No Time For Tears – Racing, Romanticism and Revolution

Jules Bianchi Force India F1 Team © James Moy Photography

Jules Bianchi
Force India F1 Team
© James Moy Photography

Let’s start off with a statistic or two. Since the inception of GP2 in 2005, only one non-Red Bull backed driver has graduated from Formula Renault 3.5 (World Series Renault) to a Formula 1 race seat. That man was the 2005 champion, Robert Kubica.

In that same period, 20 drivers have graduated from GP2 to F1, with a further four being added to the list in 2013 (Gutierrez, van der Garde, Chilton and Razia) and one from GP3 (BOTTAS.)

Red Bull has, in the same period, promoted four drivers direct from World Series: Vettel, Alguersuari, Ricciardo and Vergne. It has not placed a fully backed driver into GP2 since Sebastien Buemi finished sixth in the 2008 championship.

Since the inception of GP2, the two championships have both provided one Formula 1 world champion – Hamilton for GP2 and Vettel for WSR.

So, why the sudden fetish for stats?

As yesterday’s news started to filter through that Adrian Sutil had landed the final seat in F1, alongside Paul di Resta at Force India, I actually started to feel bad for Jules Bianchi whom had also stood a chance at the seat. Jules, you see, would have been the first World Series driver to graduate to F1 without Red Bull backing since Kubica. And the fact that he won’t be leaves the whole junior championship ladder in an odd state of flux.

Jules seemed to be a dream package. Young, hungry, talented and fast… and a Ferrari Academy driver, managed by Nicolas Todt. It is little wonder that talk soon surfaced that Force India was hoping to switch engine suppliers from Mercedes to Ferrari for 2014, and that any deal with Jules would require some form of a sweetener from the Scuderia on the figure proposed for an engine supply. It is simple enough business.

Nicolas Todt © James Moy Photography

Nicolas Todt
© James Moy Photography

Nicolas Todt is as close to the Messiah of young driver managers as you could hope to find in the modern era. And Jules is his shining light. I interviewed Nicolas a few years ago about his career and I asked him what would make him proudest. His answer came straight from the heart. He wanted to see Jules in Formula 1. You see, all of Nicolas’ other drivers had come to him either when they were already in Formula 1 or when they were just on the cusp of getting there. But Nicolas had discovered Jules in karting and had guided him all the way through his career.

With that in mind, you will have some idea of how hard Nicolas will have worked to get that Force India deal done.

Ultimately this whole thing will have come down to finances. The money off deal proposed by Ferrari for their 2014 engines will have been less than Adrian Sutil was able to bring to the table. Factor in also that the team knows how reliable Sutil can be in a racing car while Bianchi remains the untried and often hot headed youngster, and one can see how the decision was reached.

But if Jules Bianchi, with the might of Ferrari and arguably the best driver manager in the business, can’t get a leg up from WSR to F1, what chance does anyone else in the category have?

The logical next step after WSR, if F1 isn’t happening, must therefore be GP2. But for Bianchi and his one-time team-mate Sam Bird, they’ve gone in the opposite direction. After a few years spent winning races in the F1 feeder, they moved sideways to World Series and arguably had their best, most complete seasons as racing drivers ever. But now they find themselves in limbo.

Alexander Rossi on the other hand, along with 2012 WSR champion Robin Frijns looks set to do the opposite and join the GP2 fold for 2013. Rossi’s story is an interesting one. He was partnered with Esteban Gutierrez at ART in GP3 in 2010. But while the Mexican moved to GP2 in 2011, the American moved to WSR. After two years a piece in their respective championships, Esteban Gutierrez is a Formula 1 driver, and Alexander Rossi is looking at making his GP2 debut.

So what was the point in those two seasons in World Series? Was it a huge waste of money and time? If only those backed by Red Bull have any chance of making it out of World Series and straight into F1, what do young drivers do? Racing in a championship that holds no hopes of providing that stepping stone to F1, if that is a driver’s ambition, is surely a waste of time. But simply stepping up to GP2 is not that simple. And again, the reason is money.

Nico Rosberg ART Grand Prix © GP2 Media Service

Nico Rosberg
ART Grand Prix
© GP2 Media Service

When GP2 was created for the 2005 season, the top line budget was around €750,000. The championship contested 11 rounds, 10 in Europe with a season finale at the Bahrain International Circuit at which Nico Rosberg recorded the first ever back to back weekend set of wins to beat Heikki Kovalainen to the crown.

In 2013, at the end of the third three year cycle of the championship, GP2 will once again contest 11 rounds. But budgets this year have hit such levels that even 2007 champions iSport International have had to miss the first test of the season and are hoping to sell their team. As referenced by Autosport.com in an article on iSport’s sad demise, the budget the team was looking for, per driver, was €1.8 million.

Paul Jackson has never sold his seats at a premium. He has always sold his seats at the same price to both drivers, so that both would be assured equal status within the team. If that’s the price he was quoting, you can be assured that was about as low as it could go. So GP2 budgets, in 2013, are one million Euros higher than they were when the championship was launched.

Of course, the F1 calendar itself is partially to blame for this. There aren’t 10 European races anymore to make a 2005 style GP2 calendar possible. With the folly that was GP2 Asia now consigned to history, the venues which that championship called home have been absorbed into the main championship. So we have Malaysia, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and now Singapore on the list.

On the one hand this makes the championship very attractive as it prepares drivers for F1 on F1 race tracks and in front of F1 teams. On the other hand, it means that unless you can get around €2million of personal backing a year, you aren’t going to be competing.

2012 saw arguably the weakest field in GP2 history. 2013 has some outstanding talent in the field, but questions are already being asked of whether the line-up across the board is of the level we have come to expect from what remains, to my mind, one of the most exciting single-seater championships in the world, and a championship which has always sold itself on being THE Formula 1 feeder series.

Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be so surprised that GP2 should be so successful in seeing its drivers promoted to F1. Afterall, in an era when talent alone is not enough to grant a driver his break at the bigtime in F1, money really does talk. If you can’t afford to race in GP2, then how are you going to scrape together the backing to buy yourself a run at the F1 rookie test, let alone put together a package that is enticing enough for an F1 team to stick your sponsor’s logos on the side of their car and allow you to go racing?

Timo Glock © James Moy Photography

Timo Glock
© James Moy Photography

Think of the last driver that you can recall making it to F1 on talent alone? Who genuinely made it without a cent to his name in personal backing? Wracking my brains, and really wracking them, I’d probably say Timo Glock. I mean even Timo had some funding, but nowhere near enough to be able to get himself a gig in F1.

How sad that in the year when Timo’s F1 dream comes to an end, the team with whom he took the GP2 title in 2007 should also be seeing their GP2 dream come to a premature conclusion.

The problem stems, in my mind, from the top. F1 budgets remain stupidly high. And for as long as the concept of a budget cap is pushed to the side they will remain prohibitively ludicrous. For as long as this is so, all but the very top few teams will have a budget shortfall from sponsorship and will need to find the fastest driver available with the biggest raft of personal backing to make up the numbers.

This, then, filters down to F1’s direct feeder categories.

The whole question of Europe’s junior formulas is one which needs seriously addressing. Whether you prescribe to the Formula Renault 2.0, World Series route, or the GP3, GP2 route, the struggles of the once fertile Formula 3 championships and the death of Formula BMW should have us all worried. Formula E is coming along, so too Formula 4… but where is the budget for yet more new championships when the ones that exist are struggling to stay alive?

World Series and GP2 are both very fine championships. It is arguable at the moment as not all seats have been filled, but for the first time in many a year, WSR is looking as though it may just have the edge on GP2 in terms of the overall level of the field this season. Red Bull has another hotshot on its hands in Antonio Felix da Costa, who was so devastatingly impressive in GP3 and WSR last season. I have said before that if he isn’t racing in F1 by mid-season, I’ll be shocked. But what chance do his WSR rivals have? And in GP2, who can mix results with budget and make themselves a viable proposition for F1 2014?

The fact remains, there is a logjam. There are so many talented drivers who do not have anywhere to race where they can make a living. With Formula 1 closed to all but those with the richest benefactors, and a season of GP2 costing almost as much as a half decent ride in Indycar (seriously), World Series is, of course, a cost effective championship consideration for almost every driver at this level. It’s still not cheap, but comes in at about the same levels a GP2 season was costing back when it was launched in 2005. But, as we have already discussed, if you can’t afford GP2 then you can’t afford F1.

The GP2 paddock 2012 testing, Jerez © GP2 Media Service

The GP2 paddock
2012 testing, Jerez
© GP2 Media Service

GP2 is coming to the end of its third three year cycle. And with that in mind, it will soon become time for the teams to re-apply for the next generation. How many will do so is a very real question. With the demise of iSport, Ocean falling by the wayside and rumours of other race and championship winning teams struggling to find full budget, there are very serious issues facing the fourth generation of the championship. The problem has always been one of rewards. The teams have always felt spare parts are too expensive, that travel needs to be heavily subsidised, and that a fair distribution of the money accrued from television rights should be established.

Perhaps it is time for the GP2 teams to form their own version of FOTA, and to form a united front to create a new constitution. Times have changed, and the junior formulas must change with it or see themselves collapse along with those once mighty bastions of grass roots racing which now lie either in intensive care, or a shallow grave.

I have, for many years now, believed that GP2 has the capacity to become a professional championship. If the teams were allotted a fairer distribution of the money the championship makes, it would allow them a stable platform and the ability to sign drivers based on quality rather than wallet size. GP2 could become a viable racing alternative to F1, and a holding pen for the hugely talented drivers for whom there is no place at the top table.

The GP1 trademark was, a long time ago, registered and is held by one Bernard Charles Ecclestone. Could the launch of GP1 be the answer? F1 teams use, let’s say, 2 year old cars with rev limited engines and put their test and reserve drivers in to give them track time and experience. Or perhaps we take a two year old F1 car, clone it and put the 20 best drivers outside F1 in the bad boy and go racing.

But wasn’t that what GP2 was supposed to be in the first place? And if we’re talking about budget shortfalls for GP2, the last thing we need is another tier between it and F1.

Jules Bianchi’s failure to land an F1 seat, however, coupled with the utterly depressing financial woes at iSport International are just the latest pieces of evidence that we stand at a crossroads.

Now is the time, I feel, for GP2 to take its place as a professional championship, and to give a deserving home to the 20 most talented single seater drivers in the world not racing in F1, where they can make a living, make names for themselves, and carry on giving the fans the most incredible racing spectacle. It needs to be a place where the teams can make a genuine business rather than simply existing. Where they can give the best drivers the best chances, rather than pimp the best rides to the highest bidders. Let GP3 and WSR be the feeders for this championship. Let the championship bosses work together to create a structure for the greater good of the sport.

There’s no reason why it couldn’t work. All it requires is a slight shift in philosophy from those at the top, and a bit of a wider perspective that without change in a quickly evolving world currently living through one of the deepest financial crises in generations, every business no matter how large or small, is doomed to failure.

I’ve been accused in the past of being a bit too much of an idealist, an optimist… a romanticist. And I guess to a large degree I am.

I hate that the very suggestions of change seem so impractical. But they probably are.

Aren’t they?

EDIT – March 1st 2013: With Marussia’s termination of its contract with Luiz Razia, Jules Bianchi has been announced as the team’s second F1 race driver for 2013. I’m so sad for Luiz, but delighted for Jules. Of course, that makes the stats at the start of this piece slightly different, as Jules now does indeed become the first non-RB boy since Kubica to gain promotion to F1 from WSR. The issue, as outlined in this article however, remains. Marussia’s own reasoning for the late switch in drivers hinged on assuring their fiscal stability into the future. Jules brings that and, so we believe, the prospect of a Ferrari engine deal for 2014, as Cosworth will not be producing a V6 Turbo next season. To get your break in F1, you still need to bring a large slice of financial pie. Until we see a meaningful budget cap that will cut budget shortfalls, only the richest will get their break and the junior formulae will continue to struggle in F1′s wake.

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23 thoughts on “No Time For Tears – Racing, Romanticism and Revolution

  1. I really wish Frijns was driving for Sauber this year. But instead of that he will be thrown to the GP2 wolves, while driving for a sub-part team. Unless he pulls something extra-ordinary (again) out of the bag, it could very well hurt his career momentum a lot.

    Is Rossi still set to drive for Catherham in GP2, despite being absent at the latest test?

    About GP2′s rising costs, what’s the point with all those oversea races? When you have 2 races by week-end you don’t need so many rounds, I mean, in terms of races they have 2 more races than F1 in 2013(even if they are much shorter of course). So why not just cut some/all of the oversea races, that should cut down the budgets a bit.

    Indeed it is a bit absurd that GP2 requires half of IndyCar’s budget, especially when you think that IndyCar has many more rounds, engine comeptition, a chassis that needs the strength to survive oval crashes without hurting the drivers, and more costs related to crash damage(because of the walls on street courses and ovals), and even with all of that IndyCar is still arguably overpriced, and many owners were unhappy with the high costs required to run the new car last year..

    A big part of the problem is that spec series are basically monopolies – I wonder how much profit Dallara turns on a series like GP2. But then if you open up the specs you go straight into a cost war, so that’s not a proper solution either… Tough issue.

    • The purpose of the “overseas” races is to give the drivers as much experience on F1 tracks as possible. If it was cost effective, I’d love to see GP2 race at every F1 weekend! Again, the two races a weekend philosophy also stems from cost effectiveness – two races a weekend makes the travel worthwhile. It also gives the sponsors more exposure. And the reverse grid always makes for an exciting second race and the need for the fastest man to do some overtaking!

      • Point taken, but in this day and age if you want to learn a track you might aswell just fire up the simulator. Not sure if the expenses required to go to Sepang or Singapore are really needed, but then I’m just a keyboard warrior.

        The 2 races by week-end format is great and I’m not questioning it(bar the reversed grid in race 2 perhaps, sadly more often than not its an undeserved present for the 8th place finisher of race 1 rather than an opportunity for the fastest man to shine with gutsy overtakes).

        By the way I do not think you’re such a big idealist or “romanticist”, it’s just that the sport we love seem to enjoy status quo an awful lot, which is pretty ironic when it wants to pretend to be on the avant-garde of technology at the same time!

    • The Indycar series remains a joke and offers nothing to improve the skills of an aspiring driver hoping to make it to F1. The underpowered engine “competition” is in name only and is controlled by the league so as to make it completely equalized. The chassis is entirely spec, not to mention hideous looking with the rear bumpers and bulbous growths over the rear wheels. These days, they race mainly on slow street circuits and the few ovals that will have them, rather than proper road courses.

      Don’t confuse the current iteration of Indycar with what the CART series used to represent in terms of awesome power, incredible cars, driver competition and world class circuits. The current series is a very pale imitation that runs on a shoestring, having lost many millions of dollars for the owners. Other than the Indy 500 itself, its almost invisible. I suggest they kill off the series and simply run the Indy 500 on an annual basis as a “run what ya brung” type of event.

      I thought Will’s article was very good.

  2. Fantastic, thought-provoking article!

    Formula One teams build cars for a season, then they simply sit unused for the following years. Why not make use these unused cars and create a new “GP1″ series, “a holding pen for the hugely talented drivers for whom there is no place at the top table”.

  3. There is a main difference between F1-GP2 and MotoGP, and it is basically that MotoGP understood that minor categories deliver talent to MotoGP, so Dorna made huge efforts to grandfather the viability of 125 and 250, now Moto3 and Moto2, as the very primary feeder of talents onto MotoGP. After riders qualify on that categories, they go to MotoGP, but the way to go is a lot easier, as teams are subsidized in a great deal, so they hire young talents for the minor categories rather than big wallets. it is a sport oriented championship where they make money too, is not a charity foundation, but its DNA is sport. In F1, it is a business, so for that to happen teams making a rock solid association could be a step but also a bit a lobotomy needs to be done in Mr Ecclestone brain to make him see that for just 30million, one per pilot, teams would have enough to run their teams based on talent, as they may cover with regular sponsorship the rest of the budget, and 30 million for F1 is peanuts, and would deliver a more solid stream of talent into F1. What wonders me is there is somebody in F1 who understands that morre talent delivers better races, better audiences and more money, or if this is a too hard message for the top management in F1 to be understood. Will see…

  4. Interesting how it all really boils down to an F1 budget cap. FOTA members will have to lock arms to achieve it. Can they act in such collective terms? It is interesting to consider this problem from a game theoretical perspective, but nearly impossible to weight the competing variables – benefit as part of a collective enterprise vs. that derived as an individual participant. How one models the former must appeal to the likes of Ferrari and Maurussia. That’s a tall order!

  5. The idea of ex-F1 cars for a feeder series would be great to see. But I doubt it would ever happen.
    GP2 SHOULD be at EVERY F1 Weekend! Some of the “under card” races at F1 Weekeds are really sub-par!
    (like the formula Fords in Montreal) Good to hear there will be a pre-season show on NBC we in the States are waiting!

  6. I’m sorry, but the talk about F1 budgets being at the heart of the problem is short-sighted IMHO.

    F1 teams are run by companies, and the implicit and explicit goal of a company is to make money. A budget cap only moves the goal posts of when you start making money, it can not change the fact that a driver with more money makes the team more profitable over one that has less backing.

    So instead of the budget cap mitigating the situation, you’re hoping to find a number of owners who, faced with “already decent” profits from the team, would chose to run a talented driver w/o sponsorship over a (minimally) less talented driver with a personal sponsor package. You’re asking people to leave safe money on the table in exchange for what? The glory of finding a driver that can do a lap one tenth quicker than the guy with the money? How realistic is that?

    I propose, therefore, that the true problem, if you want to call it that, is the small and finite number of seats available in Formula 1, compared to a larger number of people with access to ‘stupid’ money to buy said seats for themselves, their kids or protégés.

    This fact is something no budget cap can fix, seats will still be up for the highest bidder regardless the cost of running a F1 team. The only thing a budget cap in F1 would do is protect the companies running teams from themselves, if you will, and instantly propelling them into profitability, in the process raising their valuations and filling the coffers of the current owners.

    That’s why small teams like to talk budget caps. All of the sudden, the company owning the entry goes from just scraping by to being worth something. The Ferraris of the world, on the other hand, aren’t much concerned about a small increase in value of their F1 teams, especially as they’re not in the market to sell and all they’d gain from a budget cap is (needlessly) increased competition that could harm their brands irreparably for a short-term gain in profitability.

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  8. Any word who (if anyone) will be broadcasting GP2/3 in the US? Neither NBC nor SPEED have said word one about it so far.

  9. They are!

    Totally agree with you, maybe just because “I’ve been accused in the past of being a bit too much of an idealist, an optimist… a romanticist. And I guess to a large degree I am,” aswell.

    Let’s make a GP2 kind of FOTA (GPSTA), and let the best (20) drivers in single-seater categories have a shot of F1, they (the drivers) wouldn’t mind if it is in two-year-old car with rev ltd engines or not, they just want to have a taste of motorsport’s pinnacle.

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  11. Are costs going out of drivers’ reach in WSR too? A while back, Frijns said something about not being able to afford another season (but what would he achieve by defending his title?), no news on talent like Ellinas yet, and I was gobsmacked to hear about Nick Yelloly signing up for GP3. He was a real rising star in Renault 3.5, on several occasions the only guy who could challenge Antonio Felix da Costa.

    I’m pleased to see Rossi apparently staying in 3.5 (implied by Caterham making him F1 Friday practice driver on the same weekends as GP2) – I guess Bianchi could be back again too, but the driver line-up for that series seemed to have reached a peak and be declining.

  12. Mr. Buxton,

    I can’t recall which races in particular, but several times over the last season, you made references to the greats such as Fangio, Ascari, and Moss. I knew essentially nothing about them as a younger fan of F1.

    One thing led to another over a course of months and months, and I decided on a project called GPevolved.com where I am attempting to retrace the entire history of the formula 1 championship. When I saw this post, your comment about romanticism caused me to realize that it is the romanticism of f1 that I am hoping to bring to a new audience.

    Anyway, it’s a small fledgling site, but I am an eternal optimist, myself.

    Anyway, your comment about the romance of formula 1 struck me. Mostly, I just wanted you to know that your enthusiasm for the abstract ethos qualities of formula 1 have rubbed off on your fans.

    Thanks for showing me that us younger fans could learn a thing or two by learning about the greats of yesterday.

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  14. Just found your blog, love it!

    Did Giedo van der Garde have Red Bull help on his way to the 2008 WSR title? I thought he would be part if the limited list.

  15. Hi Will,
    Fantastic job. I’d like to wish you a great season.
    On a related note, Caterham GP2 just confirmed Canamasas. I wasn’t honestly expecting that, even after the last testing. What about Rossi?? Is he going to stick with some fridays in the Caterham F1? I believe he deserved a drive, at least in GP2.
    Have a good weekend

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