed by Mexican telecommunications firm Telmex. While some doubt may have surrounded the Mexican upon his debut in 2011, he performed admirably for Force India in 2015, and most would agree that he deserves a spot on the Formula 1 grid.

It is clear, therefore, that the tag of “pay driver” is often dependent on the driver’s performance once they have secured a seat. If the driver impresses, suggestions that they are a pay driver tend to disappear. Otherwise, they lose their seat.

In a nutshell, while there are certainly a substantial number of drivers who use financial backing to secure a race seat, this does not necessarily imply that they all suffer from a lack of talent.

A final example of such a driver may be that of the German youngster, Pascal Wehrlein. While Wehrlein is backed by Mercedes and seems to be on the verge of securing a seat at Manor for 2016 on the strength of this association, he is clearly an exciting prospect if Mercedes, who are presently the dominant force in the sport, are willing to throw their weight behind him.

Could the grid be entirely overrun with pay drivers?

In short, no. While the lower half of the grid certainly has no shortage of pay drivers, the top teams in Formula 1 are sufficiently well-endowed with financial clout to take their pick of the best talent on the grid.

Although Maldonado’s reported $50 million sponsorship packet may make all the difference to securing the financial survival of a team like Lotus, teams such as Ferrari or Red Bull (who are rumoured to operate on budgets in excess of $400 million per annum) do not need to prioritise finances over driver talent and performance.

Furthermore, while sponsorship may secure a driver a seat, in the end, it is only the driver and the car out on circuit, and sponsorship cannot mask poor performances indefinitely. As mentioned above, pay drivers tend not to last very long, meaning that the inflow of new pay drivers is balanced by the outflow of those who did not make the grade.

What is happening, however, is that it is becoming more and more important for young drivers, regardless of their talent, to be associated with one of the large teams through a programme such as the Red Bull Young Driver Programme or the Ferrari Driver Academy if they wish to secure a place in the sport. This is how drivers such as Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were given their first opportunities in Formula 1, and while their talent has carried them from there, the initial support they received from Red Bull certainly helped them.

Why should Formula 1 be concerned about the presence of pay drivers on the grid?

While it is unlikely that the Formula 1 grid will ever be entirely free from pay drivers, having too many of them on the grid is a cause for concern. This would mean that the grid becomes weaker talent-wise, threatening Formula 1’s position as the pinnacle of motorsport and discouraging talented youngsters from pursuing a career in the sport.

Even more significantly, the prevalence of pay drivers sheds light on the financial vulnerability that several of the teams face at present. All the teams wish to be as competitive as possible, which includes securing the services of the best possible drivers. However, the sport’s present financial environment makes this impossible for several of the smaller teams, who must then be content with pay drivers. If Formula 1 were to change its financial model in order to ensure the survival of the smaller teams, this would allow them to survive without the financial contributions of pay drivers, allowing them to hire talented youngsters, which in turn would strengthen the grid.

Pay drivers, therefore, are not the problem, but rather a symptom of something unhealthy within Formula 1. Fortunately, however, in an environment as achievement-orientated as Formula 1, the cream tends to rise to the top, and a driver’s continued and consistent success is the only way to ensure that they remain on the grid for more than a season or two.

Adriaan Slabbert