Bob McMurray: Money helps drivers go round
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The first new 2018 Formula 1 car launched is the HAAS Formula 1 team’s, closely followed by the Williams, Red Bull, Renault and Sauber launches; then a couple of days later the Mercedes and Ferrari teams and today in England the McLaren.
The overall look of the cars has drifted towards the all-conquering Mercedes style with some Ferrari elements thrown in.
It’s interesting to watch how the world’s best automotive engineers and designers are melding the so-called “Halo”, the cockpit head protection system, into the designs. These appendages might look slightly smoother, more integrated maybe, colour coded as a form of camouflage and a little more aerodynamic. But they are still ugly attachments.
At the Williams launch, chief technical officer Paddy Lowe maintained: “I think by the second race nobody will notice it.”
An optimistic view, I think, but the facts are simple.
It is not going away, we will get used to it (in time, perhaps) and the concept will eventually trickle down, in various forms, to almost every single seat formula under the auspices of the FIA.
One subject that did come under discussion at the Williams launch was the “pay driver”.
Williams deputy team principal Clare Williams was vigorous in her insistence that to call any Formula 1 driver by that name was unfair.
“It’s nothing new in F1 that drivers come with money, and thank goodness that they do.”
It is a fair point.
Williams was obviously referring to the team’s driver line-up for 2018 with Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin apparently bringing much needed funding to the team.
It is a trend as old as Formula 1 itself — but one that gained traction in parallel with the sponsorship of Formula 1 cars.
Three-time world champion Niki Lauda was forced to get a bank loan to buy his way into the long-defunct BRM team.
That proved t a reasonable investment by any standards.
The Marlboro cigarette brand financed the careers of multiple drivers. A few world champions remain grateful to the Philip Morris Tobacco Company.
More recently, you could choose almost any driver from the grid and point to a sponsor or backer whose funding enabled him to get a drive. The process often involves a driver’s retainer.
Once again Marlboro is famous for giving backing to a team, in large by taking care of the drive substantial pay packet, something McLaren’s Ron Dennis did to great effect, and the practice is still in effect today at Scuderia Ferrari.
When Fernando Alonso joined McLaren, he was closely followed by longtime Spanish sponsor Santander, as was the case when he joined Ferrari.
Sergio Perez joined the Force India team in 2014 with the aid of Mexican telecommunications company Telmex, owned by one of the world’s richest men Carlos Slim, a longtime backer of Perez and other Mexican drivers.
Telmex sponsors Force India.
The erratic and unpredictable Pastor Maldonado eased his way into Formula 1 with help from the the Venezuelan Government, oil company PDVSA and US$50m. He was a friend of late Venezuela president Hugo Chavez.
So, the “pay driver” syndrome is not new, but it goes some way to explaining why so many drivers of undoubted talent never make it to the top rung of the ladder.
There are many talented drivers but few with the ability to use another party’s bank account.
If the right door opens at the right time, a Formula 1 team’s driver development arm may spot a potential champion. The Red Bull programme is famous for doing that, and its latest protege Brendon Hartley has benefited from the association.
McLaren picked up a young, financially struggling Lewis Hamilton and now the Ferrari Driver Academy is looking after the career of Kiwi Marcus Armstrong.