Pay drivers in motorsport is perhaps not a subject that has come up too often in modern Formula 1. While the quality of these entrants is rarely of note, there have been occasional surprises in the history of the sport that defy such generalisations, such as Niki Lauda’s becoming a three-time World Champion after he bought his first seat at March and Pedro Diniz earning a modicum of respect when he became a decent racer at Arrows and Sauber in the late-nineties.
For the most-part, pay drivers have spent their careers having their talents derided – and often with good reason. Pay drivers often find themselves in the situation of buying their own seat, simply because the talent to earn it does not lie with them; whether it be Taki Inoue, Giovanni Lavaggi, Jean-Denis Deletraz or Yuji Ide. Normally, this batch of “talent” find their way onto the books of teams that are struggling financially and the money or sponsorship that they bring will often prop up not only their own seat, but the seat of their more capable partner.
Back of the grid squads are not the only ones that fall into this trap either. In 1995, Martin Brundle shared his Ligier seat with lamentable Aguri Suzuki – the Japanese driver brought money, while Brundle and his permanent teammate Olivier Panis secured valuable points. Ironically, with nothing better to do during some of his off-races during the season, Brundle would join the ‘Legendary Murray Walker™’ and Jonathan Palmer in the commentary booth; something that would lead to him becoming Walker’s full-time side kick from 1997 onwards.
Grid swapping reached its height in the early-mid 1990’s, as squads like Andrea Moda, Pacific, Forti and Coloni regularly changing drivers as the accounts ran bare and it peaked during the 1994 season when forty-two drivers took part in the Formula 1 campaign at some point. Forty-two. Early in its life, the Andrea Moda squad was reprimanded for attempting to change their drivers repeatedly early in the season – a decision that forced the squad to stick with Roberto Moreno and Perry McCarthy for the remainder of their existence; although few would know this – the team were often of the race by 10 o’clock Friday morning when the team regularly failed to pre-qualify.
In recent years, pay-driving has taken a slightly different form. As economies around the world strengthened, the large manufacturer’s, such as Toyota, would place the likes of Kazuki Nakajima at the Williams team in exchange for giving the British squad cheaper engines. The practice was the same, but the consideration had changed dramatically.
This evening, news emerged that Japanese driver Sakon Yamamoto is to replace Bruno Senna at the Hispania team for the British Grand Prix as the Spanish squad find themselves in a monetary hole. Sadly for Senna, talent doesn’t pay when the car is so poor to only achieve 22nd place or lower on the grid and even worse for Hispania, Yamamoto brings little in the way of top-level skill. Whereas Nakajima was unpredictable, accident-prone, yet fast, his countryman is unpredictable, accident-prone, but slow.
I look forward to seeing Bruno back on the grid in Germany in two weeks, but with Hispania against the wall and Dr Colin Kolles making an announcement in the morning, one is not holding his breath.