In Praise of Pay Drivers


At the end of the 2021 F1 season there was some consternation about the fact that F2 champion Oscar Piastri didn’t get a 2022 F1 race seat whereas Guanyu Zhou who came third did. The accusation being that Zhou got his seat simply because he brought a sizable sponsorship package with him. Piastri has gone on record saying that he would be “pretty annoyed” if he doesn’t land an F1 seat for 2023. He has every right to feel that way but he wouldn’t be the first talented driver to slip through the net through lack of funding.

There have always been pay drivers

Reading the outrage expressed on social media regarding pay drivers it would be easy to be lured into the belief that this was a recent phenomenon. While it is always difficult to compare different decades and eras of racing it turns out that there have always been pay drivers in Formula 1 in one way or another.

The very first Grand Prix of the FIA World Driver’s Championship was in 1950 held at Silverstone. The event was won by Juan Manuel Fangio in an Alfa Romeo but the line-up also included some privateers, or so called ‘gentlemen drivers’. These were people that had the means to buy themselves on to the grid.

Take the example of Bob Gerard who finished that first race in 12th position. Gerard had purchased his ERA R14B and was still racing it some five years later when he started that first British Grand Prix. By buying and entering his car privately he was taking the place of someone that maybe had more talent and wasn’t paying to be there.

Not convinced by the gentleman drivers of the 50’s and 60’s? How about the story of a Austrian driver in 1971 whose career had stalled and so he took out a £3,000 loan backed by a life insurance policy, to secure a seat in a March. That driver? Three times F1 Driver’s Champion Niki Lauda.

Sergio Perez owes his continued place in F1 to his backers, most notably Carlos Slim. In 2016 there was speculation that Perez might end up at Renault or even Williams after negotiations were held with representatives of his sponsors. Note that the discussions were with his sponsors and not the driver!

And finally, in the 2020s, we have the latest incarnation of pay drivers that so vexes the keyboard warriers. The fathers that buy a seat or, if you are really lucky, a whole team for your son. This covers Latifi at Williams, Mazepin at Haas and, of course, Stroll at Aston Martin.

I note that nobody is suggesting that either Lauda or Perez are or were pay drivers but at one point or another in their careers, and in Perez’s case most of his up until his Red Bull seat, they made use of this route to be in motor sport.

Why do pay drivers get such a bad rap?

Let’s make this very clear. You are (probably) not good enough to be in Formula 1. You driving the kids to school in your Porsche Cayenne does not make you eligible for a drive. I tell you what does though – having the requsite superlicence points.

To enter F1 you have to have meet a variety of requirements (such as being 18+ and holding a driving licence) but the prinicpal one is having 40 superlicence points. These must have been gained over the previous three seasons in any combination of the championships reported in Supplement 1 of the regulations. This is a sliding scale with Formula 2 and Indycar giving the most points.

Therefore, objectively speaking, any driver in F1 is good enough to be there because the FIA deems it so as they have the required number of superlicence points.

That out the way let’s look at the usual argument made that pay drivers get a place at the expense of more talented drivers. This is the suggestion in the case with Piastri and Zhou. This is almost certainly true. There are only 20 seats available in F1 and hundreds of drivers who would like to be there. It just cannot be that the best drivers all get seats.

Teams have to make a decision on their driver lineups based on a number of factors and a key one will be how do we pay our 600 members of staff and our other expenses? This is what drives many of the decisions for the smaller teams who are not backed by a manufacturer.

While it would be lovely that a team could take the two very best drivers and hope that they build a car good enough to get their money back through an enhanced position in the constructors championship but realities are that’s a gamble teams aren’t willing to take. You could also say that if talented drivers were better at attracting sponsors they too would also be on the grid.

Pay drivers at Williams

The first pay driver at Williams was probably Pastor Maldonado who arrived in 2011 along with his PDVSA backers ousting Nico Hülkenberg. Since then the team have had two further pay drivers: Lance Stroll and Nicholas Latifi. That’s a total of three out of very nearly 50 drivers in the history of Williams Grand Prix Engineering. 6% – a very small number.

These three drivers served a very real purpose and that was to keep the team alive and save them from extinction. Without the money from messers Malsonado, Stroll and Latifi Williams would not exist. In the end that alone wasn’t enough as the Williams family sold off other parts of the operation (Williams Advanced Engineering for example) and finally the whole team.

The irony is of course that Maldonado may well have been a pay driver but he also won a race. The last race that Williams won.

Conclusion

Pay drivers get a bad rap and I understand why that is as people want F1 to be a pure as possible but the realities are that just isn’t possible. Maybe with the financial cap in place there is now a real opportunity for teams to be profitably run and this will give less better funded drivers a chance. However, remember this, F1 has always had pay drivers and some go on to do extraordinary things such as win three championships or score the last win for Williams.

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