#F1 Features: GP2 or back of the F1 grid?

Brought to you by Adam Macdonald (@adamac39)

Since 2010, when three new teams were released into the wild world of Formula One, little progression has been made by drivers at the back of the grid towards the front.  They have seen 21 drivers pass through their ranks (8 HRT, 9 for Caterham/Team Lotus and 6 for Virgin/Marussia – with Pic and Chandhok driving for more than one team) at the back of the field. Most have paid for their seats and none have progressed from the rear-gunning rides to bigger and better things in F1, apart from Daniel Ricciardo who had the might of the Red Bull young driver programme behind him.

With this in mind, it begs the question of whether ‘racing’ for one of the new teams actually helps your career?  Having recently won the GP2 title, it would seem the future is bright for Jolyon Palmer.  The publicity and plaudits given to the man from Horsham would surely bring him to the forefront of a team principal’s driver shopping list, although recent history would show this is not strictly the case.

Year 1st 2nd 3rd
2012 Davide Valsecchi Luiz Razia Esteban Gutierrez
2013 Fabio Leimer Sam Bird James Calado
2014 Jolyon Palmer Felipe Nasr* Stoffel Vandoorne*

*still to be confirmed

Above are the last three years of GP2 winners, runners-up and third placed drivers which shows just how indirect the route to F1 is.  Only Esteban Gutierrez has made it into a full-time seat thanks to his Mexican money, while the rest have found it difficult to break into the premier series.

Davide Valsecchi was famously snubbed by Lotus in 2012 despite being their test driver. Heikki Kovalainen was taken on for the final two races and failed to score a point.

James Caldado was the test driver for Force India in 2013, before being replaced this year.  He has instead followed the racing path in the World Endurance Championship for Ferrari.

By the end of 2013, Sam Bird had spent 3 years competing in GP2. This year he has tried his hand at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the World Endurance Championship and most recently the Formula E Championship competing for Virgin Racing.

Luiz Razia has been set to take a seat at Marussia, replacing Timo Glock in 2012, until his cheque was lost in the mail. So close, yet so far for the Brazilian who has now been lost from European motorsport fans as he has followed a career in the Indy Lights Series, racing for SPM.

Breaking the mould

Other drivers who did not finish in the top 3 have recently made it into the top level of motorsport. Max Chilton and Marcus Ericsson finished in 4th and 6th positions in 2012 and 2013 respectively.  Given their relative lack of success, perhaps they are not the best drivers to judge. However, they have both had their chance to showcase their talents and advance to a drive further forward on the grid.

Fabio Leimer was not mentioned in the list above with good reason.  He is one driver who opted against the typical route into the sport.  He wanted to achieve a drive on his talent alone, not on his bank account. The driver who, in 2011 had reportedly spent $16,000,000 on his motorsport career thanks to his backer Rainer Gantenbein, decided that running at the back of a Formula One race was less beneficial than competing in GP2.

Gantenbein said back in 2011, “I regard it as an investment. It would be great if some money would flow back to me if Fabio makes it to Formula One. We had some talks with Virgin and HRT, but I prefer to give him a third season in GP2.”

Actions speak louder than words, as they say with this one being no different.  The rejection of Formula One’s backmarkers screamed the message from the rooftops of the opinion the ‘new’ teams are held in.

Hardly camera shy - Leimer celebrates his 2013 Championship

Hardly camera shy – Leimer celebrates his 2013 Championship

Skip forward 3 years where Leimer has found the paywall many drivers face impossible to penetrate and $14 million has not been enough to break into the premier tier of racing.  Leimer could not afford the $28 million which Sauber were quoting a drive at – as the heavy backing, from Carlos Slim, of Esteban Guteirrez allows them some stability.

With Giedo van der Garde promising “many millions” for a 2015 seat, Leimer does not have a chance of holding out for a seat.  Gone are the days of Minardi being afforded the privilege of choosing the drivers they think will have the most chance of succeeding, now forced to take on drivers that can help to pay the bills.

Gantenbein spoke about F1 this year saying, “It’s a bottomless pit.  At some point you have to pull the plug.”  As noble as it was to refuse Virgin and HRT for the 2012 season, perhaps it lacked a taste of the reality that drivers nowadays face – if a driver is not linked to a young driver programme of one of the front running teams, they will be required to bring money with them.

F1 is “sick

The current culture of the sport is “sick” according to Gantenbein, who sees the sport’s pay driver syndrome as an endless vacuum of investment which leads to little.

Freshly crowned GP2 champion, Palmer, has said on a few occasions he is confident of a race seat next year.  Comma Oil has sponsored Jolyon, as well as PalmerSport, MSV, 3663 and Comtact, although how long they will be able to provide him with the required level of backing is questionable.

The £1.8 million of sponsorship required for GP2 is a long way short of the £10 million plus for F1.  Palmer would be required to hit the ground running and prove his worth within a very short time frame in order to remain there.

Given what has been described above, he would be better following the route Alex Lynn has done.

On the verge of winning the GP3 title, he is currently sitting very comfortably.  Following his 2013 Macau GP victory he approached Helmut Marko and asked to be inducted into the RB young driver programme.  He was duly accepted and now receives the backing of the energy drinks giant.  This path into F1 is much more direct and guaranteed route which could pay dividends in the future.

Alex Lynn on the podium for his 2013 Macau GP victory

Alex Lynn on the podium for his 2013 Macau GP victory

Only time will tell

If Palmer were to sign with one of the backmarker teams, then managed to impress one of the teams further forward enough to warrant a contract then I will be proven wrong, but for the moment I can say with some confidence that trundling around at the back of an F1 grid does very little to aid your career.

Few team principals will be heard talking about how in demand Max Chilton and Marcus Ericsson are – or at least not on their driving skill alone.  Being part of a young driver programme/academy and competing in a lower series is far more conducive to furthering your career than paying for a drive at the back of the grid.

Rather than becoming just another statistic, racing in a different series would be preferable for any young driver – as we have seen many do with Formula E.  The bottle neck of young drivers currently vying for positions within the sport means waiting for a seat will be necessary, as the driver congestion is set to continue until prize money distribution changes.

I hope, perhaps in vain, that both Leimer and Palmer are given their opportunity to impress at the top level, although it seems that, for the moment at least, this is merely wishful thinking.

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10 responses to “#F1 Features: GP2 or back of the F1 grid?

  1. Bottom line is if you’re a great driver in GP2 but don’t have a fuckload of sponsorship money (and I mean a metric fuckload) then there’s little point in chasing a drive in F1 as they’re all sewn up for the next 15 years.

    If Gutierrez can hold onto a seat thanks to nothing more than deep pockets, along with the vapid Maldonado with even deeper pockets, the game is up.

    Bail out to WEC, BTCC, WTC, DTM, Indy… anything. Just don’t squander your sponsorship money on F1 as it’s pointless.

    • And even if you are the best driver in the junior field (Vandoorne), and are on a ‘top’ F1 team junior program (McLaren), you still won’t get in, unless the said team has a junior team to put you in as well!

      McLaren/Honda should really have 4 cars (god knows there’s space now), but can only afford two, and they aren’t that fast either (and cost double of Force India). But Alonso/Button; Magnussen/Vandoorne would be perfect.

      They still have 2x WKC Nyck de Vries, Ben Barnicoat etc. still in the pipeline for when Alonso and Button are done, and Oliver Rowland in the FR3.5 top 5 is F1 level as well, but was dropped from their program already.

      Palmer I saw as an improvement on Chilton… now that 2x backmarkers are becoming one, I wonder if we will see pay drivers even missing out on drives! VDG was Sauber 3rd this year despite the promise of millions.. Palmer, Chilton, Ericsson sounds like 3 into 2 at Marussia next year IMO.

  2. Unsaid here is the fact that there are fewer and fewer backmarker teams to buy a ride from; even if you have the money who are you going to pay? Let’s see…..not Caterham, not Marussia, certainly not HRT, maybe not Sauber, maybe not Lotus, maybe not even Force India. F1 is in serious trouble and bringing in $10m ain’t goin to help the situation. If F1 goes to three car teams the third car (as of now) won’t be able to score points but the car behind doesn’t advance; the backmarkers will be pushed even further back. Pretty grim for new drivers and tail end teams. Save your money and go elsewhere.

  3. You left out the “get managed by a team principal” route which was employed by Grosjean. Though, TBH, a bit of a one off.

    Historical Question, when was the last time driving in a backmarker would let one get noticed and offered a ride in a better car?

    • Minardi had a reputation for being a veritable springboard into better cars. Alonso, Fisichella, Webber, Trulli are examples of drivers, who drove there and would later go on to win races in better cars and in case of Alonso of course even championships.

      Akex Zanardi and Christian Fittipaldi would not make much impact on F1 subsequently, but became successful in Champcars.

  4. And an other thing is, results in a lower class never don’t always count for results in the biggest class. Nothing is certain…

  5. I know, I know, fair distribution etc etc
    But how much Does it actually cost to run a third car?
    Why not 3 cars for all teams? And make them paid for?
    15 million > extra costs, no?

  6. “Being part of a young driver programme/academy and competing in a lower series is far more conducive to furthering your career than paying for a drive at the back of the grid.”

    I remember this exact same reasoning sported by Hulkenberg when he got dropped by Williams, after securing their first pole in quite some time in Brazil. He said then that it was rather pointless to drive for lower-grid teams, and that he preferred a reserve role at Force India. Which duly paid dividends with him returning to drive the following year.

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