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F1: The "pay driver" debate that continues to haunt racing is still relevant in 2018

SENIOR ANALYST
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1.29K   //    21 Jul 2018, 22:57 IST

Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin are both
Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin are both "pay drivers" for the Williams team

If you're a fan of all things racing, chances are you've come across the term "pay driver".It may never be acknowledged as a real form of referring to the "talented" drivers that show up on your TV screens practically every week as a part of the Formula One roster, but there's a reason why the term has garnered so much heat over the years and continues to be one of the most controversial topics when it comes to all things racing.

To break it down, a pay driver is one who hasn't necessarily conquered the minor race series on his way to the top but instead bought a one-way ticket to the big leagues by either personal sponsorship or through family funding to finance the operations of the team he now drives for.

Seems a little odd doesn't it? After all, it does negate the entire concept of beating the best en route to being the best at the highest level of motorsport racing. Well apparently, F1 teams don't seem to concur with that assessment of the situation. And they have their own reasons for feeling this way.

You see, at the end of the day, racing, like any other business, is all about the money. Smaller teams require heavy funding in order to support the superior design of cars that would assist them in matching up to the lofty standards set by comparatively bigger and richer teams such as Ferrari, Mercedes and even Red Bull Racing. The competitive world of F1 forces them to either match up monetarily, or face the threat of falling dreadfully behind in the Championship or worse still, face bankruptcy.

So when given the offer between choosing an up and coming racer who has proved himself at the lower levels (Formula 3, GP3, GP2 etc.) and one that's standing in the corner with bags of cash, teams are wooed by the latter because they need the moolah to stay alive. The system seems awfully unfair to young drivers looking to make a splash on the big stage but can't mix it up with the best simply because they couldn't match their peers from an economic standpoint.

Having said that, being a pay driver in F1 doesn't mean you're bound to be a failure. There is a significant reason to believe that pay drivers receive sponsorship in the first place because of their obvious talent, and former World Champions such as Michael Schumacher and Nikki Lauda are proof of the same. Though the former Ferrari duo didn't necessarily pay the amounts that modern-day drivers have to, they are certainly examples that the concept isn't all bad.

But lately, things haven't been so positive for pay drivers. Just take the latest F1 season for example. Williams announced earlier this year that their two drivers were going to be Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin. The announcement created news all over the world mostly because it was rumoured that former driver Robert Kubica was all set for a glorious return to the sport after a serious injury back in 2011.

So why exactly would Williams pass up an opportunity to challenge for a podium spot at the very least by siding with Stroll and Sirotkin instead of the experience and proven appeal of Kubica? Well, the funding of course.

Lance Stroll reportedly brings in $25 million a year for the team and Sirotkin has a very influential Russian investor at his back, making the duo a convenient bet for the team to keep the cash counters ticking. Kubica, on the other hand, is forced to settle as a test driver for the team.

The problem of pay drivers is acute whichever way you look at it. But the fact is, nothing will change till the time F1 authorities decide to implement their once-proposed 'equal budget for all' system that nullifies the gap between the haves and have-nots in F1.

However, the proposal always seems to fall flat because of the reluctance shown by the likes of Ferrari, who don't want to lose out on their monetary advantage that keeps them on top. F1 officials are forced to surrender more often than not and face the risk of top teams pulling out if they don't, making this a vicious cycle that frustrates fans more than anyone else.

So there you have it. The pay driver problem relates to a much bigger monetary issue in the sport of F1 and it isn't going away any time soon. So the next time you see a dominant driver winning practically every Championship at the lower level, don't be surprised if he's forced to give up his dream of driving an F1 car simply because someone more influential took away a spot that should have been his.

SENIOR ANALYST
Just a regular guy with a serious passion for sports.
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