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Christine Blachford

Christine became an avid follower of Formula One after getting a taste of the action way back in 2003. Today, you'll find Christine putting her experience to good use as writer and producer of the news show F1Minute, and editor of community F1 site Sidepodcast.

Drive time // A journey through Formula One's driving opportunities

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“Valtteri’s obviously been a big part of Williams, he started his Formula One career with us as our development driver back in 2010. He was quickly promoted up through test driver, reserve driver, and then took the race seat in 2013.”

This is a quote from Claire Williams, deputy team principal of the Williams team, as she shared her thoughts about Valtteri Bottas. With the Finn’s departure to Mercedes, an emotional hole has been left at the Williams team, as he’s been with them for many years, building up the team, as well as working through the stages of his own career. And it was Claire’s words here that made me realise just how many different types of drivers there are in Formula One, and just how many words there are to describe them. I thought it would be useful to have a quick rundown of all the different driver monikers and what they all mean.

Who’s on first?

The most obvious driver distinction is between two teammates, with one highlighted as the first driver, and one as the second. This generally means that one is the more experienced, the better driver of the two, perhaps gets the more preferable strategies, and is generally relied upon to bring home the results. The second driver is usually less experienced, perhaps new to the team, or simply learning the ropes. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, when top drivers swap teams, or if there are two equally capable drivers within the same squad.

Webber and Vettel at Silverstone 2010
Credit: Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

I’ve also noticed this distinction has seemed a lot less prevalent over the last few seasons, most likely due to the change in the numbering system. Where previously teams were given two consecutive numbers to hand out to their drivers as they saw fit, it was obvious that one was going to be considered higher than the other. Now that drivers have their own numbers to move around with them, there is less focus on who is first and who is second – it’s those positions on track that actually matter. Mark Webber’s plaintive “Not bad for a number two driver” may not have as much resonance in current F1 situations as it did when he finally got one over on Sebastian Vettel.

Two thirds

The reserve driver role is all about waiting in the wings, being the understudy for the main two race seats

For many drivers lucky enough to get a race seat in a Formula One team, the journey to that role includes a stint as reserve driver. This role can often be called the third driver, but as mentioned above, this might be less useful a name now that the numbers are less important. The reserve driver role is all about waiting in the wings, being the understudy for the main two race seats, ready to step in at a moment’s notice. It’s also a role that a team can give to a driver when they don’t have a grid spot for them, but don’t quite want to let them go yet.

Nico Hülkenberg is a good example of both of these things. He drove a single season for Williams before joining the Force India team. To earn more experience, and because the team already had the full complement of drivers for 2011, Hülkenberg spent a year as reserve driver.

Hülkenberg and Bottas both made the best of this situation, whilst some drivers end up going back here for a year when things don’t quite work out. He wasn’t called upon to deputise for either of Force India’s drivers that year, but still earned his stripes to get on the grid for the following season.

Meanwhile, an example of a reserve driver being called into action is Stoffel Vandoorne’s replacement of the recuperating Fernando Alonso in Australia of 2016. It was only a single race deal, but impressed the bosses enough to earn Stoffel a race seat for the coming season. The reserve driver role can really make or break a driver’s career.

Passing the test

Red Bull's simulator at the Milton Keynes factory
Credit: Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

Test driver and reserve driver are often terms used for the same kind of role, but I think there’s a definite distinction. If you’re being trusted to wait in reserve, ready to drive at the drop of a hat, then I think it’s clear the team have faith in you.

However, as a test driver, it could just mean the team trust you to be on track when there’s no racing to be done. Your responsibilities are to help develop and understand the car, probably spending a lot of time in the simulator, and generally giving good feedback to the team. Key tasks are working with engineers, helping the team come together and push forward in the right direction, and point out where the car could use some more work, and where it’s feeling good.

It’s an important role, although often overlooked, and it sits nicely alongside the development driver. There’s an interesting mix of drivers who take up these positions, too. Sometimes it can be that a driver is clearly making their way up the ladder and this is another step along the way. Other times it can be a holding position for a driver who likely isn’t going to make it into the main seats, but still has something worthwhile to offer.

The young and the restless

And that just leaves us with where the journey begins, where potential drivers can earn their stripes and take key steps on the path to race glory. Young drivers and junior drivers are those participating in the academies and schools, the development programmes put together by teams to create a training ground for future talent.

There are plenty of fresh faces and young names that have potential to become future Formula One drivers

Red Bull’s young driver programme is a great example of this working – in fact it does too good of a job. There are plenty of fresh faces and young names that have potential to become future Formula One drivers, but Red Bull only have four seats to spare, and two of those are reserved for their best options.

But, at the point a driver is embarking on his or her career, the young driver programmes are key to getting your name out there. It can help to show off driver talent, can learn important networking skills, and best of all, it can start linking you to positions with your chosen team, or others. We’ve seen with drivers like Ocon that you can work your way up and be loaned out to other squads, with the chances much higher that you’ll come back home and start your winning career with the team who had faith in you from the start.

So that’s the round up of different types of roles available in a Formula One car. It’s essentially a lot of words to describe the same thing: a group of passionate drivers all eager to get their chance in a race seat, and once there, fight for points, wins, and ultimately the world championship. It’s always going to be a journey for every driver, it’s just fascinating to see how many steps there can be along the way.