Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Jacktheblob
Editor’s note: ‘The Generation Game’ is a series of articles exploring the issues facing F1 in the modern age, with a secondary focus on attracting the next generation of fans. The series is authored by Jacktheblob, a university student and F1 enthusiast.
It’s that time of year again when speculation about driver transfers starts to increase, and for some, the teams will be looking not just at a driver’s quality, but also his wallet. This week The Generation Game reflects on the proliferation of pay drivers and the image this presents to the world.
Traditionally, Formula 1 drivers have been people to look up to, even idols for millions of people. Some drivers still are… But many are not. The abundance of pay drivers on the grid has rather diluted the sense of wonder and respect that drivers commanded in the past. Now, it seems, there is rather more attention on the ‘pay’ and not enough on the ‘driver’.
Lewis Hamilton made a point of comparing his background to that of Nico Rosberg’s, although in reality most of the F1 grid comes from a privileged background. Thankfully, pay drivers generally seem unable to hang onto a seat for too long. Names like Karthikeyan, Pic, and Petrov no longer feature at race weekends… Perhaps someone should warn Super Max that slow and steady DOESN’T win the race?
There are many teams that clearly need the funds that pay drivers bring, and the on-going fiasco at Marussia is a very visible example of this. Over at Caterham, Lotterer and Merhi bought a ride in the green rollercoaster and both were significantly quicker than Ericsson. What does this say about the calibre of the drivers at the back of the grid?
Martin Brundle commented, “There’s no doubt that the pay drivers are creeping their way up the grid. But they’re still great racing drivers. Don’t think anybody who’s paid to be there is not a high-level racing driver.” [AUTOSPORT] Hmm… Here’s a “high-level racing driver” in Valencia in 2012: (image)
Of course, pay drivers have long been a part of the sport, with great names like Niki Lauda initially having to pay for their drives. However, the current situation is unacceptable. The amount of pay drivers on the grid is dangerously close to overwhelming the drivers that are there on merit. At this point many readers will no doubt be thinking that it is the sport’s financial model that is the problem, and pay drivers have become a necessary evil in order for a team to survive.
In 2012, Otmar Szafnauer of Force India observed, “you may be better off with a pay driver who can bring sponsorship money which in turn can improve the performance of the car. Teams ultimately want to improve their overall performance and sometimes they can do that better with a driver who brings money more than with a better driver with no sponsorship.” [GUARDIAN] It is truly a sorry state of affairs when a driver’s worth is measured more in terms of money than ability. There would appear to be two solutions to this problem – either Formula 1 becomes a spec series, or the money has to be shared more fairly amongst the teams. The current situation that sees Ferrari awarded millions of dollars just for gracing the grid with their presence is ridiculous. No other sport has such a blatantly unfair allocation of funds.
In fact, the current arrangement is dangerously close to falling foul of EU competition laws. The European Commission website states:
“EU competition law covers antitrust, mergers and state aid. Most sport cases have been handled under EU antitrust rules, which prohibit anti-competitive agreements and practices as well as abuse of a dominant position. These cases concerned revenue-generating activities connected with sport, such as media rights and ticket sales and regulatory/organisational aspects of sport.”
The F1 Strategy Group is the main target of competition law as the 5 permanent member teams have much greater influence than their competitors, most notably regarding the push for a cost cap. What better example of an “anti-competitive practice as well as abuse of a dominant position” than giving the wealthiest teams control over a potential cost cap that they will inevitably refuse in order to maintain their advantageous position? On April 10th this year Marussia, Caterham, Sauber and Force India complained to Todt stating, “We believe that the actions of the F1 Strategy Group and its acceptance by the FIA and the CRH… brings into question the very basis of some of the rules of competition that are being relied upon by the sport.” This statement makes EU involvement seem like a real possibility, especially if over a third of the grid continues to feel unfairly treated. Were the EU to get involved then Ferrari’s preferential status could well be removed in the restructuring process.
F1’s financial model is clearly broken, and strong leadership will be required to fix it. Fortunately, other sports have shown that it is possible to implement a sustainable and fair business model.
In 2011 UEFA introduced the Financial Fair Play Regulations in a bid to control the spiralling debt of many European football clubs and create a level playing field. Prior to this action, many clubs had adopted a philosophy of massively overspending for 3-4 seasons in a bid to secure promotion to a higher league and the associated increase in revenue. Once the extra money was secured, it would be used to pay off the resulting mound of debt; a situation not dissimilar to F1 teams fighting for Championship prize money. Unfortunately the gamble didn’t always pay off, and in 2010 Portsmouth football club were forced into administration. In F1, Caterham are seemingly on the brink of collapse after 4 unproductive years in the sport. But whilst change will most likely come too late for Caterham, perhaps the other teams can take heart. For if the biggest sport in the world can enforce spending controls, surely F1 can do the same?
The financial mess that is Formula 1 needs to be overhauled as soon as possible, for it is not just the teams that are suffering. The sport’s reputation is also being damaged by the spread of pay drivers. The announcement that Verstappen will drive next year prompted a predominantly negative response from F1 fans, drivers and designers alike, with claims that he will ruin F1’s credibility as the pinnacle of motorsport. Yet there are drivers on the grid today who are already tarnishing F1’s reputation and they do not face such harsh rhetoric. Is a talented teenage driver really so much worse than a mediocre 29 year old pay driver?
To an outsider, the teenage driver clearly makes F1 look like an easy sport in a way that a pay driver does not. But this is because there is perception, and then there is reality. Those with no knowledge of pay drivers would naturally perceive Verstappen as proof that F1 is ‘too easy’. But in reality, could the same conclusion not be drawn from the fact that all a driver needs to secure a seat at a small team is cash and a super licence?
Fortunately, the pay driver problem only becomes apparent once a viewer has already taken an interest in F1 – hopefully to the point at which they will continue to watch regardless. But the younger audience can be a fickle bunch, and discovering that many drivers owe more to their sponsors than their skill is likely to drive young people towards other sports where talent is paramount – after all, a poor footballer can hardly claim his subpar performance was the ball’s fault. With image and appearance being of ever increasing importance in the age of the selfie, pay drivers are an unfortunate stain on F1’s record. However, F1 has more visible problems that contribute much more to the struggle to attract new fans.
No doubt it will be many years before F1’s financial bias is addressed, and so pay drivers will remain a feature for the foreseeable future. (Side note – the average life expectancy of a male born in Suffolk is 81). But F1 should hope that the general public remains blissfully ignorant about pay drivers, because if the truth behind their rise to the top level of motorsport becomes common knowledge, then F1 will face a credibility issue far worse than it does today.
Next week The Generation Game will examine the rise of the teenage driver and ask if F1 has really become ‘too easy’.