The Lotus team’s decision to sign Pastor Maldonado is the latest in a worrying trend for F1 – so with money trumping talent at F1’s fourth best team, is the sport in danger of losing out on top drivers?
Pastor Maldonado was a driver in high demand. It’s not that he’s had an amazing season at Williams; far from it in fact. He’s a good racer, but he’s not a top talent. It’s just that he comes with a purse full of cash from Venezuela.
It’s no secret that Lotus wanted Nico Hulkenberg but because the long-running saga with proposed investors Quantum continues to drag on, they came to the point where they needed to decide on drivers and did not have the funds, so had to decide not to hire him.
Hulkenberg was considered by Ferrari until they went for Kimi Raikkonen as partner to Fernando Alonso; he was also considered by McLaren, but after rumours that his height went against him they opted for young rookie Kevin Magnussen instead.
It could have been the perfect opportunity for Lotus to snap up a star that, on reputation at least, would have continued to race their car at the level that Raikkonen has for most of this season.
Unfortunately for Hulkenberg, though, it is clear that Lotus now needs money more than talent.
And so does most of the rest of the grid.
That means six of the available 22 places on the grid are still waiting to be filled – and it is fair to assume that almost all of them will require a driver who can bring funding.
Now the other teams have lost out on Maldonado’s pot of gold, they must now seek next best option. So now he’s locked in with Lotus, who’s next in line, what have they got and where will they go?
Sergio Perez – fast but needs a polish, significant Mexican funding
Adrian Sutil – fast and experienced racer, no funds
Paul di Resta – fast and experienced racer, no funds
Esteban Gutierrez – rookie, significant Mexican funding
Max Chilton – rookie, family funding from AON Consulting boss father
Jules Bianchi – top talent, probable engine discount from Ferrari
Giedo van der Garde – rookie who did not shine, limited funding
Charles Pic – experienced also-ran, significant family funding
Heikki Kovalainen – former GP winner, no funds
Sergey Sirotkin – young talent, significant Russian backing
Marcus Ericsson – average GP2 performances, would need to find funding
Robin Frijns – rated rookie, would need to find funding
Force India, perhaps the next ‘top’ team in waiting, are currently rumoured to be planning for Perez to join Hulkenberg – deciding that the funding brought in by Perez is enough to cover the second seat.
But it must have been a tough decision to go with ‘the Hulk’ instead of a second pay driver because of next season’s rule changes.
In a season with so much to be gained from quick development, the money could be more valuable used in the design office than in filling the cockpit with talent.
Sauber already have Sirotkin signed for next season, securing his essential funding but not being committed to giving him a race seat. Gutierrez’s funding should secure him a seat if he’s not tempted elsewhere.
And if there is one spare, then with funds already secured from the other two, Sauber could bring in one of the likely Force India rejects, Sutil or di Resta.
The remaining backmarker slots at Marussia and Caterham, meanwhile, are traditional pay driver places and will likely go to the highest bidder, of which there are plenty.
The worrying thing in all of this is that although pay drivers have always been a part of F1, in recent years financial backing has built increasing sway in deciding more of the available seats the market.
Even more concerning, though, is that even the test and reserve slot is now becoming a cash cow rather than a place for rookie development.
With fewer places sold on talent alone, Formula One is in danger of suffering from a decreasing talent pool.
For now, it is still the place to find the world’s top drivers, but if the ladder is not carefully managed, other series that require less funding for a driver to become established could become the place to find the world’s best driving talent...
2014 LINE UPS
Red Bull Sebastian Vettel Daniel Ricciardo
Mercedes Lewis Hamilton Nico Rosberg
Lotus Romain Grosjean Pastor Maldonado
McLaren Jenson Button Kevin Magnussen
Force India Nico Hulkenberg TBC
Sauber TBC TBC
Toro Rosso Jean-Eric Vergne Daniil Kvyat
Williams Felipe Massa Valtteri Bottas
Marussia Jules Bianchi TBC
Caterham TBC TBC