Pay drivers bring more than just talent, they bring sponsorship dollars to the team.
The salary for the pay driver may come directly from that that sponsorship.
Many pay drivers are worthy of a ride in the sport's top levels, and their ability to bring sponsor dollars to a team just makes them that much more attractive.
In Formula 1, or any racing series for that matter, a pay driver is a competitor who forgoes payment by the team owner and instead brings money to the team in the form of sponsorship in order to secure a slot behind the wheel.
Sometimes, these drivers may be family or friends of the team ownership (Aston Martin driver Lance Stroll's father Lawrence owns the team), more often pay drivers carry their own sponsorships independent of their team's sponsors.
Formula 1 team owners have to budget for a lot of things, between research and development, manufacturing, logistics, transportation, amenities, scooters and the team's factory. In 2019, budgets ranged anywhere from a reported $484 million for champion Mercedes to $132 million for backmarker Williams. For 2021, teams are working under salary caps of $145 million, but many line items on a team's overall budget, including driver salaries, are not included in that figure. The amount that the top teams spend is clearly in excess of that $145 million figures.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes No. 1 driver and a seven-time series champion, receives somewhere around $40 million worth of salary on an annual basis (precise salaries are not made public). Contrast that figure with the believed to be $42 million paid by former Williams driver Pastor Maldonado's Venezuelan oil sponsorship in 2011 to his team.
Though pay drivers often face extra scrutiny from fans and rivals who think there might have been better options, being a pay driver does not mean the driver is not talented.
Consider Sergio Perez, who got his start in F1 2011 through a partnership deal between his sponsor Telmex (Telecommunications Mexico) and team Sauber. Fast forward a decade, and Perez will be driving for Red Bull Racing in 2021—one of the field's championship contending teams.
Are pay drivers just a necessary evil in racing? Do you wish success, and not sponsorship dollars brought to the table, determined more rides in racing? Let us know your thoughts on pay drivers in the comments section below.