When Formula One wasn’t as plutocratic an entity, Nikki Lauda took a bank loan to fund his driver, before he bagged three championships in subsequence. But it’s not the Austrian’s name that comes to memory when talking of pay drivers, but the rather unsuccessful anecdotes of Jean-Denis Deletraz and Ricardo Rosset.
Both were woefully incompetent drivers, with the former mostly six seconds off the top mark and the latter almost always tail-end Charlie.
While in subsequent years, the FIA’s regulations saw the term ‘pay driver” acquire a bygone-era tinge, the recession induced economic downturn resulted in the return of the pay driver, though unlike in the past they aren’t consummate Muppets.
A quarter of this year’s 24 drivers fall into the pay driver category, who had to pour in substantial figures to the team’s cashbox — as opposed to just one in 2008 (Force India’s Adrian Sutil). Williams driver Pastor Maldonado heads the list as he had to shell out an approximate 45 million dollars to his team. He, apparently, was financed by Venezuela’s national oil company PDVSA. Though he demonstrated his worth winning the Spanish Grand Prix — his only title to date — it wasn’t just his talent (he managed just a point last year) that forced his entry to Williams.
Likewise, his teammate Bruno Senna, for all the mystique of his surname, roped in 12 million pounds, streamed mainly from Brazilian oil baron Eike Batista, to back his talent. Hence it was hardly surprising they chopped their old hand Rubens Barrichello.
Similarly was Jarno Trulli’s fate at Caterham was sealed when they chose Vitaly Petrov, who is financially clouted by a slew of Russian firms, most notably petrochemical giants Sibur, who reportedly shelled out 12 million pounds. Sergio Perez signed for Sauber, courtesy of Telmex, and at the bottom of the paddock HRT have Narain Karthikeyan and Marussia have Charles Pic, who have both brought to the tune of about five million pounds. Pic’s wealthy mother owns an estimated 6,000 trucks in France while Karthikeyan’s financial affluence is well documented.
The worry is that this could lead to a decline in standards if the shortage of money becomes too acute. Or the aspiring driver has just too much money to turn away.
But the three-time world champion Lauda started as a pay driver, bringing a bag of laurels in 1972 before paying his way into BRM the following year. So paymen can become legends, and they better take a cue from him than Rosset and Deletraz.