Helping to pay your way in F1
Indian Narain Karthikeyan’s return to Formula One, along with Renault’s retention of Russian Vitaly Petrov and the imminent arrival of Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado and Mexican Sergio Perez, has put the issue of the so-called ‘pay driver’ — a man whose place on the grid is rightly or wrongly considered as much down to the amount of sponsorship he brings as talent behind the wheel — firmly back in the spotlight.
There are those who bemoan the situation, lamenting the lack of opportunities for the talented but hard-up aspirant, but that is not a new phenomenon even if it was more muted in the era of manufacturer dominance.
In the early days of the championship, you had the well-heeled gentleman racer — flamboyant types like Thailand’s Prince Bira — who could afford to buy a Maserati or two and go racing.
“Do you think we are running on air? The money has to come from somewhere,” HRT team principal Colin Kolles, Karthikeyan’s boss, told Reuters last week when asked about the Indiank. “For more than 100 years if you want to race, you have to put money on the table.”
You only have to ask Niki Lauda about that.
By the early 1970s, with the arrival of swathes of on-car branding and ostentatious sponsorship, the pay driver was a recognised species and Austrian Lauda was in the vanguard.
“To the best of my knowledge, Spain’s Alex Soler-Roig (1971-72) was the first driver to use his own cash to buy himself a few Formula One starts,” Lauda wrote in his 1985 autobiography “To Hell and Back”.
“This was the other side to a new professionalism in motor racing. More and more money was pouring into the sport, everything was getting bigger, more elaborate, more expensive and the weaker teams could afford only one driver. The cockpit of car number two had to house a paying guest.”
Lauda, who would go on to win three world championships with McLaren and Ferrari, was such a ‘guest’. His Formula Three career was stalling so he handed over 20,000 pounds to March for a Formula Two seat.
“By the end of the season, two thirds of my debts were still outstanding and I needed a fresh injection of capital to buy in for 1972,” the Austrian recalled.
“In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought to myself and tried for a combined Formula Two/Formula One deal with March…this time March pegged the buy-in price at 100,000 pounds.”
After his wealthy grandfather stymied one bank deal (arguing that “a Lauda should be written up on the financial pages, not the sports page”), Lauda set up a line of credit with another.
The March, he soon found out, was a “colossal mechanical fiasco”.
At the end of 1972, in a move that took his debts to around 160,000 pounds, Lauda secured another ‘pay drive’ with BRM knowing that he would have to make a name for himself in a hurry.
“It was madness, of course, to allow debts to pile up like that and to allow myself to become more and more entangled financially,” he recognised much later.
“But it had absolutely no effect on my performance as a driver.
“You don’t give money a second thought when you get into the cockpit of a racing car.”
Lauda was fortunate, as well as blessed with exceptional talent. After six races of the 1973 season, BRM agreed to pay him, with Enzo Ferrari also taking note of his abilities. By 1974, he was racing for the Italian, taking his first title in 1975.
Everyone, even the most talented, needs a helping hand at some point. It also takes determination to continue in the face of adversity, particularly if you come from a country with little motor racing heritage, and persuasion to convince someone else to fund your dreams.
Some, of course, have it easier than others at a time of financial austerity and it is no surprise that the fast-growing emerging economies are now providing the sport with new entrants.
Maldonado is backed by Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA, Petrov by a range of Russian businesses, Karthikeyan by India’s Tata Group, Perez by the Telmex business run by the world’s wealthiest man Carlos Slim.
None may be as good as Germany’s Nico Hulkenberg, the 2009 GP2 champion who was on pole in Brazil last year but is currently without a team after being replaced by Maldonado at Williams. But they are none too shabby either.
Maldonado may have won the 2010 GP2 series, ahead of 20-year-old Perez, after several seasons of trying but he did so with a record six wins. Petrov meanwhile held off Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso for most of last year’s Abu Dhabi race.
Karthikeyan, who raced for Jordan in 2005, has never given up hope of a comeback and kept on plugging away.
None would describe themselves openly as pay drivers, certainly not in the old-fashioned sense, even if their sponsorship is clearly welcome.
“He comes with some financial support but he deserves his opportunity on merit,” Williams co-founder Patrick Head said this week of Maldonado. “If you have a young talented driver, it is a promise for the future. And if he also has sponsors, all the better,” added Williams chairman Adam Parr.
Maldonado has them, Hulkenberg does not.
It is worth also remembering that there were seven German drivers lining up at Yas Marina in last November’s season-ender.
In that context, a new season with an Indian, a Mexican, a Venezuelan and a Russian adding a dash of variety may not be such a bad thing.
PHOTO: Narain Karthikeyan of India speaks before the start of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Kroger 250 at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Virginia March 27, 2010. REUTERS/Chris Keane