The European economy is in the ditch these days and it explains much of what has been going on in Formula One.
The situation is so critical that for the first time in the history of the sport, management positions appear to have been purchased.
At least one, anyway.
I’ve heard of pay drivers before but now we have pay managers.
Let me explain – but in order.
Timo Glock, who’s been a paid driver for Marussia (and I have no idea why, by the way), got the boot this weekend because the team needs a pay driver to partner its other pay driver, somebody named Max Chilton, a British driver who’s never finished higher than fourth in any professional series he’s been in.
Caterham, meantime, still has a seat open for a pay driver beside the pay driver they already have, Charles Pic, whose main claim to fame (besides finishing 21st in points in F1 last season) is that he finished fourth in GP2 the year before Max Chilton did, – which suggests to me that if you want to get into F1 these days, you must first finish fourth in GP2.
But I digress.
Force India majority owner Vijay Mallya (Bernie Ecclestone is believed to hold the mortgage . . .) is having a terrible time keeping his Kingfisher Airlines afloat (it might go bankrupt later this week) and the future does not look good for the race team, as a result.
Force India at one time was Eddie Jordan’s team. He got out while the going was good. Jordan was purchased by Canada’s Midland Group (headed by land developer Alex Shnaider of Toronto) but then sold to the Spyker car company. When Spyker couldn’t make a go of it, Ecclestone brokered the deal that transferred title to Mallya.
Mallya fell into financial difficulty previously but was bailed out by Sahara India Pariwar, an Indian company involved in sports promotion. Sahara paid Mallya $100 million US in 2011 in return for a tad more than 40 per cent of Force India. Hmmm. Wonder what the return’s been on that investment.
Moving right along, Williams has two pay drivers working for it, Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas. They used to have pay driver Bruno Senna but Bottas has the means to pay more so away went Senna.
And Esteban Gutierrez, who will partner Nico Hulkenberg at Sauber this season, is also a pay driver, although his third-place finish in GP2 in 2012 is an improvement on the previous fourth-place finishes of Pic and Chilton.
So when the 2013 season gets under way, there will be eight drivers out of 22 paying for the privilege of competing. And if di Resta gets deep-sixed to make way for a guy with money, there will be at least one more.
But pay drivers have always been around F1 – and other forms of racing – so it’s really not that out of the ordinary (although having more than a third of the field writing cheques is kind of disturbing).
What’s amazing today, though, is that the ability to pay has now moved into F1's management ranks.
At some point recently, the investment company Aabar, based in Abu Dhabi, which owned 40 per cent of the Mercedes F1 team, wanted to vamoose. Parent company Daimler agreed to buy Aabar’s holdings (the two companies have other business dealings together, including an interest in the Tesla electric car company) and promptly offered 30 per cent of that total toWilliams executive director Toto Wolff.
Wolff said, "I’m in, as long as you let me run the team (or words to that effect)," so Dailner agreed and the deal was done. Better Wolff should be the executive director of a team that might win the world championship in 2013 than do the same job with a team that won’t.
Daimler then unloaded the remaining 10 per cent onto Mercedes F1 team executive chairman Niki Lauda.
While Wolff left Williams to run Mercedes, Lauda was already there (in an undefined roll, albeit with a fancy title). Is it possible that Niki agreed to buy into the team in order to keep his job?
I mean, if he refused, was there somebody standing by ready and willing to ante up in order to be executive chairman of an F1 team?
Who knows? And maybe this sort of thing happens all the time and is perfectly normal.
But I have a feeling that new ground has been broken here and no longer are the drivers the only ones in F1 who are ponying up.