The other day I was reading this very interesting post from fellow blogger Pete Allen (@Pete93Allen) on what he calls ‘feeder series congestion’.
Pete discusses the glass ceiling younger drivers often face when trying to get into F1. It is a perpetual problem for aspiring F1 drivers as sadly talent alone will not get you into a racing seat. There are only 24 seats available, the competition is fierce and the limited offer makes it that many deserving drivers never get their fair shot at F1. I believe there are several layers to this problem:
1. Pay Drivers
They have been around the sport for many years, and won’t be going away any time soon. The term pay driver has always had negative connotations, as if the only reason a particular driver is in F1 is because he has some serious financial clout behind him. While this is true in the case of some, let’s take a look at some guys that came in as pay drivers but turned out not too shabby. First on the list is the great Michael Schumacher. As admitted by the man who gave him his first F1 drive, Eddie Jordan, he did not give him a seat for his talent, but because his Jordan team badly needed the Mercedes money Schumacher could offer him, that the guy was obviously talented as well was just a bonus. And thus what turned out to be the most succesfull driver in F1 history first came into the sport with the help from his sponsor’s wallet. The legendary Niki Lauda took out some serious bank loans to edge into his BRM seat in 1973. Vitaly Petrov only got his F1 seat thanks to his Russian backing but has surprised many with flashes of real talent in his second season. Today’s hot property Sergio Perez wouldn’t have gotten his Sauber seat were it not for his links with the world’s wealthiest man Carlos Slim and some Tequila backing. On the other end of the spectrum there are of course people like Diniz, Maldonado and Khartikeyan, so it is normal to greet a pay driver with some scepticism. The talented Nico Hulkenberg was booted out of Williams after his refusal to pay up and got replaced by Hugo Chavez’s ‘wonderboy’. Fact is that unless you fulfill the following criteria, you need truly exceptional talent to ever get a shot at F1 if your financial clout is lacking. These men will take up a few of the mid – to backfield driver seats available.
2. Major Manufacturer Backing
In recent years a new trend is emerging of protegés having been groomed from an early age by the major manufacturers. Lewis Hamilton would not be where he is today where it not for that famous meeting with Ron Dennis when he saw a talented 12 year old kid and decided to back his career all the way into F1, same goes for current World Champ Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull’s young driver program. The Ferrari young driver academy is yet to provide a Scuderia driver but Felipe Massa has been groomed by the squad since his early career, and Sergio Perez (him again) also has strong links with the team. Paul Di Resta’s DTM championship win with Mercedes was instrumental in securing his seat with Force India Mercedes. Kobayashi got his first shot at F1 through his links with Toyota. The eventual aim of these programs is for these young men to end up in a racing seat with their backer’s squad. Observing this we see another trend emerging: that of customer teams for the major squads to place their young talents as a proving ground. Red Bull has its sister team Toro Rosso, Mercedes is building up strong links with Force India who use their engine, as does Ferrari with Sauber. The only top team lagging a bit behind in this respect is Mclaren.
It would be foolish to lament the vastly improved safety standards in F1 these days as the days of unspeakeable horror of fiery and violent deaths or injuries in F1 are luckily mostly behind us, yet this has also further hampered young driver advancement in F1. F1 careers generally last much longer these days, exemplified by veterans Rubens Barichello and Michael Schumacher still racing at the highest level at the age of 39 and 42, competing since the early nineties. In addition drivers in their thirties like Alonso and Button look set stay in the sport for quite some time to come, having made their beds with the top teams. Mark Webber’s future is perhaps subject of more speculation but at 34 he is not exactly a young gun anymore taking up a seat with the top teams. The new rules for the 2011 season place less physical loads on F1 drivers, with full fuel tanks and when tire management is key a driver just can not attack a full race distance so the physical demands are lower, which makes it easier to stay in F1 as drivers get older.
The lack of competitive racing seats available for younsters often leads them to the backmarkers, but to get a seat there financial clout is almost a must if you don’t already have extensive F1 experience which these teams also value to help develop the car. Look at what happened to Di Grassi at Virgin, Senna and Chandhock in HRT. With such uncompetitive machinery, it is very tough to make your driving ability shine and make a step up the ladder. Sure, the likes of Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso started at perpetual backmarker Minardi, but it is overall quite rare to see a young driver progress in F1 after debuting at the back of the field battling more the car itself than the cars of their competitors. Mclaren took a huge gamble putting the rookie Lewis Hamilton in their car for the ’07 season, and their brave move has payed dividends to them. Why is it that top F1 teams so rarely take that leap of faith. Renault could have given the seat opened up after Kubica’s accident to a deserving young talent in their very large pool of reserve drivers, yet chose to go with another old familiar face in F1 as they were not sure that their pay driver already taking up a seat would finally deliver the consistent results in his second season.
The way forward
It just goes to show that once F1 drivers have made their bed with the teams, they block the advancement of younger, perhaps more talented people. I understand it must be great for people like Schumi and Barichello to still be part of the exclusive F1 drivers club, I just wish they’d move aside and let the young guns have their time in the sun.
Bring back testing or even non championship races but only allow young drivers at the wheel for these days (as suggested by Keith of the F1 Fanatic site) so they can get some valuable time in F1 cars whereas now they are just dropped in the deep end. This is also a reason why we rarely see mid season driver changes (bar those motivated by sponsorship troubles) when a driver is underperforming.
A braver approach by teams giving their young talents a real shot at F1 is needed to help prevent the feeder series congestion. A more ruthless approach by teams is also needed to drop underperforming drivers. It will be harsh but this would see much more rotation in F1 driver line ups, and would make sure only the very best manage to keep their seats and advance up the ranks. It may be seen as unfair and people will say you need to give drivers a chance to develop (the Petrov and Grosjean situations is a good example of what happens at both ends of the spectrum). My point is that if you are truly great, you will show it in your rookie season ( as done by Hamilton, Alonso, Webber, Vettel, Kobayashi and though early to really tell but also Perez and Di Resta this year). Hulkenberg is an interesting case in point: though dropped by Williams for purely financial reasons, few doubt he will return to an F1 racing seat because he has shown his true talent with that stunning pole in Brazil. If you need more than one season to develop and show little promise in your rookie year , tough luck, there are drivers out there who can deliver from the bat, and you missed your chance. There’s plenty other racing series for you to compete in.