Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff says Formula 1 should look to American sport for guidance on capping driver salaries as debate about expanding the cost cap heats up.
Drivers are opposed to moves to cap their earnings as part of a broader push to keep team spending in check. A driver salary cap would be separate from the general cost cap, which currently excludes each team’s three biggest earners.
On Friday in Azerbaijan several drivers spoke out against the idea, claiming it would be unfair to limit their earnings when the sport is bringing in more money than ever before on the back of a popularity boom. Sebastian Vettel described it as a strategy to boost team bottom lines.
But Wolff argued that it was unfair for driver salaries to be unrestrained when the rest of the team’s wages were not only subject to the $140 million cap but also had to compete against the cost of building the car and were now being squeezed by the cost of inflation too.
“It certainly has come up as a controversial topic,” he said. “We have a cost cap — we have $140 million for a 1000 people. With inflation, we haven’t been able to even pay the inflation. I think the talk about $30 million or $40 million salary allowance is inadequate when you take that perspective.
“We shouldn’t be excluding the top earners in the team. In order to make it sustainable everyone should be covered by the cost cap — and it’s not only the drivers but it’s also the team principals and the senior management.”
Wolff pointed to the United States, where several major leagues have either a hard cap on salaries or other similar instruments to control spending on players, as being the source of a potential working model for F1, including by boosting the capacity of drivers to sign individual endorsements separate from the teams.
“The American leagues that are the most successful in the world introduced salary caps 15 years ago,” he said. “It works pretty well over there.
“Like all the other sports in the world, we need to find a way of how we can act sustainably and become independent from sovereign funds or state-owned teams.
“Therefore it is certainly clear that this is going to be one of the main areas, because you can’t simply have a salary bill in some of the top teams that is $30 million, $40 million, $50 million when the rest of the team needs to be divided in $140 million.
“But having said that, they are tremendous superstars. They deserve to be among the top earners in the sport. In terms of direct salaries they already are, and then we need to find a way of unlocking the capability of doing endorsement deals, which is two-thirds if not more for American sports teams.
“But certainly, direct salaries, Formula 1 drivers are paid the most.”
But Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto was more equivocal on the matter, acknowledging that a handful of drivers are already on long-term deals that potentially on their own would break the mooted $30 million cap for each team’s driver roster.
“I’m not sure there is a solution, honestly,” he said. “It’s not only a tricky one, I think it’s even not an urgent one.
“The salary cap for drivers will affect mainly only three, four maximum, teams, not more than that. Those teams that will be affected have got already long-term agreements with their drivers — so long that it’s not something I think we need to put in place for next year; it will not be before maybe 2026.”
Binotto also said the sport was yet to address Max Verstappen’s argument that it would make the pathway to Formula 1 more expensive by reducing the incentive for sponsors to back young racers in exchange for a percentage of earnings down the line.
“It’s one of the points that need to be discussed, because we need to promote young generations,” he said. “How to mitigate that in case we go for a salary cap, I have not the solution to this. That’s why I think it’s a tricky one.
“So while I understand the point, while we understand the importance of it, I don’t think that anyone today has got a solution. If there will be a solution again, I don’t know. We will take our time.”