Are Caterham and Marussia Signing the Right Drivers?

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Are Caterham and Marussia Signing the Right Drivers?
Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Charles Pic (left) and Giedo van der Garde have still to be confirmed for 2014

With a number of Formula One seats still to be filled for the 2014 season, there are two teams in particular that nobody is really talking about.

Most of the immediate postseason focus appears to be on who will fill the remaining places at Force India and Sauber, and the so-called "minnows" at the back of the F1 grid aren't generating quite the same level of media excitement.

Marussia and Caterham are the only F1 teams who did not score a point this season. Indeed, they are the only teams who have never registered a point in their respective histories.

Jules Bianchi is the only driver who has had his seat for next season confirmed, and for good reason. Bianchi has been the standout rookie this season, his drives in the uncompetitive Marussia making even Ferrari sit up and take notice and leading Autosport to name him “Rookie of the Year” at their prestigious awards ceremony, as reported by Scott Mitchell.

That leaves three spots up for grabs with Max Chilton, Giedo van der Garde and Charles Pic hoping they have done enough to retain their seats at motorsport’s highest table.

The Talent vs. Funding Quandary

The question as to whom Caterham and Marussia will eventually settle on leads to some important questions. Do the teams gamble on hiring the most talented drivers available to them or go for a driver who brings the most funding with them so that they can remain in the sport and have some budget left aside for car development?

Should they opt for the former, then Heikki Kovalainen stands a good chance of securing a move back to his former team at Caterham. Kovalainen is an experienced driver who has a Grand Prix victory to his name with McLaren. He was also the preferred choice for Lotus when Kimi Raikkonen pulled out of the season’s final two Grands Prix.

But Kovalainen insisted earlier in the season that although he was keen to win back a full-time drive, he would not seek sponsorship to do so, as quoted in an article by Jonathan Noble and Matt Beer on Autosport:

The fact is that I will not bring money, everyone knows that, and if that's going to be an obstacle again then it's out of my hands. I haven't worried about other drivers bringing in money and taking the places. I'll try to find other ways, and I'll try to convince people based on another way, purely on performance and the things that I do and how I do things. Whether that will work or not I don't know.

Kovalainen may be admirable in saying that he backs his performance to shine through against those who pay for their seats, but it’s easy to forget that the season before last, Kovalainen was outscored by Caterham team-mate Vitaly Petrov, who brought around £10 million to the team from Russian petrochemical firm SIBUR.

It was something of a surprise, then, when Caterham dropped both drivers in favour of Pic and Van der Garde for 2013, especially as Petrov helped secure Caterham a valuable 10th in the constructors' standings by finishing ahead of Pic in the final race.

Van der Garde does come with limited sponsorship in the form of the McGregor fashion label, but Pic admitted on Autosport recently that he fears for his place in an article by Jonathan Noble and Pablo Elizalde.

Chilton’s hopes may also be boosted by the fact that he brings money to Marussia in the form of family backing, as his father is the chairman of insurance company Aon, according to Gary Rose of BBC Sport.

But despite Chilton managing to finish every race in his debut season, few can say he has been a match for the excellent Bianchi.

So-called "pay drivers" have been in the sport for a long time, and they often take priority over more experienced drivers with arguably more talent.

It is for this reason that Timo Glock was jettisoned by Marussia, who made no attempt to disguise the reason for his axing in saying it was result of “tough economic conditions,” as reported by The Telegraph's Tom Cary.

Our team was founded on the principle of benefiting from proven experience whilst also providing opportunities for young emerging talent to progress to the pinnacle of motorsport. Thus far, this philosophy has also been reflected in our commercial model.

The very same commercial model appears to have been adopted by Lotus recently when they announced the signing of Pastor Maldonado in favour of Nico Hulkenberg. Hulkenberg was thought to be their preferred option, but that hinged on an investment deal with Quantum Motorsports that has not yet materialised.

So Lotus went for Maldonado, who brings countless millions to the team through state-owned Venezuelan oil company PDVSA.

 

Should the lesser teams gamble on talent over money?

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Whilst it’s easy to criticise the role of the pay driver, all drivers need to start somewhere, and they all need help, no matter how glittering their junior careers.

Lewis Hamilton’s entire career from childhood was financed by McLaren and likewise Sebastian Vettel’s from Red Bull. But not every junior driver is that lucky, and few get their F1 break with the biggest teams.

Like it or not, the smaller teams need funding and drivers need their break in the sport. Whomever Marussia and Caterham choose to fill their respective remaining seats, it will be the result of a balancing act and a decision that the bigger teams have the luxury of not having to make.

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