Only a handful of races into the season and already the doom mongers are out for the scalp of Nelson Piquet Jnr The Renault driver’s erratic start to the year is, in some people’s view, enough to cost him his seat should he disappoint again at Monaco.
Now, though I have never been the greatest Piquet Jnr fan, I think it would be a travesty for him to be relieved of his drive six races into his debut season.
Today’s F1 cars are so far removed from any other racing machine out there that (once-in-a-generation exceptions aside) most drivers need 10 or more races to get up to speed.
However Piquet is running the risk of being a one-season-wonder as rising up the Renault development ranks behind him is Romain Grosjean.
As with Lewis Hamilton, Grosjean has the makings of being a quite extraordinary driver. On the track he is devastatingly quick. Ok, he’s only won one of the four GP2 races this year, but he has been easily the fastest driver in each and is clearly the class of the field.
Barring bad luck, Grosjean should walk the title this year as he did in the GP2 Asia series over the winter and F3 Euroseries crown last year. Off the track he is also a fine ambassador for motor racing: friendly to talk to, disarmingly honest, and practically fluent in English, he is everything the marketing men want a modern F1 driver to be.
I would love to see Grosjean in a decent F1 seat, as I believe that he is the only driver on the cusp of F1 who can join Lewis Hamilton as a next generation front runner. In GP2 he is already showing an approach not dissimilar to Hamilton’s as he carved through the field at will in Catalunya (before a mistake on a restart cost him victory).
We could argue all day about the merits of whether Grosjean should usurp Piquet for the Renault seat, that is rather missing the far more important point, which is that there is a strong pipeline of talent waiting to break into F1.
Surely that should be taken for granted? Well, no, actually.
Over in the two wheeled world the situation is rather more serious. Sure Moto GP has a twenty bike grid and two feeder support series, but of those 20 bikes, how many are serious championship contenders? Valentino Rossi of course, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa are all clearly rare talents. But away from that triumvirate, Casey Stoner is reliant on the performance of his bike and Nicky Hayden cannot master the high corner speeds required by the new 800s.
More worrying is that there is not a massive talent pool waiting in the wings to jump onto the highest stage. Most World Superbike riders are from the old guard (Troy Corser, Troy Bayliss, Nori Haga) and wouldn’t move into Moto GP. Likewise top national runners like Leon Haslam and Tom Sykes get more recognition pounding around Brands Hatch than they ever would on the world stage.
Even in the traditional feeders of the 125s and 250s there are not too many riders marking themselves out as ‘special’, a worrying state of affairs as many current Moto GP riders such as Randy de Puniet and Andrea Dovizioso are clearly not world championship material.
For Moto GP this is a worrying situation, which could turn the sport’s clock back almost 20 years. In 1990 there were only four world class 500cc (as was Moto GP then) riders – Eddie Lawson, Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey and Michael Doohan. By 1994 only Doohan was left and the 500s suffered four years of practically unopposed Doohan dominance, where even on equal machinery the other riders couldn’t get close.
For a series that has, in the UK at least, only just dragged itself into the public consciousness, a dearth of top talent at the very highest level could prove disastrous.
However for F1 this is not a problem, and all things being equal, the next few seasons could see a golden generation of drivers fighting for the Championship.
In Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton F1 has three drivers eminently capable of championship success, with a further four – Felipe Massa, Heikki Kovalainen, Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld who could all pinch the odd race win.
With the likes of Romain Grosjean and the increasingly impressive Mika Maki on the way up, over the next couple of years we could be looking at a field with 10 or more potential race winners, with perhaps five title challengers – I can’t wait.