There is a perception that these days it is impossible for a young driver going on talent – as opposed to sponsorship – to get into Formula One. If you’re returning from retirement, or you have bags of cash, then it’s easy to get in. But is this really the case?
Today, companies don’t have money they can throw at racing teams – whether in F1 or other series – to sponsor them. Most of the companies who do sponsor teams seem to be out of reach for the average fan, or they are companies belonging to the team owner. The other sponsors on cars tend to come from drivers, who carry the names with them as they change teams and series. Racing is horribly expensive, and with a cost of several hundred thousand pounds even for Formula Renault UK, most drivers have no choice but to seek sponsorship in order to get into the series. Drivers who struggle to find sponsors may be left without a seat, and in recent days – starting with Dan Wells – we have seen many turn to the public via Twitter to get funding.
But is there really a dilemma between sponsorship and talent? Is it really true that good drivers miss out while worse drivers get all the funding?
The truth is, companies aren’t going to sponsor bad drivers. They want to sponsor good drivers so that they will get noticed! Some drivers can use their name to get sponsorship – Bruno Senna, for example – yet nobody thinks of him as a ‘pay driver’. There was great delight when Senna got into Williams, though at Barrichello’s expense. And though Vitaly Petrov brings in Russian sponsorship, his ability has also been proven. His displacement of Trulli might cause disgruntlement, but in truth he will be good competition for Kovalainen.
The list goes on: Jerome d’Ambrosio, replaced at Virgin/Marussia by Charles Pic, but he also brought in sponsorship which now features on Lotus’s cars. Di Resta has help from Mercedes, Perez has help from Escuderia Telmex. These are all fantastic drivers. And though Hulkenberg isn’t regarded as a pay driver, it doesn’t say ‘Katjes’ on his cap for no reason. As for drivers in the top teams, they have had some help to get to where they are – Hamilton through his young bravery with Ron Dennis, Alonso indirectly brings in Santander sponsorship to Ferrari (and it stayed at McLaren though the Abbey connection). There are very few, if any, drivers on the grid now who are there purely by talent.
As for the age of F1 drivers, 11 on the grid this year are 25 or younger. Four of those are GP2 champions (Rosberg, Maldonado, Hulkenberg and Grosjean); one is DTM champion (Di Resta); one is a world champion (Vettel) and the others all have good records in Formula Renault or GP2. All but six drivers are 30 or younger. So F1 does not have an age problem.
I believe F1 has one of the most talented lineups of all time. If we put them in equally-matched cars, we would have some incredible racing. I think the few drivers regarded as ‘bad’ are severely underrated (Maldonado might be good at disobeying rules but you need talent to win in GP2; Karthikeyan has done brilliantly outside F1). Yes, some talented drivers have been left out of F1 – Luca Filippi is a prime example – but many others who are just as talented have made it. So stop complaining and enjoy the racing. And hope that somewhere out there is a team to match Red Bull!