Serving two masters – F1 driver contracts

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.

– Matthew 6:24 

Going into the final race of the 2012 season, the Brazilian Grand Prix, Marussia held a slight edge over Caterham in the battle for tenth place in the World Constructors’ Championship.  Neither team had scored a point, but Marussia’s Timo Glock had finished  twelfth in Singapore and Caterham’s drivers had not finished higher than thirteenth.

As long as one of the Caterham drivers did not beat both Marussia drivers and finish eleventh or higher in Brazil, Marussia was going to finish ahead of Caterham (and out of last place) for the first time in their three year histories.  More importantly, finishing tenth would ensure Marussia a prize money payout of several million dollars, which is very significant for teams operating on a shoestring – in F1 terms – budget.  The eleventh place team would receive a pat on the back and a handshake from Bernie Ecclestone (if they were lucky).

petrovPetrov leading Pic in Brazil.
Photo credit: CaterhamF1 via Flickr

As the race neared its conclusion, Marussia’s Charles Pic was hanging on to eleventh place while being hounded by the Caterham of Vitaly Petrov.  Finally, Petrov took a chance and dove past Pic.  Taking the chequered flag a lap down from the leaders, the Caterham team was understandably elated, while Marussia was crushed.

But what about Charles Pic?  Two days before the race, it was announced that he had signed a contract with Caterham for the 2013 season.  Losing to Petrov would actually be a great benefit to Pic and his new team going forward.

To be clear, we are not suggesting that Pic let Petrov though.  In fact, Pic later told that, “I wasn’t thinking about that, I was just thinking about pushing hard.”  Rather, we are trying to point out that the way F1 contracts work can put drivers in a unique and uncomfortable situation, compared to other professional athletes.  Most other sports have a free agent period or transfer window during the off-season to allow players to sign with new teams.  It is frowned upon, if not against the rules, to negotiate with players under contract with a rival team.

krKimi Räikkönen, once and future Ferrari driver.
Photo credit: Brian Scott via Flickr

In F1, though, this is a regular occurrence.  There is another example this year, where Kimi Räikkönen is currently driving for Lotus, but has already announced that he will return to Ferrari next season.  Again, there is no implication that Räikkönen would try to give any advantage to Ferrari this season (if for no other reason than Ferrari does not need the money), but that does not change the fact that he could do it.  A perceived conflict of interest can be just as bad as an actual one.

The above quote from St. Matthew’s version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is quite apt in this situation.  As long as drivers can sign contracts with new teams while still racing with another one, the potential for collusion and unsporting behaviour will always exist.  The only solution would be to ban all drivers from signing with a new team until after the season, but such a change does not seem to be on the table.  Nor should it be, necessarily.  This weird variety of contracting is just another of the quirks which makes F1 such an interesting and exciting sport.


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