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Pay Drivers Are Here to Stay

The subject of pay drivers has been a hot topic during the off-season, with many blaming Formula 1's sad financial state for the increased numbers of these drivers who, critics say, buy their seats with sponsorship cash. While being given new attention, this is not a new practice in Formula 1 racing.

Since the first Grand prix in 1950, pay drivers have been a part of the sport. It was usually the teams strapped for cash, and probably on their way out, or those at the back of the grid that were willing to accept a pay driver. Those at the back usually ended their short careers there, lacking the talent to move up. Back in 1994, Jean-Denis Deletraz was an unremarkable driver in the Swiss Formula 3000. With a wad of sponsorship money, he struck a deal with the Larrousse team, which was on financial life-support, and thus he joined Formula 1. Deletraz performed miserably, but managed to buy a seat with another team for the 1995 season. This time, he actually finished a a race. Fortunately, that was his last season. Other notable mentions worthy of the worst pay driver list are Giovanni Lavaggi, Ricardo Rossett, and Alex Yoong. Lavaggi was actually hit by a marshall's vehicle attempting to assist him, and the other two were known for the ridiculous sums of family money spent on their F1 fantasy.

A part of that same era were some pay drivers who experienced a bit more success. Multiple world champions Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, and world champion Lewis Hamilton all began their careers as pay drivers, but they worked their way up through the racing ranks. It is worth mentioning that they were considered highly talented drivers prior to their F1 careers, and were backed by manufacturers instead of family money or corporations with no involvement in F1 racing.

That was then. The face of Formula 1 racing is changing, as is evidenced by the handful of smaller teams that joined the sport in 2010. These teams were not willing or simply could not afford to pay their drivers, and instead relied on sponsorship money their drivers brought with them. Unlike the 1990's, today's drivers must possess the talent to excel and make it worth everyone's effort. With a talented driver, a few more points or moves up the grid can mean millions of dollars more in sponsorship and prize money for these fledgling teams.

As has happened, some of the more established teams are jumping on the sponsorship bandwagon. Renault re-signed Russia's Vitaly Petrov, who finished last season with just 27 points. The $15 million he brings with him will assist the team in a different way. Sergio Perez brings to Sauber an estimated $10m from Telmex, a local telecoms company from Mexico. Williams released the promising Nico Hulkenberg to sign the well-funded Pastor Maldonado,who brings about $15m. Others include Jerome D'Ambrosia with $7m for Virgin Racing, and the returning Narain Karthikeyan with $8m from Tata (India) for HRT.

While pay drivers have always been a part of Formula 1, gone are the days of the rich kids pretending to be race car drivers and no-talent drivers making fools of themselves. Today's pay drivers absolutely have talent: Maldonado, Perez, Petrov, and HRT's Bruno Senna were all winners in GP2, the proving ground for Formula 1 hopefuls. With teams strapped for cash and competition fierce among the new generation of sponsored drivers, the stigma attached to the pay driver will no doubt change, and for the better.

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