Financial backing is sometimes more important to ownership than skill. William Johnson and Graham Caygill report
Nico Hulkenberg was on top of the world on Saturday evening. The German driver had shocked the Formula One world hours earlier by taking pole position for the Brazilian Grand Prix in his Williams-Cosworth despite being with arguably the sixth-quickest team in the field.
The 23-year-old, who made his debut in the series at the start of the season, has made a decent start to life in the highest echelon of motorsport, scoring 22 points to be the highest-placed rookie in the championship in 13th position, with his superb display in Brazil, where he would eventually finish eighth, the icing on the cake.
But despite this, his future is in doubt as he prepares for Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the final race of the season, and it is through no fault of his own.
Post-race in Brazil, the German told autosport.com of his chances of staying with the team next season: “I’ve no clue. I am neutral. I am right on zero right now.”
F1 has not been immune to the consequences of the global credit crisis, and Williams are losing the backing of one of their main sponsors, the Royal Bank of Scotland, at the end of the season.
Though the British team are looking at other sponsorship options to help bolster their 2011 challenge, and more importantly their revenue stream, one way they can increase funding is by bringing in a driver with significant sponsorship.
Referred to as a “pay driver” these are drivers whose sponsors, through financial contributions and payments, are effectively paying for their man to compete in F1.
This is a scenario that could be facing Williams, who are to test Pastor Maldonado during next week’s F1 Young Driver test sessions in Abu Dhabi.
The Venezuelan driver is backed by Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA and by signing up the 25-year-old Williams would be likely to gain more revenue than if they kept Hulkenberg.
Pay drivers are not a new thing in F1. This year, for instance, Sakon Yamamoto has been contributing heavily to the Hispania Racing Team’s coffers since he first raced for the team at the British Grand Prix in July.
Pedro Diniz was a well-known pay driver in the 1990s who, thanks to support from his wealthy father and the backing of Italian dairy company Parmalat, was able to compete in 99 grands prix for the Forti, Ligier, Arrows and Sauber teams.
So the logic of pay drivers is not new, but it is not one that sits comfortably with Hulkenberg, who does not feel he should lose his drive because he does not have a raft of sponsors willing to pay for him.
“Obviously talent should come ahead of money in Formula One,” he said. “But with the economy having some trouble it has become a valid point and may change some things, but I still hope that things go the right way, how they should go.”
Having talent is vital to doing well in F1 and any kind of motorsport, but with it being expensive to compete, both for drivers and teams, knowing businesses and organisations with deep pockets can be a help.
Khaled al Qubaisi, the Emirati driver, will be in action this week in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix support programme, racing in the Porsche GT3 series.
Like many drivers around the world, al Qubaisi found it difficult to cover the cost of competing until he received support from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA).
“I went around all the potential sponsors but it was very tough,” he said. “Nobody was willing to buy in although several of them told me it was very compelling for them to get involved. Nobody took that big step.
“My last stop was ADTA and when I walked in to see them it was like they were waiting for me to come in so that they could offer me this opportunity.
“It was such a big moment for me.”
Al Qubaisi’s career has since been transformed and he spent the summer driving in the Porsche Supercup series, another F1 support series, racing at classic circuits such as Silverstone in Britain and Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.
“This is like a match made in heaven,” al Qubaisi said, expressing his gratitude to backers who have enabled him to race in a three-man team alongside Britain’s Sean Edwards and Sascha Maassen, of Germany.
“It was the time that Formula One was about to arrive in Abu Dhabi [in 2009] so it made a lot of sense for ADTA to have a Team Abu Dhabi in my sport and they were happy to sign a two-year contract. We are one year into that now.”
Al Qubaisi has since repaid the favour by producing some encouraging performances in his Supercup car. “I have been in the points three times this year,” he said. “And although I failed to finish the race in Monza [Italy] my timings were only half a second behind the fastest car.
“At the start of the season I was two-and-a-half seconds off the pace so you can judge my rate of progress. It has been amazing.”
Al Qubaisi said he could not overstate the importance of sponsorship. “It enables you to rise to a level that you would not be able to get to otherwise,” he added.
“Motorsport is very expensive. Although talent is important, financial backing can be even more important. If you do not have financial support then you won’t be able to go very far.
“With sponsorship, however, you can compete in higher-grade competitions that you would not otherwise be able to compete in. Last year I was competing in UAE domestic events which are more like amateur club races.
“But when I got the sponsorship from ADTA I was able to rise to a completely different level by taking part in the Porsche Supercup. It makes an enormous difference to your mindset and improves your confidence and self-belief.”