Gray Matter: Shaking the tag of the pay driver
Pastor Maldonado is still classified as a 'pay driver' despite his impressive victory in Spain last weekend - so has F1 got the right balance between money and talent?
A pay driver is described as one that brings more money into a team through sponsorship than he costs them - and this year a massive quarter of all drivers on the grid fit into that category. But in truth it is probably far more than that.
Maldonado, now in his second season, brings an estimated £45 million to Williams thanks to significant backing from Venezuela's national oil company, PDVSA. Alongside him, his team-mate Bruno Senna is also understood to bring in £12m of Brazilian sponsorship. In both cases, until last weekend at least, the pair were seen as having more cash (and in Senna's case more marketability) than talent.
Sergio Perez, meanwhile, arrived at Sauber lauded more for the Mexican money he brought in from Telmex than for his hidden talent, something that has caught Ferrari's eye and sees him now tipped to be an imminent replacement for struggling number two Ferrari driver Felipe Massa.
Vitaly Petrov was hired last year by Renault (now Lotus) to bring in sponsors from the untapped Russian market — taking an estimated £12m to the team — but he also showed a reasonable turn of pace alongside the experienced Nick Heidfeld and, latterly, Senna. When Lotus dropped him for Romain Grosjean, Caterham were quick to fire the highly rated Jarno Trulli to slot the Russian in — and since then they have brought two or three new sponsors onboard, including Russia's largest petrochemical company, SIBUR, and aviation giant Russian Helicopters.
At the back, it's about £5m a pop to get yourself on the F1 grid and both Narain Karthikeyan (through another untapped market in India) and Charles Pic (thanks, it is understood, to family money) have stumped up around that amount for their respective seats at HRT and Virgin — the former ousting experienced driver Vitantonio Liuzzi.
In truth, though, all drivers start off as pay drivers and most continue to be so throughout their careers.
Every young racer needs a pot of money to get started — even Michael Schumacher paid for his first drive in Formula One - but once established, there is no denying that a front-running driver brings in as much if not more sponsorship than a 'pay' driver. Fernando Alonso, for instance, may have moved to Ferrari on talent, but you can be certain the millions that came with him via Spanish bank Santander — who still also sponsor his old team McLaren — helped oil the wheels.
Even with the top talent, then, money has an influence — but it is the question of where the line of having more money than talent is drawn that is the big argument against true pay drivers.
In Maldonado's case, his tag is a little unfair. He was, after all, the GP2 champion before he joined F1, albeit taking four years to reach that summit. But winning that F1 feeder championship is no mean feat.
Petrov, in contrast, has not had such success in the lower formulae, winning just twice in 69 GP2 races over four seasons. His performances last year, it could be argued, were against low-grade team-mates and it is unlikely he would have matched the performance that Grosjean has shown alongside Raikkonen this season.
The question is, though, would Lotus have benefited more from Grosjean's performance or from the money Petrov would have brought in, which could have provided a bigger budget for the team to develop the car in which former world champion Raikkonen could regularly contest for victories. In this tight F1 season, it could be argued that the extra budget would have been a big benefit.
The world of the pay driver is not new - Frank Williams Racing Cars (the predecessor to Williams) ran 10 different drivers in both 1975 and 1976 to capitalise on sponsorship opportunities — but getting the level right is vital for Formula One.
In truth, even Petrov, Pic or Karthikeyan are not bad racing drivers. Sure, they probably should not be in the top 24 in the world, but that's just the way things are. It's often said that the world's best driver could well be a taxi driver on the streets of China who never had the budget to even get started in the sport.
Pay-to-play racing is how drivers climb the ladder, and the final rung is no different. It will be around forever — but it's down to the talent of the F1 team boss to spot the drivers who have both the money and the talent. Just ask Sir Frank Williams.