Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article. This week the panel were joined by Will Buxton.
The Case of Rio Haryanto brings to mind a deeper issue in Formula 1. Rio has been demoted to the role of reserve driver after his desperate attempt to secure funding fell short.
For such a high profile sport with some of the biggest names in the media there is still a massive question mark hanging over the merit of a driver’s place in motorsport’s top flight and by extension the merit of a driver winning an F1 title. My simple assertion is that the overall quality of sportsmen is lower than other sports of comparable popularity.
When Michael Schumacher was asked how it felt to be the best driver in the world he replied, “I’m not the best, there’s millions of people out there who have never seen an F1 car who may be greater. I have been very lucky in my life”. This is true for F1 more than it is for any other high profile sport.
I am not saying that there is no merit to winning an F1 title or securing an F1 place, but you have to put it in context of other sports. There’s no shortcut in football that can put you into a mid-table Premiership team. Money can give you a leg up with top coaching and good contacts can help with academy placements but the athletes themselves must perform to the highest standards throughout all the levels in order to progress.
If you want to accuse me of reverse elitism and jealousy, then I accept that this certainly plays into my world view. Of the kids I knew who grew up on my demographic, none became racers but I do know a handful of people who made careers in football. As much as Lewis Hamilton is a story about a working class kid who made it big, we (the kids I rolled with) would have considered Lewis the rich kid simply by the fact that he had a dad willing to work two jobs and buy him a go-kart. We managed the odd go in a rental kart but for kids like us karting as a regular hobby was simply out of reach. We could enter football leagues for next to nothing and sneak on to tennis courts where the collection of court fees was managed by people too slow to catch us. So we gravitated towards those hobbies.
All this leaves a slight Asterisk over the various titles and accolades that motorsport has to offer. I said ‘slight’ so calm down just a tiny bit. Pretty much every kid in the developed world gets a shot at showing how good they are at football and athletics. The pool of talent that is realistically competing to make it big is much larger. When someone gets to the top of that ladder or even into major finals you know that they have beaten a path of hellfire to make it there.
Similarly the route that Lewis took had huge selection pressure. He had to be very talented to get noticed and get the backing of a team. The chances of him making it as far as impressing Big Ron were statistically small. Whichever child would eventually make it into that position was bound to be good. In contrast Nico Rosberg (as fast as he is) was probably always going to make it to at least F3 and almost certainly could have secured an F1 seat. It was interesting listening to Palmer Senior talking about his Son’s path to F1. He was talking about how much the GP2 title meant to them and how he had decided that they would only fund his F1 drive if he won the GP2 title. To me that only showed that Palmer could have had an F1 drive in any case. It’s easy to say after the fact that Dad would only have paid following a GP2 success but only a GP2 failure would have truly tested that.
There was much less selection pressure for Nico and Jolyon as they were in a very real way ‘preselected’ for a career in racing. Given this fact is it really a surprise to see the kid who won his place at the top table like Lewis, defeating the kid born into the racing elite like Nico? If you took away the money element of F1 and made all drivers take the Lewis path then I believe we would have a grid full of Hamiltons. If you opened it up one stage further and made karting accessible to ALL kids… well then you might not even have Lewis Hamilton.
But look at F1: Rosberg, Verstappen, Palmer, Magnussen, Sainz. All drivers preselected from Birth for racing. Then add the money men. The guys that are there only because of family money. How many of them would have made it if motorsport had the same selection path as the 100M sprint or football. Hamilton will probably leave F1 with a reputation of being a sporting great and I believe that he is. The shame is that the true greatness was demonstrated in his journey to the top rather than the F1 career itself.
But F1 isn’t like other sports. In boxing the best fighter will win more often than not. In cricket the best players will generally defeat a team of weaker players. F1 however, has the added factor of machinery that is not on a level playing field. In an argument I will expand on in a further post I believe that F1 is primarily an engineering competition (which as an engineer I’m fine with). Sebastian Vettel estimated in a press conference that the gap between the best and worst drivers was about half a second (I’d suggest it’s a touch more). The gap between the best and worst cars is considerably more than that.
So in a sport where development costs the earth and funds are key, you will always have the thirst for money. An F1 team can’t be blamed for accepting £8M for a race seat especially when they aren’t fighting for titles. We could of course move F1 towards being more of a Spec series. Teams would then have to really think about who was operating their machine and more talent would rise through the ranks. But changing F1 away from being an engineering competition would be to fight for the very soul of the sport.
For now the teams can afford to have weaker drivers with a little bit of money. If a team can use £8M to develop lap time then it really does make sense to accept the pay driver. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy the sport. But appreciate that drivers are a part of the sport, not all of the sport and that from a sporting talent point of view there’s a lot of laptime left out on the streets of every estate across the world.