What is a Pay driver in F1 (Formula 1)?


First published:

Would you believe that there are drivers in Formula 1 who are hired not for their driving skills but rather because they can bring sponsorship money to the team? These drivers are known as pay drivers.

Well, it’s true – pay drivers exist in Formula 1 and they play an important role in the sport.

You might be thinking that this isn’t a fair situation, and you would be right. But it is quite common in Formula 1 due to the high cost of the sport and the need to secure a certain level of income.

In this article, we will look at what a Formula 1 pay driver is and how they differ from other drivers in the sport.

We’ll also take a look at some of the pay drivers who have competed in Formula 1 over the years.

Table of Contents

Watch this video to learn more about pay drivers in Formula 1.

What is a pay driver in F1?

A pay driver is a term used to describe Formula 1 drivers who are sponsored by companies or wealthy individuals. They bring money to the team in exchange for the privilege of driving in F1. This money helps the team to cover their costs and allows them to compete.

Despite this, pay drivers are still an important part of Formula 1 and their presence helps to keep many teams in the sport.

Pay drivers have been present in Formula 1 for long now, though they are often looked down upon by purists as they are seen to be taking seats away from more talented drivers who may not have the financial backing. 

However, many pay drivers throughout the history of the sport have proved themselves to be competitive and successful.

Despite this, pay drivers are still an important part of Formula 1 and their presence helps to keep many teams in the sport. Their sponsorship money can be used to pay for new parts and technologies, which often helps them to become more competitive. 

It can also be helpful for the Formula 1 teams so they can pay high wages and salaries for the drivers, team principals and their pit crew.

Key takeaways

Here are some key aspects that you should know regarding pay drivers in Formula 1:

  • A pay driver is a Formula 1 driver who brings significant financial backing to secure their seat in an F1 team. 
  • Pay drivers can come from any financial background, and are usually wealthy individuals or companies. 
  • Pay drivers are not necessarily the best in terms of racing performance, but they offer teams much-needed capital. 
  • Pay drivers are a controversial topic in the F1 community and are often met with criticism.
Pay driver F1

Examples of pay drivers in Formula 1 history

Throughout Formula 1’s long history, there have been many pay drivers who have competed in the sport. Here are a few examples:

Niki Lauda

It might come as a surprise that the legendary Niki Lauda was once a pay driver, purchasing his way into Formula 1 by taking out two loans, one for the March team and another for BRM. 

He then used his partnership with Clay Regazzoni to convince Enzo Ferrari to sign him, and he would go on to have an illustrious career in F1. 

Thus, Niki Lauda’s story serves as an example of how a pay driver can rise through the ranks and achieve success.

Fernando Alonso

Fernando Alonso’s long and successful Formula 1 career was initially made possible by financial backing from Flavio Briatore which enabled him to join Minardi. 

This gave Alonso the opportunity to showcase his talents, which eventually led to him becoming a two-time F1 World Champion and one of the greatest drivers in history.

Michael Schumacher

Michael Schumacher’s name is etched in history as one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers ever, having won an incredible seven world titles. 

But as great as he was, it all began with Mercedes providing him the financial backing to join Jordan in 1991. This one-race deal turned out to be the springboard for his remarkable career as he soon joined Benetton and went on to win two world titles with them, before switching to Ferrari and securing five more championships.

Nikita Mazepin

Nikita Mazepin has earned a place in Formula 1 not through impressive performances, but through the financial backing of his father Dmitry. 

The oligarch’s financial support enabled Mazepin to join Haas F1 in 2021 and he has since been embroiled in various controversies both on and off the track. 

His rash driving has earned him the nickname “Mazespin” from the F1 fans and he has been heavily criticized by his fellow drivers for his dangerous moves. Ultimately, Mazepin’s career in Formula 1 can be attributed to his father’s money rather than his own merit.

Nicholas Latifi

Nicholas Latifi’s arrival on the Formula 1 grid was made possible through a wealth of sponsorship he has been able to provide, part of which is due to his father Michael being CEO of Sofina Foods. 

This backing has led to the 24-year-old Canadian receiving the ‘pay driver’ label, something which he vehemently denies as he is adamant that his own achievements, such as runner-up in Formula 2 Championship, make him more than worthy of a seat on the grid.

Taki Inoue

Taki Inoue is renowned as one of the worst Formula One drivers ever and is known for his bizarre incidents during races. Inoue was born in 1963 and made his F1 debut in 1994, driving for the Simtek-Ford S941. He became a pay driver after acquiring sponsorships to finance his career, something which enabled him to make his return to Formula One in 1995 with Footwork. 

However, Inoue’s attempts at securing a drive with Tyrrell for the 1996 season were unsuccessful, and his sponsors withdrew from their agreement shortly after it was announced he would drive for Minardi in 1997. This marked the end of Inoue’s Formula One career, with him going on to retire from motorsport altogether in 1999.

Jean-Denis Delétraz

Jean Denis-Delétraz was one of the weakest drivers to ever compete in Formula 1. His lack of ability was made clear when he qualified 25th in his first race, and then fell back at a rate of 8.8 seconds per lap from the leaders. 

He became the pay driver for the Pacific team in 1995 as they were struggling financially, but his money ran out and he was sacked after just five races. 

During these races he often made headlines due to dangerous incidents on track or witty comments from commentators like Murray Walker. He is remembered today as one of the most infamous pay drivers in Formula 1 history.

Alex Yoong

Alex Yoong was a Malaysian driver who made history by becoming the first Malaysian to compete in Formula 1. He signed with Minardi thanks to sponsorship from Magnum Corporation and went on to partner Fernando Alonso until the end of 2001. 

Yoong then teamed up with Mark Webber in 2002 but was outperformed and dropped at the end of the season. He had some legal action taken against him for unpaid sponsorship and has since become an F1 pundit. 

Yoong is remembered today as a pay driver who had very little success in the sport.

Mark Webber

Although Mark Webber never won the Formula 1 World Championship, his career as a Formula 1 driver was noteworthy. 

Initially, it proved difficult for him to break into the sport and he was eventually able to do so at age 25 with Minardi thanks to help from Flavio Briatore and his personal sponsors from Australia – Fosters and Telstra. 

This was the foundation upon which he built a decade-long career, where he secured 9 wins, 13 poles and 42 podiums.  Although it was too late to clinch the championship, Webber earned enough accolades to earn the reputation equivalent of a World Champion.

Juan Manuel Fangio

Juan is yet another Formula 1 legend whose career was kickstarted by the financial and political backing of Juan Peron, then President of Argentina. With his sponsorship, Fangio got the opportunity to showcase his talent and make a breakthrough in the F1 racing scene in Europe. 

His legacy is such that even now he is remembered as one of the greatest drivers ever with 5 world titles across 4 teams, despite the dangers associated with racing in his era. 

Without Peron’s support, it would have been close to impossible for Fangio to realize his legendary status.

Examples of pay drivers on the current F1 grid

Are there any pay drivers on the current Formula One grid? Yes, there are a few. Let’s take a look at the pay drivers on the current F1 grid.

Lance Stroll

Lance Stroll’s career in Formula One was launched by his billionaire father, Lawrence Stroll. His father invested a reported $80 million to help him gain a seat at the Williams team in 2017. Before entering F1, Lance was given the best engineers and a test program in a 2014 Williams, allowing him to have an edge over other rookies. 

Later in 2018, Lawrence Stroll invested in Force India when they fell into financial distress. This ultimately led to the team being rebranded to Racing Point and then Aston Martin, of which Lawrence became executive chairman. 

As a result, this guaranteed Lance a seat with the team regardless of performance. Although he is considered talented as evidenced by his Formula 3 title and three podiums, his overall performance has been overshadowed by his teammates like Sergio Perez.

He will now be teaming up with experienced Fernando Alonso. It remains to be seen how he fares against such experienced drivers.

One thing is for sure, Lance Stroll’s salary is high and it is paid thanks to his father.

Guanyu Zhou (rumours)

Guanyu Zhou is an up and coming driver on the Formula 1 circuit. He’s the first Chinese driver to make it into the sport and is set to star alongside Mercedes veteran Valtteri Bottas in Alfa Romeo. 

Despite his stellar performances in F2, which included four wins and a 3rd place finish in the 2021 season, there are some who believe he gained entry into Alfa Romeo via a large financial backing of $48 million. However, team principal Fred Vasseur has denied such speculation, citing that Zhou earned his seat with the team on his own merit. 

Therefore, it is hard to definitively label Guanyu as a ‘pay driver’. Despite the rumors, it appears he is an extremely talented driver who has worked hard and earned his spot in F1. 

While only time will tell how he will perform on the track, there is no denying his skill and potential. If he can continue to build on his success in F2, then we could be witnessing a new star emerge in Formula 1 racing. 

But possibly it is the potential financial investment that pays part of Guanyu Zhou’s salary.

Frequently asked questions

Is Guanyu Zhou a pay driver?

There have been some suggestions that Zhou may have gained entry into Alfa Romeo due to a large financial backing of $48 million. However, team principal Fred Vasseur has denied such speculation, citing that Zhou earned his seat with the team on his own merit.

What is a pay driver in F1?

A pay driver is an F1 driver who is given a seat in the team due to financial backing rather than on merit. This could be from their own resources or from a sponsor.

Is being a pay driver in F1 popular with the fans?

Pay drivers are generally not popular with F1 fans as the seats they take up could be given to a more deserving driver. They are often seen as taking away from the purity of F1 racing and introducing an element of commercialism and financial backing which is not seen in other sports. However, there are some drivers who proved themselves to be capable despite their financial backing and have gained the respect of the fans.


So, there you have it, an overview of pay drivers in Formula One racing. While it is not uncommon for drivers to receive financial backing in order to gain a seat in an F1 team, there are some who prove themselves worthy and gain the respect of the fans. They also need a Formula 1 Super License to compete.

However, there are also those who have failed to prove themselves and remain labeled as pay drivers. Ultimately, it is up to the individual driver to show their skill and potential, and if they can do that then they can become successful in the F1 world.

Article sources

Muneeb ur Rehman
Muneeb ur Rehman
Muneeb ur Rehman is an avid Formula 1 fan and a passionate supporter of Red Bull. His enthusiasm for the sport is unparalleled and it absolutely shines through in his writing. As a Formula 1 writer, he brings an immense amount of knowledge and insight to the topics that he covers. From the technical aspects of racing to the drama that unfolds off the track, Muneeb dives deep into the F1 world and brings his readers along for a unique and captivating journey.


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