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?