“Pay driver” has become a dirty set of words amongst a a certain group of racing enthusiasts. The term is becoming more and more prevalent along the paddock these days. Some might call this group of enthusiasts “purists,” while some others might call them “assholes.” Some purists (we’ll say for simplicity’s sake) believe that if a driver “pays” to get their racing seat - they’re automatically worthless behind the wheel. Pastor Maldonado may not be the quintessential stereotype for this sort of estranged argument, but he doesn’t do himself many favors to really stand out against it. Hating on Pastor is almost too easy.
He is funded by dirty, dirty oil money. Pastor is arguably in one of the most secure driving seats on the F1 grid, no matter what car he’s in. What differentiates a pay driver from the rest of the guys in flame-retardant suits is that they bring major money with them to the negotiating table around contract time. They aren’t looking for a pay-out. They’re looking for racing teams looking for one. Pay drivers are backed by either personal finances, or in Maldonado’s case - a personal sponsor. The money goes in to whatever team that driver gets a seat with. This leads many to believe that because a driver didn’t earn their seat by virtue of talent alone, they therefor have none of it.
Amongst his group of pay-to-drive pals (there are several in F1, and even more in GP2,) Pastor’s backing is a bit tricky to understand. Originally his funding was portrayed as coming through the Venezuelan government as part of a bid to promote tourism and morale in his impoverished home country. Venezuela, the world’s fifth leading oil exporter, stamped the logo of the state-owned oil company PDVSA (Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. - owner of U.S. based oil refinery company Citgo) on Maldonado’s back and sent him off to the races.
His sponsorship money comes from the tax dollars of a country with recurring food shortages. It has been reported that former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez had a big interest in F1 and was a major influence in Maldonado’s funding and career. When Chavez passed away in 2013 many people speculated that Maldonado’s cash stream could dry up. It didn’t. Later that same year Venezuela cut all motorsports funding upon the discovery of a forgery scandal in which Alejandra Benitez, the Venezuelan minister of sports, found that her falsified signature had moved over 65 million in sporting-fund dollars to places in which it did not belong - tax dollars sourced from the limited prosperity and people of Venezuela. A group of people who have regularly and continue to experience food shortages and other severe hardships in their home country.
Maldonado was never implicated in that scandal, but with his financial backer (his country, mind you) cutting off all ties to international motorsports, surely then his F1 funding river was set to run dry. Nope!
Pastor went to Lotus and PDVSA was all over the Enstone two-tusked specials for 2014. So, what gives? If the government is getting ripped off through sponsorship deals, why continue paying out?
PDVSA has not been immune to financial troubles, itself. Yet, the brand still sponsors quite a few pro sporting endeavors. They are said to be owned and operated by the Venezuelan government, but they seemingly act independently in some cases. They produce oil - and the last time I checked - the demand made it seem like this wasn’t a commodity that took a lot of marketing to move. I must be missing something on that front. What personal ties Maldonado has, if any, to PDVSA are unclear. What is clear is that PDVSA won’t be cutting their ties from professional athletes or F1 any time soon, their government be damned (even though they ARE their government.)
He’s not good enough for an F1 car. Shady funding scenario aside, Maldonado can still hold his own in certain race cars. He won the GP2 Championship in 2010 with six wins, and has over 25 wins in sanctioned racing throughout his career. He won the Spanish Grand Prix in 2012 in a Williams F1 car. It’s not as though he’s some talent-less hack, despite what some purists may have you believe. 25 wins are not accidental. His successes, however, have not been numerous enough to successfully overshadow the his frequent mistakes.
For starters, his DNF record isn’t helping. The old racer’s adage goes: to finish first in a race, you must first finish the race. Maldonado has retired from one quarter of every season of Formula One that he has entered over his entire career, from 2011-2014. He’s sat out the finale for one out of of every four F1 races he’s entered. On average, he retires from almost double the amount of races as his team mate for any given constructor. It must be more than his cars’ reliability that is in question as to the reason why.
His latest season in the Lotus E22 was the first in which he was out DNF’d by a team mate, in fact. Roman Grosjean isn’t particularly known for being one of the best, or safest drivers on the grid, but he still outscored his pay-to-drive Venezuelan partner by two championship spots and six points.
Pastor’s measly two world driver’s championship points were only good enough for sixteenth place in that particular competition (tied for the lowest points producers out of 22 full-time scorers,) but his four penalty points did tie him for number one in most acquired for 2014 (he can’t even win that, outright.) This aspect of his driving, unfortunately for him, has become his calling card.
He crashes, a lot. This guy’s highlight reels typically suggest he would be more at home on a GoKart track at best, and a bumper-car ride too often. On top of that, in his incidences he often comes off a bit like a spoiled brat after an off. Rarely-if-ever will you find him citing his own mistakes as even a possible, let alone probable cause to the carnage that has been notoriously found around him. At the U.S. Grand Prix in 2013, in his penultimate race for Williams, he qualified nine spots behind teammate Valterri Bottas. He actually attempted to explain this result by accusing his team of sabotaging his car. He has been filmed putting his race car in many places in which it does not fit or simply does not belong. In more than a few instances, he has crashed by losing control of his car completely by himself on the track.
The concept of a pay driver is not a new business model for auto racing, but it is one of the newest models to be viably successful at keeping the lights on in a race shop. It’s also one of the more unique ways in which a country can promote tourism. Nations wishing to vest interests in F1, instead of needing a track and a race, can simply hire a driver and buy them a seat. Corporations can have as much say as the team owner on the conversation topic of who’s driving the race car. Maldonado is not the first, and he won’t be the last. This also isn’t the first time the money game, modern F1s primary reason for existence, has found a new way to work.
At F1’s humble origin, it was a handful of driver/mechanics and friends that worked on building their cars, raced their cars, and won a check and a trophy for their daring accomplishments after winning a race in their cars. Formula One now reaches over half a billion people each year, some of the teams are multi-billion dollar operations, and the FIA pockets most of the money that the teams and drivers generate. It’s all about the money. More pay drivers are coming. The proverbial “good old days” are gone.
Get used to it, purists.
Written by Jesse Alan Shaffer, former Director of Information Technology and Network Analyst for Pittsburgh Technology Management @xmarkedspot