Why the never-ending story of driver budgets needs to end

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The great Terry Pratchett once wrote that dog bites man is not news.  Man bites dog, on the other hand, well that’s news.  In much the same way, “Junior driver’s career ends due to lack of budget” is not news anymore.  It’s frustrating, everpresent, and far too common a problem but it isn’t a surprise or a shock anymore.

Logan Sargeant is the latest driver whose single-seater career appears to be over.  His management firm confirmed that he wouldn’t be joining his 2020 F3 title rivals in F2 this season.  Instead, they are exploring endurance racing drives anywhere they can, which means he could at least continue being a professional racing driver.

Feeder series fans will lament this blow on forums for a few months.  People will rage about the inequality of motorsport. Unfairness that sees the lesser rated Deledda racing in both F2 and F3 this season while Sargeant, who came within a whisker of becoming F3 champion, can’t get a drive at all.  But then with the passage of time, we’ll barely remember Sargeant was even a single-seater driver.  Everyone will be too busy arguing about the next array of talent coming up.  Hadrien David, James Wharton, or Dino Beganovic for example.

Logan Sargeant F3 2020
Image: Prema

The question I want to ask is, and I’m intrigued to see if I’m alone on this, who do you think is most harmed by these bright talents not getting the opportunity to reach the top?

Obviously, the drivers themselves having their dreams crushed are the prime candidates.  Seeing drivers who they comprehensively beat earlier in their careers achieve higher tiers must be absolutely gutting.

But what about the fans?  We are denied the opportunity to see our favourite drivers compete at a level that befits their talent.  The knowledge that as much as a third of the grid might not be there on merit is hugely frustrating.  Of course, we tend to be numbed to this by focusing on the rest of the field.  Good job too or the shouts of rage would be deafening!

I actually have a third alternative for who is most affected; Liberty Media.  Hear me out on this one, because I do think this has some merit.  Liberty bought Formula One Management for $4.4 billion in 2017.  That, I’m sure you will agree, is a heck of a lot of money.  They must be expecting to turn a repeatable, annual multi-million profit to spend that much buying it.  Since their purchase, Liberty have brought in many changes and improvements which, mostly, have improved the F1 watching experience for the fans.  I’ll grant you the US Grand Prix driver introductions in Austin 2017 were truly horrifying, but in general, Liberty have been a steady hand on the tiller.

Logan Sargeant Prema F3
Image: Prema

So why do they persist in allowing their product to be devalued by not ensuring that talented drivers are kept in the system?  Depriving the brightest stars from ascending to the grandest stage of all?  When teams are being bought or given huge sums of money in order for the son of the wealthy owner or investor to get a seat, it makes a mockery of the whole “20 of the world’s finest drivers” line that Martin Brundle is so fond of saying.

The argument becomes even stronger when considering the continual efforts by Formula One to break into the American market.  We’ve got an American team now in Haas, but we’ve not had a decent American driver since Alexander Rossi was trailing round for Manor in 2015.  When did we last have an American front runner?  Logan Sargeant could be a Grand Prix winner in waiting for all we know. Yet he’s not even getting into F2.  If Oscar Piastri or Theo Pourchaire make it to F1 and get podiums and victories, we’ll know unquestionably that F1 lost out on a quality American F1 driver in Sargeant.

So what can Liberty do to rectify this?  Well how about they run an FIA F3 and F2 team?  A competitive seat in F2 currently costs around $2.5 million and let’s assume an F3 seat is around $1 million.  Those prices are based on the teams involved actually being profitable enterprises.  What if the team was purely there to generate future earnings on the drivers racing in those teams becoming global superstars?  The operating costs to Liberty could be as low as $5 or $6 million a year to run a two-car F2 and three-car F3 team.  That’s a fair chunk of change to anyone, but the costs could be recouped. Increased revenue from an increased viewership in countries like the USA, and from the driver’s future earning potential should they make it to F1.

Image: Red Bull Media House

A junior driver in F1 might ‘only’ earn $125,000, but I would argue they could live handsomely on half of that.  All while still getting to race some of the most fantastic cars in the world.  The other half could be harvested to recoup some of the investment needed to get them to F1. With increasing success for the driver, the earnings rise and the investment is more rapidly paid off, perhaps with a profit potential built-in as well.

It is in Liberty’s best interests to ensure that the product they want us fans to buy and watch is the best product available.  I remain optimistic that the 2022 rule changes for the cars will help produce ever more exciting races.  I do have faith in Ross Brawn on this one.  The new cars need to be raced on the best tracks.  I hope that F1 works to resolve a few issues here, the proposed Saudi Arabia track, for example, has 20 too many corners.

For the product to be the best that it can be, the best drivers need to be driving the best cars on the best tracks in the world.  The current system does not allow for that to happen.  It is a process failure.  It is a growing disaster made more visible by the pandemic induced economic downturn.  And once you recognise the issue, it really takes the shine off of what you are watching.

Image: Red Bull Media House

Of course, the long-suffering fans are also paying for the driver to race.  As F1 continues to disappear behind the subscription TV paywall, and ticket prices rise to accommodate the exorbitant track hosting fees, it is the humble fan who digs deep to keep the whole circus going.  Is it too much to ask that we get the best drivers possible for our buck?

Another idea that has been floated a few times but is yet to gain traction is a driver shares exchange.  Forget crowd-funding a single season, maybe the better way is for investors, fans and corporate entities to buy shares in a driver.  Let’s say Driver X has just finished a season of F4 and did well.  They finished 3rd overall and just missed out on the title.  They’re ready to step up to FREC but they need $500,000 for the season.  They release 2,500 x $200 shares for people to buy.  The shares come with an interest rate of 2% payable if the driver reaches F1.

It’s a gamble for the investor but isn’t all market trading a gamble?  Then repeat the process for the next few years until the driver either fails to progress and the investors lose their money.  Or the driver makes it to F1 and they eventually earn a little payback.

So what, do you think?  Should Liberty be running an F2 and F3 team to try and keep the best junior drivers in the system?  Should there be a driver stock market? Drop us a Tweet or send us a DM on Instagram or Facebook and let us know your thoughts.

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