The struggle of Formula 1 teams to raise sponsorship in recent years has seen an increase in the number of “pay drivers” on the grid. In the recent past when the sport was awash with factory teams the driver development programmes were the most common route for a youngster onto the grid.
The combined effect of factories leaving the sport and the state of the world wide economy meant that drivers are looked at in terms of more than just their talents behind the wheel. The budget that they could bring would now be of much greater importance. This was perfectly illustrated last year at Williams.
The team was forced into hiring Pastor Maldonado in place of the promising Nico Hulkenberg. Maldonado came with a large suitcase filled with Venezuelan petro-dollars and with Williams sliding further and further down the grid they felt no option but to take the money and hire Maldonado.
The team went to great lengths last year to enthuse about the merits of their driver. Indeed Maldonado was the reigning champion of GP2, the Formula 1 feeder series, but it had taken him four years to win the crown as opposed to “the Hulk” who won it as a series rookie.
For much of last year Williams refused to acknowledge Maldonado as a “pay driver.” Clearly the team felt ashamed to have been forced to such lengths to raise their budget. There should be no shame for his sponsorship to have been integral in their hiring of Maldonado. He is a decent driver who showed some moments of promise last year.
This year Bruno Senna partner him. He has shown moments of promise during the course of his career, particularly last year at the Belgium Grand Prix. The nephew of triple world champion Ayrton Senna brings with him a healthy wedge of Brazilian cash to replace his fellow countryman, Rubens Barrichello.
Even though both drivers bring with them a healthy budget there are differences between both drivers. Maldonado has shown promise but is clearly on the grid based on his bank balance. There is no denying that he is a competent driver who could develop into a good performer but without his budget he has done little to really stand out.
Senna on the other hand comes with a budget, a revered name and quite a lot of talent. The Brazilian has raced for the last two years for HRT and Renault and while his HRT experience was a disaster the fault lay with his team not himself. Last year he was hired as Renault’s test driver and replaced Nick Heidfeld midway through the year.
At Spa, one of the great drivers’ circuits, Senna was quite simply astounding. Despite not testing the car for six months he overcame a practice crash to outqualify his teammate, Vitaly Petrov, and start seventh on the grid.
That session showed the world that he was more than just the nephew of a great champion, he was actually a very good driver in his own right. For the rest of the year Senna blew hot and cold. He had some good performances and some mediocre ones but his reputation was made and he was a legitimate prospect on the drivers market.
Ultimately the decision came down to the fact that he could bring a budget to Williams and once again a talented driver will be painted as a pay driver similar to Maldonado.
It could have been very different for Bruno if things had played out differently in the winter of 2008. At the time, before Honda announced their withdrawal from the sport, Senna was competing with Barrichello for a berth alongside Jenson Button in the car that would eventually win both championships the following year.
Barrichello had struggled in the previous two years due to poor machinery and the team thought long and hard about replacing him with his younger compatriot. Senna impressed the team with his feedback and speed in a test at Barcelona. By lapping within a couple of tenths of Button he had proved his speed and shown Honda that he had the potential to succeed at the highest level.
It seemed almost inevitable that he would be offered a deal. Barrichello was 37 years old and coming off the back of two very poor seasons. Even though the car was clearly the limiting factor for him there was also little reason for Honda to retain him if they thought Senna had promise.
Ultimately the Japanese manufacturer pulled out of the sport and left Ross Brawn to pick up the pieces. As a privateer Brawn had different thoughts on his driver pairing and needed a safe pair of hands to partner Button and Barrichello was retained.
The success of Brawn in the year that followed was enough for Rubens to move to Williams having once more shown the paddock that he could race well and win at the highest level. Two years of poor machinery and budget constraints have however once again however made him dispensable and given Senna a chance to race.
If however Bruno had been afforded this opportunity in 2009 his reputation and career could have taken a very different path. Armed with a title winning car he would almost certainly have started the early season races from the front row of the grid, such was the Brawn’s performance advantage, and claimed a host of podiums as a rookie. It is far from inconceivable that he would have won races in that car.
His reputation would be very different to that of a pay driver and he would have been hired by teams on the basis of his talent and speed. Such is the fine lines that form a driver’s reputation and career. Given that Honda came so close to hiring him in 2009 and his performances last year Williams should feel quite pleased to have him on their books for the coming year.
Internally however the team must still regret the loss of Hulkenberg. The German’s pole position inBrazilas a rookie showed that he has the potential to be a very competent Formula 1 and a partnership of him and Senna would have given Williams the potential to move back up the grid.
Hulkenberg will return to the grid this year driving for Force India in place of Adrian Sutil. Having spent a year on the sidelines as their test driver Hulkenberg will view the coming season as a chance to prove his credentials to Mercedes, Force India’s engine supplier, as a future driver for their F1 squad.
With Michael Schumacher entering the final year of his three year deal the second Mercedes drive for 2013 is one of the most prized on the grid and Force India is home to two of the favourites for the drive; Paul di Resta also keen to prove his merits.
It has been rumoured that di Resta was hired by Force India at Mercedes behest so he can also be viewed as a pay driver. The Scot however has consistently distinguished himself throughout his career and can, along with likes of Senna and Sergio Perez at Sauber, rightly claim that they are drivers hired for the talent who also happen to be in the fortunate position to bolster a team’s budget.