Formula 1’s Pay Drivers – Are They Really That Bad?


Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

Pay drivers. Whether you love them or hate them, they have been, and always will be, a part of Formula 1. Racing is expensive, and many teams choose to hire drivers with some level of talent and a healthy bank balance or sponsorship backing over higher quality and lower funded drivers simply to be able to afford to turn up. Some teams, like Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team rely on pay drivers to race, as they don’t bring in any other income from anywhere else (unlike teams like Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team and Scuderia Ferrari, who both have road-going car divisions to finance their racing).

With pay drivers seemingly becoming more prevalent and more drivers with good credentials often passed over for those with bigger bank balances, we’ve taken a look at some past and present pay drivers to see if “paid” always means “poor performance”.

Niki Lauda

Credit: Octane Photographic

Race entries: 177
Podiums: 54
Wins: 25
Championships: 3
Currently: Mercedes Non-Executive Chairman
Paid: £100,000 to March in 1972, then £80,000 to BRM in 1973

Arguably one of the first and undoubtedly one of the best, Niki Lauda originally paid his way into Formula 1. Anyone who’s seen Rush will remember the scene where he literally walks into a room and throws down a big bag of money to secure a drive and, not only did he pay once, he paid twice. He gave March £100,000 for a seat in F1 in 1972, then one year later paid BRM a further £80,000 for a seat. Whilst he did pay his way into the sport he wasn’t your typical pay driver; three World Championships and twenty-five wins (that’s one more than Juan Manuel Fangio) came Lauda’s way, with two of those Championships coming after his near-fatal accident. Such was his talent that Scuderia Ferrari hired him in 1974 and paid him enough to clear his debts, making him a paid driver and putting him on the map.

Pastor Maldonado

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

Race entries: 96
Podiums: 1
Wins: 1
Championships: 0
Currently: Unclear, may be taking a break from racing
Paid: £30m a year from Venezuela’s national oil supplier PDVSA

Perhaps the quintessential pay driver, Pastor Maldonado was a firm fan favourite for his unmatched tendency to crash into other cars. It didn’t matter who you were – whether you were a first-season rookie, a mid-field numbers-maker or a multiple world champion, Pastor would find a way of crashing into you. He flipped Esteban Gutierrez at Bahrain in 2014 and even used his car as a weapon, deliberately driving into Lewis Hamilton at Spa-Francorchamps in 2011. Despite his sheer unpredictability, his erratic style and his often far-from-best cars, he did what few other drivers could; he actually took a win. The 2012 Spanish Grand Prix saw Maldonado hold off home-favourite Fernando Alonso for his maiden and only podium and win, cementing his place in Formula 1 history.

Michael Schumacher

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

Race entries: 308
Podiums: 155
Wins: 91
Championships: 7
Currently: Michael was injured in a skiing accident in 2013, and his medical status unknown
Paid: Mercedes paid Jordan $150,000 for that fateful 1991 Belgian Grand Prix appearance

Yes, even Formula 1’s most prolific winner was, in some respects, a pay driver. A part of Mercedes’ Junior Driver Program, Mercedes paid the Jordan F1 team $150,000 (over £105,000) to have Michael drive for Jordan in the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix, replacing the imprisoned Bertrand Gachot. They continued to pay Jordan that figure for the next five races as well, despite Benetton stealing the promising Schumacher away from Jordan after his first performance. Over the next 307 starts he would become the most successful driver the sport has ever seen, and win an unprecedented seven Championships. Not bad for a pay driver!

Sergio Perez

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

Race entries: 137
Podiums: 7
Wins: 0
Championships: 0 Currently: Racing in Formula 1
Paid: $26.1m a year in 2011 and ’12 from Mexican phone companies Telmex and Clargo

Perez joined the Formula 1 circus in 2011, and in 2013 found himself on the then-Vodafone Mclaren Mercedes team. Unfortunately for the Mexican his reputation as a pay driver preceded him, and when he was dropped by the team at the end of the year in favour of then-Formula Renault 3.5 Champion Kevin Magnussen it was seen as a win for talent over payment. Despite his “pay driver” status hanging over him he has made the podium, finding the second step twice and even finishing third in Monaco in 2016, though he continues to make outlandish quotes and crash into his teammate – not tactics that will help him remove the “pay driver” tag.

Lance Stroll

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

Race entries: 20
Podiums: 1
Wins: 0
Championships: 0
Currently: Racing in Formula 1
Paid: A purported $25m for the year

What would a list of pay drivers be without Lance Stroll? Lance completed his first season in Formula 1 last year and, to his credit, showed some level of talent. Despite failing to finish his first three races in the top tier he did pick up a podium in only his eighth race in the sport, and finished the season just three points behind his vastly more experienced teammate Felipe Massa. His young age and his large financial backing have given him a “pay driver” tag, though this upcoming season could see him finally shake it, if he can beat Williams Martini Racing’s newest hire Sergey Sirotkin.

Esteban Gutierrez

Credit: Haas F1 Team

Race entries: 59
Podiums: 0
Wins: 0
Championships: 0
Currently: Raced in both Formula E and IndyCar last year
Paid: A reported €4-5 million in 2013

Esteban spent three luckless years in Formula 1, racing in 2013, ’14 and ’16, and picking up six points across those three years. Far from being famous for his racing he was known as a serial blue flag ignorer, and famously received a one-finger salute from Lewis Hamilton following a particularly lengthy blocking of the Brit at Hungary. His Formula 1 career came to an end in 2016, following a completely pointless season at Haas F1 Team. His zero points were far outweighed by teammate Romain Grosjean‘s twenty-nine points, and with no leg to stand on he was booted from the team in favour of Kevin Magnussen, who successfully took the seats of both Mexican drivers he’s faced within his career.

Rio Haryanto

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Race entries: 12
Podiums: 0
Wins: 0
Championships: 0
Currently: Tested for Super Formula in late 2017
Paid: $5.6 million from Indonesian State-Owned Energy Company Pertamina

Rio took part in just twelve races in 2016 for the Manor team, and reached the heady heights of fifteenth place before being dropped due to a lack of sponsorship money. Indonesian state-owned energy company Pertamina backed his entry into Formula 1 for that half a season though, when there were no real results to speak of, declined the offer of continuing to finance Haryanto’s racing, forcing him out of the seat. Whilst it was bad luck for him, it was good luck for another driver; he was replaced by Esteban Ocon, who moved to the Sahara Force India F1 Team for 2017 and proved to be a young gun to watch out for in the future.

Marcus Ericsson

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

Race entries: 76
Podiums: 0
Wins: 0
Championships: 0
Currently: Racing in Formula 1
Paid: Brings a reported $18m a year in sponsor money

Marcus has had four seasons in Formula 1, and has taken nine points. He’s also going to be lining up on the grid this year, despite not having found the points since Italy in 2015. He made the cut for 2018 over the arguably more talented and definitely better-finishing Pascal Wehrlein, who was set to lose Mercedes backing last year. Ericsson’s lack of points finishes really haven’t done much to dispel his reputation as being a “pay driver”, especially when his teammate managed to find the points. There’s potential, though admittedly not much, for him to remove the tag and prove his worth this year – though with current Formula 2 Champion Charles Leclerc lining up on the other side of the garage, it’s not going to be easy.


What do you think of pay drivers? Who else should we look at? Let us know below!