Testing time for rookies

Testing time for rookies

It has become more difficult than ever to be a rookie driver in Formula One. With little track time available to them, young drivers from the lower series have had little opportunity to become accustomed to driving a Formula One car, and thus, fewer chances to display their ability for teams seeking new talent.

Slowly, however, things have begun to change in recent years, and this year there were five rookies among the 24 drivers on the grid.

While power steering, semi-automatic gearboxes and other electronic aids have made the physical aspect of driving a Formula One car easier, there are still no faster or technically advanced racing cars than these. There is no other racing car that creates such powerful G-force on a driver’s neck, reaching up to four and a half times the weight of the driver’s head. And the only way to prepare for that is to drive the car.

Moreover, no other series demands a driver to perform at 100 percent all the time, with such close scrutiny by teams, sponsors, the media and the public. In an effort to cut the costs of running a team in recent years, the series severely restricted testing during the season apart from at the Grands Prix.

In fact, there are no longer dedicated test days during the season as there once were. All testing is now relegated to a few weeks before and after the season. It was not enough, and the International Automobile Federation, or FIA, announced recently that there would henceforth be a single, three-day test during the season.

During the season, teams have had only the practice session on Friday and Saturday morning of a race weekend to develop the cars, and the regular drivers need the time to set up the car.

As a result, there was little time for drivers from the lower series to try a Formula One car, and teams found it hard to replenish their stables with new drivers. This season, several drivers from the lower series were given a chance to try their hand at driving a Formula One car during the Friday morning practice sessions, however, and last year test weeks for the potential drivers of the future had been created.

The last such test took place at the Abu Dhabi circuit in the week after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last month. The series is now considering the creation of a mandatory Friday practice at the race to try new young drivers.

It has become clear that Formula One teams need to train and evaluate future drivers from the lower series. This has also been reflected in a recent trend of using older, more experienced drivers, who are potentially slower but are safer than a young driver who has to learn the cars, tracks and craft during his first season.

This season’s crop of rookies was the first to have benefited from the increase in track time available before joining the series. The five rookies all drove at teams in the lower half of the series, with the exception of the Scot Paul di Resta, 25, who drove at Force India, which finished the season sixth out of 12 teams.

The other drivers were Pastor Maldonado, 26, a Venezuelan at the Williams team; Daniel Ricciardo, 22, an Australian at Hispania; Sergio Perez, 21, a Mexican, at Sauber; and Jerome D’Ambrosio, 25, a Belgian, at Marussia Virgin.

They all drove at the smaller teams, which have smaller budgets and thus need inexpensive drivers or drivers that either bring sponsors or are likely to attract new sponsors because of their nationality or business connections.

So how did these drivers fare this year? They have had more work to do than the more experienced drivers with the top teams or even their more experienced team-mates. The rookies had to learn new tracks, as well as the vagaries of the cars and tires, the people in their teams and how to work with them. Most had no experience of sprint races as long as a Grand Prix, which lasts up to two hours. They also have had to learn to deal with greater media and sponsor commitments than ever before in their careers.

Maldonado said there were more ‘people around the race, journalists, fans -- more than in any other category’. Di Resta said it had been difficult to get used to the increased amount of travel involved in the Formula One series.

Di Resta scored 27 points, the most of the rookies, and he was also at the team that finished highest in the standings. But while the other rookies all measured up well to the level of their teammates, none scored more points than their more experienced partners. In fact, only Perez, Maldonado and di Resta scored any points at all.

Maldonado was frequently faster than his team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, who at 39 years old and with 19 years in the series has raced more Formula One races than any driver in history. But Barrichello scored only twice this season, with four points, and Maldonado scored only a single point.

“It’s really difficult to evaluate a season like that on results,” Maldonado said. “It is difficult because we don’t have good results this year. But if you compare my driving and my results with Rubens, we are so close and I am even a bit better in the second part of the championship.”

The rookie who learned the most painful racing lesson was Perez at Sauber. The Mexican immediately proved himself to be very fast. In fact, he was perhaps being too fast, and he had a bad accident at the Monaco Grand Prix, the sixth race of the season, and then had to sit out the next race to recuperate.

“In the beginning, I was very frustrated that I could not go for race victories,” he said, alluding to the fact that he didn’t have the fastest car. “But now I know that I must enjoy my time here by scoring points, and my approach has to be to give my maximum every race and enjoy it. After my accident, I realized that very quickly.”

And what about next year’s rookies? It was announced at the last race of the season that D’Ambrosio would be replaced next year by Charles Pic, 21, a Frenchman. And another Frenchman, Jean-Eric Vergne, 21, was the fastest driver of the young driver test in Abu Dhabi and is likely to drive for the Toro Rosso team next year. Vergne said that he was ready to do as good a job as Mark Webber, the multiple Grand Prix-winning team-mate of Sebastian Vettel, the world champion at Red Bull, Toro Rosso’s sister team.

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