Andy and LJH present the final for of their ten ways to get a drive in Formula 1.
We’ve covered six different ways to get into F1 and today we present the final four: if you’ve not got a famous dad and chatting up the engine builders has got you nowhere, this is what you need to be doing.
7. Score notable success in an alternative open-wheel series
This might seem a sure-fire route into F1 – surely a skilled driver is a skilled driver is a skilled driver? But remarkably few examples of a successful crossover between Ecclestone’s Empire and, for example, North American racing exist.
Nevertheless, drivers still try it. This was Sebastien Bourdais’ route to Toro Rosso after an initial failed attempt to race in F1 sent him off to the States in search of pastures new.
He started out on a conventional route through French and European junior series, where he scored spectacular successes in French Formula 3 and F3000. His false start in F1 came with Arrows and Jordan in 2003-03, when he failed to convert teams’ interest into a secure race drive. The rumour is that he missed out after refusing to sign a management deal with Flavio Briatore.
So he crossed the Atlantic and imposed himself on the American open-wheel Champ Car series, winning four championships with the top-drawer Newman-Haas outfit (co-owned by the late Paul Newman). Here he really found his niche, producing the same kind of dominant performance in a red car that F1 saw from Michael Schumacher.
By the end of what turned out to be Champ Car’s final season prior to unification with the rival Indy Racing League, Bourdais had nothing left to prove in America. With his championships won on road courses rather than ovals, on paper he looked like a red-hot prospect for F1 and it’s been a shock to many fans that he’s failed to perform better.
Maybe next year will be his year – but rumours are already connecting him with a return to Newman/Haas/Lanigan, at the expense of ex-Minardi and Jaguar driver Justin Wilson. And with last week’s news of IRL superstar Helio Castroneves’ indictment for tax fraud, there could shortly be a vacancy with front-runners Team Penske too.
Read more about Sebastien Bourdais: Sebastien Bourdais biography
8. Be fast-tracked by the Big Boys
Consider the career of Robert Kubica. Before him, few lists of leading motorsport nations would have included Poland. Without the benefit of a national infrastructure to provide race experience beyond karting, and without a heritage in the sport to fire the imagination of potential sponsors, few ambitious youngsters could have been worse-placed to make it to the top.
Nevertheless, after cleaning up in Polish karting, he headed abroad to try his luck. Once he began to succeed in Formula Renault he was taken into that constructor’s development programme. By 2005 he had won the World Series by Renault and tested for the F1 team – which promptly let him slip through their fingers. It was left to BMW Sauber to offer him a test seat, and then a race drive, following the departure of Jacques Villeneuve.
Another constructor with a development programme is Honda – but you will find few of its mostly English graduates driving in F1. Anthony Davidson is cooling his heels following the collapse of Super Aguri, while Mike Conway and James Rossiter seem as far away from making the jump as ever.
Red Bull famously bought out Minardi and rebranded it as Toro Rosso to give its development drivers something to aim at – but only Vettel has risen to the challenge while Scott Speed, Christian Klein and Vitantonio Liuzzi all fell by the wayside.
In fact, it is tempting to conclude that if you want to be a Formula One driver you should avoid joining a development programme at all costs. For every Lewis Hamilton who makes it work, there’s a dozen Adam Carrolls whose talent isn’t enough on its own. In terms of strike rate, it’s marginally worse than the next tempting-sounding route in our list.
Read more about these drivers
9. Be an exceptional test driver
This is, more than anything, the story of Anthony Davidson who, although he has managed a few short spells in a race car, is primarily known as a really sound pair of hands in testing.
Proficiency at test-driving is a double-edged sword, at best – as evidenced by the way Davidson’s route into F1 was so clearly trumped by Sato’s method of cultivating a relationship with an engine supplier.
Experience would suggest that, while it might actually get you into a car and in front of the right people, it won’t earn you a race drive out of gratitude if someone better comes along or if you falter when you do get a chance. Casualties littering the wayside of this particular route include Alexander Wurz, Pedro de la Rosa and Klien.
And it contains another trap for the unwary: be too good at testing and they’ll never let you stop. This could be Davidson’s curse – he’s even been invited over the Pond to test Indycars, with what in hindsight now looks like no realistic chance of ever having been offered a drive.
Fellow Honda testers Rossiter and Conway are showing early signs of going the same route, Franck Montagny is permanently in demand as a tester but never quite seems able to land a lasting race drive, and de la Rosa and Gary Paffett both seem to have disappeared into the black hole of McLaren testing, never to be seen again.
On the other side of the same coin, Alonso sat out a year as a Renault tester following his successful Minardi debut, waiting for Briatore to sort him out a race seat at Button’s expense. And Felipe Massa emerged a different driver from his spell testing at Ferrari.
So it can work, and that must account for why drivers keep on trying. But there are better ways – such as…
10. Walk up to Ron Dennis at a do and say: “I want to race for you one day.”
Nah. Don’t be ridiculous. That could never work.
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