Formula 1 - Motorhead: What’s wrong with being a pay driver?

Martin Whitmarsh has spoken out against pay drivers in Formula One - but our blogger says it's simply a reality of the sport.

Motorhead awoke from a lengthy Formula One slumber to see that McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh had decided to have a pop at so-called ‘pay drivers’.

“For me, personally I think it's sad there are so many pay drivers in Formula One. The numbers have crept up,” said Whitmarsh.

“I'm sure it's good and exciting for those that can afford it, but you would hope in the premier form of motor racing worldwide, you would not have pay drivers.

“It means there are some good, young, professional drivers that can't get in, and aren't getting in. You look at the churn of drivers now, and it's very low.

“Teams get conservative and don't take risks, and then the risks that are taken materialise in an instant revenue to the team, but don't materialise in developing the driver potential of the future.

“But it's difficult in Formula One for us to say to some of these teams 'you can't have pay drivers'.

“Sadly, they have become an important constituent of their budget, so I wouldn't want to condemn them.”

Whitmarsh’s sentiments might be noble, but you’ll hear less romantic chatter between young lovers on Valentine’s Day.

Do the best drivers take to the Formula One grid every year? Probably not. Is there a good reason for that? Yes.

Constructors, especially the newer teams, are being stretched to their very limits just to get through the season with some semblance of competitiveness. HRT clawed their way through their three seasons before folding in the winter. Marussia, who started life in F1 as Virgin in 2010, came into the sport enticed by the idea of racing under a cap on spending, and finding ingenious ways of keeping up with the big boys. The sport has not changed in the way they expected, and so they have reacted by dumping the experience of Timo Glock for the well-backed Luis Razia.

They’re not alone, and they’re hardly exploiting a new phenomenon. At one point in the 1970s, Williams had as many as 10 drivers over the course of single seasons; it kept them in the sport until better days came. That sort of exaggerated practice has been consigned to history, but in the 21st century the equivalents are still there.

Pastor Maldonado has proven himself to be a capable if crash-prone driver, even winning a race for Williams last season. Why was the Venezuelan given a break in Formula One? Well, because he is, according to figures in the Guardian, worth around £45m to the team through his sponsorship from the national oil company, PDVSA. How, realistically, can a mid-level team like Williams afford to turn down such riches for the sake of finding someone who is a couple-of-tenths quicker around a track?

Sergio Perez began his career in similar fashion – his first opportunity in Formula One arose in no small measure because he is backed by Telmex, a Mexican telecommunications company owned by one Carlos Slim, who just happens to be the world’s richest man, according to most recent surveys.

Perez proved himself at Sauber to be actually rather good, and, as irony would have it, earned himself a drive at McLaren. It's an expensive sport to get into, and even in your younger years, you'll need rich parents or generous sponsors to get you on the track to success.

Which brings us neatly on to the second part of the pay-driver conundrum – what constitutes a pay driver? Clearly, someone who pays (or brings so much with him in sponsorship that he effectively pays) for his seat is not disqualified from being one of the best 22 drivers on the grid on merit. Perez is not the only one who has emerged this way – Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, with the small matter of nine titles and eventually eye-popping salaries between them, are among the drivers whose first opportunities are said to have come from their funding.

And even where there is doubt about a driver meriting his seat, as there has been at points with someone like Maldonado, there’s still a balance to be struck.

If you can measure, hypothetically, that Maldonado is two-tenths of a lap slower than an alternative driver who brings no sponsorship, you must ask whether the £45m worth of endorsements the Venezuelan brings along can make the car three-tenths of a second quicker? These are the sort of calculations engineers and technicians are making every day on the cars – why wouldn’t they extend it to their staffing and their budgeting?

'Pay drivers' is a misleading term. The whole package matters, and compromises must be made. McLaren, you can be certain, will not have hired Perez without considering what marketing opportunities will come with his signature.

When it comes to the backmarkers, if Razia turns out to be half a second slower per lap than Glock, but Marussia are able to pay their electricity bills for the entire season, what’s the better result for them? What about for the sport?

Of course it’s not ideal, and it’s also conceivable that some promising drivers will not find their way into the sport that their talent suggests they should. If Formula One were really serious about it, the budget cap might have been forced through, and teams wouldn’t have to fish for the extra money.

Thereagain, if the aim of the sport was only to find out who the best driver is, you'd give them all the same car and let them fight it out on equal terms. The sport is about individuals, but it's also about teams and technology.

Since when has Formula One been about fairness and equal opportunity?