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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.