Pedro Diniz: Formula One’s best pay driver?

The 1990s are often considered to be the heyday of the “pay driver” in Formula One, with such luminaries as Giovanni Lavaggi, Taki Inoue and Jean-Denis Deletraz thrilling audiences worldwide in their quest to drive F1 cars as slowly as possible. Pedro Paulo Diniz was initially considered as  just another driver whose wallet outstripped his talent. However, his career points tally tells a far different story, one that is worth revisiting.

The son of a supermarket CEO, Pedro was a late convert to motorsport, only taking up karting when he was 17. In the early 1990s the young Diniz crossed paths with junior team aficionado Guido Forti, who signed him up to drive for his eponymous F3000 team. His junior results made for grim reading. In two seasons, Pedro secured just one points finish, battling in vain against future motorsport greats. But his position at Forti was secure as the team geared up to enter Formula One in 1995, funded largely by the Diniz family’s connections.

Diniz would be partnered with fellow Brazilian Roberto “SuperSub” Moreno, 11 years his senior, with Moreno expected to push the team forward with his experience. No-one in the paddock gave Diniz a fair trial. After all, he was only here because of his money.  Not that he was going to have much, if any chance of disproving this view given the proverbial dogs dinner Forti’s designers had cooked up. The FG01 had seemingly been conceived with little regard for any of the aerodynamic and technological advances in open-wheel design since the 1980s. The rear of the grid beckoned for the Italian squad.

Pedro hustling his Forti into unexpected places, Adelaide 1995 (Photo: Multimedia Motorsport)

Pedro hustling his Forti into unexpected places, Adelaide 1995 (Photo: Multimedia Motorsport)

Over the course of 1995, Moreno and Diniz toiled away, the elder driver clearly losing interest as the season progressed. Only once did Moreno beat Diniz when both drivers finished. Pedro though was keen to make an impact, clocking up ten race finishes from seventeen attempts. But Australia was the high water mark. The tight streets of Adelaide took a heavy toll on equipment and by the time the chequered flag dropped, Pedro was still circulating in seventh  place!

One might have thought Diniz would have stayed at Forti, with his wealth helping to develop a far more potent car for the 1996 season. However, a much more attractive seat had opened up at Ligier. The French team had been negotiating a deal for the notoriously exuberant Robby Gordon to partner Olivier Panis, only for the American to decide he’d rather stay in CART. While F1 was robbed of the chance of seeing a true loose cannon on the grid, it opened the door for Pedro.

Team manager Tom Walkinshaw was not particularly impressed initially, but very quickly changed his tune when he realised the scale of Diniz’s backing. £10 million in Parmalat money certainly settled the argument, and the Brazilian was unveiled as a Ligier driver for the 1996 season, dealing a hammer blow to Forti’s future as their budget disappeared overnight. With Panis pretty much part of the furniture at the French team, Diniz was viewed once again as simply a means to pay the bills. Not that this mattered much to Walkinshaw, as a few months into 1996 he bailed from Ligier and purchased Arrows.

Who ordered a fried Diniz today? (Photo: @1990sF1 on Twitter)

Who ordered fried Diniz today? (Photo: @1990sF1 on Twitter)

The defining image of Pedro’s 1996 occurred in Argentina. In a clumsy attempt to lap Luca Badoer, who had inherited the thankless task of pedalling the Forti FG01, Diniz ended up tipping the Italian driver into a barrel roll.  A few laps later, the fuel valve on the Ligier jammed open as Pedro roared away from the pits. With fuel spraying all over the rear tyres and hot engine elements, you don’t need a science degree to work out what happened next. Diniz’s Ligier spun off in a fireball, the Brazilian having to make a rapid exit from the cockpit. A fire that was more dramatic than serious, it gave the British tabloids a chance to cook up an iconic pun – Diniz In The Oven.

This incident along with Panis’s shock win in Monaco overshadowed a second respectable season for Diniz. He was much closer to Panis than the standings show, as the Frenchman only scored another three points to compliment his victory. Pedro was able to contribute to Ligier’s total as well. While the rest of the field disintegrated during the rain-affected Spanish GP, Diniz clung on and finished sixth, bringing home his first career point. He would go on to secure a further sixth in Italy, marking the final time the Ligier name scored points in F1.

As Alain Prost took full charge of Ligier and implemented his desired changes, Diniz was in need of fresh employment for 1997. Elsewhere in the paddock, Tom Walkinshaw had pulled off the steal of the century, signing reigning World Champion Damon Hill to race for Arrows in 1997. TWR was not awash with cash however, and the Scotsman realised the only way he could afford Hill was to find a driver with a budget. A Brazilian driver with lots of supermarket cash certainly fit the bill. A three-year deal was hurriedly bashed out between Arrows and Diniz. It is believed around £12 million in Parmalat money entered Arrow’s coffers, most of which was then transferred into Hill’s bank account, leaving very little for the team itself.

The launch of a world beater, if you believed Tom Walkinshaw. (Photo: @1990sF1 on Twitter)

The launch of a world beater, if you believed Tom Walkinshaw. (Photo: @1990sF1 on Twitter)

Walkinshaw had promised a world beater. The reality was rather quite different. On unproven Bridgestone rubber and Yamaha engines which had hardly set the F1 world alight, the Arrows A18 was a midfield car at best, and despite attracting extra sponsorship cash from Danka, Hill’s salary meant there was not enough money to develop the car properly. The first race of the year highlighted this.

In Melbourne while most of the paddock was distracted by the slow-motion train crash taking place at Mastercard Lola, others took interest in Arrows lurching from one disaster to another. The A18 seemed incapable of stringing together more than two laps without breaking down, and by the end of Saturday’s session Pedro had fallen foul of the 107% rule. For a time it looked like the Brazilian would be  joining the Lola drivers in an early bath, but thanks to some hard-headed negotiations, the stewards allowed Diniz to race. He repaid Arrows by bringing home an unlikely tenth  place, almost unthinkable at the start of the weekend.

Wringing the neck of the Arrows A18, Brazil 1997.

Wringing the neck of the Arrows A18, Brazil 1997.

Thereafter Pedro settled down to the job. No-one realistically expected him to challenge Hill, but many observers were surprised how close the Brazilian was to the champion’s pace. This included a stellar qualifying session at Spa, where Diniz not only outqualified Hill, his lap was good enough for eighth on the grid. The Nurburgring was where everything clicked for Pedro. He finished a career-high fifth, netting two points for Arrows.

1998 presented relative stability for Diniz. With Hill moving on to Jordan, the highly-rated Mika Salo jumped on board, having spent three seasons toiling at Tyrrell. Once again, Diniz was expected to play a supporting role. Most of the Parmalat cash this season would be used to subsidise Tom Walkinshaw’s latest pet project. Ever the wheeler dealer, he had bought out Brian Hart’s engine company in late 1997, arguing that building an integral car was the only way forward for Arrows. Designer John Barnard penned the A19, which was a beautiful and complex weapon. To the casual observer, it seemed the team was about to spring an enormous surprise.

But, as ever with Arrows, it was a false dawn. Trying to develop engines on a budget which Ferrari, Mercedes and Mugen-Honda eclipsed several times over was only going to end badly. The defining image of 1998 was the sight of A19s parked at the side of the track having broken down, most embarrassingly at Spain where Salo and Diniz suffered simultaneous engine failures in sight of each other. The Brazilian only saw the chequered flag five times from sixteen attempts that year.

However, there were slivers of sunlight amidst the gloom, particularly at Monaco where the team brought home a double points finish. Salo’s prowess netted him fourth and Diniz was rewarded with sixth, having withstood a clumsy, desperate dive from Michael Schumacher at the chicane on the final lap.

Pedro's finest hour in Formula One? Spa 1998.

Pedro’s finest hour in Formula One? Spa 1998.

Then there was Belgium, arguably Diniz’s finest hour in the sport. The Brazilian had edged Salo by just two tenths in qualifying, a margin that proved critical on Sunday, when both A19s were reduced to their constituent parts in the enormous first lap pile up. With only one spare tub available, Diniz’s higher grid position came up trumps and it was he who lined up for the restart an hour later. Navigating through heavy attrition and the worst that the Belgian weather could throw at Spa, Pedro brought his car home in fifth place. His efforts bolstered Arrows’ points total enough for the team to vault  ahead of Stewart in the constructors.

Matching Salo in the overall standings had done wonders for Diniz’s reputation. But inside the team, relations between Pedro and Tom Walkinshaw had become strained, unsurprisingly given the Scotsman’s fondness for shaking things up on a whim. Towards the end of the 1998 season, the usual silly season rumours began to fly, with Diniz being linked to the new BAR team. Jacques Villeneuve very quickly shot down such speculation.

Further up the paddock though, a seat at Sauber had become available, and with generous funding, Ferrari engines, and a stable organisation, seemed an altogether more harmonious proposition than another year at Leafield. In October 1998, Pedro Diniz was unveiled as a Sauber driver, partnering the veteran Jean Alesi. The deal provoked a fair amount of positive coverage; indeed the ITV season preview book for 1999 emphasised that he had earned this seat on merit. That being said, £10 million of Parmalat cash no doubt made the deal sweeter for team manager Peter Sauber. Walkinshaw was livid, insisting that Diniz had illegally broken his contract with Arrows. The Scotsman took the matter to the courts, a decision he would later bitterly regret.

The Sauber C18 was regarded as having considerably strong race pace. Unfortunately, this was negated by poor one-lap pace and horrendous reliability. Pedro only saw the chequered flag four times out of 16 attempts in 1999. Crucially however, three of those finishes were in the points, a trio of sixth places netting a further three points to Diniz’s career total, enough to break him into double figures. Indeed, the Brazilian was able to post consecutive points finishes in Great Britain and Austria, the first time he had managed this feat.

Sauber could only muster five points in 1999, their worst season until their recent travails, and when Pedro’s three points are taken into consideration, it becomes apparent that Alesi only contributed  two points. Do the maths; Pedro had outscored a team mate for the first time in his career.

This image sent chills through the F1 paddock, thankfully Pedro was OK, Nurburgring 1999 (Photo: FRANK AUGSTEIN/Associated Press)

This image sent chills through the F1 paddock, thankfully Pedro was OK, Nurburgring 1999 (Photo: FRANK AUGSTEIN/Associated Press)

However, a major incident once again overshadowed Diniz’s good performances. At the Nurburgring, Damon Hill’s Jordan ground to a halt in the middle of the pack with electrical failure. While taking evasive action, Alexander Wurz pitched Diniz into a sickening roll, the Sauber eventually coming to rest upside down in the grass. The F1 paddock held its breath as TV footage confirmed the roll hoop had been destroyed. Pedro could not be seen. As marshals gingerly righted the Sauber, everyone sighed in relief. Diniz was intact, and unhurt. The high cockpit sides had prevented the Brazilian being crushed to death.

Pedro’s stock in F1 had never been higher as he entered the new decade. Peter Sauber spoke warmly of the Brazilian, mentioning that his experience would help push the team forward. With Alesi moving on to Prost, Diniz would be partnered again with Mika Salo, this time with the caveat that both could expect equal treatment. But unlike 1998, Salo clearly had the upper hand, scoring all six of Sauber’s points that year.

While he would not be the only midfielder winding up pointless in 2000 (Johnny Herbert says hello), Diniz’s season was littered with spins and silly contretemps, the most serious incident occurring at Hockenheim where he sideswiped his former team mate Alesi at 180mph, pitching the Frenchman’s Prost into a flight of destruction  along the wall. 2000 dealt a sledgehammer blow to Diniz’s reputation. It was as if he’d seemingly regressed as a driver, and no-one was particularly surprised when Peter Sauber did not offer him a new contract. Speculative negotiations for a Minardi seat came to nothing. Seeing the writing on the wall, Pedro hung up the helmet, having scored ten points from 98 races.

Tensions were already running high between Diniz and Prost by this point

Tensions were already running high between Diniz and Prost by this point

But that was not the end of Pedro in Formula One. It was announced in November 2000 that the Diniz family had bought a 40% stake in the Prost team, and Pedro returned to the paddock in a management role. Alain Prost continued with his winning ways by almost immediately falling out with Diniz. Coming off a horror show 2000, Prost were attempting to rebuild around a customer Ferrari package. This did not come cheap. Nor were the constant repair bills Luciano Burti racked up. When the lack of TV rights money began strangling the team midway through 2001, the Diniz family made an offer to buy Alain out. While they wouldn’t have the capital to sustain the team long-term, they would at least be able to stabilise the outfit in the hope of finding a buyer. With typical stubborn grace Alain refused any offers, and the fate of the team was sealed when the Diniz family walked away in November 2001, having cut their losses.

Pedro’s association with Formula One ended in early 2002 when the Court of Appeal threw out Tom Walkinshaw’s long-protracted writ against the driver. $750,000 in damages awarded to Diniz marked probably the only time Pedro made money in F1, and dealt a crippling blow to Arrows, pushing them further into the financial black hole which would consume the team later that year.

While Pedro’s career total of ten points over six seasons in the sport pales in comparison with modern-day “pay drivers” such as Sergio Perez, Pastor Maldonado and Lance Stroll, this does not take into account the changes to Formula One’s points structure since the early 2000s. In addition, the rising cost of motorsport means young drivers are expected to bring sponsorship to secure seats. Arguably even double world champion Fernando Alonso can be considered a pay driver, due to his long-term Santander backing. The aforementioned trio of “modern” pay drivers have also had significant success in junior categories, something Diniz’s career lacks.

While some may still write off Diniz as a mere pay driver, to match and beat names like Moreno, Panis, Salo and Alesi, while giving a world champion a serious wake-up call clearly shows Pedro had the talent to cut it in Formula One. He was not going to challenge for titles or even be a frontrunner, but until his disastrous 2000 the Diniz name symbolised steady, midfield achievement, something he can be proud about.

As for Pedro himself, he now runs an organic farm, having briefly dabbled with running a Formula Renault series in his native Brazil.

Sources: GrandPrix.com, Motorsport.com, Crash.net, Formula One Yearbook 2001-2002, The Official ITV F1 Grand Prix Guides 1998 and 1999.