Or – ‘Why I believe there should be a second division in F1′.
The progession to F1 for most drivers usually involves a number of years in lower feeder formula. Results in series such as GP2, GP3, F2, F3, Formula Renault, etc. are used to judge drivers who would be capable of being stars in Formula One. The best F1 drivers of this decade, such as Hamilton, Alonso and Schumacher, all had very solid results in feeder series.
I have come to notice something that questions the practice of judging driver suitability for F1 based on feeder results. That is, there are heck of a lot of solid F1 drivers who were not so great or who didn’t really shine in feeder series. The most recent example of this is Kaumi Kobayashi. A very average career prior to his debut with Toyota:
2005 Formula Renault 1st
2005 Formula Renault 2.0 Italy 1st
2006 Formula Three Euroseries 8th
2006 Masters of Formula 3 11th
2007 Formula Three Euroseries 4th
2008 GP2 Asia Series DAMS 6th
2008 GP2 Series 16th
2008 GP2 Asia Series DAMS 1st
2009 GP2 Series DAMS 16th
He won the GP2 Asia series, but that is a short season and not as competitive as GP2 proper. His other two championships were with low-profile Formula Renault titles. I think most people will agree that Kobayashi has been a revelation in F1 – with a driving style that wins a lot of fans. He was lucky to get a break in F1, substituting for an injured Glock as a Japanese driver, backed by Japanese sponsors in a Japanese team at a Japanese Grand Prix!
On the flip side there are drivers who have performed not so well in F1, but who had solid results in lower formula and in feeder series. A good recent example of this is Tonio Liuzzi. He was much hyped and his debut was heavily anticipated (from what I recall) but his F1 career has been disappointing. He won the Formula 3000 title in 2004, the year before his F1 debut.
There are other examples, I am sure others can think of some – where a solid feeder driver turns out to be a dud, or not match expectations, and where a less solid feeder series driver turns out to be a star in F1. In the later case, the drivers usually get a break into F1 through sheer luck, money or some other circumstance (the topic of drivers who are not worthy getting seats in F1 over other more capable drivers is another topic).
The current methods for selecting F1 drivers are flawed
So what does this say about how drivers are promoted, and the methods teams use to evaluate drivers for a seat in F1? With such limited testing time in F1, and combined with the reluctance from teams to invest in trying drivers out, is it possible that we are missing or have missed some drivers who could have been stars in F1 were it not for other cirumstances?
This is partly the fault of the teams, part fault of the feeder series and a large part the fault of the regulations. So with each one:
The Teams – The teams can do a lot more to breed talent. Considering the size and reach of F1, and the money involved, very little comparatively is invested in driver development (especially compares to other sports). Red Bull and Renault are the only teams with real development programs. Renault grant test drives to Formula Renault drivers during each of their race weekends. Red Bull have their high-profile program, but the other teams do very little. Ferrari are arrogant enough to believe they do not need young drivers at all, since the two best drivers in the sport will always want to race for Ferrari, so there is no point.
The teams need to make the most of their investment, and are more likely to back drivers who are proven in the lower series and who are already winners. Because of the testing limits there is little point to a team having more than 3 drivers, with the third driver getting very little running. Should teams be given more track time where they can throw potential F1 drivers into the cockpit for solid testing sessions?
The Feeder Series – GP2 is ok, but a lot of the feeder series do very little to prepare the drivers for F1. None of the feeder series (other than LMP/Le Mans style) have the advanced in-car technology that F1 does. A large part of an F1 lap involves adjusting all sorts of settings, and the number of setup variables that can be modified during qualifying and practice vary a lot between F1 and the other series. How can a driver prepare for setup work in F1 if none of the feeder series come close to the complexity of an F1 car? It doesn’t mean that the feeder series should be as advanced as F1 – but they could offer the driver a lot more choice when it comes to setup and in-car technology. GP2 is also the only series that exposes drivers to many of the F1 circuits, and elements such as large crowds, publicity and all the off-track elements that accompany F1.
The Regulations – I have already mentioned testing, but teams are also limited in drivers they can run during a race weekend and the number of drivers they can swap into the team during a race season (a rule the HRT is pushing this year). There are a number of ways that F1 regulations can be changed to provide more opportunity for exposing the middle-tier of feeder series drivers to F1. The restrictions around tyres are completely unrealistic.
The Second Division
The most interesting idea would be to have a second division of F1 – similar to football. This would see all the team being allowed to field a car and driver, along with the bottom 2-3 teams ie. Lotus, Virgin and HRT would race in this series against other F1 cars that are somehow handicapped – perhaps last years cars (there is a precedent here, some Formula Ford series have second divisions with older chassis), or some other form of handicap. Run races prior to the main F1 race – and you instantly have more drivers, more cars and more interesting racing. I believe that a second division of F1 would rate much better than the current second division – GP2, especially if the series is able to field some F1 veterans (Heidfeld would be perfect for this). More money can be made through advertising and TV rights (sell it as a package) and there will be a higher chance of potential stars such as Kobayashi being discovered.
Remember Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull earlier this year? He set testing alight. Yet he isn’t really a feeder series champion, and he likely will not find a seat in 2011.
So what does everybody else think? What are some other examples of drivers who have either failed to live up to expectations, or drivers who did not perform well in lower series and through sheer luck or money somehow got a shot at F1 only to become stars and/or fan favorites. What can be done to make F1 drives more of a meritocracy (merit being capability in an F1 car, not capability in some unrelated series). Would the concept of a second tier of F1 (proper F1) be worthwhile, and would you watch it? I know I would absolutely love to see another 20 drivers banging wheel-to-wheel in F1 cars for a shot at getting a driver into the premier series, new Kobayashi’s mixing it up with old hands such as Trulli and Heidfeld, all in proper machinery, on the same circuits and in the glare of spectators and a global TV audience. it would be brilliant.