Mediocre Feeder Driver Becomes F1 Star

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    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.

    The Over-achievers

    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!

    The Under-achievers

    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.



    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!

    Actually, he didn’t race at the Japanese Grand Prix. He first replaced Glock for the friday, as Glock was ill, and then he replaced him in Brazilian and Abu Dhabi GPs, because of Glock’s injury. He never raced in the Japanese GP 2009 though.

    But yeah, Kobayashi really showed something completely different in f1 compared to what he showed in GP2. I think there should be more F1 young drivers’ tests.



    because of Glock’s injury. He never raced in the Japanese GP 2009 though.

    Ahh you are right, not sure how I forgot that (Glock’s crash was at that Grand Prix and I didn’t remember it correctly, how could I forget his debut in Brasil I will never know).

    They had the young driver test this year, but it was only two days and with everybody on the circuit at the same time (and sharing with other drivers). That is where Ricciardo shined (fastest lap by a full second!)



    Yep. Should be a lot more of those.



    This deserves a proper reply with proper time spent tomorrow, but just one thing: McLaren and Ferrari do have young driver programs, the former being created to fund the progression of – you guessed it – Lewis Hamilton. Mercedes are also behind Paul di Resta’s attempts to get into F1. It’s just Red Bull recruit more drivers to be promoted to Toro Rosso and then usually destroyed with little chance. I’m amazed Buemi and Alguersuari are still there and rumours about them leaving are practically non-existent.



    Red Bull and Renault are the only teams with real development programs.

    To be honest to become a member of the Red Bull Young Driver programme, you still need to be sure that you have some good economical backing. The drivers actually sign a contract, that states that if they never get an F1 drive they will have to pay back all of the money that Red Bull spent on them.

    A lousy deal, but worth it if they reach Formula 1.

    Also I believe that Mclaren have a driver developement programme too. Kevin Magnussen is a part of that.

    Very very nice analysis by the way. I just do not think that a second division will help. I just dont think that many teams will be eager to spend money on racing last years car, opposed to using that money developing this years car.


    I hate the way that GP2 is becoming the only way for drivers to reach F1. Instead of F1 being made up of the best drivers in the world, you’re ending up with the best of a very narrow group of drivers. I’m sure that some of the IndyCar guys would be better drivers than some of these front-running GP2 drivers, but you’ll never see them in a Formula 1 car.

    And how often do you see the guys who make the step-up from GP2 to F1 make hardly any impression at all? Piquet? di Grassi? Petrov? I’m not expecting anything more from Maldonadoandoando or Perez if and when they make the transition and a part of me hopes that they get soundly beaten when they do. Because for many of these recent rookies, it seems as if they’re in F1 by default for being the best of the GP2 field and not because they’re actually worthy of being in Formula 1.



    This should’ve been a guest post! Brilliant write-up.

    The primary F1 feeder has always been… so-so. Before Lewis Hamilton, no GP2 F3000, or even F2 champion ever won an F1 title. And that goes back decades!

    The thing with a second division is that it creates uncertainty. It won’t allow backmarker teams to get significant sponsor deals – why would I want to spend money on an F1 team that might get demoted? That said, perhaps GP2 should lower its costs – or better yet, just buy out F2 and go from there…

    As for great drivers, they tend to come in bunches. Vettel and Hamilton both came in 2007, with Rosberg coming the year before in 2006. Massa arrived in 2002, a year after Alonso, Raikkonen, and Montoya all made their debuts in 2001, which in turn was a year before Button’s start in 2000. Going further back, Piquet came in 1979, just a year before Prost and Mansell debuted in 1980. All I’m saying is, no matter what feeder series you have, the best drivers will usually make it to F1 one way or the other.



    I keep banging on about this, but we need a better F2, one in between F1 and GP2. It should be like a baby F1 with a lo of the technology but less speed and downforce.

    Unfortunately, F2 was designed to be a low-cost series. The level of competition is also worse than GP2.

    I do think it’s a great shame that most new F1 drivers come from GP2 and some seemingly by default and it’s a shame that we aren’t seeing more coming in from American racing series (Sebastian Bourdais is the only one I can think of in recent times). But I don’t think a second division would work. It would have to cost less to the point that any promoted team would face a similar struggle in their first year to the one the new teams have this year and they’d probably just bounce between divisions every year.



    I agree that GP2 is too much the de facto route into F1, to the exclusion of all other routes. There could and should be far more drivers graduating from Indycars to F1 (even if not directly), but I think the suspicion with which F1 and Indycars view each other, and the recent failure of Bourdais in making this transition, make it unlikely that much will change soon.



    Feeder series driver give up on F1! Bertrand Baguette’s declined an offer to do the young driver test because he doesn’t think it will go anywhere and is concentrating on Indy. http://www.gpupdate.net/en/f1-news/246239/baguette-gives-up-on-f1-says-focus-is-indycar/

    Right in tune with the theme of this thread. He knows drivers with bigger sponsorship are going to get there ahead of hi, so he’s not bothering. Baguette was quite handy so it’s a shame not to see him properly tested and it looks like he’s not coming to F1, which is a shame for Belgium at a time when their race is under threat.

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