Timo Glock’s sudden exit from Marussia has brought into sharper focus an age-old truth of Formula One that money makes the wheels go round and highlighted the gulf between cash-rich rights holders and struggling teams.
Passion, engineering brilliance and sheer hard work can only go so far and must be paid for. In the end, teams are always chasing the sponsorship dollar even if they manage to keep their rivals behind them on the track.
Glock was paid to drive at Marussia but the team made clear in a statement on Monday that this was a luxury they could no longer afford when their survival was at stake in harsh economic circumstances.
The German had become an anomaly on a starting grid whose lower slots are increasingly being filled by drivers bringing ‘budget’ with them.
“The ongoing challenges facing the industry mean that we have had to take steps to secure our long-term future,” said team principal John Booth in a statement.
“Tough economic conditions prevail and the commercial landscape is difficult for everyone, Formula One teams included.”
Marussia, one of three ‘new’ teams who were encouraged into the sport in 2010 with the promise of a budget cap and favorable terms that swiftly evaporated, have the smallest budget of any current outfit.
That still translates into some 70 million euros a season, however, and by finishing 11th overall behind Caterham last year they missed out on millions in prize money divided among the top 10 teams.
The team made no secret when hiring Britain’s Max Chilton, a Formula One rookie this season, that he would need backing to secure the drive and Glock’s exit will allow them to bring in much-needed cash for the second seat as well.
Marussia are not alone there, with vacancies outstanding at Force India and Caterham as both teams assess a number of candidates who can boast both an FIA super-licence and substantial support.
The failure of Spanish-based HRT, who had Indian Narain Karthikeyan and Chinese reserve Ma Qing Hua helping to pay the bills last year before they folded, has shown how vulnerable some teams are in a sport whose revenues were expected to exceed 2 billion euros last year.
Against that backdrop, with none of the three new teams (Marussia, Caterham, HRT) scoring a point in three seasons and others above them also feeling the squeeze, driver decisions have focused on more than just talent and experience.
“That’s the way of F1 at the moment. (I) hope it will change again soon because like this it has nothing to do with sport!” Glock said on Twitter on Monday in a message to Red Bull’s Australian Mark Webber that was later deleted.
Other leading drivers commiserated with the German, a veteran of 91 race starts with three podiums for Toyota.
“We know that many drivers know to arrive in Formula One they need to have sponsors, they need to have money, especially in the small teams,” Ferrari’s Felipe Massa said in a video chatroom on the Italian team’s website.
“And honestly this is not a great thing for Formula One and maybe it is part of the commercial side.”
The “pay driver” is not a new phenomenon, and indeed some of the greatest names in Formula One fell into that category when starting out.
Austrian triple champion Niki Lauda, now a key part of the Mercedes management team, paid substantial sums to March for drives in Formula Two and Formula One in the early 1970s.
By 1974 he was racing for Ferrari and being paid handsomely for his talents.
Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher made his debut for Jordan in 1991 after cash changed hands while Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado, Mexican Sergio Perez and Russian Vitaly Petrov have all been dubbed pay drivers.
Maldonado is now a race winner for Williams, Perez has replaced Lewis Hamilton at McLaren and Petrov’s 11th place for Caterham in Brazil in November gave his team 10th in the championship and was worth many millions.
Damon Hill, the 1996 champion with Williams, is not alone in expressing concern that money may now be talking too loudly in a sport that should be an arena for the world’s best drivers.
“It wouldn’t work in football,” he told Reuters last year. “If you wanted to play center forward for Man United, you still have to be pretty good.
“This sport has always been complicated from that point of view and I don’t know what the solution is,” added the Briton, who also brought a personal sponsor with him when he joined Williams in 1993.
“There will always be a need for more money when the stakes get higher because people want to be more competitive. Everybody’s a pay driver on the rungs up the ladder to F1.”