While the second race of the new F1 season gets underway, this year sees quite a lot of rookie drivers making their debuts. It looks good as a form of development of new drivers at the pinnacle of motor racing, but the cold hard truth is that unless you have the dough, then you can have the seat.
As we know, motorsport is a very expensive sport. It is not only about the talent of an individual, it also combines the technology of the crafts that they will be using, and these don’t come cheap. F1 teams constantly develop their cars and aerodynamics, just to wipe off the extra seconds off their time sheets, unless the teams are big on budget, if not the development phase will be delayed and simply make up the numbers on the starting grid.
There are a total of 6 rookie drivers this season, all of them driving for smaller budget teams and not expected to make a splash of the season’s proceedings. These rookies are what is known in the industry as ‘pay drivers’. Meaning they are able to bring in sponsorships and cash to the team just to survive the season. Caterham used to have an experienced driver in Heiki Kovalainan, but this season he lost his seat just because another driver can bring in the extra money for the team. It is a double edge sword, where without experience, the teams can’t perform yet without budget, they can’t develop. So I guess Heiki had to swallow the bitter pill and hope for better luck next season.
However, Heiki’s situation is not as bad, compared to Marussia. They had the same idea to sign a rookie pay driver in Luiz Razia. Things were going smoothly until the last test session when things went out of hand. Razia’s backers encountered sponsorships issues, and had his contract terminated. It is a pragmatic choice from Marussia’s point of view, but it’s a gamble anyway. They quickly move to sign talented Jules Bianchi with only 1 and a half day of testing left. Bianchi being a former Ferrari test driver, even managed to finish 15th in his debut race last week.
With the rising costs in the sport, it is getting more and more difficult just to stay in the competition. When Honda decided to end their participation, they sold the team the Ross Brawn. Called it luck, het turned it into a fairytale by producing a championship winning car and a world champion in Jenson Button. Mercedes wasted no time in purchasing them to make a triumphant return to the sport with a full Team Germany consisting of Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, while Button left to form his Team Britain with Lewis Hamilton, a few seasons back. HRT was never lucky to start with. They had the smallest budget and always had to settle for forgettable drivers. When the crunch came last season, they simply could not keep up and they tried to sell the team. But who would be interested enough to buy a team where are actually at nowhere. As such, the team is dissolved are their cars are sold off, thus restricting another 2 drivers on the grid.
It may not be a level playing field, but it is up against the economics of high level sports, just like soccer. The bigger the budget, there will always be more things to fiddle with.