F1’s Sugar Daddies
Will Usherwood-Bliss takes a look at the recent history of ‘pay drivers’ in Formula 1 and whether they are good or bad for the sport.
All ten teams have now revealed their challengers for the 2021 Formula 1 season. Among them, US outfit Haas, with a livery has painted on the side of the VF-21 chassis, in bright red letters, the name ‘Uralkali’, along with the Russian flag’s colours. Having not had a title sponsor since the 2019 Rich Energy stint, Haas was in need of investment following a poor 2020 campaign which saw them in 9th place with just three points. As such, when former F2 driver Nikita Mazepin, along with his father Dmitry, who has a 20.1% share in the firm, approached the team with the offer of a new title sponsor and fresh investment, they accepted.
So called ‘pay drivers’ are nothing new in the world of F1. Even the most legendary drivers such as Nikki Lauda, who paid £100,000 to March for a drive in 1972, or Michael Schumacher, who replaced Bertrand Gochot at Jordan in 1991 thanks to a $150,000 investment from Mercedes, both paid their way into the sport. What differentiates these drivers from the new generation is their fathers, the so called ‘sugar daddies of Formula 1’, including the likes of Lawrence Stroll and Michael Latifi, promise investment and financial stability to vulnerable outfits and in return, their sons get a coveted seat.
The question, then, is do these drivers genuinely deserve a place in Formula 1, and what other young talent has been lost due to teams needing drivers with ‘sugar daddies’ for financial stability?
The Case For
In terms of teams’ financial situations, ‘sugar daddies’ do make sense. Sometimes a team is going to be on their last legs, for instance with Sahara Force India in 2018, who went into administration during the Hungarian Grand Prix. The man who stepped in: Lawrence Stroll, Canadian billionaire and father of Lance Stroll, who at that point was racing for Williams. Stroll stepped in and bought out the team along with his Racing Point consortium, transforming the constructor into Racing Point Force India for the remainder of the season, before officially becoming Racing Point for the 2019 season, with Lance Stroll moving to the team that year.
This move saved ‘Team Silverstone’, so much so that in 2020 they had their best result in years, coming 4th in the Constructors Standings, and driver Sergio Perez taking 4th in the Drivers’ Championship.
This coming season, Racing Point are rebranding once again to Aston Martin Cognizant F1 Team, due to Stroll’s purchase of the British manufacturer back in January of last year. This rebranding has already worked in the team’s favour before the season has even started, with new sponsors joining the them as well as increased anticipation from the fans for the return of the iconic brand to the sport.
Another instance of this comes in the form of Williams, who have had this ‘cash injection in exchange for the investor’s son getting a seat’ ordeal twice in recent years. The first, as aforementioned, was Lawrence Stroll back in 2017, who invested approximately $80,000,000 into the team and in return Lance Stroll got his first F1 gig. The second of these came from the Latifi’s, Michael and his son Nicholas. Williams are now sponsored by Sofina, Michael Latifi’s company, and in return Nicholas Latifi got the drive. These deals have potentially saved Williams from bankruptcy after years of poor results.
What about the drivers themselves? Well, as always with drivers, it very much depends. Lance Stroll began his F1 career with a fairly good season on paper, racking up Williams most recent podium in 2017 with 3rd place in Azerbaijan, as well as going 40-43 on points against veteran driver Felipe Massa. Albeit Stroll was dominated 17-2 in qualifying sessions, but his race performance was far from disappointing. Following a two -year series of disappointing results at Williams and then at Racing Point, where in the former he barely outperformed his rookie teammate Sergey Sirotkin, who beat him in qualifying finishes, he went on to have a rather successful 2020.
Albeit nothing compared to his teammate Sergio Perez, who has now been signed by Red Bull due to his performance, including the race win at Sakhir. Stroll though, still put up an impressive season, gaining two podiums, and the first non-Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari pole position since 2014 at the Turkish GP. He may have come 11th overall but given two DNFs caused by mechanical errors and an entire race missed due to COVID 19, Stroll put up an impressive fight in a highly competitive midfield.
As far as Latifi goes, he is yet to truly impress. He is yet to outqualify his teammate George Russell, but then again only Valtteri Bottas has done that, on Russell’s Mercedes debut in Sakhir. Latifi often managed to hold his own on Sundays, coming 11th three times in the season, a feat ‘Mr. Saturday’ only accomplished once.
The Case Against
I’ll admit, I have not mentioned a certain Nikita Mazepin up until this point for a reason, as for many people in the F1 community he is the perfect example as to why they are against pay drivers.
One reason why Mazepin was so disliked from the outset is one of the main disadvantages with pay drivers, and that is the alternative young talent which is passed upon. In the 2020 Formula 2 season, Mazepin managed to come 5th overall in his second season, which is a pretty good result admittedly. The other two drivers who have graduated to F1 from that season are champion Mick Schumacher, who also signed for Haas, and rookie Yuki Tsunoda, who came 3rd in his one and only season.
By signing Mazepin, Haas rejected both Calum Ilott and Robert Schwartzman. Whereas Mazepin ended the season in 5th with 2 wins, 0 poles and 6 podiums, Ilott ended 2020 with 3 wins, 5 poles, and 7 podiums finishing in 2nd overall, pushing Schumacher’s championship victory up until the very final race.
This is not the only time this has happened, the same is true with Nicholas Latifi and Dutch driver Nyck de Vries. De Vries ended up beating Latifi for the championship that year, and yet Latifi got an F1 seat whereas de Vries is currently racing for Mercedes in Formula E, where he has just taken the victory at the inaugural 2021 race in Saudi Arabia.
The reason why the Mazepin case, however, draws so much controversy isn’t necessarily just due to the potential talent which he was chosen over, but also because his example shows that perhaps to some teams the money is worth more than the person themselves. On 9th December 2020, Mazepin posted a video to his Instagram story of him groping a woman. The woman initially defended the driver but has more recently, has spoken out against him. Other cases started to pop up surrounding Mazepin concerning him messaging female fans in an often-sexual manner. The backlash was understandably huge, with #MazepinOut trending on social media throughout the following weeks. Haas had meetings on the issue, and eventually settled on keeping Mazepin. Last week, he issued a full apology.
The case remains however, that Haas chose Mazepin, a driver with controversies to his name, who performed worse in F2 than potential alternatives. Why? One need only look at the side of the Haas car and see the word ‘Uralkali’ for the answer.
So, do pay drivers and their ‘sugar daddies’ truly deserve to be in F1? It depends on who you are looking at specifically. For the teams’ financial standpoint, taking on a heap of investment, particularly in the case of Force India in 2018, for the sake of one driver may not seem like such a bad deal. Even with the case of Mazepin, Haas managed to sign Mick Schumacher as their other driver, the Formula 2 champion. Mazepin can be overly aggressive when defending, bit it’s fair to say he is still a very capable driver, and he could even prove to be a good one. However, where the issues arise is when you look at the potential wasted talent, such as de Vries or Ilott, and of course the driver they took on. In the case of Mazepin, he has a lot of reputation to gain considering how much he has lost, but for the average pay driver, they must prove themselves to be more than simply ‘daddy’s money’.