Are ‘pay drivers’ taking over Formula One?

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    James Hodges

    I am debating this question for my EPQ.
    I believe that pay drivers are being taken on by the teams because of the finanical situation at the moment, the relucant to trust a quality driver i.e. Nico Hulkenberg in a high positional car, and the influence by the stakeholders such as the new test driver Sergey Sirotkin who got his chance through his father’s money.
    Here are the areas I will be discussing:
    How the economic climate has affected formula one
    Whether “Pay Drivers” are over or underperforming when they get their chance (statistics)
    What talent are losing their seats down to “Pay drivers”

    Please could you comment on your views about this problem in formula one, this would be a great help for my question and a help to push forward my knowledge of the current situation.


    It would certainly be interesting to compare pay drivers then and now (in the early 90s for example), and of course the problem of them booting out actual talent, like Nico Hülkenberg.
    Whether or not it’s suitable for an EPQ, I wouldn’t know, I chose not to do one and with hindsight that was a good idea, as my A Level subjects are quite tough. I’ve heard they can be about anything though, and it’s always best to do a subject about which you’re passionate.

    Keith Collantine

    I’ll try to be brief. I think there’s a few things going on here.

    On one level, yes, if you go back eight or nine years a greater proportion of the grid was taken up by drivers who were there more on merit than because of the backing they brought. But if you went back further you’d probably find it varies quite a lot over time. It’s not an easy thing to quantify.

    What I do think has changed recently is that people are more aware of it – there is more information out there about the sport, some of it coming directly from drivers via media such as Twitter.

    But it’s certainly not a new phenomenon – go back through the history of the sport and you’ll find plenty of examples of drivers paying to take seats. Perhaps what’s changed now is there’s a greater expectation that F1 should be like all other sports and seats should only go to those who are the best.

    I wrote about it at greater length here last year:

    The pay driver debate needs to move on

    Iestyn Davies

    Strangely, I’m only 24 and have never heard of an EPQ, despite the fact that I have nieces and nephews in secondary education, and sat A levels only 6/7 years ago. But, on the topic, it’s hard to argue in either corner.

    I would say that I feel pay drivers are complicating the issue, gradually chipping away at pure talent making the cut (apart from at the rear of the grid, where money has always had a shot for one seat at least, with the other being a pure talent (e.g. Fisichella, Trulli, Alonso, Webber at Minardi, along with sponsored drivers). Now, drivers have to be a whole package, and to not be is seen as irresponsible (Abiteboul on Kovalainen). If you can help the team improve the car you will be driving, then that only improves your chances of standing out from the midfield. Di Resta probably deserves a drive over Sutil, and Frijns has fallen through the cracks by not associating himself with an F1 young drivers program, but these are only side issues (rare cases will always crop up). Frijns joined Sauber, who were too cash-strapped to have a YDP (and get them from BMW/Mexican links instead, now Russian).

    At the end of the day, you can say that McLaren have already tested Di Resta as a youngster, so know him and how good he is, and Haug has left (his big supporter inside Mercedes), else he may have gotten the 2013 shot at McLaren (before being replaced like Perez). But, Perez brought McLaren £5m in sponsorship, and now that they have to pay for engines (and they wouldn’t gain or lose positions in the WCC, despite having Perez, Hulk or Di Resta in the second seat), this is better for the team. In an equal contest, then Hulk would be in a top team right now, but F1 has never been and never will be an equal contest. Money always has and always will rule in F1. To not accept that is naive as best, or will leave you without a job at worst.

    The final telling factor is that every F1 driver present on the grid has won a junior series title (multiple ones for most of the drivers). The only ones without them are Pic and Chilton, although Pic has top 3 finishes and Chilton a lucky top 5 (GP2). Pic probably has the talent to win one, while Chilton probably couldn’t. Kobayashi could be returning for 2014 at Caterham, instead of Pic, and he is the 2005 FR2.0 champion.

    That leaves only Chilton as the typical ‘pay-driver’ of old, and even he is probably better than those of past lore (only 1 second off Bianchi). But, he’s still not confirmed on the grid, as his £10m sponsor Aon has left him to sponsor Manchester United’s training ground (and his dad isn’t their chief executive anymore). His seat will depend on how much funding he can bring to the team, to beat out rivals. 2014 will be critical for Marussia – they have a shot at £30m more prize money, if they can beat Caterham for 10th place, rather than the £4m extra won for 10th this year. Hence, Caterham are strengthening their driver line up once more (Kovalainen and Trulli won them the £30m rolling payment from 2011 onwards).

    The new drivers for 2014, so far, are the reigning FR3.5 champion and the reigning GP3 champion, while Red Bull signed the new FR2.0 Eurocup champion and McLaren got rid of the guy who came runner-up (keeping their double World Karting Champion young driver instead, who came 5th, and now looks to have transitioned into cars. They also have Stoffel Vandoorne, who was the 2012 FR2.0 Eurocup champion ahead of Kvyat). Ferrari have the FIA F3 champion in their Ferrari Driver Academy. So, driver development has moved ‘in-house’ as a way of saving costs on driver salaries, and moulding their drivers to be perfect for the team (e.g. Kevin Magnussen). The other seat if needed can still be utilised for a sponsored driver.

    All in all, it depends on where the team is at on the grid – front runner ($225m or higher budget: Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren), mid runner (Lotus at $190m, destined to fall in 2014, Williams at $145m to fall by $15m without Pastor), or rear runner ($110m and less, which is everybody else). Caterham and Marussia also employ less people than the other teams, with 260 and 185, rather than 300 staff. Williams and Lotus probably have 400 or 500 people each, while the top teams have 600, and Red Bull 625 at least.

    Bianchi-Chilton is typical of old line ups, with the main difference now being that Bianchi is backed by Ferrari to get him in the door, ahead of Razia, who would be a better pay-driver than Chilton, with his F3 Sudamericana title and GP2 runner-up spot, if all his money had showed up. So even the old pay driver is being outdone by newer corporate involved ones! With Chilton, Sirotkin etc. all having family members pushing the backing onto their family members. Given time, however, Sirotkin could become a competitive driver, while Chilton has probably already exceeded himself by getting some wins in GP2.

    Keith is right – F1 generates enough money for this situation not to have had to happen, but for greed in certain areas (which would probably be called efficiency in money-making terms).


    No, they’ve always been there and always will be unless F1 radically changes its structure/system. We’re noticing it more now probably because of there are more opportunities to discuss it thanks to the online world and because recently the teams are really struggling due to the economy. It’s taken a while for the downturn to really hit F1 and now it seems to be causing quite a bit of pain for the teams.

    Craig Woollard

    Pay drivers have always been around, we’re not yet to the levels of 1994 which featured a lot of drivers who were certainly pay drivers, but that’s because now there’s only 22 seats. Some pay drivers have turned out to be really good (Niki Lauda and Michael Schumacher off the top of my head, and in today’s world Grosjean) but some have also been awful (Katayama, Chilton, Inoue etc) and don’t stay in F1 for too long. Pay drivers will always be in F1, but so will other drivers who are there on merit.

    The world today is just more aware of who gets brushed under the carpet because they have no money. Drivers like Frijns who are clearly quite good, but simply lack the funding to continue. Motorsport is also expensive, and lots of people seem to forget that…

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