The recent announcement that 15-year race veteran and 2004 Monaco Grand Prix winner Jarno Trulli will be replaced by Vitaly Petrov brings the importance of driver funding and highlights the fragility of some F1 teams’ finances. It also displays how the notion of the ‘pay driver’ has changed dramatically in the past few decades and must make officials ever-present of the effect it has on the credibility of the sport.
Ever-present in the financial sink that is motor racing, the ‘pay-driver’ is a known quantity and has contributed to the rich history of Formula 1. Who could forget the driving prowess of Switzerland’s Jean-Dennis Delatraz as displayed for Larousse at the 1994 Australian Grand Prix. While being lapped in an F1 race is no harsh indignity, when it happens on lap 9 of an 81 you know you’re in for a long race, while no doubt taking comfort in the knowledge that it will probably be your last. So abysmal was his pace that even BBC commentator Johnathon Palmer declared on air that Deletraz had “no business competing in Formula 1” and that this was another unfortunate occasion where a “driver has far more money than talent”. Unfortunately for those present that day, Deletraz would fail to finish due to a gearbox failure. At the time of his retirement, Deletraz was a staggering 9 laps down on Nigel Mansell in the lead. After such a debut, the appearance of Deletraz on the 1995 grid goes some way to explain either just how desperate Formula 1 teams were or just how much money Deletraz had. For 1995 Deletraz was signed by the Pacific team for the final five races of the season, ensuring that while the team were still set to struggle in 1995, it had achieved the requisite financial stability to ensure this struggle could be carried on for the rest of the season.
At the time of obtaining his drive Deletraz gave a statement to the press that could be described as pre-prepared and optimistic at best, looking to achieve “a competitive end to the season”. At the Portuguese Grand Prix, Deletraz qualified a scarcely believable 7 seconds behind his teammate Andrea Montermini and 12 seconds behind polesitter David Coulthard. If qualifying was bad though the race was historically bad as Deletraz would retire on lap 14 with what is listed in that year’s Autocourse as ‘driver cramp’. According to the website ‘F1 Rejects’, Deletraz complained of pains in his left arm which were so bad he had to retire the car. Making the complaint all the more embarrassing was the fact that the circuit ran in a clockwise direction which meant that a driver would apply greater force to the steering wheel through his right arm.
One thing is for certain though, pay drivers have helped to demonstrate to the motor racing sceptic just how difficult it is to control a Formula 1 car. Their performances fall into Formula 1 folk lore, attract millions of hits on YouTube and provide great enjoyment for fans and casual observers alike. Sport is littered with these characters from Eric ‘The Eel’ Musumbani to Eddy The Eagle. There are very few people who would not deny the incredible degree of entertainment derived from their performances.
Unfortunately, what appears to have emerged in Formula 1 in recent years is the emergence of the ‘talented pay driver’, in other words, a driver who has clearly paid his way to be in a team, most notably where a major sponsor or engine manufacturer come with the driver’s signature, but who does have a solid foundation in feeder categories. An example of this is the 2010 GP2 champion Pastor Maldonado who starts his second season for Williams this year. Despite being the champion of a series that has served as the feeder for drivers like Nico Rosberg, Heikki Kovaleinen, Timo Glock and Lewis Hamilton (to name a few), it is the manner with which Maldonado arrives in the sport, partnered by the Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA, which leaves many supporters sceptical of his abilities. This is further emphasised when Maldonado was signed in place of 2010 Brazilian Grand Prix pole sitter Nico Hulkenberg. Over at Sauber, 2011 saw the arrival of sponsors Telmex in accordance with the signing of Mexican driver Sergio Perez. Is this a good look for Formula 1 and does it send an ominous message to any aspiring youngster looking to make a career in the sport?
Looking over the results in 2011, supported by the Racefans top ten, is the sobering thought that Petrov, Perez and Maldonado all performed very well compared to their team mates. While some have not shaken the tag of being a ‘pay driver’ from the press, they are certainly doing a lot better than Deletraz (but then again who couldn’t). What appears to be the case is that the pay driver is emerging at a younger age in lesser categories. At the recent Autosport show in early January, many up and coming British drivers were being interviewed on stage with the recurring theme being the ridiculous budget required to go racing in GP2. Put simply, the series from which drivers could show their talents to prospective Formula 1 teams has become, like Formula 1 in the 90s, unattainable to those without serious financial backing. This in turn has seen debut drivers from nations with extreme high-end wealth like Mexico, Venezuela, India and Russia at the expense of Italy who will not have a driver on the Formula 1 grid for the first time since 1970.
I find it very hard to put my finger on it but there is something missing from Maldonado, Perez, Petrov and Chandhok. Perhaps it’s the perception that these drivers have had it easy in comparison to journeyman like Mark Webber, or that they don’t have that sheer talent like Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso. Perhaps it’s the sheer pressure of knowing the money that has been invested in their careers that weighs on their personalities and true character when they are out of the car. Perhaps it’s the language barrier that makes them seem rigid in contrast to the confidence of the new Toro Rosso signings of Jean Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo. It is here where Formula 1 must be careful, because while the cars are very much a part of the appeal in Formula 1, without young drivers possessing endearing personalities, or natural passion, the rise of the talented pay driver could be very damaging to not only the credibility of Formula 1 but to its popularity as well.