Never has it been more difficult for a young driver to break into and prove himself in Formula One than it is today.
Although there are probably more racing series lower down the racing ladder than ever before, these training grounds are not only inadequate, but there are far too many and they are too disparate to form an authoritative route to the pinnacle of world auto racing.
Moreover, while the money may exist to create a plethora of series below Formula One, the trend at the top for half a decade has been to cut costs and restrict spending. Young, new drivers are the ones paying the price as they are squeezed out of the equation.
Rules imposed to save money by vastly limiting the amount of testing a Formula One team may do between races and in the off-season have meant that teams rarely want to test inexperienced drivers. When they do have new recruits, the rookies don’t have the time to adapt before the racing starts. At race weekends, driving time has been limited by rules restricting the number of tires teams may use and by the delicate nature of the rubber, making preservation all-important.
The five rookie drivers this season have had little time for adapting, and so far none has scored a point. Rookie errors have also become more obvious, such as a poor judgment that led to a crash at the Chinese Grand Prix last month, where Esteban Gutierrez, a Mexican rookie driver at the Sauber team, plowed into the back of another driver.
Gutierrez was given a grid penalty of five spots on the grid at the next race, in Bahrain.While Gutierrez is feeling the pressure, he put a good face on the matter. “It cannot be an excuse of saying, 'O.K., it’s my learning year,”' he said. “Because in Formula One, you are not here only to learn. You are here to learn and deliver. Every time things go wrong, just learn and go to the next step. I’m not going to sit and cry; just go forward.”
As a result of several recent complaints by team directors and drivers that they haven’t any time to adapt, Formula One decided to act. Starting this weekend, as the series begins its season in Europe at the Spanish Grand Prix outside Barcelona, the teams have an extra set of tires for the Friday morning practice session to allow drivers to spend more time driving on the track rather than sitting in the garage.
In fact, the rookies were not the only consideration. In the first four races this season, there was little track action in the first session of the weekend, which meant a failure to provide a show for the spectators. While the series has sought to find a solution, it has also become clear what the new drivers are up against. One of the first suggestions was for extra tires to be made available only to try out and to give experience to new drivers. But few of the teams were willing to favor rookies over experienced drivers. At the bigger teams, which are fighting for victories and the championship and where star drivers are paid millions of dollars, taking the car away from the top driver and from the battle of car development was out of the question – although they did not often admit that. The other issue for young drivers arises even before they make it to Formula One: Which ladder series is the best preparation for Formula One? In July, the former Formula One driver Gerhard Berger was assigned by the International Automobile Federation, or FIA, the series’ governing body, to create a clear-cut system that would take drivers all the way from karting up to Formula One.
“People are complaining that the best drivers are now all spread out and so you cannot look at the British Formula 3 Championship, for example, and say that he is certain to get to Formula One,” Berger was quoted as saying in an article in an FIA publication. “These days the best drivers are all over the place. The system no longer does what it is supposed to do, which is to give a highly talented driver a CV he can use to progress to Formula One.”
Where the road to Formula One used to pass from karting to F3 and then through Formula 3000, today there are multiple series to choose from -- including GP3 and GP2, to replace Formula 3000. Although the majority of today’s Formula One drivers raced in GP2, the champion last year, Davide Valsecchi, did not find a team to drive with in Formula One this year.
Still, some drivers say that Formula One is so different from other series that there is no way around the problem of adaptation to the ultimate test of the racing itself.