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(Guest Post) Are Pay Drivers Getting Better?

January 30, 2011

By Pat Wotton.

In response to Leigh’s post over at Making Up The Numbers in which he warns of the return of the spectre of the pay driver to Formula 1, I decided to reply with some thoughts I’ve been mulling over for some weeks now.

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Maldonado was a GP2 Champion in 2010. © http://www.pastormaldonado.com

When Pastor Maldonado was revealed as the second driver at Williams there was a collective groan across F1-fandom.
They’d taken the money instead of retaining the hot talent.

It was expected, but not well received – Williams are better than this, Williams always take talent over money, always.. and yet this time they didn’t.
Perhaps they needed to pay Barrichello’s retainer in order to keep him and his vast technical knowledge with the team.

Of course in days of yore, the number of fans assigning Rubens Barrichello to the category of ‘journeyman’ were legion, including myself – thankfully he’s proven me and many others wrong. He wasn’t really seen as anything special in the mid 1990s, so if he can work and work and turn his image and reputation into a fast, knowledgeable and sought-after driver what’s to say some of these other drivers can’t do the same?
I am not suggesting Rubens was a pay driver, he certainly wasn’t, he struggled for money terribly, I’m saying people didn’t think he was that much more talented than your average midfield driver, some of whom paid to race.

Karthikeyan returns to F1 from the NASCAR Truck Series. © http://www.narainracing.com

The Question of Quality
Worse still when HRT announced the hiring of Narain Karthikeyan in places of fan-favourites Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna, cat calls from fans compared him to the likes of Ricardo Rosset, a long line of 80s and 90s back-of-the-field tuggers, and the hapless Taki Inoue. Karthikeyan may not be the greatest driver to walk the motorsport paddocks, but he’s not Taki Inoue either.
If you give he and Chandhok two days testing he’s probably going to emerge just as fast as his countryman. Where the pair together place is debatable, they aren’t going to win championships this is clear, but do they deserve to be lumped on to motorsport’s great scrapheap? I don’t think they do. To be honest though, their choice of HRT does them no favours at all and it is good Chandhok has gone looking elsewhere.

Paster Maldonado is better than the pair of them, in my opinion. This much should be clear from GP2 where he shone at Monaco and wasn’t too bad elsewhere. He’s come a very long way since his ‘pinball’ reputation of his early GP2 and FR3.5 days where he was very much a hothead, perhaps he was promoted to that level too soon.
If GP2 is F1’s finishing school, it has done a very good job ironing out the Venezuelan’s kinks. A lot of F1 teams would be happy to take him now, you might even say had Williams continued to employ Nakajima perhaps he’d be considered a (slight) step up. It is all relative.

Everyone is right that Hulkenberg should be in that car because he’s probably the hottest talent since Lewis Hamilton, but if a deal couldn’t be done or if Williams really are struggling then there is no shame putting in a guy who is still perfectly competent and costs less.
Perhaps Maldonado is the next Massa, not a title winner but a potential race winner in the right car and a good No.2 driver. Perhaps Hulkenberg didn’t want to stay and has taken the Force India deal to ally himself with Mercedes in the event Michael Schumacher departs sooner rather than later.
Sergio Perez could easily be labelled a ‘pay driver’ too, yet he impressed me with his talent in the few GP2 Asia and then GP2 Main Series races I’ve seen him in (disclaimer: I’ve not seen the 2010 season). The guy isn’t afraid to overtake. You could say the same of his team-mate, who too was derided when he joined due to his lamentable record in the junior series – now many love his attacking style. (Who would’ve thought the Swiss team would hire two attacking drivers?)

Yamamoto struggled during his time in F1. © http://www.sakon-yamamoto.com

Paying the Way and First Impressions
No doubt there are pay drivers in the classic mould, there probably always will be, a case in point being Sakon Yamamoto.
And yet as we discussed last week in the pub, when he could see the pack and the lines of other drivers he was faster. On his own, terrible. Could he learn if placed alongside a true veteran for a year? I think he could, might not be the fastest but he’d potentially stop being hopeless.

And then there’s Milka Duno… Pay drivers still do have a terrible reputation and with drivers like Duno, it is often deserved. What is a problem is when the uninformed label a driver new to their series as a pay driver even though there is no evidence for it, indeed there is evidence to the contrary.
When Franck Montagny entered the IndyCar Series for a round at Infineon Raceway, Sonoma, factions of the fan community immediately derided him as “just another foreign pay driver”, despite him being nothing of the sort – well, apart from the part about being foreign.
In fact he’d been scratching around trying to make a living driving anything people would put in front of him, from sportscars to F1 tests to Superleague Formula. Nobody in those paddocks thinks Montagny is a slouch or a pay driver, the only reason he can’t get a season-long deal is because he can’t bring money and in this economy that’s important.
I do think the sponsors doling out this money are finding ways to give it to faster drivers than has traditionally been the case. Whilst there will always be awful members of this club, the overall level of pay drivers has improved.

The likes of Jean-Denis Deletraz are nowhere near the modern F1 grid. Perhaps they aren’t as fast as the available talent, but that doesn’t automatically make all of them terrible.

From → F1, Features

11 Comments
  1. No Pat, Pay Drivers have been getting worse and worse since the 1970’s. In the 70’s, No one in their right minds would have paid money to then rookie drivers Nikka Lauda and Alain Prost, so they had to pay their way into their first F1 drives.

    By the end of the 70’s, Lauda had retired with three Driver’s Championships and Prost was activly starting to collect his five….

    I just can not see a single driver championship being won by a paid driver from this year for the next 20 years….

    • Wasn’t Fernando Alonso a pay driver at Minardi in the beginning?

      Great stuff Pat and very thought provoking. I really have to make an effort this year and be less formula 1-centric, I know very little about Maldonado and co, maybe that’s a good thing as I can form my own opinion. Sadly though with very little money around the paid driver loks likely to be a feature on the grid for the forseeable future.

    • Worse since the 70s maybe, not worse since the 90s. Perhaps it went into a dip and is coming back up.

      Or maybe the fact there are more of them again might mean it’ll get worse again.

    • Leigh O'Gorman permalink

      I disagree slightly Jordan,
      As far as I see it, the nadir for pay drivers was between 89-96 when some truly ill-prepared runners piloted some machines.
      However I would never put the likes of Pastor Maldonado into the same bracket of Taki Inoue, Jean-Denis Deletraz or Giovanni Lavaggi. I believe young Maldonado has the potential to surprise occasionally.

  2. Great post, Pat!

    I think you’ve got a point there. Perhaps in this era of tight-fisted sponsors, rookies are going to need to bring substantial sponsorship in order to get a drive and prove themselves. If I had money, I’d certainly be lining up to sponsor a few of last year’s rookies so that they could get another drive.

  3. Even if Pastor isn’t necessarily a future World Champion, he was good enough to win the GP2 title. That means something, though you can certainly debate just how much it means, given his level of experience over the rest of the field. Anyway, I think he’ll be a mid-pack driver at best, but be far from an Inoue- or Deletraz-level hazard.

    However, I’m burying the lead: did people really question Rubens over on your side of the pond in the mid-’90s? I ask only because I’m completely ignorant on that topic, not to stir the pot. I knew he was a talent from reading On Track magazine through the days that he won the Formula Vauxhall Lotus and British F3 championships, and he was, after all, a top guy in his one year in F3000. All of that told me that he was a potential top-10 in F1 guy, though I also thought the same (as did most of the rest of the world, I think) of Jan Magnussen and Luca Badoer. Were folks really questioning Rubens during his time at Jordan and Stewart?

    • Leigh O'Gorman permalink

      Rubens took a hell of a beating at Jordan in the mid-90’s. Eddie Irvine simply destroyed him – if not totally in results, then definitely mentally while they were at that team. Remember of course, that Barrichello was the next Brazilian hope following Senna’s death and it is thought that the pressure may have buckled him around that time.
      However when Barrichello got to Stewart much of that faith was restored, especially following a stunning drive in Monaco in 1997.

      his reputation built back up again in the following years to the point now that many would consider one of the top drivers in the field – maybe not Alonso, Hamilton or Vettel quality, but definitely near the front in the next set of drivers.

    • Yeah I was mainly referring to his time at Jordan and his early F1 years. He’s definitely proven himself now and he is one of my favourite drivers both as a personality and on ability, across all championships.

      • See, this is still a surprise to me. I remember Rubens retiring from like 4th or something at Donnington in his rookie year in 1993. I also seem to remember a few other good runs in 1994 and 1995, but I guess I was more inclined to remember things that way since he was one of the young drivers that I decided to follow closely in ’91 or ’92. I guess I thought that he and Irvine were pretty evenly matched at Jordan, pacewise, and now that I consult Wikipedia, it seems like that’s borne out.

        ’93: Rubens – 2 pts (though he also had 4 other top-10s, shamed Ivan Capelli into retirement and demolished Thierry Boutsen for the year), Eddie – 1 point (in two starts)
        ’94: Rubens – 19 pts, Eddie – 6 pts (and this was the year when Rubens had his massive crash at Imola as well)
        ’95: Rubens – 11 pts, Eddie – 10 pts

        Sorry, I’ve gone and completely derailed the discussion. As you were, fellas. Let’s talk about Fairuz Fauzy, shall we?

        • Leigh O'Gorman permalink

          Talk about Fairuz Fauzy? We may be the only ones.

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