Luiz Razia was presented to the world as Marussia’s new Formula 1 driver on 6 February and was out of a job by 1 March before pre-season testing had even finished.
While top drivers such as Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton are paid tens of millions of dollars to race, some of their fellow competitors in the season starting in Australia on 17 March have had to bring cash to their teams to get on the starting grid.
As Brazilian Razia discovered in stomach-churning fashion, if the expected backing then fails to materialise the promised seat disappears.
“I’m kind of in shock, because you expect to be in F1, you are there announced, testing and then you are out – and not because of a driver fault,” he said after his dream went sour.
“I did everything right in what I could do but it was really just a circumstantial thing that happened. And that was it.”
Even with the most meagre budget in the sport, Marussia still burn through $2 million a week – compared to an estimated $1 million a day at the wealthiest of teams – and engines are expected to double in price next year when new rules come in.
Marussia started in 2010 with an annual budget of some 45 million pounds ($67.75 million) but that has gone up by around 10 million a year. Even then, they reckon they spend 25 million less than anyone else.
Without a point in three years of competing as tail-enders, the team need their drivers to bring in sponsorship if they are to stay in business.
They said as much when they announced in January that Germany’s Timo Glock, the paid driver whose place Razia took, had left by mutual agreement to allow the team to find someone with money.
“The ongoing challenges facing the industry mean that we have had to take steps to secure our long-term future,” said team principal John Booth at the time. “Tough economic conditions prevail and the commercial landscape is difficult for everyone, Formula One teams included.”
Razia was replaced by promising French rookie Jules Bianchi, who has the support of Ferrari but had lost out on the Force India seat days earlier to well-backed German Adrian Sutil.
Marussia are not an isolated case. Despite the sport being a money-spinner for commercial rights holders, with Formula One expected to generate revenues of $2 billion in 2012, many of the teams are feeling the pinch.
Spanish-based HRT folded after the end of last season and the new cars have plenty of space available for any sponsors who might like to come forward.
“What one hears is that a lot of teams are facing a challenging financial situation, some more and some less,” Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn told Reuters.
“We have taken some measures but I still think it’s going to be tough for some of the teams to have a viable business model for a few years,” said McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh.
Enter the ‘pay driver’, a man whose talents behind the wheel may not always be as great as some other candidates but whose sponsors make him a most welcome addition.
Finland’s Heikki Kovalainen was a race winner with McLaren but lost his Caterham seat when the team decided Frenchman Charles Pic and Dutchman Giedo Van der Garde were a better commercial fit.
“I told my management not to actively find money,” Kovalainen said last year while looking for a seat that never materialised. “I don’t think it leads to anything.”
Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari, dumped by Toro Rosso in 2011 and struggling to find backers with his country in the grip of a debt crisis, lamented last month that “F1 has become an auction”.
Japan’s sole driver Kamui Kobayashi – a crowd-pleaser who brought no sponsorship – departed when Sauber, who have several Mexican partners, opted for Mexican rookie Esteban Gutierrez.
Sometimes such drivers turn out to be win-win, bringing both the talent and the cash.
Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado, supported hugely by state oil company PDVSA, was a winner with Williams last season while Sergio Perez, backed by Mexican telecoms giant Telmex at Sauber, is now with McLaren.
Austria’s triple champion Niki Lauda started out as a ‘pay driver’ in the 1970s while seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher owed his 1991 race debut with Jordan to a cash payment.
The phenomenon is as old as the chequered flag itself, with the sport accommodating ‘gentleman racers’ in privately-entered cars in days of old, and for some it is all part of the game of Formula One.
“You need a South American country; we’re looking for one,” joked Britain’s 1996 champion Damon Hill, whose 22-year-old son Josh is currently working his way through the junior ranks. “Chile, Argentina, any one will do.
“I’m sure that quite a lot of people look at F1 and think: ‘Well, it’s only for people in the know, with the right connections.’ You can’t deny that, it’s probably true. But then, if you want to get into F1, that’s part of the game too.
“You have to find out who you can convince to get your hands on the right equipment to get in there. That’s part of your competitiveness,” added Hill.
Others, such as Whitmarsh, fear that too many seats going to the highest bidders could do serious damage to the sport’s image unless brought under control.
“For me it’s personally sad that there are so many pay drivers in Formula One, the numbers have crept up,” said the Briton.
“You would hope that in the premier form of motor racing worldwide, you wouldn’t have to have pay drivers…the reason that some of those guys are pay drivers is that actually they are fundamentally not good enough to be in Formula One.
“Sadly they have become an important constituent of their (the teams’) budgets.” (Reuters)