Are Pay-To-Race Drivers Making a Return To Formula 1?

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Are Pay-To-Race Drivers Making a Return To Formula 1?
Clive Mason/Getty Images
Narain showing off his natural talent for Jordan in 2005.

In one of the more surprising announcements made in January, Narain Karthikeyan was given another chance in F1 by landing a drive at Hispania.

It is obvious that Hispania picked him up because of his links with the Indian conglomerate Tata and it's likely the second driver will have an attractive sponsor as well.

With the economy still looking a bit grim, could this mean the return of pay-drivers synonymous with the early-to-mid 1990's?

While they still have a shed load more talent than me, pay-drivers could never really compete at top level racing.

Many small teams would bring them in just to pay the bills.

Jean-Denis Deletraz is a name that sticks out as a classic example of a pay-driver. He entered three races through 1994 and 1995 for Larrousse and Pacific; two unsuccessful teams desperately in need of money.

His first race in Australia 1994 saw him qualify 25th out of 26, and not to be last was a big surprise. However, after losing his position at the first corner, Deletraz found himself being lapped ten times, before retiring with mechanical problems.

After his underwhelming performance, it should have been the last of Deletraz. Larrousse had folded, but then Pacific hired the Swiss driver for the final five races of 1995.

Arriving at Portugal, Deletraz proceeded to qualify 12 seconds slower than pole-sitter David Coulthard. After just three laps, he was already 40 seconds off the pace, and lapping eight seconds slower than his team-mate.

Someone actually bothered to make a Deletraz tribute video.

He retired on lap 14 with cramp in his left arm, which many people found strange since Estoril was a clockwise circuit.

He was only nine seconds off pole at the next race around the Nurburgring and he managed to get to the end, only seven laps behind Michael Schumacher.

Sadly for Deletraz, his sponsor hadn't paid up.

Pacific team principal Keith Wiggins dropped him for the rest of the season, stating: "On ability alone, we are not prepared to keep him."

Maybe comparing Karthikeyan to Deletraz is a bit harsh, but there are similarities in the story: An underfunded team that is just about surviving in Formula 1 hiring a driver with a not brilliant reputation, but a healthy sponsor.

It is the same reason why Sakon Yamamoto was brought in last year, and it is likely we haven't seen the last of him either.

Who knows, he might keep the Hispania drive for 2011.

Hopefully, this isn't the start of another era of pay-drivers in Formula 1. There are many other drivers who are much more talented who deserve a seat but don't bring in any money.

Nick Heidfeld, Nico Hulkenberg, Anthony Davidson, all of these are probably better than Karthikeyan.

If a team does need the cash though, they should do a Williams and hire a GP2 champion with a lot of Venezuelan money. Sauber got the right idea as well.

Sadly, it looks like Narain and Sakon might be holding up races a bit longer yet.

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