If one thing has struck me about this season, it is that there is a major underlying issue that has the potential to deeply affect the sport that we love. I have dedicated much time this year to the discussion of penalties and driving ethics, but also to the prospects of young talent as it rises through the junior championships.
I have now spent almost one third of my life, and pretty much the entirety of my adult life, engaged within the highest levels of international motorsport, but my heart for racing remains in the ladder to reach Formula 1, and in the talented youngsters who should create the future of the top level.
The key word in that last sentence, however, is “should.” Because the current structure of single seater motorsport is filling the path of progression for a young driver with ever greater hurdles and roadblocks. We have reached a very dangerous time, at which the talent pool looks likely to stagnate and for motor racing fans to be denied witnessing the talents of an entire generation at the very highest level.
Breaking into F1 has never been easy. It should never be easy. As the undeniable top rank of international motorsport, only the very best should progress. Of course, we know this isn’t always the case. Spaces are limited and top teams are reluctant to take a chance on a rookie, even those with a cheque book the size of a small nation’s GDP. Money ultimately talks, but if there aren’t the spaces, there aren’t the spaces.
In the aftermath of Spa and Romain Grosjean’s race ban, many are questioning who has the right to be in Formula 1 and whether the junior categories are preparing drivers for the rigours of F1. The question of driving standards, and of policing those standards, is something I have written about already this week and this article is not designed to go back over that ground. I have made my opinions on that perfectly clear.
But the question of young drivers in Formula 1, and whether they are ready for the challenge, is one which really does need to be addressed.
Formula 1, I feel, has made a rod for its own back. It is a rod which has been created largely from empty cans of Red Bull, and it has affected everything and everyone in the sport.
Red Bull’s influence in motorsport cannot be overstated. For over a decade now it has ploughed millions, I’d hazard potentially billions into racing. It has sponsored young drivers, and given breaks to hundreds of talented kids. So why the beef?
My gripe lies with the simple fact that of the entire Red Bull programme, one driver has succeeded to the levels which every young driver programme wishes. But what Red Bull and Dr Helmut Marko have seemingly failed to grasp is that Sebastian Vettel was not and should never have been considered to be the norm. He is not a template, nor a model of every young driver’s career. He is the exception to the rule. He is special, a one off. The likes of a Vettel come around once in a generation. An expectation that every driver will have the same rate of progression as the two-time champion is unrealistic and grossly unfair.
But that is what Red Bull drivers are faced with. And that is why there is an ever growing scrap heap of immense talent, all branded with that infamous logo on their hinds. Branded with broken dreams, all united with disillusionment and disdain for the promises which were shattered in front of them in a shower of remorseless savagery and cold, bitter resentment.
Sebastian Vettel was the youngest driver to score a point and take a pole, youngest to win a race, youngest to win a world title in Formula 1. And ever since then the sport, led by Red Bull, has searched for ever younger talent, determining that they have the talent to win an F1 world championship before they’ve barely had a chance to get to grips with slicks and wings.
Jaime Alguersuari is a prime example. A driver of huge talent and immense promise, and yet booted out of the programme by the time he was old enough to order a beer in America. The vast majority of the F1 paddock, and even some within the Red Bull family, still find that one baffling.
Of course it isn’t just Red Bull. McLaren backed Lewis Hamilton to the hilt and brought him to F1 at a very young age. He, too, exceeded expectations, taking the fight to a two time world champion and missing out on the championship by a single point in his rookie season. But McLaren realise he’s the exception. They know he is a one off. The youngsters on the McLaren roster are kept out of the limelight and allowed to evolve in their own time. McLaren’s been around long enough to understand that a great driver needs nurturing and supporting if he is to achieve his full potential.
After Spa everyone is pointing the finger at the likes of Grosjean, Maldonado, and saying that these kids are pushing too hard, making too many mistakes… but what do we honestly expect?
What do we expect when we rush drivers, barely out of their teens, into the highest level of international motorsport and tell them they’ve got a season to prove they’re worthy of their place or they’re out? What did we think was going to happen? Seriously? Did we expect them to take it easy? To not take every risk?
In researching a recent article for F1 Racing magazine on why there are no Italian drivers in F1, Stefano Domenicali was very up front about the situation. But in looking at young drivers his assessment was fascinating. Sergio Perez, he admitted, was probably too young to join Ferrari. I suggested a driver such as Luca Filippi, who has outscored Romain Grosjean in the second half of GP2 in 2011. Stefano didn’t have to think long before declaring Luca was probably a bit too old and had spent too long in GP2.
This is something you hear all the time. Driver X or driver Y, having spent four or five years in GP2 clearly can’t be all that good or they would have won it in their first season. They’re too old now anyway. At that ripe old, pension drawing age of 26.
So you take it down to base level and think about it… it’s perfectly possible for a driver to step straight into GP3 out of karts, and if he’s mega, mega special he could finish in the top 3. That’s 16 races. Then he steps into GP2 and takes the title in his first year. 24 races. The world raves about him and he gets an F1 shot. After 40 single seater races. Yes, we have seen the likes of Button and Raikkonen do the same, but they are world champions, the special ones. It doesn’t happen for everyone. These drivers were allowed time to make their mistakes. They had repeated chances. Think about how long it took Jenson Button to win his first race, and then how long it took him to mature into a championship winning driver. Then look at today and how few drivers get a shot at even a second season, let alone a third, fourth, fifth without winning a race.
The argument from Red Bull and their like comes that if a driver was that good then his rate of progression would have been on a par with a Vettel. If any driver doesn’t shape up to be as good at the same age then it is a simple decision to drop them. But this, for me, is desperately short sighted. Everyone matures at different speeds. Let’s take Button again as that example. Which driver would you rather have? Jenson aged 19, or Jenson aged 29? I’d go for the 29 year old vintage every time.
So ask yourself, who would you as a team boss rather employ? The 19 year old kid with 40 races under his belt, or the kid with a bit of the world behind him and 100 races in a single seater? All of that accrued knowledge, experience, mistakes and corrections. As I’ve said already this season, Formula 1 seems to be the only job on earth where inexperience counts for more than experience. Where else would you be interviewed for a position, and the guy with a decade of experience is passed over for the kid straight out of University?
The true greats will arrive quickly and will make a good showing, but they will make mistakes. Even the mighty Vettel took out his now team-mate early on in his career and was described as a “kid” who had a tendency to “fuck it up.” But we can’t rush every driver and expect them to be that one diamond in the rough. It is unrealistic.
We are so quick to pass judgement on these youngsters when they do reach F1, that we perhaps lose sight of the fact that they are not as experienced. But we shouldn’t have to make that distinction. They should be ready. They should be experienced. The fact that they are not is because the modern trend is to rush them through the junior ranks.
But we must also realise that the junior championships are ripe for an overhaul. And the starting point must be GP2. To my mind, it has to become a professional championship. Just like 250cc / Moto2 is for motoGP. Max Biaggi spent 8 years in 250s, but did that make him too old? Did that harm his career? Absolutely not. It helped shape him into the rider he is. Why shouldn’t GP2 be full of the drivers who can’t quite get to F1 because there aren’t the spaces yet? Why shouldn’t a Sam Bird, a Luca Filippi, a Jules Bianchi, race there year after year? And if a kid comes along and wipes the floor with them, you know he is a genuine talent. If not, you have a professional championship, full of brilliant racing drivers, all of whom can earn a crust and not have to bring the insane levels of backing currently required for a season in F1’s feeder category.
For that to happen though, there needs to be a major shift in GP2’s thinking. Bernie will have to loosen his grip and allow some TV revenue to go to the teams. Costs will have to be reduced across the board from the championship organisers and from Dallara. It will require a sea change, and it will be a tough transition. But it has to think seriously about its future for I fear that if costs are not reigned in, if it does not become the professional championship it has always had the potential to be, then its position in single seater racing will come under threat. It will price itself out of a young driver’s consideration, the level of talent will dip and it will no longer be taken seriously. Teams will go off and race elsewhere. The championship will die.
If the purpose of GP2 was to train the future F1 champions, but there are no spaces in F1, then GP2 must stop promoting itself as a “Feeder Series” and start promoting itself as the best racing on earth outside F1, with cars just shy of F1 pace, racing on the same circuits, with a field full of F1 test and reserve drivers, and the very best talent from around the world on the cusp of F1.
Until it does however, Formula 1 has some soul searching to do.
By searching for ever younger talent, I fear that potentially superb drivers are being thrust onto the big stage before they are ready, before they have reached the right level to be in Formula 1. They are forced to make their mistakes on the grandest stage of all, and are kicked out for making those very mistakes that every driver must make as he matures, as he evolves… as he learns. You cannot invent experience. You cannot create knowledge from thin air. Only by living, and in this case racing, can anyone amass maturity.
Those mistakes should be made in junior categories. They should be ironed out there, and a driver should be deemed ready when he or she is ready, no matter that they are 25, 26 or 27, no matter how many races they have run. Because it is that very experience that makes them as close to being the complete driver as possible.
Formula 1’s restrictive testing policy means that today, even if a young driver is given a shot, he has next to no time to get himself up to pace.
Jerome d’Ambrosio will race this weekend in Monza. Sure he’s racked up thousands of kilometres on the simulator, but he’s had only a handful of laps in the car for real, at the mid-season test in Mugello. This weekend could make or break his career. One weekend. Four hours of practice. Three qualifying sessions if he’s lucky. One race, the results of which could see him launched into a fulltime drive in 2013, or into the depths of obscurity. It is the challenge every young driver faces, times one hundred. Never mind one season. He has one weekend.
My greatest fear is that Formula 1 has backed itself into a corner. By searching for ever younger talent and disposing of it before it has had time to mature, have we signed away the prospects of an entire generation before it has had a chance to show what it can do? Who will give a chance to anyone in that 23-29 year old age bracket? Who will open their eyes and realise that its all very well finding a talented 19 year old, but that someone who has been racing for a few more years and had the time to iron out his creases and properly prepare himself for Formula 1 is perhaps the better, safer, more complete option?
My guess is nobody. Until it is too late. And we are left asking what happened to an entire generation of incredibly talented racing drivers.