Formula 1’s Strange Relationship with 'Pay Drivers'
Once derided as possessing far more money than talent, pay drivers are now ubiquitous in F1 – and some of them are bloody quick. What does this often pejorative term mean in the modern context?
Lance Stroll had plenty to be thankful for when he stood on an F1 podium for the first time at last month's Azerbaijan Grand Prix. The 18-year-old owed a debt of gratitude to his Williams team for producing a fast car, could look back at a few strokes of good fortune that helped him hit the front, and might even have thanked some unknown force for the natural talent that he undeniably possesses.
And then there was his father, the billionaire retail tycoon Lawrence Stroll, who funds Lance's Williams seat and is estimated to have ploughed around $80million into making his son a grand prix driver. Lance was presumably pretty thankful to him, too.
While clearly talented, Stroll walks the paddock with that most unwanted of grand prix tags around his neck: he is a pay driver. And while his maiden podium began the process of changing perceptions, it's going to take time. But what does this (usually pejorative) term mean in the modern F1 context?
Let's begin with a simple explainer: grand prix racing is not cheap. Running a team costs at least €100m per season and you can multiply that several times when it comes to race-winning outfits. While the likes of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull have vast budgets, the same is not true for smaller teams, who must search for sponsorship and balance the books. Sometimes that sponsorship comes with a driver attached, and sometimes it's not so much sponsorship as a straight-up exchange of capital – hence, the pay driver.
DEFINING THE PAY DRIVER
While the transaction is sometimes straightforward – you give us £10million, we'll let you drive our grand prix car – there are different breeds of pay driver.
Some come with money, but this is more a sweetener than a deal breaker. For example, Sergio Perez takes significant funds to the Force India team, but the Mexican is a talented and experienced driver who has scored seven podiums in F1. He's worth hiring on merit – he's even been linked with a move to Ferrari – but no team is going to turn down an extra few million quid. The same could well turn out to be true of Stroll. He might even win races one day, but his father will probably still be asked to stump up some (albeit less) cash.
Then there are young drivers whose path into F1 is paved by a benefactor – usually a major F1 team who want to blood them in grands prix. During the second half of last season the Manor squad ran Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein, both Mercedes protégés who the German manufacturer wanted to see in action. You could look at this one as an investment, as Mercedes will hope to one day see a return.
Sometimes money arrives in the wake of an established driver. For example, in 2010 Fernando Alonso was followed to Ferrari by banking giants Santander. But does anyone call him a pay driver? Of course not. Alonso is among the best in the business and gets paid handsomely to race. Still, there's potentially money to be had from hiring a world champion.
Then there are drivers whose presence at a team is based predominantly or solely on their ability to bring money, which can come from a group of backers (Marcus Ericsson), a state-owned oil company (Pastor Maldonado) or family wealth (Stroll), among many other things. They tend only to last a few seasons, because whoever is investing in them eventually questions the merits of ploughing literally tens of millions into running around in 19th, and another moneyed driver promptly arrives to take their place. That's not always the case, however – Maldonado won a race, while Stroll has a podium aged just 18.
And so what most people tend to mean when they say "pay driver" is not simply someone who funds their seat – it's someone who is in F1 based predominantly on their money, not their talent (though, as we'll come to see, even this is a bit messy).
Let's try to simply things. If in doubt, ask yourself whether a driver would be in F1 if every team could afford hire purely on merit and extra funding became irrelevant. For Perez, the answer is yes; for Sauber driver Ericsson, the answer is probably no – though the Swede is far from the worst pay driver to compete in the sport.
A POTTED HISTORY
Pay drivers are the bedrock of motor racing. In the sport's early years, grids were made up of rich amateurs – many of the members of Europe's aristocracy – pounding around in terrifyingly huge machines, pushing the limits of speed and safety. There were "factory drivers" – those hired by manufacturers and paid to race – but even they tended to come from wealthy families, because how else do you get started in such a costly endeavour?
As Formula 1 developed during the sixties and seventies the top drivers became increasingly professional, though the sport also retained a degree of amateurism. The dawn of major sponsorship – particularly from tobacco companies – meant that drivers could emerge from regular families and earn their status purely on merit. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, there were dozens of wealthy drivers of varying talent who brought money to race. There are far too many to reel off, but the likes of David Purley (son of the LEC Refrigeration founder) and Rupert Keegan (son of a hugely successful airline entrepreneur) are good examples. The odd few even rose to become stars: Niki Lauda took out a bank loan to buy his F1 break and went on to become a three-time world champion (modern pay drivers often cite this when asked about their financial contributions to a team, as if they're on the same planet as Lauda).
For less talented pay drivers of this era, there was no major resentment from fans. After all, they were competing during F1's most dangerous period, when an average of one person each year died during a grand prix weekend. That was the case for Piers Courage, heir to the brewing dynasty of the same name, who perished at the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix. With such a heavy price to pay when things went wrong, drivers were respected merely for strapping themselves into an F1 car. Combined with the sport's continuing amateur element, it meant that pay driver was not a pejorative term, as it is today.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE PAY DRIVER
As the sport grew increasingly professional during the eighties and nineties pay drivers became more conspicuous, a trend that accelerated greatly as the millennium approached. This was partly down to grid numbers: in 1991 F1 races had upwards of 30 entries. There were plenty of pay drivers among them – Pedro Chaves, Andrea Chiesa, Paul Belmondo – but they often failed to qualify, and with plenty of seats to go around they were rather less relevant.
But by the tail end of 1996 the grid had shrunk to just 20 entrants. Competition for employment was stiffer, which increased resentment towards those who were taking up a seat purely because they could afford it.
1996 offers a nice case study. Using the 'probably-wouldn't-be-there-without-money' definition, F1's pay driver contingent featured Pedro Diniz at Ligier, Ricardo Rosset in an Arrows, Ukyo Katayama with Tyrrell, and the infamous Giovanni Lavaggi at Pacific.
Diniz, whose money came from his father's retail empire, was a good pay driver: nothing special behind the wheel but competent enough that his presence in the sport was largely accepted. Much the same could be said for Katayama, who came with backing from Japanese cigarette brand Mild Seven. Both had enough about them to score points now and again and rarely annoy the front-runners.
Rosset, who like his compatriot Diniz was funded by his family's businesses, was of a lesser calibre. His junior record was handy enough and he was fairly anonymous in 1996, but in 1998 he endured an absolute nightmare with Tyrrell, failing to qualify for five races. Among these was a truly disastrous effort at Monaco, after which his mechanics switched the first and last letters of his surname on his paddock scooter to spell out "tosser". It was his last year in F1.
And then there was Lavaggi. The Italian came from aristocratic stock and arrived in F1 in 1995, which was about 40 years too late for a driver of his ilk. He was 37 by this stage, roughly 15 years older than a standard F1 rookie and not much closer in terms of pace. During qualifying at Spa he was four seconds shy of teammate Andrea Montermini, who was no Michael Schumacher himself.
During the second half of the 1996 season he joined Minardi, failing to qualify for three out of six races before mercifully departing the sport. He probably did more than anyone to crystallise the pay driver concept. After all, this was a nobleman who was pushing 40, had dreadful junior results, and was driving in Formula 1 solely by dint of his money. You could perhaps argue that no one has been quite as bad since, though the likes of Taki Inoue, Alex Yoong and Gaston Mazzacane might dispute that.
MOVING TOWARDS ACCEPTANCE?
There have been many more pay drivers since 1996, from underwhelming Austrian Patrick Friesacher to part-time DJ Sakon Yamamoto, a Japanese racer who only seemed to appear to buy his seat after the halfway mark of the season.
But while those drivers offered nothing on the circuit, there have been many pay drivers who did. Adrian Sutil, Vitaly Petrov, Pedro de la Rosa - they wouldn't stack up against a Hamilton or Vettel, but all had shown talent and amassed impressive results before reaching F1.
It's now all but impossible to enter F1 without bringing money. The combination of a global recession, the departure of tobacco money and the difficulties faced by major car manufacturers has made it more challenging than ever for teams to operate, with many now needing some form of driver investment. This stretches all the way down the junior formulae, too – casting an eye over the current Formula 2 grid, you'll spot a few sons of multi-millionaires.
But the fact that everyone brings money doesn't mean that there's no talent left in F1, rather that the lines are blurred. When Valtteri Bottas moved from Williams to Mercedes over the winter he took a handful of sponsors with him. Bottas is very talented and has already won a pair of grands prix, but like pretty much everyone else he's being followed around by sponsorship money.
So what do we mean when we refer to pay drivers in 2017, given that about half of the grid fit that description in some form?
The truth is that it has become a selective term. No one mentions Perez bringing money anymore, because the Mexican has proven he belongs in F1. No one cares that Bottas is backed by Wirhuri or that Kevin Magnussen comes with his personal sponsor, Jack & Jones. It might be mentioned initially, but if you perform well over an extended period you can escape the term.
That said, if Perez was to suddenly lose form he might well see the words "pay driver" appear alongside his name. Such is the case for Jolyon Palmer, who won the GP2 title in 2014 and so clearly has something about him. But he also brings money for his seat with Renault, and with his current results not up to much the pay driver term is bandied around pretty liberally. Ditto Marcus Ericsson, who won races in GP2 and took Japan's F3 title, but has never done anything special in F1. Along with Stroll – who is the reigning European F3 champion – these two are the current F1 racers most likely to be written off as pay drivers.
And so this is what a pay driver is in 2017: someone who not only brings money, but also fails to live up to the demands of F1, at least in the eyes of fans. None are comparable with Lavaggi, with Inoue, or even with better pay drivers such as Diniz. They have impressed in junior categories – perhaps even won major championships – and then, as is standard, paid for an F1 seat.
We finish with young Stroll, whose podium in Baku began what will be a long process of shedding the pay driver tag and establishing himself as the deserving occupant of a Formula 1 seat. But a word of warning: while that reputation will take years to establish, a few bad races will leave it in tatters. In the end, you get what you pay for.