One thing that has startled us since we started writing a blog and became a tad more active in F1 social media is the amount of people who obviously are big fans of the sport, who post passionately and continuously, but fundamentally do not understand the very basics of how this sport works. There is no better example of this than the ‘pay-driver’ tag that is getting thrown around in the direction of Rio Haryanto at present. There are several causes of this, some of which we plan to go into more detail soon, but for today we will look at Rio Haryanto and the term pay-driver.
A pay-driver is a driver for a professional racing team who, instead of being paid, drives for free and brings with him either personal sponsorship or personal funding to help finance the team’s operations. The popular lazy thought suggest that if you are paying for your F1 seat, then you are not good enough for F1. Haryanto has won races in GP2 and GP3, he is now in F1 and we think he deserves to be there. To my mind, if you are good enough to win races in GP2, you ought to be good enough to race strongly in Formula 1.
It would be wrong to claim he has the potential of say a Stoffel Vandoorne, but he has competed and beaten on occasions the likes of Felipe Nasr, Marcus Eriksson and Jolyon Palmer all of whom also find themselves on the F1 grid under similar circumstances. The key to truly judging his potential will be his performances against his highly rated team mate Pascal Wehrlein. If Haryanto beats him or matches him, he will suddenly be a star in the making. A very marketable one at that.
As well as bringing much needed funds to a struggling team, Haryanto comes with a solid background in the junior formulas and helps introduce the sport to 237 million people. Maybe in some parallel universe all F1 teams are fully sponsored and can simply choose drivers on talent. But we are yet to see that day. It has always been like that and always will be. If you aspire to be an F1 driver in the future you better have large financial backing behind you, regardless of how talented you are.
It is becoming harder to define a pay-driver these days because some argue that sponsors follow them, rather than them taking the money to the team, but the best way to define it is to ask: “Would Driver X be with Team Y if there was no money?”
So let us apply that logic to the 22 men who will line-up on the grid in Melbourne for the start of the 2016 F1 season.
By our reckoning, without any sort of financial assistance be it corporate, personal or state sponsors, 10 out of the 22 drivers who will lineup on the grid would not be racing for their team without bringing sponsorship. On this list of drivers required to bring sponsorship are the already established and highly regarded F1 stars Sergio Perez, Nico Hulkenburg and Kevin Magnussen.
All the F1 teams in the midfield have to make their driver decisions based on whether the revenue from the pay-driver will be more or less than the prize money gained or lost. Points generate cash and so one needs drivers who will score points, or who will provide enough cash not to need to score points. To understand the dynamics of such calculations, one needs to understand the prize fund. We have looked at the implications of finishing 10th or above for Manor here. Below is the most recent published table of prize money distributions.
In 2014, Manor finished 9th in the Championship, probably one place higher than anyone would have predicted at the start of that season. It netted them $59 million dollars. Realistically to do so again in 2016 it would require a 2nd star quality driver to ensure that points are picked up when the opportunity arises and even then it is still a massive risk. In F1 a driver is only as good as his car. If Manor and Mercedes had switched drivers last season we doubt that the constructors championship would have looked any different at the end of the year. It is entirely sensible for the midfield teams to have one driver who can pick up the points and another to financially secure the team if driver number one does not deliver. Manor, Renault and Sauber could hire two stars drivers with large wages and then deliver them a dog of a car that ensures their final constructors table position before a wheel is even turned. See McLaren 2015.
Pay-drivers are utterly essential to keeping teams on the grid and hundreds of people in jobs. This means that certain drivers who should never have to bring funds to a team, simply must do so to get a chance in F1. We can list about 10 drivers currently racing who never got the chance their talent deserved in F1 or went too soon simply because they could no longer help pay the bills. We don’t like it anymore than you do, but it is a reality of the sport. It always has been and always will be. The list of other drivers who were required to pay for their first ever drives in F1 includes former World Champions Nikki Lauda and Damon Hill.
If you don’t like it take out your fury on Bernie Eccelstone and the rights holders at CVC who take so much money out of F1 and put so little back. F1 generates more than enough money to avoid this situation. Don’t take it out on drivers who have worked hard to achieve their dreams of driving a F1 car.