The concept of a paying driver isn't new to Formula One and it most likely won't depart the series any time soon as it represents a way for teams to gain cash investment to their operations. A team, first and foremost, is a business. It is intended to produce a product, employ skilled people to produce that product and make money doing so. A paying driver is simply another revenue stream to that business model.
The reason drivers such as Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen--among others--don't pay for their rides is that they are considered the top of the driver crop and their talents are of such that teams at the front of the grid are willing to pay for the best driver they can get to drive their car. The championship is a possibility for them and they know that every point scored increases their portion of the TV revenue at year's end which, as it turns out, is another revenue stream to the business model.
Interesting that McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh and other team bosses are starting to discuss, openly, the concept of the paying driver. Whitmarsh has been relatively frank on his thoughts of the paying driver concept and it hasn't been a glowing review. Drivers such as Rubens Barrichello, Jarno Trulli, Timo Glock and Heikki Kovalainen are paid driver who have fell victim of the paying driver scenario.
Caterham F1 boss Cyril Abiteboul feels his paying drivers are more than just a revenue stream:
"I don't see that as a negative. I think there is a good balance between their sporting and commercial value," he said. "Those things matter because when you are a young team, it's not easy to attract sponsors."
Abiteboul parted way with his paid driver, Heikki Kovalainen, in favor of two paying drivers in the form of Giedo van der Garde and Charles Pic. It may have been a necessary move to keep the Caterham F1 team more secure moving forward in a troubled economy but it is a concept that has crept from the back of the grid all the way up to Lotus F1.
To my knowledge, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren, Mercedes AMG and Lotus are the only teams not employing a paying driver strategy. That's four teams out of 11 on the grid--truly amazing realities as to the financial viability of F1 as well as the teams who participate in it.
I certainly understand the challenges of finding sponsors, trust me on this, but I also feel the teams do an average job of branding themselves and creating buzz behind their business model. Lotus F1 is a good example of how to take an otherwise monosyllabic driver and fashion buzz and brand behind a man who hates sponsor events and rarely participates in the standard routine of promotion. They have been attracting big global brands to their sponsor list and in the end, I wonder if it is simply a case of laziness on the other teams parts.
I don't mean to sound crass but Williams F1 has a fabulous history, several technology off-shoots that make money for the team--like Williams Hybrid Power--and should be wooing the very top sponsors in the world. They need to seize the character of their drivers and make the system work for them. They've done it in the past so why not now?
Don't get me wrong, every team works their tail off but it does seem that there is little effort in the brand management category for many of the teams. Sauber, Caterham, Marussia, Williams and Force India do very little on the marketing side of their operation... maybe it's because they don't have to now with paying drivers?
(*To be honest, I am assuming that Lotus F1's Romain Grosjean isn't paying some portion to drive for the team as well as McLaren's Sergio Perez but I could be wrong on that front. Regardless, approximately only 36% of the grid are paid drivers.)