In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for Formula 1 teams, particularly those at the lower part of the grid, to accept drivers with substantial personal wealth or backing from big sponsors essentially buying their way into a race seat. This was largely thanks to the team’s urgent necessity for financial backing.
However, the introduction of the FIA super license, which requires a driver to accumulate 40 points based on their race finishes in other categories, coupled with the ongoing commercial boom of the series, have considerably lessened the need for ‘pay drivers’.
James Vowles, the Williams team principal, believes that while there needs to be a “rethink” in terms of the calendar, cost cap, and sprint weekends that currently dissuade teams from hiring rookie drivers, the championship has remodeled itself to value talent above wealth. Vowles stated, “In the constructors’ championship, the gaps between us are, at times, milliseconds. So, you want to have drivers in the car that are, it’s a meritocracy, performing at their utmost.” He added that the focus wasn’t about just inviting a few millionaires to boost the bottom line. “The few million comes from the constructors’ championship by making a step relative to your peers. So, that’s been a positive change, I think, for the sport.”
Vowles further noted that the shift away from the ‘pay driver’ model has been contributed to by the teams themselves. By investing in the junior single-seater ladder, they ensure drivers with fewer resources have a viable chance at F1. “Now, also what you’re seeing is individuals, including ourselves, we’re investing right down at the level of karting and paying for drivers to come up. But the point is the investment is there from teams right at the junior levels in order to bring up and form a meritocracy,” he said.
Contrary to the belief that rookie drivers might be a dying breed, Vowles said that isn’t the case. However, he stressed that “this concept of taking a few million to put someone in the car is not the way that we can perform these days, otherwise you’ll fall back.”
Franz Tost, departing AlphaTauri team boss and mentor to the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen, and Daniel Ricciardo, similarly stated, “The pay driver is out. First of all, most of the time, the pay driver is not the fastest one and the FIA, with the Super Licence, stopped this.”
Guenther Steiner, the Haas team boss who recently parted ways with Nikita Mazepin, supported the transition. His father’s company, Uralkali, was the team’s title sponsor. Steiner said, “In the old days, you had teams which were financially not stable. Now we’ve got 10 very solid teams here so nobody needs to rely on a pay driver right now because Formula 1 is in such a good spot.”