Nyck de Vries Shows F1's Pay Driver Problem

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Nyck de Vries Shows F1's Pay Driver Problem

Published:
September 19, 2022
Last Updated:
September 19, 2022

The Italian Grand Prix represented one of the rare races in Formula One where there was a crossover of talent from one championship to another. While Formula E has long been the rescue centre for F1 drivers who didn't quite make it, there hasn't been any traffic flowing in the other direction. However, Nyck de Vries changed that at Monza when he deputised for Alex Albon, and de Vries excelled in his first Grand Prix.

Although de Vries is the 2020-21 Formula E champion to show he has credentials as a racing driver, the speeds, circuits, and challenge gap between F1 and FE are akin to driving a Vauxhall Corsa down the A43 or taking a Lamborghini on a track day at Silverstone. Being good at the morning commute doesn't equate to setting fast laps in a supercar. Yet, de Vries outshone the more experienced Nicholas Latifi in the same machinery after making that jump at Monza. He took two points on Sunday and is already ahead of Latifi in the championship, despite Latifi racing in 15 additional races in 2022.

De Vries' impressive F1 debut holds more weight, too, because it came when he shared a Williams garage with Latifi. However, to understand why that's relevant, we must go back to 2019. De Vries and Latifi raced in the Formula 2 championship that year, finishing first and second, respectively. However, despite taking the title by 52 points ahead of Latifi, de Vries didn't graduate to Formula One, while his Canadian rival did.

Nyck de Vries Shows F1's Pay Driver Problem

To understand why, you need only look at the Williams cars' sponsors over the past few seasons. Since Martini ceased backing the team, taking that iconic striped livery with them, Williams hasn't exactly showcased a canvas of endless brands on their cars. However, two everpresent names are Lavazza, the well-known coffee brand, and the prominent Sofina brand on the rear wing.

While you're likely familiar with Lavazza, Sofina might not be a name you know. However, they are a Canadian-based animal food company with a CEO called Michael Latifi. The shared surname is no coincidence; he is Nicholas' father, and Sofina's sponsorship is another example of a so-called pay driver taking an F1 seat. Lavazza is another long-term sponsor of Latifi; their logo has featured on the cars he's driven since his GP2 days in 2016. 

It's an open secret that Latifi signed Williams rather than the other way around. With the privateer team financially struggling until Dorilton bought out the Williams family in 2020, getting any income has been a matter of survival, and Latifi helped with that. But with how much George Russell, Alex Albon, and now Nyck de Vries have outperformed him, it's fair to ask the question, "at what cost?"

Nyck de Vries Shows F1's Pay Driver Problem

There's a chicken and egg issue here. Williams may not exist today if not for the money Latifi's sponsors brought in. Without the finances, they wouldn't be able to develop a car that can – on occasion – challenge for points. And without challenging for points, they'd have no hope for F1 progress and the prize money that comes with finishing higher up the order. However, Latifi has meant they've only had one driver capable of pushing for top 10 finishes for nearly three seasons.

De Vries' impressive P9 at Monza matches Alex Albon's best finish this year and makes you think how many more points the team could have if there were a de Vries-Albon driver pairing rather than Latifi filling one seat. From a team perspective, Williams could develop the car faster, score more points, sit higher in the standings, and take home more prize money.

Nyck de Vries Shows F1's Pay Driver Problem

Yet it's not the team I most feel for when thinking about what might've been; it's the fans. I'm aware that one race doesn't prove anything, and de Vries could fill in for Albon in the upcoming Singapore and Japanese races and finish last.

However, he was another variable in the already competitive midfield in Italy that Latifi just hasn't been all year. De Vries added to the spectacle, and Williams didn't look out of place racing against McLaren, Alfa Romeo, AlphaTauri and Alpine in the middle of the pack. Instead, his P9 finish highlighted the difference between a driver who adds something to the sport and one who doesn't and, therefore, by definition, is taking from the sport. Latifi's money might add some zeroes to Williams' bank statement, but de Vries showed that Latifi, and other pay drivers, are not adding to F1.

Nyck de Vries Shows F1's Pay Driver Problem

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