In most sports, talent and hard work determine who makes it to the top. Not so at the pinnacle of world motor racing. With costs escalating, small Formula 1 teams have become increasingly dependent on "pay-to-play" drivers in recent years. So, while big hitters like Mercedes and Ferrari still hire the best talent available, their mid-pack rivals take drivers with large sponsorship packages—or even wealthy parents willing to sign fat checks.
But in the case of Swiss team Sauber, 22-year veterans of the grand prix circuit, the pay-to-play model has gone awry. A pay-driver recently sued the team claiming that he had a contract to drive this season—and won.
Twenty-nine-year-old Dutchman Giedo van der Garde spent last season as Sauber's reserve driver and claims the team guaranteed him a full-time race seat for the 2015 season last June.
But by November, Sauber had confirmed two other drivers: Sweden's Marcus Ericsson and Brazilian Felipe Nasr. Like Van der Garde, both come with significant financial incentives. It is believed that they were willing to produce part or all of their pay-to-play fees up front, thus securing Sauber's short-term future in the face of mounting debts.
Formula 1 teams can only field two drivers in a race and tend to retain the same pair for a full season, seemingly making Van der Garde the kid left standing in a game of musical chairs. At the time of the original announcement in November, the Dutchman insisted he had a valid claim to a seat for 2015, before going quiet for much of the off-season.
Then, with little fanfare, he took his case to a Swiss arbitral tribunal, which ruled in his favor. Last week, he launched court action in the Australian state of Victoria, where the opening race takes place this weekend, claiming he was entitled to a Sauber seat.
Sauber countered that it would be unsafe to run Van der Garde as he has no experience with their new-for-2015 car. However that argument carries very little weight: Van der Garde competed in the full 2013 season for the Caterham team and has significant testing and junior series experience, making him amply qualified to drive in this weekend's race.
And today, Supreme Court Justice Clyde Croft upheld the Dutchman's claim, effectively forcing Sauber to choose which of their drivers to drop and then work with a man who has just dragged them through a court battle.
"We are disappointed with this decision and now need to take time to understand what it means and the impact it will have on the start of our season," said Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn, a former lawyer. The team has launched an appeal that will be heard Thursday.
The case highlights the perilous financial status of Formula 1 teams ahead of the new season. The global financial crisis resulted in the withdrawal of several major manufacturers and sponsors, while the championship's prize-money and decision-making systems remain heavily weighted towards the largest, most powerful teams.
The Caterham squad has recently dropped out of the series following a chaotic six-month search for fresh investment, while Manor Marussia narrowly secured a last-minute return following the loss of their primary backer. Force India missed most of pre-season testing due to cash-flow problems, while Sauber and Lotus are also known to have major concerns.
This has led to a situation where roughly half of the current Formula 1 field is bringing money to secure their spot on the grid. The quality of the pay-to-play racers varies: Sergio Perez has significant backing from his native Mexico but has scored four career podium finishes; however the likes of Van der Garde and Ericsson have unspectacular junior records and would almost certainly not be in Formula 1 without their money.
Ten teams fielding a total of 20 cars will line up for the start of the new season, which takes place this Sunday at Melbourne's Albert Park street circuit. A new American-based outfit led by NASCAR team owner Gene Haas is set to bolster their numbers in 2016 after securing a spot in the world championship; however, they, like other smaller teams, will need to find drivers who can pay for their spot on the grid.