Should Drivers Feel Obligated to Contribute Financially to their Teams?

Caterham team principal, Cyril Abetiboul, came out yesterday saying that Formula One drivers are wrong to be against actively bringing sponsorship to their teams, going as far to say that to not do so is “irresponsible”. I’ve struggled to accept what he has had to say ever since I read the story on AUTOSPORT, so I feel his statements need some breaking down.

To call a driver irresponsible by not wanting to actively contribute sponsorship to their team is an incredibly rude thing to say. For one, it undermines the work they do in the car which, frankly, only a small handful of people on the planet are capable of doing, and it undermines the preparation, personal sacrifice and physical and mental strain each driver puts themselves through to do their job. If they slacked in either of these aspects (and many other unnamed ones), then they would be completely outdone by their competitors, such is the similarity of the drivers’ worth ethics. So, to call their unwillingness to go out of their way to find money to bring to the team irresponsible, when they are hired to drive the car,  is outrageous.

You can see where he comes from, though. Times are tough, and Cyril know better than most anyone on the grid just how difficult it is to run a Formula One team the size of Caterham with their relatively puny budget. The financial strains will only be exacerbated by the new regulations and from losing out on 10th place in the 2013 constructors’ championship. Those vital millions are now gone. For Cyril to think that the drivers should feel obligated to help the team out as much as they can is a natural sentiment, especially when that is most likely one of the most important things on his own mind.

But this very description of these so-called “irresponsible” drivers is completely baseless. Surely he of all people knows why drivers are hired: to drive. Whatever money they bring is, frankly, a bonus.

“Almost all the drivers have a feeling that there must be some form of contribution that they make beyond their sporting duties.”

This was another statement that confused me. While I agree with the literal meaning of these words, our interpretations are different. He believes that this form of contribution is bringing in sponsorship. Directly.

I believe that drivers indirectly bring in sponsorship, regardless of what direct sponsorship comes from them. This goes back to the actual job of Formula One drivers. These athletes are contractually obligated to drive cars. That is their job. I would be surprised to learn that every driver’s contract states somewhere that they must meet a direct sponsorship quota. If that was the case, and a driver didn’t have any direct sponsorship to begin with, they would just pack their bags and look for other employment. No driver wants to subject themselves to the long and arduous sponsorship hunt. I say “subject themselves” for a reason, here.

It isn’t a surprise that most drivers object to the idea of paying a team directly for a drive. That, again, only serves to undermine that actual talent the driver possesses. It makes talent secondary. A fact especially apparent when you consider the declining quality of the Formula One field today.

So what do drivers contribute to a team beyond their sporting duties? Well, there is the sponsorship interest that comes as a result of the driving. That in itself is what kept the Brawn operation going in 2009. The car was naked early on in the season, but as results kept on coming, brands and companies wanted to be associated with the team. That was a major contributor to the team’s title success that year.

Then we must consider the numerous sponsorship events the drivers attend every year. Those are a heavy burden on the drivers who, most of the time, just want to go home and relax between Grands Prix. The sponsorship generated from events like those seems to have slipped Cyril’s mind. I would not be surprised if that was the type of contribution “most” drivers are thinking of.

It is also a fact that most drivers do not want to actively seek out direct sponsorship to help their quest for a Formula One seat. Take Felipe Massa, for instance. His drive with Williams in 2014 does not come without its financial perks for the team, obviously. They wouldn’t be able to survive without some sort of direct flow of money after losing PDVSA and Maldonado. But it is highly unlikely Felipe Massa went around asking for money from various companies in Brazil. I obviously don’t know for sure whether he did or not, but judging from his comments throughout last year as his seat at Ferrari came under increasing threat, Felipe wasn’t keen on looking for sponsors himself.

His sponsors came with him because he is who he is. He has a name in the sport, and a wonderful reputation as a hard worker and a multiple Grand Prix winner. That type of credibility can, and has, generated considerable financial interest in his own success. Companies want to be associated with a name like that. Do you think Fernando Alonso asked Santander to sponsor him, or do you think they took the hint that he was a brilliantly fantastic driver and thought, “Hey, maybe this guy could be successful! Let’s get in on that.”? This proves that the physical act of driving is its very own sponsorship generator. The need for direct monetary contribution cannot be underestimated, but it is not the be all end all of getting money in the sport.

This is why teams who perhaps are struggling financially need to take risks when hiring drivers. When Caterham first joined the sport in 2010, it had two paid drivers in Kovalainen and Trulli. It was understandable that they eventually couldn’t support them financially, and they had to be dropped, but the dreary list of successors has done the team no good to move it up the grid. Petrov, van der Garde and Pic are not potential champions, and their influx of cash clearly hasn’t been enough to overcome that fact.

Thus, Cyril’s comments have been rendered somewhat pointless. Driving talent will never, ever be topped. It is what pushes the sport forward, both qualitatively and financially. The likes of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso will never have to actively seek out sponsorship because their talent is more than enough to draw companies in. And sponsorship commitments? While not ideal, they are far from the most hated things among drivers. They can be fun sometimes. They are certainly more loved than the current influx of “pay drivers” we think are tainting our precious sport. Like I said in my last post, no driver currently in the sport doesn’t deserve to be their. It is all a matter of who deserves to be in the sport more, and their are certainly some drivers not in the sport right now, and even not in the frame to EVER be in the sport, who deserve a shot more than some who are in right now.

Cyril, we know where you’re coming from. We know times are tough right now. But before you go calling Formula One’s most important employees irresponsible, take a closer look at what they contribute on a regular basis. It might not be immediately tangible, but its results certainly are.

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