Is Formula 1’s pay driver era over?

The 2023 Formula 1 grid is arguably the strongest in the history of the sport

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The pay driver era is over in Formula 1 according to Guenther Steiner and Franz Tost, as the Haas and AlphaTauri chiefs cited the introduction of the FIA Super Licence and the recent cost cap as factors in this shift.

The F1 field is arguably the most competitive it’s ever been with Alex Albon plus race winners Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas all at backmarker teams, and top half of the constructors’ championship all having at least one bonafide superstar leader.

While AlphaTauri have had no problems promoting the top talents in the Red Bull system due to their powerful backers, Haas signed Nikita Mazepin in 2021 in order to bring much-needed funds to the team, one of the most controversial driver hires in modern F1 history.

“The pay driver is out,” Tost told select members of the press, including Total-Motorsport.com. “Because first of all, most of most of the time they pay driver is not the fastest one and the FIA with the Super Licence stopped this.

“A driver can only come into F1 if he is successful in Formula 3 and Formula 2, nevertheless it can be that the driver is fast, gets the super licence and brings a sponsor which is the best that can happen for the team and is always welcome.”

Oscar Piastri‘s failure to land an F1 drive seat straight after winning the F2 championship – one of three major titles in successive years – while Zhou Guanyu got a seat finishing third and 69 points behind the Australian was widely criticised by fans.

Lawrence Stroll, co-owner of Aston Martin, talks to Martin Whitmarsh, CEO of Aston Martin F1 and Lance Stroll | Aston Martin F1 Team

Likewise, Lance Stroll‘s F1 future appears to be set thanks to his father’s ownership of Aston Martin despite only scoring less than a third of teammate Fernando Alonso‘s points tally in 2023.

But Mazepin is the biggest name to slip through the super licence net. After a raft of off-track issues and controversies right through his junior racing, his runner-up finish in 2018 GP3 was the anomaly in an otherwise unremarkable feeder series career.

But when Mazepin finished fifth in F2 in 2020, he earned his F1 license just as Haas were looking for a cash injection before being comfortably the worst driver on the grid in 2021.

And he would’ve been an F1 driver again in 2022 were it not for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cutting his financial pipeline and allowing Haas to rip up the contract.

However, the system has worked in some areas too. Roy Nissany had major backing as he attempted to become the first Israeli driver in F1, and tested multiple teams with Williams, but had a highest finish of 16th in five seasons of F2 and was never close to earning his super license.

Nikita Mazepin spent the 2021 season with Haas | REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Steiner: Championship position now top priority for teams

Haas confirmed the extension of Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen for 2024 ahead of the 2023 Dutch GP, with the veteran lineup a far cry from 2021 where fellow rookie Mick Schumacher partnered Mazepin.

The pair have 348 Grand Prix starts between them, and Steiner says the team can now prioritise that experience and pedigree

“Now the constructor championship position is more important than having a driver bringing you a little bit of money,” Steiner added.

“In the old days you had teams which were financially not stable, now we’ve got 10 very solid teams here, so nobody needs to rely on a pay driver because Formula 1 is in such a good spot with 10 teams which are all stable.”

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