What Is A Pay Driver In F1? (Fully Explained)

Formula 1, as with motorsport in general, is a hugely expensive sport to get into. From the initial costs of karting, to travelling around the world for races, it is simply unattainable for most. This opens the door for those known as pay drivers, leaving many to wonder who and what they are. 

A pay driver in F1 is a driver who takes their place in a team as a result of heavy financial backing from sponsors or family wealth. Pay drivers are often not paid by their team, and instead bring money into the team to justify their position. They have been commonplace in F1 for a long time.

Pay drivers are often perceived negatively by F1 fans, as they have not earned their place in the sport on merit and have instead paid for it. In this article, we’ll discuss the place that pay drivers have in F1, as well as highlighting some of the best and worst pay drivers to ever grace the track.

What Does Pay Driver Mean In F1?

A pay driver in F1 is a driver who gets a seat on a team not by merit, but because of the financial backing that they bring with them. This backing can come from external sponsors, or from the driver’s wealthy family, and help to fund the team’s operations within the sport. Pay drivers will usually be part of teams that are struggling financially and are regularly placing at the back of the grid.

Pay drivers have existed in Formula 1 since its commercial prospects were first realized and have been utilized by many a struggling team over the years. In some cases, pay drivers have offered genuine racing talent to their team, but on a lot of other occasions, their lack of genuine ability has seen them ridiculed among fans and commentators of the sport.

KEY FACT: Pay drivers are widely unpopular among the F1 community as their seat has been bought and not earned, taking it away from talented prospects in the lower formula divisions. 

However, the counterargument can be made that they are sometimes the only way that a team can stay afloat. An example of this was when billionaire Lawrence Stroll bought a financially collapsing Force India in 2018, naming his son Lance as one of their drivers for the following season.

Money may buy you a seat in a Formula 1 team, but it cannot buy you success at the pinnacle of motorsport. Many a pay driver has come and gone through the revolving doors of F1, but some stick in our minds for being truly awful. Below are some examples of the least successful pay drivers.

Examples Of Unsuccessful Pay Drivers In F1

Nikita Mazepin

Despite only appearing in F1 for one season, Nikita Mazepin earned himself quite the reputation in the sport. The one issue was that his reputation was for repeatedly spinning and failing to control his car in practice sessions, qualifying sessions, and races. He was quickly dubbed ‘Nikita Mazespin,’ and became the recipient of numerous eye rolls and sighs almost every race weekend. 

Mazepin got his opportunity in F1 through his oligarch father Dmitry’s sponsorship of the Haas team. Haas were struggling for money and sponsorships going into the 2021 season, when Dmitry Mazepin’s company Uralkali came to save them, but only if Nikita was offered a seat. Haas accepted, even changing the livery of their car to feature the Russian flag.

It wasn’t only Nikita’s poor driving that ruined his reputation, it was his all-round demeanor and poor personality that lost him the respect of fans and drivers alike. He left the sport when Haas cut ties with both him and his father’s company following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022.  

Nicholas Latifi

There aren’t many who will criticize Canadian driver Nicholas Latifi’s character, but there are many that will take a shot at his driving skills. Latifi was gifted his seat at Williams in 2020, partly due to his father being the CEO of one of Williams’ main sponsors, Sofina Foods. Although he is undoubtedly in one of the worst cars on the grid, Latifi’s performances have been largely uninspiring.

In three seasons with Williams, he has earned only nine points. He has consistently finished behind his teammates, failing to make any progress with his Williams car. The tipping point came at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 2022, when he was majorly outperformed by Nyck De Vries, who was standing in for Alex Albon for the race.

De Vries only found out he was racing very late into the weekend, yet finished ninth, getting two points, and therefore outscoring Latifi for the season (at that point) in just one race. This provided Williams with the perfect excuse to pull the plug on Latifi’s time in F1. Latifi lacks the infamy of Mazepin, but he won’t be remembered fondly for his driving talent.

Taki Inoue

Taki Inoue was heavily backed by Japanese sponsors in the mid 1990s when he managed to find his way into his Formula 1 seat. It was clear from the start that he was lacking the pace of the other drivers, even in his backmarker Footwork car. In the 18 F1 races that he took part in, he retired in 13 of them, earning no points throughout his one full season in the sport.

Inoue’s most famous moment came at the 1995 Hungarian Grand Prix when he had pulled over to the side of the track due to engine failure. When running back to his car to assist the marshals in putting out a potential fire, he was hit by one of the track’s safety cars, sending him rolling over the bonnet. Thankfully he wasn’t injured, and he resumed his role for the next race weekend. 

The 1995 season was Inoue’s first and last in F1, and while he didn’t give us many memorable moments when racing, he certainly gifted us one of Formula 1’s most bizarre moments at the side of the Hungarian track.

Jean-Denis Deletraz

Jean-Denis Deletraz endured an incredibly brief F1 career, taking part in three races, only finishing one of them. Backed by a hugely wealthy family, Deletraz’s first race came at the Australian Grand Prix in 1994, and with it came his first retirement. Already the victim of a stop-go penalty for speeding in the pit lane, Deletraz was 10 laps behind the field when he eventually called it a day. 

His other two races didn’t go as planned either after he paid his way into the Pacific team in 1995. He qualified 12 seconds behind pole position at the Portuguese Grand Prix, before retiring after feeling unwell. His F1 journey came to an end once he ran out of money. Upon his first defaulted payment, Pacific let him go, stating they weren’t willing to keep him based on his ability, or lack thereof.

Alex Yoong

When rookie Alex Yoong arrived in F1 backed by the Malaysian government, he had the unfortunate pleasure of having future double-World Champion Fernando Alonso as his Minardi teammate. The gulf in class between the two was immediately evident, with Alonso outqualifying him by over a second and a half. 

Yoong’s luck didn’t improve once Alonso moved onwards and upwards to Renault, as his replacement was a young Mark Webber. Webber showed Yoong up, outqualifying him in every race they had together as teammates. Yoong never managed to win a point, and once the sponsorship money stopped, he was dropped from the Minardi team, never to return to F1 again. 

We often associate being a pay driver as a negative, which isn’t helped by all the horror stories of inept drivers working their way into the sport. However, there are a few diamonds in the rough, who have grabbed their very expensive opportunities with both hands. 

Examples Of Successful Pay Drivers

Niki Lauda

Despite coming from wealth, the great Niki Lauda had to fund his own journey into Formula 1 due to his family disapproving of his ambitions to be a race driver. Acquiring the money to join a team was not straightforward for Lauda, as he was rejected by multiple banks when trying to take out huge loans to cover the cost. He eventually struck a deal with an Austrian bank that loaned him over $30,000.

This opened the door for him to join the new March team, who were terribly unsuccessful during his first season. He then took out another loan to join the BRM team, which cancelled out his life insurance policy. His obvious skill caught the eye of Enzo Ferrari, who cleared all of Lauda’s debt in order to sign him, kickstarting the career of a Formula 1 legend. 

Lauda went on to win three World Championship titles, and was known for his courage and bravery, especially when returning to race just weeks after a near fatal crash at the Nurburgring left him in a coma. 

Michael Schumacher 

Michael Schumacher is well known for his unprecedented success with Ferrari, but it was Mercedes who helped him get his first F1 seat. Mercedes was not involved in F1 as a manufacturer at the time of Schumacher’s come up, but they were planning to re-enter, and wanted the young German as their driver. In order to get him experience in an F1 car, they paid Jordan almost $200,000 for his seat.

Jordan obliged, and offered Schumacher a place in their team, although he only stayed for one race. During the race weekend he had caught the eye of the Benetton team, who offered him a seat of their own. Schumacher took the opportunity and took the seat, despite legal action being threatened by Jordan. 

Schumacher went on to win seven championships, including five in a row with Ferrari, making him the most successful F1 driver in history at that time. Had it not been for Mercedes’ faith and money, the story could well have turned out very differently.

Mark Webber

Mark Webber has gone down as one of the best drivers to never win a World Championship. Webber originally struggled to make his way into the sport but was eventually given the opportunity by Minardi in 2002. This was made possible with the financial backing of Australian companies Fosters and Telstra, as well as Italian businessman Flavio Briatore.

Briatore was already a big name in Formula 1, having managed the Benetton Formula 1 team throughout the 1990s. His financial help ensured that Webber got to stake his claim in F1 and build up a reputation for being a reliable driver, even at a struggling Minardi team. Webber went on to forge a successful career with nine race wins to his name. 

Fernando Alonso

Fernando Alonso came from a hard-up working-class family in northern Spain, meaning that his route to the top of motorsport was more difficult than most. He was also another recipient of financial backing from former Benetton manager and keen talent scout Flavio Briatore. Briatore had faith that Alonso was going to become one of the best, and how right he was. 

He helped Alonso to join regular backmarkers Minardi, before he eventually got his big break with Renault in 2003. He would go on to win two consecutive World Championships with the French side, as well as eventually becoming the driver with the most ever Formula 1 race starts. 

Juan Manuel Fangio

Juan Manuel Fangio is the forefather of the Formula 1 greats, securing five championship titles during the 1950s. He was one of the very first icons of Formula 1 and is responsible for some of the sport’s most memorable moments. However, he would have struggled to make such an impression had it not been for the funding of the Argentinian President Juan Peron.

Juan Peron helped Fangio to break into F1, funding his move to Europe in 1947.  This opportunity was all that Fangio needed, and it was his natural ability behind the wheel that turned the heads of many European racing fans. It also allowed him to get away from the dangerous racetracks of his homeland that had taken the lives of many promising drivers. 

Pay Drivers On The Current F1 Grid

Lance Stroll

Although not as prevalent as they were in years gone by, pay drivers are still present on the F1 grid. Perhaps the most notable of these is Lance Stroll, son of billionaire and owner of the Aston Martin team Lawrence Stroll. Lance was offered his first opportunity behind the wheel in 2017 with Williams, after his father reportedly paid $80 million to the team. 

When Lawrence Stroll stepped in to save the struggling Force India team in 2018, Lance was unsurprisingly offered a seat in the team rebranded as Racing Point in 2019. He has remained at the team ever since and has one of the safest seats in F1

Sergio Perez

Other pay drivers include Sergio Pérez, who initially got his break in F1 through sponsor Telmex offering money to Sauber, although he is a great driver. 

Fernando Alonso

Fernando Alonso is also still on the current grid but has forged an incredibly successful career on his own merit, despite his original pay driver status. 

Guanyu Zhou?

There have been rumors that Zhou Guanyu had a $48 million backing responsible for his entry into the Alfa Romeo team, although the team themselves were insistent that this was not the case. 

Nicholas Latifi

The outgoing Nicholas Latifi remains on the grid for the remainder of the 2022 season but has not been offered a contract extension for the 2023 season. 

Do Other Motorsports Have Pay Drivers?

Pay drivers are not just exclusive to Formula 1. Motorsport in general is a very expensive thing to get in to and requires external funding at all levels. From NASCAR to sports car racing, there are pay drivers at every discipline. There are several reasons that people pay to drive, from wanting to experience life as a driver, to those looking for an opportunity to race at higher levels.

With costs always rising, it is likely that pay drivers will continue to exist in every aspect of motorsport, potentially closing the door for more talented drivers. However, the number of talented and able drivers at the top of their respective motorsports does outweigh the number that have paid to be there. 

Teams also don’t tend to have much patience, and bad pay drivers will usually be ousted eventually, once their poor performances begin to cost the team money rather than generate it. 

Final Thoughts

Pay drivers in F1 are drivers that are given a seat in a team as a result of their money, rather than their talent alone (or in spite of their lack of talent). These drivers usually fund their seats through sponsors or rich parents. Pay drivers have been a part of Formula 1 since the beginning. 

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