Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

Standards practice // Is F1 suffering from the number of inexperienced drivers?

Published by Rob Palmer

F1 young driver ambition

Ask anyone what Formula One is and they will no doubt reply with the almost clichéd response; “Formula One is the only racing series in which the best drivers in the world, with the best cars, go head to head on the best tracks.” However, the simple fact is that it is no longer the case.

The cars are certainly the finest examples of automotive engineering to date, there is no disputing that. The tracks are also some of the most testing environments for both man and machine. People will argue that they are a bit boring, but I have an irrational soft spot for them. The main problem with the aforementioned statement regarding “what is F1?” is the part saying the sport has the best drivers in the world. This is simply not true anymore. The standard has severely declined over the past decade, and it’s a worrying trend that doesn’t show any signs of ceasing.

The financial state of the sport, and indeed the global economy is a contributing factor to this decline. The past three champions of GP2, theoretically the best drivers in the category, have not got an F1 seat for the following season. Experience is an enormous deal in motor racing and you could argue that the only reason Fabio Leimer, Davide Valsechhi and Jolyon Palmer won the championship was because they had been competing in GP2 for a number of seasons. Leimer, Valsechhi and Palmer were all mid-twenties when they won the title. Mid-twenties is certainly not old, but in motorsport terms it’s not young either. The three drivers I’ve mentioned are all immensely talented and are clearly well versed in what is required of them to become a World Champion. So why haven’t they been snapped up?

In years gone by, they certainly would have been. Mid table teams such as Arrows, Jordan and even Williams would have taken on GP2 Series winners so they could instil that fabled “winning mentality” within the team. However, today drivers are only picked up by Formula One teams if they are young and they show potential. The reason for this is the increased financial strain that has been put on teams today. Young drivers will race for a lot less money than someone who has been in the game for a while. They also come with the nifty little bonus that if they turn out to be excellent, the team makes a tidy profit from a front runner who wants to buy out their contract. Whilst this is an admirable business plan it has been detrimental to the standard of driver in the Formula One world today.

Verstappen in Misano, Italy
Credit: Samo Vidic/Red Bull

The FIA clearly have felt this is a problem too by stepping in and enforcing stricter super license requirements. Many have said that this was a reaction to Max Verstappen’s appointment to a Torro Rosso seat for 2015, I do not agree with this point in the slightest. The FIA do have their faults but they have good foresight when it comes to problem solving in the sport. They clearly feel that the teams have been missing the point of the GP2 series and it has gone from the champions automatically getting an F1 seat to it being a bit like the X-Factor.

The winner gets lauded as a phenomenon for about five minutes but after a year not a soul remembers them. It is in no way a knee jerk reaction but it is a reaction to the declining standards based on this bogus ‘employing drivers based on potential’ trend that has emerged.

The FIA have, rightly, tried to force teams into employing drivers who have earned their right to a seat at the illustrious table that is Formula One. Modern Formula One youngsters seem to be still learning the basics of motor racing while they are supposedly representing themselves as one of the top twenty drivers in the world, and it shows. Rookie errors have gone from missing a braking point and spinning out to massive accidents that almost always involves more than one driver and ends both races - Gutiérrez and Maldonado at Bahrain 2014 springs to mind. That is just one of many examples that springs to mind. I am not saying that Gutierrez is a bad driver, he clearly has immense talent but he is still a driver that was very much learning the basics on the job at the very highest level. Considering he’s now a development driver at Ferrari after his contract was not renewed by Sauber, I think it’s safe to say that his performances haven’t lived up to that “potential” that Sauber gambled on.

Formula One fans can sometimes sound snobby when they talk about their beloved sport, but its warranted snobbery. It is supposed to be the best racing series in the world, and we demand to be able to brag about that as an unequivocal truth. Lately we haven’t been able to do that, and it saddens me to say that. Hopefully with the new restrictions in place we will get a higher concentration of talent joining the grid.

I will offer a small caveat in relation to the new restrictions though. Under the new points system Ayrton Senna wouldn’t have been allowed to drive for Toleman back in 1984, and he turned out to be pretty good. Just a thought.