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Formula 1

Billionaires’ sons only? Mark Hughes on money and talent in F1

by Mark Hughes
4 min read

New Haas 2021 signing Nikita Mazepin (pictured above in a Mercedes test) made an interesting point when questioned earlier this week about whether Formula 1 is just becoming the playground for sons of billionaires.

There are three such drivers on the grid, he countered, but 20 drivers in total. And even those three have very good racing pedigrees.

The money will ease your passage but you still have to deliver, in other words.

Let’s not forget that one of the greatest drivers of all time, Ayrton Senna, was the son of a very rich man. The talent and the money are not mutually exclusive.

All that said, it’s quite interesting that the last four pre-eminent drivers in F1 – Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher – are all from very ordinary backgrounds.

Hamilton’s father Anthony famously took on extra hours as a British Rail computer engineer as well as part-time jobs such as erecting estate agent ‘for sale’ boards to keep Hamilton karting. The forward momentum of Hamilton’s career was only ensured when Ron Dennis famously stepped in to back him from the age of 13.

Anthony and Lewis Hamilton in 2007

Vettel’s father Norbert was a carpenter/roofer with a big interest in motorsport, and that enthusiasm was passed onto his young son – who monopolised the kart that was supposed to be a present to be shared between Sebastian and his sister.

As with Hamilton, Vettel’s karting successes were only converted into the budget required in the car racing junior categories by external backing, in this case from BMW.

Dec 02 : Russell to Merc, Schumacher and other driver changes

Fernando Alonso’s father was an explosives expert working in the quarries of Oviedo. His mother worked as an employee in a local store.

There are striking parallels here with Vettel’s career, in that Alonso’s father, Jose Louis, was a keen motorsports fan and bought a kart that was supposed to be shared between son and daughter!

Alonso’s obvious talent allowed Jose Louis to raise backing from a kart manufacturer. In this ad-hoc way, with just racing industry sponsors, he got onto the junior rungs of car racing, which allowed him to be noticed by Flavio Briatore.

Michael and Rolf Schumacher 2001

Michael Schumacher’s father Rolf (pictured above with Michael in 2001), a bricklayer by trade, was another karting enthusiast dad. He volunteered at the local track, creating the opportunity for Michael to sample the karts there.

Schumacher’s early career was funded by various local businessmen. His initial break into racing was set to be funded by Ford Germany but Mercedes came knocking.

Senna didn’t initially need to worry too much about sponsors – although he did infamously ‘retire’ at the end of his victorious British Formula Ford season in 1981 after becoming frustrated that he could not raise the budget required for an F3 drive. The parental purse strings clearly only extended so far.

He went back on the retirement plan and returned for a season of FF2000 in ’82, the launchpad to his famous F3 season of ’83.

Ayrton Senna F3 1983

Senna did bring sponsorship money with him, despite his obvious raw ability. But significantly, he felt able to turn down McLaren F1 chief Ron Dennis’s offer of backing of his F3 season as he didn’t want to be beholden to any particular team.

Regardless of the source of his backing, no-one would deny the scale of Senna’s talent. It was obvious from his first races in Formula Ford. There is no rule which says the ‘special ones’ cannot be from privileged backgrounds.

Here are the backgrounds of the rest of the current grid:

Valtteri Bottas – Father had a small cleaning company, mother was an undertaker

Max Verstappen – Son of ex-F1 driver Jos and quick karting racer Sophie Kumpen

Alex Albon – Son of sometime racer Nigel and Thai businesswoman Kankamol

Sergio Perez – Son of a fairly wealthy businessman and politician

Lance Stroll – Son of billionaire businessman Lawrence

Daniel Ricciardo – Father ran a medium-sized transport company

Esteban Ocon – Son of Laurent, owner of a small local garage

Lando Norris – Son of wealthy pension manager Adam

Carlos Sainz Jr – Son of legendary world rally champion Carlos

Carlos Sainz Sr and Jr

Pierre Gasly – Born into a motor racing family, but not believed to be a wealthy one

Daniil Kvyat – Son of Vyacheslav, a financial director with a Russian energy company

Charles Leclerc – Son of the late Herve Leclerc, former F3 driver. Not believed to be wealthy

Kimi Raikkonen – Modest family background, father a forestry worker

Antonio Giovinazzi – Modest family background, father a salesman

Kevin Magnussen – Son of ex-F1 driver Jan

Romain Grosjean – Son of a bank employee with a motorsports interest

George Russell – Son of small business owner Steve

Nicholas Latifi – Son of billionaire businessman Michael

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