Every so often a piece of motor sport news comes up that really gets my hackles up. The story that started spreading today regarding Kamui Kobayashi was one such transmission. The gist of the article was that Kamui needs to find some personal sponsorship, i.e. money he can bring to a team and given them in return for a job, if he is to retain a drive in Formula One next season. Whilst the facts behind such an article are of course up for debate, the underlying premise holds regardless: it is now virtually impossible to hold one’s own in Formula One unless one brings significant financial backing. The ‘pinnacle of motor sport’ is turning into a series for the super-privileged and ultra-well connected.
Big news, I hear you say. Motor sport is, always has been, and always will be expensive. With that I have no argument. Back in the 1950s there were grids filled solely with the well-heeled, and right through to the 1990s Formula One was peppered with the Taki Inoues, Giovanni Lavaggis and Jean Denis Deletrazes of this world. The issue now is that in order to get a drive with a good, competitive team, it seems that a driver must come with their own budget.
Sure, it’s always been the case in motor sport that if you have enough case you can buy your way onto the back of the grid, but the phenomenon emerging now is completely different. What is happening is that the kind of teams that we would think of as established and professional, of the calibre of Williams and Sauber, are now actively seeking out drivers who come with personal sponsorship. In short, the seats previously reserved for the truly talented pilots regardless of finance are now being snapped up by those with the biggest budgets.
It would be disingenuous of me to compare the modern ‘pay driver’ with the kind that have been seen in the past. Standards have risen across the board, and as such people like Vitaly Petrov, Pastor Maldonado and Sergio Perez, who bring Russian roubles, Venezuelan oil money and Mexican telecoms millions respectively, are more than capable of holding their own in the current F1 field. Unfortunately, for a driver today to stay at the top level once they’ve got their foot in the door, talent is increasingly not enough – money is also needed, preferably in copious quantities. And despite standards right the way through racing, it seems to be a few tens of millions of pounds rather than a few tenths of seconds a lap that makes the decision between two very good drivers.
I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores of this. The reasons are fairly obvious – 2008, Lehman Brothers, credit crunch, etc – and have been explored in much better detail elsewhere by people far more talented than me. Rather, what concerns me is the trend this sets, and the trajectory it puts F1 on. It seems that unless you are talented to the point of carrying potential to be a legend (Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso) or are above-average quick with big bucks (Maldonado, Petrov), there is no place for you in F1 of the 2010s.
This might sound like I’m just bitter because my favourite driver is going to be out the window due to this trend, but there’s a bit more to it than that. I’m concerned about how F1 will look in five years’ time, not least because a very effective analogue is running right now. A small core of supremely talented old stagers supported by a cast of a dozen decent but well-backed drivers, with another ten or so very skilled but under-funded pilots fighting over scraps from the table? Sounds just like the current World Rally Championship to my mind, and we all know what breadth, depth and consistency of competition that series provides. At least if the WRC trajectory is followed, we can console ourselves with the fact the whole mess will sort itself out just before Sebastian Vettel has taken his twelfth world title and one hundred and sixtieth career win.