Abiteboul: We don't have pay drivers
17 November 2012
New Caterham team principal Cyril Abiteboul insists that his squad does not employ pay drivers per se, although he admits that those that can bring sponsors to boost funds will always be considered.
Responding to a question about whether well-heeled drivers were still an inevitable part of the F1 scene, Abiteboul, who succeeded Tony Fernandes between the races in Abu Dhabi and America, claimed that the situation wasn't quite as clear-cut as some would make it seem, even in a time when the global economy would appear not to support expensive pastimes such as grand prix racing. Caterham has yet to confirm a driver for 2013, amid rumours that Vitaly Petrov is preparing to turn his back on F1 after failing to attract sufficient backing from Russia to prolong his career, and team stalwart Heikki Kovalainen could also find himself out of work after refusing trade talent for dollars when it came to securing a ride.
"I think that it's a little bit more complex than that," the Frenchman explained, "I don't like the notion of 'pay driver' because I see them more as a commercial element, which obviously is crucial when you are at the back of the grid, [and] you don't attract the sort of TV coverage that the other teams attract. That's a reality. We are not complaining. We have to make our way through the grid, up to the [front] to get more coverage but, before that happens, obviously the drivers are ambassadors, a good commercial vehicle who have a value for any form of sponsors.
"Just talking in terms of contracts, usually we don't have any drivers who are paying for a seat. It's just that he's introducing some sponsors to us who are helping the team to finance the season and finance their salaries. So, in reality, there are no paying drivers as such.
"I don't want to start a polemic, but even with the best drivers in the world, in the first row teams, there are some sponsors who are there also because [the drivers] are there - and I don't think you will qualify any of those drivers as pay drivers."
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner naturally reflected on the various 'young driver' schemes - including his own team's - that had helped deliver talent to the top flight, but admitted that there was still a balance that needed to be struck between drivers in the top flight on merit and those buying their seats.
"I think that, since F1 started in 1950, there has always been a mixture of drivers that have paid for seats and drivers that have been paid as professionals," he stressed, "The demands and costs of grand prix racing have always required that, and it's no different today where there's drivers that have perhaps been associated with sponsors but have still had to demonstrate their talent, demonstrate their ability, to warrant a place.
"In a perfect scenario, you'd have 24 drivers on the grid that were the most talented 24 drivers in the world. The reality is that isn't the case and I think that, while F1 is a commercial business and there are commercial pressures, you will always have that balance. But I think that what is good to see is that there have been schemes that have been set up to support young drivers who have found their way onto the grid that perhaps were associated with sponsorship but have also had to earn that position."
For McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh, the balance was uncomfortably tipped too far the way of those needing to bring money to secure their place.
"I think there are some good pay drivers out there at the moment but, to my mind, there are probably too many teams that have to rely upon pay drivers and I think that's a little bit sad for the sport," he noted, "It's an indication that we've got too much financial pressure in the sport at the moment.
"I think you'll always have a few [pay drivers], but I think too great a proportion of the grid, in my opinion, has to rely upon that and that just tells us that we've got to work harder to bring costs down in the sport, because it does distort."
Ferrari's Stefano Domenicali, meanwhile, highlighted another issue that, in his opinion, affected the quality of the drivers on the grid.
"I agree what Christian said but have one point to add," he claimed, "The less chances that we give to drivers to test on the track, the more it's likely that we have drivers than can present themselves to a team with money to bring with them. This is why we are so keen to have some more testing, for them to make sure that they are able to show to everyone how good they are on the track, on top of how good they are in bringing money to the team."