Alastair Mavor looks at the problems with the Formula One driver Market, and how Timo Glock’s recent parting with Marussia outlines a worrying trend which could seriously damage the sport’s credibility.
What do Valtteri Bottas, Esteban Gutierrez, Giedo Van de Garde, Luiz Razia and Max Chilton all have in common?
All will race their first Formula One Grand Prix in 2013.
Add Charles Pic, and Romain Grosjean, Jean Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo, into the equation, and a likely rookie to join Paul Di Resta at Force India, and nearly 50 per cent (9/22) of drivers who line up on the Albert Park grid on 17th March are likely to be in their first or second season at the top level of single-seater racing. You could therefore be forgiven for thinking that making your way into Formula One is an achievable goal for most talented young drivers; that the sport is more open than ever. But take a closer look, and alarming trend becomes apparent.
These drivers have something else in common; something which is becoming of increasing concern to Formula One; out of nine, only Grosjean is a professional. Non professional/sponsored drivers are increasingly becoming the norm. The recent set of events which has seen Timo Glock lose his race seat at Marussia indicates this. Glock, GP2 Champion in 2007, and a Toyota driver prior to their exit from the sport in 2009, is widely thought of in the paddock. Although his release was described by the team as a ‘mutual termination’, it seems clear that Marussia were forced to make a calculated decision based on money. The trade-off between the few extra tenths Glock could gain, at a cost of his £2 million a year salary, was deemed insufficient return when compared to the sponsorship gained through appointing a youngster, with heavy financial backing, to the seat. Hence the arrival of Brazilian Luiz Razia.
Money has always played an important role in motor-racing. Yet within the driver market, it has long been shrugged off as an uncomfortable truth. Many of the most successful drivers, Michael Schumacher among them, have needed a financial ‘leg up’ at the start of their careers, but the last 10 years has seen the goalposts move dramatically. Formula 3000 used to be the best route into Formula One. Costing around £600,000 a seat in the early 2000s, a strong season would see young drivers put themselves on the map for a Formula One seat, where they would drive for free in the first year, before beginning to earn reasonable money in year two. Sub-par pay drivers – Pedro Diniz springs immediately to mind – who simply bought their way into Formula One, were the exception.
The introduction of GP2 in 2005 was a game changer however, and things have developed markedly since. Increasing from £1.2 million a seat to nearly £2 million presently, GP2 is an expensive game. A growth in cost for each seat has combined with a rapidly developing number of drivers who have backing to spend on securing these race seats. The majority of the GP2 field have thus reached that level as a result of having access to extensive financial backing.
Now it must be said, this does not mean GP2 drivers are a bunch of untalented, money-spending, petrol heads. Far from it. Speaking to ex Williams F1 test driver and current Le Mans 24 hours racer, Jonathan Kennard, it became quickly clear that talent still had a key role to play. Kennard was keen to emphasise that “there are a lot of good drivers around with big backing”, and that many were simply doing what they had to do to enhance their careers. Drivers have always had to spend to succeed, “but never to this degree, and that is what has changed”.
The problem has been exacerbated by the financial crisis, which has seen the loss of manufacturing giants such as Renault, Toyota and BMW to the sport. Many manufacturers now run teams at Le Mans instead, where they are still able to gain important global exposure, while spending less than half of a typical Formula One budget to compete at the front of the grid. The loss of these teams means a greater proportion of independent operators in Formula One, who require more funding through sponsorship (usually through their drivers), and rarely have successful multinational car corporations behind them to fund their deficits. Teams have had to look further a field to find necessary finance, with the emphasis shifting to the drivers to help bring in sponsorship through their backers.
Williams, who won 5 constructors and 4 drivers championships in the 1990s, exemplify this change. Despite their illustrious history of success, they have struggled in recent years, and are now heavily reliant on the £30 million plus of sponsorship diverted their way through Pastor Maldonado. Their other driver, Valtteri Bottas, is backed heavily by CEO of Wirhuri, Antti Aarnio-Wihuri, while Vitali Petrov and rookie Brit Max Chilton have both ensured Caterham and Marussia have benefited from significant sponsorship in exchange for race seats. Look outside ‘the big four’ of Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes and McLaren, and the driver pool is extensive proof of this alarming development. There is no doubt that many of these youngsters extremely talented, but, as Jonathan Kennard suggests, “so many good young drivers around will never get the chance because they haven’t got the £10 million plus necessary for Formula 1”.
The recent move of Sergio Perez, financially backed by the World’s richest man, Carlos Slim, to Lewis Hamilton’s old seat at McLaren, is even more alarming and hints at the danger which may lie ahead. Perez’s performances at Sauber have indicated that he may well be up to the task, and it is important to stress he is being paid by McLaren. Nevertheless, it would be surprising if Martin Whitmarsh’s team do not benefit significantly from sponsorship from either Telmex, or one of Slim’s other subsidiary companies. It is one thing having the back-markers paying for their seats, but for the major teams to be adopting such a philosophy is dangerous sign of things to come.
Ultimately, it is hard to blame the drivers for all this. For the reasons outlined above, many are simply taking the necessary steps to carve out a career in the sport they love. It is also unfair to castigate the teams. The top teams invest heavily in young driver programmes, which focus solely on spotting talent at a young age. Lewis Hamilton is a shining example of the possible benefits of such a scheme. Yet for every Hamilton, there are a number who don’t make it. The programmes can thus be a risky, and extremely expensive commitment, with the results, and potential rewards going unseen for decades. It is thus easy to understand why those F1 teams struggling to survive opt not to undertake this financial risk, and simply pluck the best available drivers from GP2 each year (who more often than not bring financial rewards to the table).
The root of the problem lies deeper. Formula One’s owners CVC Capital and Bernie Ecclestone must take steps to increase the proportion of Formula One’s enormous profits to the teams. What’s more, they must start to look at what will help develop long-term, as opposed to short-term financial success. They must specify that a proportion of this additional funding is ring fenced by teams and ploughed into young drivers programmes, whereby further rewards are offered should that driver eventually succeed at Formula 1 level. For all the pluses of GP2 – the Pirelli tyres, and similar level of downforce make the cars extremely close to their superior models – the cost of GP2 racing has become extremely prohibitive for talented racers without significant backing. This must be addressed, perhaps starting with GP3.
The stars of Formula One have always been the drivers. Mention Formula One to anybody, and the first names which come to mind are the sport’s exciting succession of leading lights; Fangio, Stewart, Prost, Senna, Schumacher, Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton. I could go on. We have to accept money will always play a major role in motor racing. Yet if Formula One becomes any more reliant on the drivers’ financial input, there is a danger the public will start to lose its faith. As Jonathan Kennard says, “I am sure the public want to see what they know as the best 20 drivers in the world”. When you arrive at Lords for an Ashes Test, or at Centre Court for a Wimbledon final, you expect to see the best on show. Not the richest. Unless serious steps are taken, it will become ever clearer that the grid could be filled predominantly by drivers who may be stars in their funding fathers’ eyes, but who fail to light up the race track with their talents.