One can only applaud the principle behind the young driver tests organized at the end of the season, yet sadly, as happens so many times in f1, the end result is not always in line with the spirit of the agreement. The basic aim for these tests would be to give the most talented ones of the upcoming generation a taste of what’s it like to drive a current f1 car in anger and for the teams to assess their capabilities for a possible race seat in the future. With opportunities for young drivers being so limited, this could be an ideal opportunity for these guys to get some serious mileage done.
However as with race seats, these drives are not given out on merit alone, and some teams are using it to supplement their budget by basically putting their seat time in the test up to the highest bidder. This isn’t to say that a lot of these guys don’t deserve this chance, most of them do but the selection process does have one fatal flaw..the fact that money even factors into this discussion. Nonetheless, it’s always exciting to see who might become the next best thing since sliced bread in F1.
The most disappointing appointments come yet again from Mclaren, who despite having bred a talent like Hamilton and reaping the benefits of it seem to be lagging behind their rivals since then when it comes to the development of young drivers, as like last year they will run long standing reserve and not exactly ‘young’ driver anymore at 31, Gary Paffet, and Oliver Turvey will also get a day in the car. While talented, a lack of funds has seen Turvey fail to find a full time seat in GP2 for 2011 so he’ll be eager to put on a strong performance and at 24 already, time is not working to his advantage.
Ferrari are not giving up on Bianchi despite a largely disappointing GP2 season where he was expected to challenge Grosjean for the title and will give him the full three days to throw around the red car and prove he has what it takes to replace Massa when Ferrari will finally realize the folly of retaining such an underperforming driver. The heat is on for Bianchi as Ferrari have taken a liking to Sauber driver Perez, so if Bianchi does not man up during the test and next year, he might see that coveted race seat slip through his fingers.
Red Bull will give their next wonderboy a shot with Jean Eric Vergne, who only narrowly missed out on the WSR title to his teammate Robert Wickens. Vergne is definitely one to watch out for in my opinion, but it remains to be seen where he could end up next year. It’s likely he’ll just follow Ricciardo’s path of continuing in WSR while doing the friday fp1 drives for Toro Rosso; or maybe Red Bull will grab a juicy HRT seat from the start this time. After all, Toro Rosso does seem to be gradually severing the ties with the mother company, and it’s more cost effective to just buy some drives for your young guns rather than pay for a whole other f1 operation.
Perhaps as a sign of their gradual emancipation from the drinks company, Toro Rosso will not be fielding young guns from the Red Bull stable but instead will field Stefano Colletti and Kevin Ceccon. The Monegask Coletti was driving a solid first full season of GP2 until he was injured in a bad crash in Spa, while Ceccon at only 18 yrs of age is topping the Auto GP championship and is to date the youngest person to have raced in GP2 when he replaced an injured Davide Rigon in two races this year. Seeing that these guys are very young and inexperienced as well, if I were Helmut Marko I’d have given huge talent Carlos Sainz junior a taste of an f1 car as well after his very impressive season in Formula Renault 2.0 though granted the step from that car to an f1 beast is daunting.
WSR champ Robert Wickens will be a busy boy in Abu Dhaboi as he’ll not only be replacing Jerome D’Ambrosio for FP1 on the race weekend, he’ll also drive the Virgin on one of the test days as well as a Renualt. Another youngster in the Virgin stable, Adrian Quaife Hobbs, will get his day to shine and finally Virgin has opted to go for heavily sponsored but also very talented Frenchman Charles Pic. It is all but officially confirmed that Pic has already signed a deal with the squad for a full time race seat next year, dealing a massive blow to Wickens’ and D’Ambrosio’s aspirations for 2012. After years in the desert there are quite a few promising young French drivers pushing to get into F1, and with the Frenchies stealing the Belgian GP from 2014 onwards – well half of it at least – and Renault looking set to become the main engine supplier in F1, with Grosjean, Vergne, Pic and Bianchi la France is back with a vengeance indeed.
Staying with our French connection a little longer, let’s check out the former Renault team, to be renamed Lotus as the bitchfight between them and Fernandes finally draws to a close. True to form – they already employ the largest number of ‘reserve’ drivers on the grid – they will field a different driver for each day with a familiar name popping up – Robert Wickens, who is getting this drive as a reward for his WSR championship victory. In addition to the young Canadian, Estonian talent Kevin Korjus and Czech Jan Charouz beef up the team’s already strong eastern bloc connection…perhaps showing Vitaly he’s not the only one that can drive a car across the iron curtain. Korjus is a member of the Renault driver development program and to date the youngest race winner in WSR while Charouz, already one of Renault’s many reserves, has been dabbling in autoGP, WSR and LeMans without too much success.
Force India announced they would field the unimpressive rich kid Max Chilton during the test. This is surprising because FI is a team which always prides itself on selecting its drivers based on skill, not cash, but they must have figured they’d recoup some money from a driver this way and they’re pretty well set in their main driver department anyway with a tough choice between Sutil, Di Resta and the Hulk facing them for next year.
Williams are another team that have gone for quality drivers in their test, giving seat time to GP3 champion and official reserve driver Valterri Bottas and Mirko Bortolotti, who got the test drive for winning the F2 championship.
On to HRT, who have announced Spaniard Dani Clos for the test, while fairly solid in GP2 this year, there wasn’t much spectacular coming out of him either but at least he fits in the teams’ Spanish strategy.
Mercedes will give their reserve driver Sam Bird another go; he has been solid if a bit unlucky in GP2 this year and has already gotten a feel in for the Merc with some demo runs earlier in the year. That said, with Rosberg signed for next year and beyond and Schumacher intent on giving it another go, there do not seem many race seat opportunities for the Briton.
The future Caterham F1 team – damn I love the sound of that – has given one half of the backmarkers F1 blog a massive crisis – of the good kind- by announcing that the most promising American talent around these days, Alexander Rossi, will be driving for them in the test. This is just a step in a steadily growing relationship as the youngster has been sponsored by the team in WSR last year and will probably drive for the Caterham Air Asia sister GP2 team next year, as he is already doing for the final races in Abu Dhabi. In addition the less promising but well funded Luis Razia will also be driving. Razia finished a lowly 12th in his third GP2 season and his brightest moment of the year was pole position in Hungary.
While Peter Sauber is rightfully admired as a genious when it comes to finding young talent and giving them their first shot at F1, this time the team seem to have gone for the money only option with the selection of Fabio Leimer, finishing only 14th GP2 after a fairly unimpressive record in other junior series though he did manage to grab a win last year. Alongside him will be Perez’s little Telmex brother Esteban Gutierrez, who’ll start his 2nd year in GP2 in 2012 after winning the GP3 championship in 2010.. That said, last year we were all howling at pay driver Perez, and we had to bow to the great Peter Sauber again, so who are we to doubt his choices.
That just about wraps it up for the young driver test. Hopefully we will manage to grab Pete Allen of Paddockscout.com again to go through the list in detail on a post Abu Dhabi podcast with someone much more knowledgeable about the young driver market than myself. That is also if Matt doesn’t die of a crisis seeing an American in an F1 car again and if I survive a move down into the Niger Delta involving a 6hr drive with military escorts and don’t get kidnapped along the way. Fun stuff, definately not my average GP weekend.
see y’all on the flipside