Let’s face it, pay drivers are nothing new. Since Colin Chapman first slapped ‘Gold Leaf’ onto the side of his Lotus 49, money entered the sport of motor racing in a way that no one could have ever predicted. Yes, the influx of money brought with it massive budgets, massive improvement to performance, and massive improvements to safety, but the days of the old ‘gentlemen driver’ were gone, as professionals now took the reins of the most fearsome cars in the world.
Now, I couldn’t tell who was the first ‘pay driver’ to ever take part in an F1 race, but they have been around for years. Williams, back in the day, was well known for swapping out driver after driver, looking for a check to cash in order to keep their team afloat. Teams like Ligier, and Minardi made a habit of using pay drivers in order to stay afloat year in and year out.
Year after year, we wail on pay drivers, complaining that they are taking the seats of vastly superior, yet worse funded drivers more deserving of their seat. But the truth is that F1 has a long, long history with pay drivers, one that, I will argue, actually is a part of the very DNA of Formula One.
In the earliest days of the sport, before it was even known as Formula One, motor racing was almost exclusively for what we would, today, call pay drivers. The men who jumped into the cars of pre-war Europe were nothing more than rich land owners who had more than enough money to burn on fuel, tires, and machines. They were millionaire playboys, the European aristocracy that lingered on the continent and in the UK after World War One.
As time went along and the sport rose to more prominence, countries themselves began racing against one another in a four wheeled display of national pride. Silver battled red battled green battled blue in what was to be a contained precursor to World War Two. As each country poured more and more money into their racing programs, they soon began to realize that employing only ‘gentlemen drivers’ may not be the best way to go. They began to scout out drivers who didn’t have noble lineage, but could drive a car better than anyone else. The most notable of these pre-war drivers (namely because he survived into the post war era as well) was Alberto Ascari.
Motor racing ground to a halt with the outbreak of World War Two, but five years after hostilities ended, the sport was back on, with the nations of Europe once again engaging in a four wheeled war for supremacy on the race track. New names began to emerge in the sport now called ‘Formula One,’ names like Farina, Ascari (again), Fangio, Hawthorn, and Moss. None of these men were exactly lower class hoodlums, but they were paid by their national employers and the car companies they represented.
This style continued until the late 1950’s/early 1960’s when the nationalistic tendencies of Formula One were turned on their head by the English, who built their cars not with massive, government subsidized factories, but out of their own tiny garages. Their ingenuity led to the defeat of the of the monster teams like Ferrari, but as the larger teams began to copy the Brits ideas, the smaller teams began to want for money. At first, they had to hire drivers who brought with them money. Pay drivers. And while many of these drivers may not have been able to compete on the level of Jim Clark or Graham Hill, they became respectable members of the paddock.
Then Colin Chapman decided to add advertising to the equation and the money began to flow like a river. But it did not flow equally. Sponsors did not want their products associated with teams that habitually finished at the back of the grid or didn’t finish at all. As a result, the lesser teams began to scramble to find ways to pay the bills. The most obvious solution was, you guessed it, pay drivers.
The trend continued on through the 70s and 80s. Some may argue it began to bubble over in the 90s as tobacco money grew out of control in the sport. Others may content that pay drivers reached their peak when tobacco was forced out of the sport and teams had to once again scramble for a way to pay the bills. Even today, drivers like Pastor Maldonado, Lance Stroll, Riko Harianto, and Felipe Nasr have carried the moniker of ‘pay driver’ and have had it shoved in their faces like a curse word.
Now, don’t get me wrong I’m not defending all of them (certainly not Maldonado), but Formula One would not be where it is today without pay drivers. There are countless drivers who start off as ‘pay drivers’ but as time progresses prove their worth and become bonafide members of the racing stable. Fernando Alonso, when he first started, was able to bring with him massive amounts sponsorship dollars from his native Spain. Michael Schumacher was very much the same with German banking partners. And you’d be damn near shot if you referred to either one of them as pay drivers.
Schumacher and Alonso are different, granted, than what we truly hate in terms of pay drivers. They had sponsors, they weren’t supported out of their own pockets or out of the pockets of a loved one, like Lance Stroll is, for example. Those drivers should be banished from the sport immediately, right? They have absolutely nothing to bring to the track whatsoever.
Not so fast.
Two of Formula One’s most legendary champions were, at one time, pay drivers that paid for themselves to enter the sport. Between the two of them they have 4 championships, 35 wins, 38 poles, and 7 podiums. They even sparked a rivalry so intense a movie was made about it.
It’s pretty obvious that I’m talking about Niki Lauda and James Hunt. Two names that we revere for racing and well… partying and racing. But let us not forget that both drivers started out their careers by paying their way into the sport.
Lauda took out a loan against his own life insurance in order to bankroll himself into a test, which in turn was made a drive, for Alfa Romeo. Hunt, in turn, rode the coattails of stupidly rich playboy, Lord Hesketh, through the junior ranks and into F1. Lauda was able to impress those around him at Alfa so much that he earned a drive with Ferrari and was paid for his efforts. Similarly, after Hesketh Racing folded, Hunt was able to jump ship to McLaren and started getting paycheck. From there both were able to win championships and successfully shed the tag of ‘pay driver’ but there were many, many commentators and drivers alike who derided the two youngsters when they first entered the sport because they were not there on merit alone.
I am not saying we don’t need to be critical of today’s pay drivers. Far from it, actually. I firmly believe, for example, that Pastor Maldonado was a danger to many of those around him and had no right being in a Formula One car. That said, we should all remember that pay drivers are a part of F1’s history and that some of the very best have started off with that tag.