Formula 1 drivers from billionaire families should not be dismissed because of their wealthy backgrounds, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has said.

Developments in the driver market for the 2021 F1 season have prompted fresh debate over the presence of so-called ‘pay drivers’ in the sport.

Lance Stroll, son of billionaire Canadian businessman Lawrence Stroll, is among those who have been accused of owing their place in F1 to their wealthy backgrounds. Stroll arrived in F1 with Williams in 2017 and moved to Racing Point last year after his father bought the team.

Wolff said he agrees F1 “should be a meritocracy” and claimed Stroll’s junior career achievements showed he had earned his place in the sport.

“He won the Italian F4 championship, won the international F3 championship, has been on the podium twice and has qualified for the first row at Monza in the rain,” said Wolff. “I don’t think we can say just because his father’s a billionaire that he’s not here on merit.”

Wolff is closely connected to Lawrence Stroll, whose team uses Mercedes power units and other hardware. The younger Stroll is “actually suffering from that stigma” of association with his father’s wealth, said Wolff, “and that is just not right”.

“He can’t do anything about his father being very successful in his own right,” Wolff continued. “I think it’s even more impressive that a kid with that environment choose one of the most competitive sports in the world. So, honestly, there is no discussion.”

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Two other well-backed drivers are expected to arrive in Formula 1 next year. Nikita Mazepin, who lies sixth in the Formula 2 standings with two race wins and has previously tested for Mercedes, is the son of Russian chemicals billionaire Dmitry Mazepin. He has been tipped to make his Formula 1 debut at Haas next year.

Lance Stroll, Racing Point, Autodromo do Algarve, 2020
Stroll has shown he is in F1 on merit, says Wolff

The occupant of the other Haas seat is expected to be current F2 points leader and Ferrari Driver Academy member Mick Schumacher, the son of seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher.

“Let’s not discredit Mick or Nikita before having seen them,” said Wolff. “I think Nikita has been a regular front-runner now in the F2 season. He won some races or at least he was competing for some of the race wins and the same thing for Mick.”

F1 is in “the best possible state” in terms of driver talent now compared to in previous years, saaid Wolff. “We had much more drivers who came in only because they paid five, six years ago. Maybe I have the wrong recollection, I don’t want to name anybody, but you know who I mean.”

Wolff said he understood Haas team principal Guenther Steiner’s decision to replace the team’s more experienced line-up with new drivers who could bring financial advantages to the team.

“He has a driver that’s been with him two or three years, had his ups and downs, and now he’s going for a younger one that also brings a budget but who has been competitive. I would do that. Nothing against Romain [Grosjean], I think he did many, many good years in Formula 1.”

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