The term ‘pay driver’ has come to be quite an undermining term within Formula One in the last decade or so yet they hold such a place that their existence in the sport keeps the wheel (no pun intended) turning for most. Recent pay drivers include Rio Haryanto, Felipe Nasr, Marcus Ericsson and, most famously, Pastor Maldonado but many forget that Michael Schumacher was once a pay driver. The term has also come back to light with recent comments about Lance Stroll being a pay driver and the term itself always makes for interesting conversation with many seeing them as bad for the sport, but are they?
History of pay drivers
Pay drivers have been around for a long time now with even World Champions starting out with ‘pay driver’ tag. Many consider a pay driver to be someone with less talent who has bought their way to a seat at the top table and there is occasions where this can be true. Names like Tarso Marques, Alex Yoong, Gaston Mazzacane and possibly most famous Taki Inoue spring to mind of drivers who made it to F1 without the CV of others more talented due to the money they could bring. None of them scored championship points and they were mostly floundering around at the back of the grid, sometimes struggling to beat the 107% qualifying time that was in place in the 90’s and early 2000’s.
The rules around driver changes used to be more relaxed and liberal and this seen some teams to recruit a string of pay drivers during the course of a season. Frank Williams Racing Cars (predecessor to Williams F1 we know today) used the liberal rules to extremes. During 1975 and 1976 they had TEN different drivers driving for the team. Drivers employed by the team including Jacques Laffite, Lella Lombardi (for one race and didn’t even start) Jacky Ickx and Chris Amon (again another non starter). This promoted the rule makes to tighten up the regulations to stop teams doing this so often. Around the same time a particular Austrian was attempting to get into the sport. Niki Lauda is, as we all know, a three time World Champion and is still seen at GP’s today with Mercedes in a non executive chairman role. His career started in the lower categories as normal, despite family disapproval. After initial success and a rapid move to driving privately entered Porsche’s and Chevron sports car his career stalled. Lauda took the step to take out a £30,000 bank loan secured by a life insurance policy to buy into the fledging March team in F1 for 1971. This dramatic move means that he was technically a pay driver and this continued to get into F1 when the Austrian took out another loan to fund a seat at BRM. His determination and self belief paid off as we know but one of the sports most well known drivers started as a pay driver yet would he be tarred the same as a Marques or Yoong? No because he obviously had the talent to make it and did. Marques and Yoong had talent but not enough to merit being in F1, they only made it due to money.
It is this side of things that causes the stigma and sees good drivers who also have money tagged in the same way. Lance Stroll joins the Williams team from 2017 and comments towards him brought this article on. Yes Stoll brings with him a financial backing through his dad, billionaire businessman Lawrence Stroll. However his performances in European F3 last season shows he is more than just a normal pay driver. He took the championship title with 507 points, 14 wins, 13 fastest laps and 14 pole positions. Maximillian Gunther, who finished second in the championship, scored 320 points and only four wins. This shows the dominance of Stroll and the talent he has. Yes due to current economic climate money is king but the sport is losing out due to this and missing out of talented drivers that couldn’t make it due to lack of funds. Imagine if Fernando Alonso didn’t get his Minardi seat due to Telefonica sponsorship, we could have seen his Kimi Raikkonen or Michael Schumacher winning the 2005 and 2006 titles instead of the Spaniard. There is the possibility with Stroll of a similar situation to the likes of Alonso, obvious talent that could have been lost without the financial backing. Even the great Michael Schumacher, a seven time World Champion, started as a pay driver when he got the seat in the Jordan for Spa in 1991, the rest is history after that as we know.
Should pay drivers be banned.
This is where the other side of the argument comes in. Although the pay driver system means that some drivers not deserving of an F1 seat reach the pinnacle of motorsport some teams would not have survived without the funding from these drivers. In 1995 the Forti team joined the grid after a relative success in junior formulae. They were initially bankrolled by the money driver Pedro Diniz brought to the team through his wealthy father and businessman Abilio dos Santos Diniz. However the car was uncompetitive and the team failed to score any points in their first season. The team was committed to Diniz for three years and thought that they had the funding to cover this initial period. The Brazilian however had other ideas and moved to Ligier for the 1996 season. This cost the team most of the sponsorship money they were running on and thus the team folding mid season due to lack of finance. This is a situation that has played out a number of times over the years with many teams falling by the way side when a pay driver leaves and takes sponsorship with them.
However without these pay drivers what would the grid look like? Most teams would not be able to afford the cost of running an F1 team at all never mind compete in anyway. A world with no pay drivers may mean the best drivers are always on the grid as the teams will want the best however you would probably only see the likes of Ferrari, Mercedes and Red bull with possibly Williams on the grid with three or four car teams. With pay drivers we see what we currently have, traditional two car teams with more teams on the grid, more variety of innovation. The flip side is that to have this requires either a fairer share of the money available in the sports (which is never going to happen) or pay drivers for those lower teams that need the funds.
Some of those teams, Force India being a good example, have the ability to pay a driver for their services but benefit from the sponsor ship attraction. Sergio Perez has become an established name on the grid having drove for Sauber and McLaren as well as Force India. He deserves his place on the grid due to his performances and speed but the team also benefit from his links to Mexican sponsors like Telmex. Alonso also brings sponsor ship to McLaren through Santander while even Pascal Wehrlein, who has just finished his rookie season and now joining Sauber for 2017, has backing from Mercedes being on the young driver program with the manufacturer. So the tag of pay driver is therefore often dependent on the drivers performance but too many jump to conclusions with Stroll being a more recent example.
Should the sport worry about pay drivers in the future.
It is unlikely that the Formula One grid will ever be totally over run by pay drivers or entirely free from pay drivers. Too many weakens the grid as the best talent will struggle to get through to the seats they deserve. More pay drivers would also put question marks over F1’s position as the pinnacle of motorsport and possible discourage others to pursue their own dreams of stardom in the sport due to the reduced chance of making it without funding. The reliance on pay drivers towards the back of the grid also raises question and a spotlight on the financial vulnerability with certain teams. We have seen this month that Manor have gone out of business due to missing out on constructors prize money. If the sport was to restructure the financial structure to help support the lower teams then this would allow them to survive more without the need of relying on pay drivers and thus allow them to hire talented youngsters instead and thus strengthen the grid as a whole, keeping the sport at the top table of the sport.
The likelihood of this happening is nil to none. The top teams are unlikely to want to forfeit some of the prize funding they currently get to distribute it to other teams even if it would strengthen the grid and the sport as a whole. Ferrari have, in previous years, used their veto card to stop such changes as well as others. So don’t expect change any time soon in this regard. With F1 being an achievement orientated sports the cream will always rise to the top and pay drivers as a whole are not necessarily the problem but more a solution for the lower teams. However with no change on the horizon the pay drivers are here to stay for those teams that require it, especially if they wish to survive more than one or two season.
Photo Credits: Main photo Lance Stroll: Sky Sports.com
Gaston Mazzacane: Motorsport.com
Niki Lauda: motorsportretro.com
Pastor Maldonado: f1.co.uk