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Sirotkin at Sauber - How young is too young? // The Russians invest in F1, and bring their own driver for the ride

Published by Christine

Sergey Sirotkin, Formula Renault 3.5
Credit: DPPI

Sauber’s mid-season lifeline arrived last week from seemingly all of Russia, bringing with it the promise of allowing the team to focus on improving performance rather than bolstering their finances. The deal with a trio of investment companies, some linked with the Russian government, comes with the proviso that young driver Sergey Sirotkin gets himself a race seat for the 2014 season.

It’s the worst example of mixing pay drivers and nepotism, as Sirotkin gets his chance thanks to the financial input by his backers, which includes his father. Currently just 17 years of age, Sergey is set to be fast-tracked into Formula 1, immediately being put in a development programme to prepare him for a racing drive next season.

Sirotkin has the traditional karting experience, but his single seater racing to date has been limited. He participated in the Italian Formula Abarth series, took part in the Auto GP World Series, and then moved on to Formula Three and Formula Renault 3.5. So far this year, his best result has been a second place at the second round in Spain.

An underwhelming set of credentials along with his tender age raise huge question marks over Sirotkin’s potential in 2014. It’s not the first time we’ve seen teenagers propped up behind the wheels of Formula One cars – notably Jaime Alguersuari, currently the youngest driver to start a Grand Prix, at 19 years old.

Ahead of Alguersuari's debut, in the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, more experienced racer Felipe Massa wasn’t happy about the age difference, relating to his own entrance to F1 at a young age.

For me, he’s too young. When I arrived in F1, I was also young, just a year older than him. I did not know what to expect from the car and I made mistakes.

- Felipe Massa

Much of the paddock agreed with the sentiment, and added that Formula One – as the self-proclaimed pinnacle of motorsport – should not be a training ground for youngsters. There are feeder series for that kind of thing, and those that make it to the coveted F1 grid should already be the best of the best.

There are so many questions about the tendency for drivers to arrive in Formula One at younger and younger ages. To the engineer’s delight, they may be smaller and lighter, but for everyone else it might not be so sweet. Can youngsters deal with the pressure of such a high-profile sport? Do they know how to react to avoid an accident, how to protect themselves during one, and how best to handle themselves after such an event? All these things come with practice, and just a couple of years in a junior formula likely isn’t enough.

Even Sirotkin himself knows that he’s taking things a bit fast, but he believes he’s ready for the challenge.

At the moment maybe I am a little bit too young but that doesn’t mean I cannot be ready. I have more than half a year to learn, I am doing a good preparation programme, and I can be ready.

- Sergey Sirotkin

Sergey Sirotkin, Sauber F1
Credit: DPPI

As the man himself admits, no matter how inexperienced they may feel, no driver is going to refuse the chance of an F1 drive in case the opportunity doesn’t exist later on. Part of the blame has to lie with those pushing him into the car, and there are more questions surrounding their motives.

If the aim is to promote Formula One in Russia, they already have one driver who has relevant experience and no current gig – Vitaly Petrov. He may not have been the best racing driver on the planet, but perhaps it might have been wiser to transplant him into a Sauber for a year or two, whilst Sirotkin gets up to speed.

Of course, it’s easy to dismiss Sirotkin out of hand as a pay driver with no experience, but the next world champion has to come from somewhere. Fernando Alonso dropped the record for youngest world champion when he secured his first, and Sebastian Vettel has been doing similar feats with his triple.

Alonso and Vettel both made their F1 debut at age 19. With Sergey set to join at 18, how much might that extra year be worth?