In the build-up to the 2015 season, all the talk has been about Lewis vs. Nico, Vettel to Ferrari, and of course, Alonso’s peculiar crash and memory loss in winter testing. However, a very interesting story has been brewing in the background at Sauber. Last season, Monisha Kaltenborn took the decision to sign then test driver Giedo Van der Garde, and rising star Jules Bianchi for their 2015 race seats. Sauber have for many years acquired a reputation for bringing young drivers into the sport and giving them a chance to prove their worth in a midfield car. But in recent years, they have run into serious financial problems, requiring large lump sums from their drivers to complete the season.
Both Van Der Garde and Bianchi were expected to bring vast sums of money to the table to compete this year. Once Jules suffered his horrific accident, a huge chunk of Sauber’s funding went with him, meaning Sauber needed to act swiftly to secure the necessary budget to race. They decided to cancel the agreement with Giedo, and instead bring in Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr, both of whom could bring what is rumoured to be £10m each to the team for their seats. Problem solved? Well, not quite. Instead of taking this lying down, Giedo has taken Sauber to court over his contract. His argument – he should be allowed to race in one of those seats for the season, regardless of how much funding the others have brought.
This is a prime example of what F1 has become. The fact is the majority of the grid is now filled with “pay drivers”, while the minority are actually being paid salaries by the top teams who can afford it. It wasn’t so long ago the ratio was the other way round. Is it a coincidence this shift happened around the same time we saw a decline in the number of Manufacture teams in the sport? Of course not. With the rising costs in F1, and the little return teams see in the midfield for their efforts, it’s no surprise that some of the manufacturers decided enough was enough. As recently as the mid-2000s, we had BMW, Honda, Toyota, Jaguar and Renault – all of whom have now left the sport in a team capacity.
This now means the opportunity to race for a top manufacturer has decreased, which in turn increases the amount of funding you need to bring to the table. What that leaves us with is an embarrassing bidding war for the seats on the grid. We had a very strange situation only last year where Max Chilton ran out of money midseason. He was out of the car for the following race, and it looked like Alexander Rossi was going to take his seat for the Belgian Grand Prix. Suddenly, Max raised the money needed on the Thursday before the race weekend, and he was back in the seat, at the expense of Rossi. Just another day in the merry-go-round auction house of Formula 1.
As it happens, an Australian court has now ruled in favour of Van Der Garde, and it looks like he will be racing in Melbourne at the expense of either Nasr or Ericsson (subject to an appeal from Sauber). Whilst you can’t imagine either of those two to be happy with that outcome, and will no doubt start their own proceedings in due course, you can’t help but feel sorry for Sauber, and feel happy for Van Der Garde. Sauber, although they have created a rod for their own back in a sense of going down this route in the first place, have been backed into this unfortunate situation due to the budget required to get them through the season. Due to Bianchi’s own unfortunate situation, the money from Giedo and either Ericsson or Nasr potentially wouldn’t be enough to get through the year. Essentially, they cannot afford to run Van Der Garde for the season. But this is not Giedo’s problem – he has a valid contract in place, and has done everything that was asked of him.
But either way, it is almost irrelevant – Giedo is still another pay driver; he just happens to be paying a little less than everyone else. Is he deserving of an F1 seat? Perhaps. Are there others more deserving of that seat? Absolutely. With a constant bidding war going on between pay drivers to get on the grid from one race to the next, will we see a driver get a chance in one of these seats to prove his/her worth on merit alone? I think you probably already know the answer.