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Jules Bianchi is now Marussia driver. Sutton Images
Jules Bianchi is now Marussia driver. Sutton Images
Pastor Maldonado paid for his seat but managed a win for Williams in eight years. Paul Gilham / Getty Images
Pastor Maldonado paid for his seat but managed a win for Williams in eight years. Paul Gilham / Getty Images
Valtteri Bottas for Williams. Sutton Images
Valtteri Bottas for Williams. Sutton Images
Giedo van der Garde comes in at Caterham. AFP
Giedo van der Garde comes in at Caterham. AFP

Formula One: Wheel is turning for rookie drivers who pay for their seats

In a cash-absorbing sport, being just fast and furious is not enough as Gary Meenaghan looks at the trend ahead of Sunday's opening race.

In Formula One, money talks louder than any screeching engine.

Almost 50 per cent of the drivers who will line the 22-car grid at Sunday's season-opening Australian Grand Prix have this year paid for the privilege.

Five of these "pay drivers" have no experience whatsoever of racing at the top level.

The sense of concern regarding the growing prominence of such practices is particularly acute this year because experienced drivers such as Heikki Kovalainen and Kamui Kobayashi have been so obviously outmuscled by rookie money.

"That's the way of F1 at the moment It has nothing to do with sport," Timo Glock said last month after losing his seat at Marussia.

"F1 has become an auction," added Jaime Alguersuari on learning he had missed out on a race seat for the second successive year.

The unsavoury aspect of the situation is as clear as a helmet visor, and yet the prevalence of pay drivers should come as no surprise.

Max Chilton, the 21-year-old rookie who will this year race for Marussia, offered the common counter argument to Glock's gripe: "There are plenty of pay drivers on the grid and, in my experience, the sport has never changed.

"It's always been that way, and it probably will always be that way. Some of the legends in our sport had to bring backing to get into it in the first place."

The Englishman is correct. Sponsor money has helped provide drivers with race seats for decades.

Juan Manuel Fangio, Niki Lauda and Ayrton Senna - all multiple world champions - needed a foot-up early in their careers and it is often said that even Michael Schumacher, the sport's most successful driver, with seven world titles, initially "earned" his chance via a one-off 100,000 (Dh548,000) payment to Eddie Jordan's eponymous racing marque.

In recent years, however, with the global economic downturn providing teams a harsh environment in which to negotiate external sponsorships, the money a driver needs to get his foot in a monocoque has grown not only more substantial but also increasingly important.

Marussia, Caterham and Sauber have all acknowledged they require driver-funded finances to progress, while Williams and Force India also both employ drivers who have paid for the privilege.

The result is Glock, Kovalainen, Kobayashi and other worthy drivers have been cast aside or overlooked in favour of fresh-faced, cash-backed rookies, such as Chilton, Giedo van der Garde and Esteban Gutierrez.

Yet assess the economical climate and it is an understandable - albeit unsporting - business model.

Kovalainen, the Finnish driver with Caterham, was last year paid roughly 1.5 million, while his teammate, Vitaly Petrov, brought in sponsorship to the tune of 7m through deals with the likes of the Russian petrochemicals giant Sibur and Russian Helicopters.

Petrov finished above Kovalainen in the drivers' championship and in placing 11th at November's Brazilian Grand Prix, he secured his team 10th place in the constructors' standings and a windfall of around 7.5m.

The pay driver paid off.

It has been a similar story at Williams and Sauber in recent seasons.

Pastor Maldonado, the Venezuelan poster boy for pay drivers, provides close to 30m to Williams courtesy of financial support from PDVSA, his country's state-owned oil company.

Yet Maldonado proved his worth to the team in performance as well as petrodollars last season when he won the Spanish Grand Prix - Williams's first victory in eight years.

At Sauber, their tie-up with Telmex, the Mexican telecommunications company, is an ideal example of what money can buy in modern motorsport.

Agreed in late 2010, the deal assures a seat for a Mexican driver and Sergio Perez proceeded to impress enough - three podiums last season - to warrant a high-profile move to McLaren-Mercedes this year, where he will now receive a salary. His vacancy has been filled by compatriot Gutierrez.

"Money can buy you a seat, but never the results," Perez tweeted earlier this year following accusations financial backing had helped attract his new English employers.

If he needs historical proof, he can point to the paddock, where the names of men such as Alex Yoong, Ricardo Rosset and Giovanni Lavaggi continue to produce smirks from those who remember cash-rich, performance-poor pay drivers. The problem F1 now has, however, is that the reliance on those who pay to play is threatening the future of the sport.

And not just in that F1 can no longer legitimately claim to be home to the 22 best drivers in the world.

Pay drivers are masking a greater problem: teams are being forced to fight for survival.

Of the 12 marques that competed in last season's Constructors' Championship, seven of them - eight if you include Romain Grosjean at Lotus - employed pay drivers.

None of these teams chose to discard talented, experienced would-be current drivers because they are greedy for rookie money. They made the choice to give them a financial fighting chance.

Martin Whitmarsh, the chairman of the Formula One Teams Association, revealed last month that "of the 11 teams, seven of them are in survival strategy". Worse, though, was that his confirmation came as little surprise.

Marussia are nearly 50m in debt and remain stuck at the back of the grid.

Caterham have spent close to 80m, yet in three seasons have never scored a point.

Lotus mechanics threatened to go on strike ahead of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last year because they had not been paid. Vijay Mallya, the co-owner of Force India, was subject of an arrest warrant last year and his Kingfisher airline continues to struggle with crippling debts.

The list goes on.

Sponsors are growing harder to recruit and with the withdrawal of the Spain's HRT in December, F1 has already lost one team.

Were it not for the role of pay drivers, the situation could well have been worse, but the alternative is neither obvious nor easily motioned.

Aside from team and driver sponsors, marques also rely on their share - around 50 per cent - of the sport's total revenue, which is close to 1 billion and includes around 330m in global television income. The remaining money is siphoned out of the sport and into the pockets of Bernie Ecclestone and CVC Capital, the private equity firm that owns F1's commercial rights.

Striking a more lucrative deal with CVC would immediately help teams, but those inside Fota acknowledge accomplishing such a feat is no easy task. Ecclestone, who oversees any dealings between F1 and CVC, is renowned as a notoriously tough negotiator, and he is of the belief the best way to cut costs is to postpone the 2014 introduction of new, costly V6 engines.

He says the quieter machines could turn off fans looking for F1's famous roar.

If that is his concern, he should consider what Kovalainen, Kobayashi and Glock have all learnt the hard way: money talks louder than any screeching engine.

And, as HRT can attest, teams with poor finances make no noise at all.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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