Ashwin Menon, Undergraduate Batch of 2022 2020 has been a year of ups and downs in
Arjun Khanna, Undergraduate Batch of 2023
Formula 1, like any other sport, is an ever-changing business. We witness new eras, personnel changes and rule modifications every year. Each season continues to perpetually generate new chapters in the history of the sport. The past decade saw the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel come to the fore and win title after title to become two out of the top three drivers in total race wins and undisputed legends of the sport. We have been blessed with overwhelming talents and extraordinary racing in the current era. However, we may be witnessing the onset of a new chapter in the sport; an era of pay-drivers, where financial backing will be given higher priority than it has ever gotten, and talent and experience will openly go unrecognized.
The Role of the Pandemic: Did Covid-19 Push the Current Era Closer to its End?
In a sport of exhilarating car-racing, the actual fuel driving each team is money. Formula 1 teams invest hundreds of millions in the development of engines and pay generous wages to acquire the best engineers, drivers, mechanics, and support staff to stay competitive in the top racing league in the world. However, the economic recession brought about by the pandemic left several Formula 1 teams in shambles. Retaining sponsorship deals and extracting revenues from commercial rights became all the more difficult for the teams as the 2020 season remained suspended for an extended period of time. Many of them were left severely short on finances, which tested their ability to adapt and innovate in a time of crisis. Over the past year, teams have taken up multiple methods to cope with the financial crisis, but this seems to have come at the expense of talented drivers and the extraordinary level of racing we’ve been witnessing over the past few years. Formula 1 teams have turned to recruitment of drivers coming from rich backgrounds or those that attract sponsors using their names, even if that means getting rid of a better driver. With the importance of money in the sport, the teams are hardly to blame for doing so. However, the hiring of pay-drivers as a result of the financial crisis caused by the pandemic has pushed the current era slightly closer to its inevitable end. It may have set the stage for a new era, where hiring drivers who may not be the most talented but have financial backing becomes a norm; one in which level of racing could take a serious hit. This begs the question: is having a billionaire parent a free ticket to a seat in Formula 1?
The Curious Case of Racing Point and Lance Stroll
Lance Stroll arrived at Racing Point in 2019, after his father Lawrence Stroll, who has an estimated worth of $2.7 billion, became a part owner of the franchise. He lined up alongside Sergio Perez, a veteran who completed seven seasons with the franchise before his move to Red Bull Racing this past offseason. Perez was no regular driver; he was a loyal member of the franchise as suggested by his extended stay with Racing Point. Additionally, in 2018, when the team was on the verge of bankruptcy, Perez stepped up by saving the jobs of 400 of his colleagues by funding their wages, salvaging the future of the team. Besides this grand gesture, he has consistently produced results for their team since his arrival and has thoroughly outperformed Lance in their two seasons together as teammates.
Yet, at the prospect of having four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel in the team for the 2021 season, Racing Point decided it would be Perez who would make way. On the flipside however, there’s only so much the team could have done. Given the importance of money in the sport, and Lance’s father being a major financial contributor, it was the only practical decision. This, however, does not take away from the fact that a driver, statistically more deserving of a seat than Stroll, was almost driven out of Formula 1, which could have dealt a severe blow to the overall talent and experience on the grid.
Williams and Nicholas Latifi
The Williams F1 team also paints a similar picture after taking one of the worst financial hits during the pandemic. Struggling to stay solvent, they took an emergency loan worth $62 million from none other than Micheal Latifi, who is the global business mandate father of their rookie driver Nicholas Latifi. Latifi’s first season went fairly well for a rookie. He lined up alongside a generational talent in George Russell, who out-qualified him on every single occasion and out-raced him nearly every time. Though it’s too early to question whether Latifi belongs in the Formula 1 arena, his future in the championship seems largely secured regardless of his future performances. If Williams fail to repay the loan, it will reportedly transfer part ownership of the team to Micheal Latifi. With his father at the wheel, one would expect Nicholas to acquire a confirmed Formula 1 seat for as long as his career lasts, regardless of whether there are better drivers for the seat he occupies. Once again, a well-off driver is on the verge of securing a place in Formula 1 for years to come, almost solely because of the money he brings in, dampening the potential of the level of competition we could have if talent was prioritized.
We cannot take away from the fact that both Lance and Nicholas are talented drivers and could go on to prove that they always belonged in F1, regardless of their financial backing. However, we also cannot overlook the fact that their place in the championship does not entirely depend on their performance alone – a phenomenon that can severely pull down the level of racing in the top league in the world. In professional racing, one expects each driver to earn their place on the grid year in, year out. In this new era, we may not see enough drivers racing like their livelihoods depend on it, because they simply do not.
The Nikita Mazepin Controversy (TW: Sexual Harassment)
On 1st December, 2020, Haas Formula 1 team confirmed that Nikita Mazepin would be driving for them in the upcoming season. It was news that was not well received within F1 circles, and rightfully so. Compared to his competitors and their performances and statistics in the lower division championships, Mazepin should not have been next in line to make the big leagues.
In 2019, he was completely outmatched by his teammate, Nyck De Vries, who beat Mazepin by whooping 255 points and lifted the FIA F2 championship trophy. However, since this was still not enough to land Nyck a seat in Formula 1, it further weakens the argument that Mazepin is worthy of a seat in the top tier of racing already. Besides, Callum Ilott who scored 29 points more than Mazepin in the latest FIA F2 season, deserves a seat before him purely based on performances and statistics. The question remains: why was Mazepin offered the Haas seat when he clearly isn’t the natural choice based on statistics and results? The strongest argument and answer for that question is that his father Dmitry Mazepin is a billionaire, and is also on the Board of Directors for Haas’s title sponsor, Uralkali.
However, this controversy is deeper than just paying one’s way to the big leagues. Nikita Mazepin found himself in the middle of more controversy in late 2020 when a video of him inappropriately touching a visibly intoxicated woman in a car surfaced on his social media. Mazepin took full responsibility for his actions and issued an apology that has since been deleted. Despite the fury caused by the incident in the sporting world and among Formula 1 fans, Haas re-affirmed that Mazepin will drive for them in the upcoming season. The likely explanation for that is their financial dependency on his father and Uralkali as title sponsors of the team. Keeping Mazepin, despite his actions, might be the only way to avoid losing the much needed finances, as they try to compete in the post-Covid world. However, it is disappointing that even after actions as severe as Mazepin’s, he was allowed to keep his job in the top racing league – somewhere his position isn’t justified even otherwise.
The concept of pay-drivers is not new to the sport of Formula 1, neither is it always a bad thing. Niki Lauda initially paid his way into F1 and now he is a three-time world champion and a legend of the sport. Apart from Lauda, all-time greats like Michael Schumacher and Sergio Perez have also, at some point in their career, edged their way into Formula 1 by bringing sponsorship or pumping money into an organisation. Undoubtedly, most of these pay drivers are talented and have great potential and since they bring in the all crucial finances to the organization, hiring them is considered an overall reasonable decision. However, this does not excuse the fact that Formula 1 has been and is becoming more of a sport about money rather than talent.
And the last thing Formula 1 enthusiasts would want is for the sport to turn into a sport of the rich which will severely harm the level of racing and competitive spirit of the sport in the long run.