When is a pay driver not a pay driver? When their presence in a certain team can bring in money without the man in the race suit needing to haul bags of cash around the world or sign a single cheque.

Late last year, when it was confirmed that Felipe Massa would be driving for Williams in 2014, Crash took a look at the financial opportunities the Brazilian's signing would bring to the Grove racers. And with yesterday's announcement of a new partnership with Petrobras, it appears that the Massa effect is beginning to bear fruit.

The Petrobras deal isn't new territory for Williams, of course - in 1998, the two entities embarked on an 11-year partnership which will now be rebooted from this season. What is new is the Martini title sponsorship, still yet to be confirmed but certainly official. The past week has seen three sponsorship or partnership announcements from Grove - two new, and one extension. There's no mistaking the fact that there's a lot of (financial) interest in the team at present.

In recent years Williams have had an unearned reputation of being on their last legs financially. And while it's certainly true that the team's budget pales in comparison to the likes of Red Bull, Ferrari, or Mercedes, the diversification strategy that has seen Williams' engineering used in public transport technologies around the world, plus partnerships with other automotive firms, have seen the corporate coffers filling up.

Felipe Massa has also suffered in the court of public opinion, and has had to spend much of the past four years answering questions about whether or not he deserved his Ferrari drive. The combination of Williams and Massa is the most underestimated pairing in the pit lane, both in terms of on-track results and the year-end financial figures.

While neither Massa nor Williams have been performing at their peak over the past few years, both share common ground. The team has excellent facilities (technological and human), and has won - dominated, even - in the past. The driver has a lot of natural talent, is a proven race-winner and F1's closest nearly-champion. Both man and team alike have seen recent improvements after a period of slump, and they share the desire to reassert themselves as forces to be reckoned with on track.

By signing Formula One's best-known driver yet to win a championship, Williams made a statement of intent to potential sponsors. F1 obsessives know that said statement of intent was made long before Massa was signed, with a multi-year restructuring of the technical department and hiring Pat Symonds as their Chief Technical Officer. But for those in charge of corporate sponsorship, Symonds' name won't have the same resonance as Massa's.

By signing their first 'name' driver since Rubens Barrichello, is it any wonder that Williams has been able to attract the attention of the men and women who control the corporate purse strings?

Of course, it has been tried before. Barrichello's signing brought in limited sponsorship, either globally or from Brazil, despite the fact that he had been a championship contender with Brawn GP in the previous season. The subsequent signing of Bruno Senna was another attempt to tap into the South American sponsorship market. Pastor Maldonado brought PDVSA money, but his lack of a marquee name failed to attract other sponsors.

With Massa, however, initial indications are that Williams have nailed it. All that remains to be seen is whether the racer and the team behind him can make the results pay out on track - the balance sheet has already been taken care of.

Kate Walker

Kate Walker is a senior F1 writer for Crash.net. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, she keeps an eye on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that makes Formula One a political melodrama.

 

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