The importance of pay drivers to teams in all forms of motorsport has never been more apparent than now. Every year you hear more stories of drivers failing to get a drive because their sponsorship agreement has fallen through. In harsh economic times and with the cost of taking part in motorsport largely on the rise, is motorsport now becoming a sport for the rich?
Well, let’s start at the top and the plentiful examples that can be seen in Formula One. Recently we have heard of even the top drives going to drivers who have financial backing. For example, Pastor Maldonado has in excess of £40m per year of sponsorship from Venezuela’s state oil company PDSVA. This first managed to land him a drive at Williams, now a privateer team, where it was hoped he would blossom into a world class driver. Despite a win at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix, if we’re being brutally honest this has not happened. From that win he only scored once more, and that was in 2013. Here, he was outperformed by his rookie teammate Valtteri Bottas and finished only ahead of the Caterhams and Marussias in the championship. Still, with £40m per year from his sponsor he landed a seat at Lotus ahead of the arguably more talented, more consistent but less funded Nico Hulkenberg. He eventually ended up back at Force India alongside another pay driver Sergio Perez.
In fairness to Perez, he has matched his funding with results despite an ordinary season at McLaren last season, although that was the fault of the car and not the driver. Perez is backed by the world’s richest man Carlos Slim, and has huge amounts of money behind him. At Sauber, he managed to earn a drive at McLaren as a result of his excellent drives whilst at Hinwil. You do have to wonder whether he would have got there if he did not have the backing of Mr Slim however. He is at Force India at Paul Di Resta’s expense, another man with more talent than money. He’s gone back to the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) for another tilt at the title but hopes to be confirmed as a reserve driver for 2014.
The teams at the back of the grid also have a heavy reliance on pay drivers, and that is just so their very existence is preserved. Max Chilton has eight figures behind him per year, largely through his dad and Jules Bianchi is there on loan from Ferrari. Had Luiz Razia managed to get his sponsorship together though, Bianchi would not be there either. Caterham have in recent times dropped Heikki Kovalainen for two arguably less competent drivers in Giedo Van Der Garde and Charles Pic. The Finn has not found a full time drive since.
The story is the same throughout. In British junior formulae we often do see parents who have either re-mortgaged or sold their homes just to fund their son/daughter’s racing career. In Britain especially, little has been done to fund future stars. Jonathon Palmer’s ‘Racing Steps’ foundation has gone some way to funding some British drivers, but this is simply not enough for the tens of hundreds of young people who will struggle to make the cut because they cannot fund their career anymore.
Some countries such as Germany have started funding their future champions. Look at the results they’re achieving in almost all forms of four-wheel motorsport. The German authorities have made it more affordable to participate in, same as the MSA for the British Touring Cars. But, on the British side, that is almost a one-off.
This is the case for two wheels as well as four. There is a reason that the MotoGP series is dominated by Spaniards. That is because Spanish authorities fund their future stars so that they don’t have to re-mortgage their house or live in a motorhome. There is a reason as to why Poland, Denmark and Australia are dominant forces in Speedway. They’re funded by their respective authorities.
The only country where paying to fund the habit is not a controversial topic is America, where pay drivers can prosper massively. They can prosper because of the amount of commercialization in the States, and the almost bottomless pit of companies desperate to get their name on TV.
In spite of what is happening in the USA, the state of motorsport is financially dire. Drivers and teams are relying far too much on wealthy businessmen rather than talent. If the talent warrants the businessmen, then so be it and the money is an extra bonus. However, it is the case that often the talent and consistency doesn’t match the plum seat the wealthy driver gets. Unless authorities, both nationally and internationally, start amending this quickly then the health of motorsport from grassroots to the global stage will deteriorate further.