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.
|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.
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.
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.