Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

Of driver salaries and other guff // The facts and figures of a driver's pay packet

Published by Stuart Codling

The internet has changed many of the rules of PR, but one of those maxims has survived: if you want to get noticed, make a list. Thanks to the sheer number of F1 blogs and news aggregators jostling for attention, any buddling list-maker has an army of willing shills falling over themselves to be first(ish) with the ‘news’. One story in particular caught my eye this morning.

“The F1 drivers [sic] salaries have been released today,” trilled the blogger in question, enthusiastically. Oh, you poor sap. That’s an epic fail, right there. Released? By whom? What mysterious and magnanimous agency has so diligently gathered this highly privileged and confidential information and rendered it into easily cut-and-pasteable form?

Regrettably, the author of the piece didn’t see fit to attribute the source or interrogate the ‘facts’. I’ll get to the source later, but let’s examine the whole philosophy of this story. Driver salaries are not a matter of public record; you can view the accounts of UK-registered companies at Companies House, but such records are always opaque when it comes to specifics of who earns what. The figures aren’t just sitting there for any goon to stumble over.

How, then, to get the gen? I could search through dustbins in Monte Carlo, hoping to find bank statements and extrapolate from there. I could, if I was in Abu Dhabi (which I’m not), doorstep Steve Robertson (for instance) and ask him how much Kimi Räikkönen earns.

“None of your damn business,” he’d probably say; followed by, “Who are you, anyway?” (A favoured put-down of F1 eminences grise, and so much more cutting than “Bog off”, don’t you think?)

Or I could swing by Toyota, sidle up to John Howett, and inquire – on the QT of course – how much Kimi’s people are asking for. But even if he gave me a figure it still wouldn’t be a definitive one. In any negotiation each side has three figures in mind: the one they want, the one they’ll settle for, and the one below which they will not go.

In any case, Kimi’s people are only cosying up to Toyota in order to drive up his stipend for the seats he’s actually interested in – although Toyota have form in employing overpaid cruise-and-collect drivers (see also: Mika Salo, Ralf Schumacher). Kimi is just one of several about-to-be-out-of-contract drivers for whom the reality of the recession is only just dawning.

At a press briefing at the 2008 Chinese Grand Prix, little more than a year ago, McLaren’s Ron Dennis remarked that F1 is often one of the last to feel the effects of a recession. It’s certainly feeling it now, but that contingent of rich men at the heart of the sport have been isolated for far too long. They seem genuinely baffled that there isn’t as much money on the table this time around, with the possible exception of Jenson Button; he (to use figures that I’ve heard anecdotally, albeit from reliable sources) took a drop from $8million a year, plus incentives for points and wins, to a flat $3million a year, including paying his own expenses.

Certainly Jenson would like to be paid more, and he would deserve it. Can Brawn afford to pay more? That depends on commercial negotiations – with sponsors and potential shareholders – that are, as they say, ongoing. Even so, according to a recent story in PR Week, Jenson could easily parlay his status as World Champion into $15million from endorsements in the coming year, regardless of salary.

All of which, in a roundabout way, brings me to the nub of my argument: headline figures about driver salaries aren’t worth a damn when viewed in isolation. Some drivers earn undisclosed amounts from sponsors, whether or not they draw a salary from the team. Some are on incentive schemes that give them bonuses for points (step forward Nick Heidfeld, among others – there’s a reason for that consistent semi-mediocrity). And some are just inexpensive to employ because they want to carry on in F1.

The author of the post cited above didn’t bother with any of this. Having copied and pasted the list, and composed a sloppily punctuated introduction, he was content to sit back and wait for the clicks to roll in. Dear oh dear. A little digging – not very much at all – would reveal that the source of the list is Tom Rubython, and that it was originally presented as an EXCLUSIVE (not for long in this day and age) by Arabian Business magazine’s website in a piece carrying the byline of editorial director Anil Bhoyrul.

Rubython and Bhoyrul are not unknown to one another. Rubython employed him as editor of Eurobusiness magazine (a title funded by Bernie Ecclestone, no less) a decade ago, before Bhoyrul was disgraced in a share-tipping scandal at the Daily Mirror. Now, Rubython is infamously litigious, so I’ll be careful what I write. It is perhaps enough to say that he has some good sources, and that in my experience he has occasionally been close to the mark. But it’s also fair to say that he and Bhoyrul have a colourful past, of which you can read more here.

I can’t be sure of the reasons for composing this salary list, apart from PR for some enterprise or other, but for my money the majority of it is based on hearsay and guesstimation. What a shame that thanks to an epidemic of unthinking cutting-and-pasting it’ll soon be taken as fact. I’ll bet it’s on Wikipedia already…