Pastor’s Perception and Pay Drivers: Bad or Misunderstood?

No driver currently in Formula One does not deserve to be there. What Formula One fans around the world fail to comprehend is that the drivers we all know deserve to be in Formula One but aren’t, are just more deserving than the ones we perceive to be undeserving, that are. The line is grey, not black and white. There aren’t a certain number of podiums, wins and pole positions in a certain number of junior categories that suddenly qualify you to race in Formula One. That isn’t how it works. If it was, then Daniil Kvyat wouldn’t have been signed by Toro Rosso to race for them in 2014 and nor would Kimi Raikkonen have been signed by Sauber.

But like I said, the line is grey, not black and white. There is a huge margin of error, you could say, that both Formula One fans and Formula One teams like to exploit in different ways. While the former will write off any driver who brings money that overshadows his junior CV, the latter will use the money to enhance a junior CV, making an unimpressive junior career seem more impressive than it really is by sneakily using the money he brings to sign him, while employing some conveniently vague wording to justify their decision. Just look at the press releases Sauber may make should they sign Sergey Sirotkin for 2014 and you’ll catch my drift.

But why do we hate pay drivers so much? There is a certain air of entitlement in Formula One these days. Should you have a rich father and are more than half-decent at racing then one season in Formula One suddenly isn’t as far-fetched as it may have seemed as a child. That is a fact of the sport.

But nothing is ever entirely given to a “pay driver” either. If it was, then half of the grids in GP2/3 and Formula Renault 3.5 would be gone. You still have to go racing. If there is money involved, then some mistakes or frankly bad driving is inevitably forgotten, at least by the investors behind the driver. A few crashes? Just pump in a couple million more dollars.

While it is not quite that simple, a lot of goes on in junior racing is compensation. Take Rodolfo Gonzalez. He is far from the best driver in the world, and his GP2 record is frankly embarrassing, but he isn’t the worst driver either, otherwise he wouldn’t have gotten where he is. No team, regardless of how financially desperate, would take an outright terrible driver. Why then, has Rodolfo had so many pointless practice outings with Marussia then? The team is gaining nothing from them, as he is often two seconds off either Max Chilton or Jules Bianchi, and Rodolfo is gaining nothing other than an exciting afternoon because he isn’t realistically in the running for a race seat anytime soon. They guy is almost 30 years old for goodness sake. He makes these outings because PDVSA pays for them. They compensate the team for a wasted morning in return for a Formula One outing for one of it’s lesser F1 hopefuls. That is what really gets fans angry.

When a young driver is rumored to be in the running for an F1 seat, we immediately investigate how much money he has with him. If there isn’t any, then you can almost immediately write him off. If there isn’t money, but he is connected to a young driver scheme with another team, then you should still count him in the running. But, if there are millions upon millions behind him in the form of oil or banking or technology, and he has a decent or better junior career, then the seat is almost certainly his. Those are the facts of modern Formula One.

We are never going to get rid of pay drivers. While they may not be good for the sport, they are vital to its longevity. If there were no Maldonados, Perezes or van der Gardes, then the sport would not be here. They are what drives F1 forward in a time where manufacturers consistently avoid getting into the sport or threaten to leave. In a way, pay drivers are just another example of the privatization of Formula One. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, like any perceived negative in life, it must be used in moderation. Should the number of pay driver proliferate, then there would be a problem, but there aren’t that many right now. The sport is not doomed because of Max Chilton and Pastor Maldonado. Far from it. But we as fans have such an idealistic view of what the sport should be that we forget that the sport has to be.

With Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus signing today, the issue of pay drivers was once again shoved into the faces of every Formula One fan. Yes, Nico Hulkenberg deserves to be in that seat. His performances in the second half of 2013 are more than justification for Lotus to sign him. But Maldonado is not undeserving of the seat either. He is just far less deserving than Nico is. That is the grey margin we find ourselves in today. We would all love for there to be a black and white distinction between who deserves to be in a top seat and who doesn’t. But we will never get that. In fact, the sport depends on there being some ambiguity between the deserving and the undeserving. Otherwise, their vital millions would never get into the sport.

There is a question I want everyone who reads this to think about long and hard: Would you rather watch Formula One with many great drivers and a few average, or no Formula One at all?

 

Dawn of a New Era

It’s always darkest before the dawn, they all say, and while the Brazilian Grand Prix plays host to two the final outings of two [relatively] historical partnerships between Felipe Massa and Ferrari, and Mark Webber and Red Bull, there is much to look forward to come 2014.

Doom-mongers set aside, the attitude heading into next season is largely positive. New technology always spawns some issues, yes, but the task of facing new environmental challenges head-on with improved technology is something the sport will have to get used to, for the times demand that adaptability is placed above stubborn longevity of the norm. The status quo is no longer an option, and that makes me even more excited to see what is to come.

Whether the sport can sustain itself financially is another matter, for while facing new challenges is noble and admirable, there is no use trying if you have no means of even starting. Where will Caterham, Marussia and other cash-strapped teams be in five, ten, fifteen years’ time? Heck, where will Red Bull even be in that time frame? No one really knows. But we do know that 2014 will be a year of growth for the sport. It is testing its limits with the new regulations, but if 2014 is successful perhaps a path for economic sustainability can be forged. Time will tell.

Technologically, next season will be a wake-up call. New V6 turbo power units replace the rather antiquated naturally aspirated V8s, while energy recovery technology reach new heights and breadths. The scope of electricity is certainly being tested next year, and that is putting the fear of God into those wary of the auditory experience of Formula One.

Certainly, the sound of these new engines will be different. Change scares people, and even for a progressive sport like Formula One, the changes for next season will come as a shock. The sound of the new V6s will still impress, no doubt. The quality of the sound, however, may not for some people. Trying to make every Formula One fan happy is an impossible task. Just ask Pirelli how easy their job has been over the past three years and you’ll get a sense of the monumental task the sport faces in retaining some fans.

These regulations are polarizing in nature. They demand a completely new approach to watching racing from fans, for not only are the engines, energy recovery systems and tires playing a vastly greater role in the sport next season, the fuel itself will create a new racing environment. Fuel conservation will be stressed in 2014, and many are concerned it will dilute the quality of the racing on track.

But the worry, when you really think about it, needn’t overpower everything.

It was not so long ago that re-fuelling was a part of Formula One, and many will rejoice in the expanded role fuel levels will take on next season. If you think about it, the fixed amount of fuel allowed for each car in a race (100 kg) is not too dissimilar to racing with re-fuelling. The overwhelming similarity between the two is that they both require some amount of fuel saving. That was not such a huge concern just a few years ago, and just like tire conservation, some cars will be better at it than others. But the philosophy of driving to a delta, just like with the Pirelli tires of today, remains unchanged. It seems to me that F1 fans should be used to cars driving to a delta by now. It’s been a part of the sport since its inception. Some deltas allow for the driver to push their limits, others not. But the notion of driving within a car’s limit, for the simple fact of finishing the race, at least, is nothing new.

Formula One fans will have a lot to get used to next year, that much is for sure. But that is no cause for concern. It is much better to embrace the changes than moan about them, because the old ways are gone for good. They are not going to, and cannot, come back. So, this is a request to all who remain wary of the changes coming in 2014. Stay positive, because while the differences may seem overwhelming, there is much that will be familiar, and much to learn to enjoy.

 

Could Perez be Lotus’s Savior?

Now that Sergio Perez has officially announced he is leaving Mclaren, its time to officially add him to the mix of drivers currently looking for employment in 2014. Speculation has no place here. This is real uncertainty for Sergio.

It’s hard to deny that Perez was given a pretty tough set of circumstances to deal with in 2013: a bad car, a teammate at the top of his game (at the end of 2012, at least), tricky tires, more media/sponsorship commitments than ever before, national pride always pressuring him, oh, and a bad car. All of these factors conspired against Sergio and eventually clouded what really hasn’t been a bad season for the Mexican. Sure, it has been far from what he expected, and some mistakes on his part have prevented him from scoring more points than he has now (Monaco comes straight to mind), but considering all of the setbacks mentioned before, Sergio has been a solid performer this season.

Perez’s departure, then, would seem as something of a surprise to the casual onlooker; surely since it was not Sergio’s fault that the car was uncompetitive, the only fair thing to do would be to give him another chance in a much more competitive car to see what he can really do. Mclaren, in all likelihood, would have taken this path, had their priorities not gotten in the way.

I can completely understand the Perez sympathizers in this situation. I agree that he deserves another chance in the car when it is more competitive and representative of his talent, of which there is plenty. But I do understand the commitments Mclaren have to their own, that is, to Kevin Magnussen. It is rare to get the chance to put a rookie in a top team these days. It’s been six years since Lewis Hamilton made his splash into the F1 scene. Mclaren would be silly to turn down an opportunity like this, and looking for any way to do so is understandable.

We must also not forget that Perez is not a Mclaren man. He was a Ferrari protégé just days before the 2012 Singapore Grand Prix, destined for greatness alongside Fernando Alonso in 2013 and as the team leader once the Spaniard left. But then Lewis Hamilton left Mclaren. That meant the team had some frantic searching to do to find a suitable, or at least suitable enough, replacement for their 2008 champion. At that time Perez was the man to watch, having just scored his third podium of the season at the previous race in Italy after, ironically, almost chasing down Hamilton for the win. Importantly, he was out of contract for 2013 with Sauber. That gave Mclaren some pretty serious leverage when it came time for contract negotiations.

Many rightly criticized Mclaren’s decision to sign Perez. I still believe he was not meant for the seat. Nico Hulkenberg was the man to sign, and that became even more clear at the Brazilian Grand Prix. But his lack of “standout” performances at that point in the season (though his fourth and fifth place finishes in Belgium and Valencia, respectively, were extremely impressive) meant he was at a disadvantage when it came to making his case to Mclaren as to why they should sign him for 2013.

One year-and-a-bit later, and now Perez is gone. Almost like he wasn’t even there at all. One can almost here the name “Kovalainen” ringing in one’s head as the words of Perez’s classy, respectful, but rather sad, letter are read aloud.

The driver market is now busier than it has ever been, with Perez, Pastor Maldonado and Nico Hulkenberg the three key players in this rather confusing tale of the silly season. This is how it all plays out, though: Should Lotus’s deal with Quantum fall through (remember, it isn’t officially done, just agreed to on both sides of the deal i.e. Quantum and Lotus), then money from a driver is of vital importance.

Pastor Maldonado has been the favorite candidate for that seat should the situation play out in the manner described above. But Maldonado’s millions are not as secure as we may have once thought.

AUTOWEEK reported in its most recent issue that all “disbursements of hard currency to automobile and motorcycle racers (from Venezuela) who compete abroad” have been “frozen” as the Venezuelan government investigates a corruption scandal. That means Maldonado shouldn’t sit pretty just yet. That $48 million a year in precious oil money could all but disappear just when it would come in its most handy.

Enter Sergio Perez.

His Telmex money, once a major sponsor for Sauber when the Mexican was a driver there in 2011 and 2012, could be put to use in securing him a drive at the Enstone-based squad for 2014. Perhaps not quite as sizable as Maldonado’s sponsorship, Perez’s backing from Telmex would still ensure whichever team was the recipient was far from scared for its financial future. This is where the Mexican’s more highly regarded talent would come in handy. The fact that he isn’t labeled a crash-happy nutcase puts him a step ahead of Pastor. While the mistakes have been cut down vastly in 2013, it takes more than just obscurity on the grid to erase a name like that. Just ask Romain Grosjean.

Sergio Perez may have ended the day a sad fellow, but all is not lost. He could just have set himself up for a future at a team that now has the capability to beat Mclaren on a regular basis. That is something to smile about.

The Curious Case of Kimi Raikkonen

Now that the dust has settled over Lotus’s deal with Quantum Motorsports, I’ve been reflecting on Kimi Raikkonen’s season. There is a very close connection between the monosyllabic Finn and the millions of Euros secured through the Enstone squad’s commercial partnership, being that much of the drama surrounding Kimi’s departure from the team at the end of this season was hinged on Lotus’s inability to secure the deal in a timely manner.

A sudden development the deal with Quantum wasn’t. The process was utterly painful in its duration, and perhaps hints at a weakness in the Enstone team’s ability to manage success (sounds crazy, right?). They are no stranger to success, nor are they to demanding drivers, but you could say they are out of practice. Before Lotus’s fantastic double podium in Bahrain last season, no driver of Enstone “heritage” had appeared on any of the top-3 steps since Nick Heidfeld just over a year before in Malaysia. And before 2012, they hadn’t had to deal with a “big name” driver since 2009, when Fernando Alonso was in his second year at the team, then known as Renault, after an…interesting…year at Mclaren. And before THAT, the team hadn’t won a championship since 2006. Indeed, the stretch of time between championship successes since 2006 is long–indeterminable, in fact, as this season’s title was wrapped up early, and not in either Kimi or Romain’s name.

So, it has been a while since Enstone has been on a constant diet of success. But that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to handle it. They are a clever bunch, especially since Eric Boullier took over as team principal in 2010. He has arguably been the guiding light of the team in their quest for glory once again.

When Lotus took on Kimi Raikkonen for 2012, they knew what they were getting into. Kimi is a no-nonsense, straightforward guy who, if things go his way, or at least don’t get out of control, is a perfectly amicable, often funny man. Up and down the paddock ring similar sentiments. He is a nice guy that means business when the time calls for it.

2013 was that time.

He proved the year before that he was in fact a motivated driver. He proved it time and time again when he drove perhaps just beyond the limits of the car to stay in championship contention until the third-to-last race. There were no questions about his motivation. At least until recently.

The success of 2012 allowed for the business Kimi to come out. No longer was Formula One just about driving the car fast and then going home on Sunday night. Formula One was now a part of his life he was fully committed to, and he underlined that commitment by winning the season opener in Australia. That will undoubtedly go down as one of the favorite wins of the season, despite it being a rather chaotic race in terms of tires. That drama took a backseat to the Kimi win.

Kimi turned out to be quite the credible championship contender in 2013. That fire has gone out in the wake of Sebastian Vettel’s seven consecutive wins, clearly, but every weekend, you can never count out Kimi to make a surprise. That undoubtedly added to the disappointment that was the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. We all desperately wanted to see what Kimi could do from the back of the grid.

But just as Kimi’s championship challenge gained traction in the opening races of the season, it dwindled by the summer break, when the team’s struggles to get their “Device” working properly shed light on the team’s underlying financial woes. That was the first tangible, if you like, example of Lotus’s weakness. The reports, however, spoke for themselves: “Lotus reports huge losses from 2012” was not an uncommon headline from the summer break. The alarms were ringing loud and clear, and Kimi was the first to hear.

This is where the title of this post comes into play, though. When money troubles reared its ugly head, why did Kimi decide to jump ship? Undoubtedly, Kimi sought assurance that the team’s competitiveness would stay over the coming years. No driver wants uncertainty in that department. But the move came across, to this writer at least, as slightly hypocritical. Kimi came back to Formula One to drive and fight for wins. He didn’t want the drama that came from Ferrari between 2007-2009, and Lotus offered the best balance of competitiveness and drama. Until he moved teams, ironically.

It was soon after Kimi’s confirmation at Ferrari that Lotus began to worry about its finances. Rumors that the Finn was yet to be paid and that numerous employees had their paychecks delayed only fueled the fire of the team’s supposed demise. Indeed, it did look like Lotus’s time in F1 was limited.

All this uncertainty surrounding the deal with Quantum, who the team would hire to replace Raikkonen and when Raikkonen would be paid culminated at (really just before) the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix when Kimi threatened to not race the last three events if he wasn’t paid.

I was disappointed at his approach to the situation. You can’t blame the guy for wanting the money due to him. Being a Formula One driver is not an easy job, and when you struggle to get the top results you want as your teammate makes a surge in competitiveness, all you really want is to be paid, at least. Kimi was perfectly right in saying there was a line that Lotus was about to cross. What I struggle to wrap my head around is why Kimi made such a big deal about not being paid.

I know this sounds very simplistic, but three races would not have killed the guy. It would have been much better for Kimi, the team and their future commercial partners if he had just waited out the rest of the season to work out his finances. His threat to not race the final three events put his team, which has remained faithful, loyal and understanding when many would have lost their patience, in an incredibly vulnerable and negative light. It was a disservice to Lotus and the fantastic opportunity they gave to Kimi at the beginning of 2012. That is why this post is about the curious case of Kimi Raikkonen. For all the drama he seeks to avoid, why did he go and create some of his own?

I wish that camera had not shown Kimi leaving the Yas Marina circuit in his car after he was knocked out of the race on the first lap. I really wish it hadn’t. It only served to perpetuate the unfortunate situation Lotus and Kimi have found themselves in. We can only hope now that the influx of cash from Quantum Motorsports will help prevent a similar situation to this from ever happening again. No team should have to endure it.