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.
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.
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?)
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.