Teams turn to pay-as-you-go drivers
Recession leads minor players to seek new funding
Sunday 04 November 2012
The expression "pay driver" has derogatory connotations in the Formula One lexicon, implying that a driver is there because of his ability to bring money rather than pure talent. But the downturn in the economy has seen more drivers scuttling around the paddock in Abu Dhabi seeking to bring the right level of sponsorship to make themselves attractive to team bosses for the remaining 2013 seats.
The current minimum ante for a pay-drive next year starts at $10 million (£6.2m). Outside the top five teams, who can afford to pay salaries in excess of $15m to the best – Red Bull with Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber; Ferrari with Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa; McLaren with Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button; Mercedes with Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher; and Lotus with Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean – every team has at least one pay-driver.
It is easier to identify those who still earn a genuine salary rather than a kickback wage from a budget they bring: Nico Hulkenberg and Paul Di Resta at Force India; Red Bull-supported Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne at Toro Rosso; Kamui Kobayashi at Sauber; Heikki Kovalainen at Caterham; Timo Glock at Marussia; and Pedro De La Rosa at HRT. Otherwise, as rookie Max Chilton highlighted after conducting his first official Friday- morning practice run for Marussia here, every aspirant needs access to healthy sponsorship.
The healthiest of all comes from PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company which pumps a massive $40m a year into Pastor Maldonado's Williams ride, while team-mate Bruno Senna contributes upwards of $10m from sponsors such as Embratel. Sergio Perez is at Sauber on merit, but it undoubtedly helps that he is backed by TelMex, the phone company owned by Carlos Slim, one of the world's richest men.
Narain Karthikeyan contributes big bucks for his HRT ride via the Indian conglomerate Tata, but newcomer Ma Qing Hua (pronounced Martin Kwah) is chasing a 2013 seat in the Spanish team with Chinese backing. Vitaly Petrov pays for his seat at Caterham even though he is very quick, but may yet be ousted by Dutch GP2 racer Giedo van der Garde, who could bring a decent budget, or his rival Luiz Razia from Brazil. Spaniard Dani Clos and Italian GP2 champion Davide Valsecchi are also trying to make deals work.
Somewhere in the middle lie men such as Valterri Bottas, a Friday- morning star for Williams, former Force India racer Adrian Sutil, and 2012 rookie Charles Pic.
Each deserves a drive on merit, but is also able to bring a level of funding. Pic is in the position Niki Lauda found himself in 1973. The Austrian was a pay-driver at March in 1971 and 1972, blagged his way into BRM with the promise of contributing £35,000, but negotiated a salary instead after pulverising experienced team-mates Clay Regazzoni and Jean-Pierre Beltoise. Pic used money from the family's massive French trucking company to buy Jérôme D'Ambrosio's ride at Marussia this year, but has shown up so well against Glock that he now seeks salaried employment.
Teams have to make a choice between many factors. There is not a lot of difference in terms of speed, which on the face of it should be all that matters, but these are harsh economic times, made harsher still this week with the news that the FIA have upped entry fees from the standard $500,000 to a new sliding scale which charges rates based on the number of points scored in the previous year.
Thus Red Bull will pay $4.4m, McLaren $2.98m and Ferrari $2.37m, based on their 2011 scores. The rabbits, such as Caterham, HRT and Marussia, who did not score points, will pay $500,000.
Many other factors come into it, however, such as experience and the ability to help a team to develop their car. But the development war is expensive, which means that teams need money.
Vettel demoted to back of grid for fuel fault
Sebastian Vettel hasn't had many bad days in the office lately, with four victories in the past four races, but yesterday in the dusk of Abu Dhabi it was about as bad as it could get, writes David Tremayne. First he got out-qualified not just by an unstoppable Lewis Hamilton and McLaren, but also by his Red Bull team-mate, Mark Webber. That was bearable, especially as world title rival Fernando Alonso was only seventh.
But Vettel was told to stop his Red Bull before he completed his slow-down lap, and late in the night the stewards decreed he had been told to do so because the car had insufficient fuel to get back to the pits. The regulations stipulate that it should, and when the shortfall came to light he suffered the same fate as Hamilton in Spain, who lost pole position for a similar infringement and started at the back of the grid.
This could lead to a dramatic change in the dynamic of the title fight, as it moves Alonso up to sixth. Vettel is likely to choose to start from the pit lane instead of the back of the grid. Last night he said philosophically: "One of the best ski jumpers of all times once said, 'Every chance is an opportunity', and as far as we are concerned there are still plenty of chances tomorrow."
The odds, however, favour Alonso reducing his 13-point deficit to Vettel, in a race likely to develop into a straight fight between Hamilton and Webber.
"It's the first time in a long time that we've been ahead of the Bulls," said Hamilton, who won here last year. "Hopefully we'll be strong enough to fight them. The team have done a great job all weekend and the car felt beautiful. I guess it just suits the track, as we haven't got an upgrade here."
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