It’s time for part two of Badger’s look at pay drivers, with the best of the bunch under the microscope today. If you missed yesterday’s look at the worst ride buyers check that out here.
The teams that require pay drivers aren’t usually the type you’d expect to regularly achieve wins, podiums or even points. They’re looking for solid drivers, with backing, to keep the dream alive for another year before moving them on to pastures new. The best drivers are the ones that do their job in such a way that they look like more than just piggy banks with a Super License. Ukyo Katayama and Pedro Diniz were the two ever presents on the grid in the 1990s that managed to live up to this criteria.
Back in the days when it wasn’t a cardinal sin to advertise cigarettes on the side of an F1 car Ukyo Katayama’s career was primarily funded by Japan Tobacco. Wherever Ukyo went the Mild Seven branding followed. The first of his three teams was the perennial strugglers Larrousse who in 1992 were about as reliable as a chocolate fireguard and directed all their meager resources towards the half French, half Belgian man-mental Bertrand Gachot. While Gachot managed a sixth place finish at Monaco that season, Katayama could only secure a clutch of ninth place finishes, more down to reliability woes than any lack of talent.
That didn’t stop Katayama’s skill from shining through though and in 1993 Ken Tyrrell was persuaded by his backers take a chance on him. Unfortunately for both team and driver performance was lacking and the season was a write off. In 1994 things began to look up for the Tokyo native. He secured a career best haul of five points and only through bad luck did he fail to add to that substantially. Retirements and collisions with other drivers, most of which weren’t actually his fault, saw him retire in 12 of the 16 races.
Ukyo’s stock had gone through the roof. In the off season he was offered a drive from, in his own words, a “top team” for the following year but once again fate dealt a cruel blow to his hopes. He had been diagnosed with back cancer which, while not fatal, was painful. He turned down the drive and stuck with the now fading Tyrrell team. Katayama was solid throughout 1995 and 1996 but failed to score another point. He rounded off his career in 1997 with Minardi, where he struggled with the unresponsive M197 but still managed to cling to his reputation of being extremely capable and very well funded.
Unlike Ukyo, Pedro Diniz didn’t have to broker sponsorship deals to get his foot in the door; he just had to ask his Dad. Diniz Sr. was one of the richest men in Brazil and did all he could to keep his son in race seats until the final race of 2000.
Pedro got his first Grand Prix seat in 1995 with Forti but quickly became fed up at how uncompetitive the car was. A decision was made to jump to Ligier for 1996. Diniz was solid but his performances were overshadowed by those of team mate Olivier Panis, who managed to secure a famous win at a wet Monte Carlo.
In the off season the call came from Tom Walkinshaw, asking the Brazilian if he’d bring his money to Arrows and pay the wages of World Champion Damon Hill. Unsurprisingly he accepted, but the performances of the A18 weren’t anything to write home about. To his credit he stuck with the team through 1998 after Hill had left and put in some decent performances. Diniz was no longer a stranger to the occasional points finish.
Diniz seemed to fancy his chances at a team with higher aspirations than simply keeping the bailiffs from the door and in 1999 joined Sauber alongside wizened Frenchman Jean Alesi. Any pretentions that Diniz would play second fiddle to his more experienced team mate were washed away as he indulged on a season of point’s finishes or bust. Until the final Grand Prix of the year in Japan when he limped home in 11th he either retired or finished in the top 6. In 2000 his performances dropped off, maybe because Diniz was now looking towards team ownership after buying a stake in the Prost team, or maybe because his luck had ran out. Who knows, but while Diniz will always be known as the man who kept Damon Hill at Arrows if you look a bit closer he wasn’t a bad driver.
Getting into the sport via the money route doesn’t automatically consign you to a life of whoring yourself about to teams in need of cash. Some of the world’s best have helped along their cause with a healthy deposit. Earlier in his career Michael Schumacher was backed by Mercedes, who paid Jordan $150,000 which allowed him to take the seat of Bernard Gachot at Spa in 1991. It would’ve been a good deal for the team at half the price, although Jordan’s inability to tie Schumacher down to a written contract when they realised what a prospect he was saw them lose out big time when he buggered off to Benetton for the next race.
More recently Fernando Alonso made his breakthrough at Paul Stoddart’s Minardi thanks to a financial leg up. His team mate, the expendable Tarso Marques was shunted out in favour of Alex Yoong, who showed how rare of a commodity a talent driver with money can be.
Can any of F1’s current crop of ‘pay drivers’ do a Schumacher or an Alonso? Probably not. Renault’s Vitaly Petrov has been comprehensively spanked by his team mate Robert Kubica, the original pairing at HRT are in a car so abject it’s difficult to tell their true worth but Yamamoto has still managed to plumb the depths in the same vehicle. With no great white hope on the horizon but new teams still scraping for cash the chances are somewhere down the line we’ll get another Deletraz rather than Diniz.