Jenson Button, 2004/2005
After making his F1 debut with Williams in 2000, Button spent two years with Benetton before pitching up at BAR in 2003, and had gained a reputation as one of F1's more promising talents. The Briton then found BAR's 006 very much to his liking in 2004, and scored 10 podium finishes on his way to third in that year's Drivers' Championship. Despite a successful year, Button elected to return to Williams for 2005, and signed a contract with the Grove-based squad in mid-2004. This move irked BAR, who insisted they retained an option on Button's services for 2005 – a judgement that F1's Contracts Recognition Board agreed with, obliging him to stay with BAR for another season. Though Button then signed a pre-contract with Williams to race for them in 2006, he appeared to get cold feet after the outfit's slump in form in 2005, and decided he would be better off remaining with BAR, which was to become the Honda works team in 2006. Ultimately, it took a hefty compensation payment in the region of £18 million to persuade Williams to release Button from his 2006 obligations with the team. But while Button may have been a little out of pocket after that episode, his hunch ultimately proved correct, as he took his maiden Grand Prix win at the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix at the wheel of Honda's RA106. Better was to come in 2009, when Honda's sudden withdrawal from F1 led to the hasty assembling of the Brawn F1 team, who, against all odds, produced a car that proved to be the class of the field and powered Button to that year's World Championship title.
Michael Schumacher, 1991
When Bertrand Gachot bizarrely found himself imprisoned midway through the 1991 season, the fledgling Jordan team needed a replacement for the Belgian Grand Prix, and duly plumped for a Mercedes sportscar protégé called Michael Schumacher. Not much was expected of the young German, but he stunned the paddock by putting his Jordan 191 seventh on the grid at Spa-Francorchamps, four places ahead of experienced teammate Andrea De Cesaris. Schumacher's race would end on Lap 1 with a broken clutch, but he was suddenly hot property, and despite an agreement between Jordan and Mercedes that would see Schumacher continue to race for the Irish outfit, Benetton took advantage of some ambiguous wording in that contract to swoop in and sign him up in time for the Italian Grand Prix just two weeks later. What may have appeared an impulsive and opportunistic move from team boss Flavio Briatore turned out to be one of the most inspired signings in F1 history, as Schumacher swiftly became the outstanding driver of his age. He won World Championships with Benetton in 1994 and 1995 before leaving for Ferrari, where he won five more titles to cement his legacy as one of the sport's all-time greats.
Jean Alesi, 1990
Having burst onto the scene midway through 1989 with Tyrrell, Jean Alesi's career was on the crest of a wave in early 1990, with two podium finishes in the first four races attesting to his prodigious talent. Frank Williams decided he liked Alesi's style and agreed a deal with the Frenchman to drive for the team in 1991. However, with Williams also trying to get Ayrton Senna on board, the team delayed announcing Alesi's signing, and he instead inked a deal to drive for Ferrari. The ensuing tug-of-war resulted in Ferrari paying Williams compensation of $4 million, but from Alesi's point of view it seemed a logical choice, as Ferrari had finished higher than Williams in 1990 – and his Sicilian ancestry made the Prancing Horse an irresistible draw. However, the next few years would prove frustrating for Alesi as Ferrari slipped back in competitiveness, and it must have been galling for him to watch on as Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost both romped to title wins with Williams in 1992 and 1993. Meanwhile, beset with Ferraris that were variously unreliable or uncompetitive, Alesi would win only a single Grand Prix across a five-year spell at Maranello, with a further six years in F1 failing to yield another victory.
It's all very well having two teams fighting over one driver, but what about one team signing three drivers for only two available seats? That's exactly what happened to Sauber on the eve of the Australian Grand Prix in 2015. At the end of 2014, the Swiss squad had announced Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr as their two drivers for the following year. So far, so normal. But Sauber's 2014 reserve driver Giedo van der Garde lobbed a spanner in the works a couple of weeks before the season opener in Australia, when he claimed he had a right to a race seat for 2015. The dispute continued into the race weekend, with the Supreme Court of Victoria ruling that van der Garde should indeed race for Sauber, obliging the team to sit out first practice on Friday to avoid finding themselves in contempt of court. The following day, the Dutchman agreed to back down and allow Ericsson and Nasr to compete, but Sauber were obliged to pay van der Garde compensation in the region of $16 million in order to sever ties.
Oscar Piastri, 2022
The latest F1 contractual saga and the inspiration for this article, Piastri (main picture) was appointed Alpine's reserve driver for 2022 after having served notice of his talent by winning three junior titles in consecutive years. With Fernando Alonso's 2023 move from Alpine to Aston Martin announced on 30 July, Alpine moved swiftly to promote Piastri to a race seat, replacing the Spaniard. However, just two hours after Alpine's statement confirming Piastri – which did not include any quotes from Piastri himself – the Australian released a statement of his own saying that he would not be driving for Alpine in 2023. RacingNews365.com revealed earlier this month that Piastri had instead agreed a deal to race for McLaren in 2023 in place of the underperforming Daniel Ricciardo. Well-placed sources at Alpine subsequently told RacingNews365.com that Piastri never held a Formula 1 contract with the team for 2023. Piastri had signed a contract with Alpine in November 2021. Crucially, however, this contract was between Piastri and Alpine's Driver Academy, rather than the F1 team, in theory allowing McLaren to agree a deal with the Australian to race for them in 2023. While the identity of Piastri's 2023 employers remains unconfirmed, he will doubtless be hoping that his on-track performance overshadows the off-track saga that preceded his entry onto the 2023 grid.