As I’ve often said on the main site, the traditional notion of a pay driver is dead. In the bad old days of the 1980s and 1990s, anyone who fancied himself a racing driver and had money and/or a few connections could get a drive and get in the way of the actual racing drivers, Jean-Denis Deletraz perhaps being the most infamous example.
But these days, the tiered structure of feeder series, the demand for a Superlicence and the highly competitive grids we see in GP2 and GP3 mean that drivers must at least show some talent before Formula 1 teams consider them as a potential driver. And sponsors tend to attach themselves to the most talented drivers because they represent the best chance of getting into the sport (and thereby taking the sponsor with them). In fact, there are only half a dozen drivers who do not actually bring sponsors to their teams – even Fernando Alonso does it; his presence at Ferrari brought Santander on-board. The old stereotype of a pay driver is dead.
Well, mostly. There’s a few pockets of resistance out there, the traditionalists who are still under the impression that they are (or can be) professional racing drivers.
At the end of 2009, a Bulgarian businessman named Plamen Kralev joined the GP2 Asia Series, competing for Trident Racing. In a feeder series where most of the drivers are barely old enough to shave, Kralev was an elderly thirty-six years old. He was not particularly quick, either; his best result was a 16th place, and he finished the season 33rd overall – the lowest-ranked driver to compete in all races (Giedo van der Garde was 34th, but he only took part in one round). His GP2 career pretty much ended after that, and he is now competing in Formula 2, where he is currently 23rd overall, with a single point to his name after he finished 10th at the Red Bull Ring. He even has his own title, ‘Ambassador of Bulgaria in the World of Motorsport’:
Naturally, Kralev developed a cult following (at F1 Rejects, where else?), largely because his name roughly translates as ‘Fire King’.
Kralev isn’t the only traditionalist in motorsport. As of yesterday, he was joined by Christophe Hurni, a Swiss driver competing at Monza in the GP3 Series for Jenzer Motorsport. Hurni is perhaps more Kralev than Kralev. Remember how I said Kralev was elderly at thirty-six? Hurni is forty-nine. His best result to date is perhaps a tenth place overall in the Swiss Formula 3 championship – in 1987 (I’m surprised they could find ten Swiss drivers in the first place).
Hurni is perhaps remniscent of the infamous Chanoch Nissany, Israel’s first Formula 1 driver, who served as test driver for European Minardi (of course he did) at the 2005 Hungarian Grand Prix, his one and only appearance. Nissany was seven seconds slower than Robert Doornbos and Christjian Albers – who went on to qualify five seconds behind Michael Schumacher.
So: Kralev, Nissany and Hurni. Who else threatens to bring back the stigma of pay drivers in motorsport?