Before the start of this F1 season, ‘pay drivers’ was set to be one of the hot topics. Many felt Maldonado was ‘stealing’ Hulkenberg’s seat at Lotus with a big wedge of PDVSA cash. Others questioned whether the likes of Ericsson and Gutierrez merited seats on the grid when GP2 champions and drivers with proven pedigree languished on the sidelines. So far the ‘pay drivers’ haven’t really done much to challenge those opinions.
Yet it is not as simple as pay drivers not belonging in F1. It is more complex because, to all intents and purposes, all drivers on the grid are pay drivers.
Pick a cross section of the current grid and you will find drivers who have benefitted from team support, manufacturer backing and more. Sebastien Vettel owes much to the backing of Red Bull, early in his junior career, that saw him fast tracked to F1. Lewis Hamilton was picked up at a young age by McLaren and supported through much of his career in single-seater formulae. Similarly so it is widely accepted that Romain Grosjean has enjoyed the support and backing of Renault in his path (twice) to F1. What differentiates them from those drivers labelled, negatively, as pay drivers? The clincher is whether they bring the talent to match; that’s the difference.
Watching drivers who will never set the F1 scene on fire occupy seats of varying quality is hard to take. True fans of the sport should find it frustrating. However success in motor sport has always required a balance of money and talent. The problem for F1 is that the balance is falling further and further out of equilibrium.