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Formula 1 storing up a big problem for itself in five years time
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Posted By: James Allen  |  27 Sep 2012   |  11:24 am GMT  |  309 comments

The focus on the driver market this Autumn is on Lewis Hamilton and whether he will stay at McLaren or move to Mercedes. The future of 43 year old Michael Schumacher and of Ferrari’s Felipe Massa is also pivotal to whether there will be any vacancies among the top teams or whether things will stay as they are for another year.

But below that there are some worrying signs, as the effects of the global financial crisis are increasingly keenly felt among F1 teams, with the result that drivers who bring money to a team -either family money or corporate backing, are at a premium. Most of the opportunities being given to “reserve drivers” today are in reality opportunities for the teams to earn extra much-needed millions.


These drivers will never rise to the highest levels, but they are taking seat time and opportunity away from the next generation of Alonsos, Hamiltons and Vettels. And in five years from now we will really feel the impact of that.

The situation is not helped by some of the driver development programmes appearing to be failing, with the result that there is a paucity of exciting young drivers coming through the ranks.

And to compound the problem further, the testing ban is creating a raft of problems in terms of young drivers. There is no opportunity for young drivers to get any testing mileage in an F1 car; for example Sam Bird’s two days with Mercedes at Magny Cours were his first seat time for a year.

The only opportunity is the Friday morning practice session at Grands Prix, which is woefully under utilised. Force India and Williams are the only ones using it properly to bring drivers on, but again there are signs that cash strapped teams the length of the grid are now using these opportunities to bring in additional funds.

This is simply not sustainable. If the sport wants superstar drivers to wow and entertain the public as well as talented second tier drivers, it has to nurture them, as it did with the current generation drivers like Hamilton, Vettel and the much-missed Robert Kubica. F1 will not win over increasingly distracted and sceptical audiences with the Charles Pics and Max Chiltons of this world, although no offence is intended to them.

One can envisage a situation, five years from now, when Button and Webber will be retired, Alonso aged 36 will probably be retired, or close to it. So that will leave Hamilton who will be 32 and Sebastian Vettel, who will be 30 and there is no sign of a driver who will rise to challenge them.

And as teams like Williams, Sauber and maybe next year even Force India, look to drivers who bring budget, the scope for the next Hamilton or Vettel to rise is very limited. It will need to be someone from a driver development programme, but the Red Bull programme has largely failed (apart from Vettel) and Renault and BMW are no longer active in F1.


The next few years may offer some opportunities to the second tier drivers, like Di Resta, Hulkenberg, Grosjean and Perez to show whether they have what it takes, but who’s coming up behind them?

The testing ban was brought in to save money and one could argue that if that had not happened, then some of the teams would have run into even greater financial difficulty. There are one or two teams in F1 today that are close to the edge and when the likes of Sauber, Williams and possibly Force India are looking for drivers with budget, we have a major problem brewing.

But the testing ban also hinders driver development and this in turn leads to some of the problems we have had this season, with Grosjean and Maldonado driving with too much desperation because the only chance they get to drive is on race weekends.

They don’t get the track time between events to grow fully conversant with their cars, they don’t haven’t had the 10,000kms of testing that the drivers a generation ahead were able to get which made them rounded drivers and yet they are under equal or greater pressure, so they take risks…

It’s like asking footballers to only play on match days; they could not possibly improve.

The only ray of light in all this is the opportunity offered by Pirelli for a test driver, although this has tended to be a driver who has dropped out of F1, rather than a promising newcomer.


Nevertheless it has merit; the current Pirelli test driver, Jaime Alguersuari, (also my colleague on BBC Radio 5 Live) has done a number of tests this year in a 2010 Renault, engineered by Lotus F1 Team, working on 2013 tyres. But he’s been covering 700 kilometres a day and as a result is a far more experienced and complete driver than he was when he was racing for Toro Rosso. He’s now the driver he should have been 12 months ago, far more experienced and rounded. That’s kind of opportunity should be there for young drivers, but Pirelli has a programme to run and needs to keep it focussed.

So it needs something more co-ordinated, an Academy approach. Trouble is, F1 teams are currently wrapped up in arguing with each other about entries for 2013, no rules in place, cost control measures and the merits of an expensive 2014 engine programme, costing three or four times as much as the current units. That alone will impact budgets negatively far more than a few days of testing would and further enhance this worrying trend for pay drivers.

There isn’t much long-term thinking going on as regards funding to produce the next generation of drivers, the sport is just relying on them coming through, because they always have.

F1 is increasingly an entertainment business and with annual revenues of $1.5 billion, it’s a successful one.

But it needs to make sure that it has a supply of performers.

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1

do not underestiamte Niko rosberg .. this guy got talent , just the team and the car to move him to another level

2

Great article James and pretty much the same thing I sent to Autosport’s editor’s recently. I’ve been trying to get Autosport to do an article on the dreadful poor talent spotting in F1 for some time. How the likes of Adam Carroll fail to land a drive really shows both how poor and blinkered the F1 talent spotters are. This all should start with tightening the Super Licence. Can you imagine other sports following the way F1 teams sign divers? We’d see Man Utd hiring a Second division player with a rich benfactor rather than Wayne Rooney!!

3

Well, i keep hearing about Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton. But truth is the onluy one of them that just sitted in an F1 car that was TOP of the grid and delivered was Hamilton, made some mistakes because of being young and or inexperienced and cost him his debut year title, yes. But the other 2 made their grounds into lesser teams for a couple of years before being promoted to bigger teams. I will like to Add Kimi to the list, who didn’t have much racing experience at all in any category and only 1 year in Sauber before McLaren got it to the prime time of F1. Truth is F1 needs to look to drivers outside the GP2 more often, GP2 is the problem to me, a driver should be allowed to race only 2 years and if he can’t make a mark then he’s good enough, look at Maldonado took him 4 years to win there, and he’s nothing special. The good ones make it in the first year, and the unlucky ones but still good take maybe one more. Moving the GP2 and promoting from GP3 will keep the drivers coming, and will make the companies really look for talent and not just bring guys that have support but not real talent.

4

On the subject of testing, drivers should have an allocation of test laps per season, probably drivable at designated sessions.

The spectacle of a reserve driver getting in the car to qualify and race with effectively almost no mileage is dangerous and contributes nothing to the spectacle.

5

What a lot of rot. F1 is what it is and it’s entertainment. The idea that we need a particularly special elite set of drivers and that some second tier of performers won’t be entertaining is utter nonsense.

With the visors closed they are just guys in sponsored overalls driving the cars. It may be better that we lose this current set of over-paid superstar former world champions who dominate the headlines and get in fresh characters.

We may not feel that we know them the same way we think we ‘know’ Hamilton et al but as long as they can race each other in the cars, that’s just fine by me.

6

I don’t know… Technically Michael Schumacher was a pay driver.

Doesn’t the legend go that he landed the Jordan seat with Sauber/Mercedes money?

I can understand the fears of a number of people because it seems talent isn’t the first determinant.

But isn’t it also true that if one is very talented… The money and sponsors will come to support that talent?

To wit, Schumacher was supported by a carpet-maker at one point in his karting career.

7

What about using older f1 cars as a feeder race, use lower rpms and some standardised parts (wings brakes no kers etc)to keep costs down.

I imagine there would be a lot of outdated cars at the end of next years championship.

In australia we do that with v8 supercars and some cars are up to 5 years old .

The cars are also weighted to limit the data farming for the main series.

The drivers of this series reguarly get promoted.

The races also get screened on opposing weekends thus increasing bernies revenue.

8

I wonder if improvements in computerized simulations for both driver and car design could help mitigate this trend. Obviously an hour on the track is better than an hour in the simulator but what if a driver has the ability to spend many thousands of hours in a race simulator vs. many hundreds of hours on track? The simulator wouldn’t be able to accurately provide the physical reality of being on the track but they are getting pretty good at everything else and they will be even better five years from now. The classic drivers of old never had the benefit of these tools and a case could be made that in some manner drivers today could actually get more practice time then ever.

Computer simulations for car design should also have more and more of an impact. If science today can model nuclear explosions accurately why not diffuser and wing designs? It would seem that an accurate computer modeling environment could be a more desireable and cost effective design platform compared to actual track testing. If this ever becomes the case then could track test limitations become a moot point because most of the design work would be done in the computer.

Would the use of these simulators and design tools enable all teams to compete at less cost or is this another area for a costly arms race between the various teams? Perhaps this might be a good topic for a future article here….

9

The reality, that is not covered here, is Bernie is taking too much money home and they are not spending for the good of sport, someone must change it!

10

Just bring in proper in season tests and give the youngsters proper track time. too much pressure on young drivers to perform (see Jaime Alguersuari Buemi and in some respect Grosjean) Alguersuari is a driver that deserves to be in F1, and i hope next year he is back.

11

Here’s a practical suggestion then, to allow time in an F1 car for younger drivers, while benefitting the teams and keeping down costs like travel: why not run an extra practise session a race, for non-F1 drivers only? I don’t know logistically how that would fit around the current practise format, but this provides young drivers (and indeed, drivers without a drive) a chance to gain that invaluable experience and knowledge of how to drive an F1 car and simply time on the track, while the teams can also benefit from extra sessions setting up the cars, testing new parts etc without gaining an unfair advantage. Maybe something like each team fielding 1 car, again with half an eye on keeping costs down too. Even only doing this at around half the races a season would have a significant impact on the rounded quality of driver coming through.

12

Excellent article James. A few very interesting points. You put into words what I had thought about a year ago and then some!

There should be a possibility for drivers to do testing within the racing calendar, even if it’s in a 1 or 2 year old car to keep costs down. Although given the current regulations and the way that teams operate these days, I don’t know how that would be possible.

13

Racing and testing are two completely different things.

James, I thought you should know this by now when you shared a secret about Schumi via Eddie Irvine! 😉

Testing is just pounding around consistently and giving feedback at the end that confirms with data with engineers.

No amount of testing would have made a difference to Grosjean or Maldonado. Far too limited in scope to understand and improve racecraft. It is more complex: mind management and not just skill as well as experiencing racing with others.

Best example I can give is DJ’ing. Practising in your bedroom is completely different to playing live where you have to manipulate and understand the mood of the crowd.

Next time James, ask Jaime if this is a good analogy!

14

James – do you think GP2 is useful enough in preparing drivers for F1 and enabling us to establish potential stars?

Personally I think Red Bull were wrong to put Ricciardo and Algersauri into F1 without going via GP2. I think they use Vettel as a benchmark when he was really a one off.

It was in GP2 that we seen the potential of Hamilton, Rosberg, Perez, Maldonado, Grosjean etc. I appreciate not every GP2 series winner/contender will develop to the very top of F1,(Kovalainen, Piquet, Petrov etc) but it gives you an insight into their potential.

Looking at the pool of talent there now I can see Gutierrez, Calado and Razia making it in F1, but I think we needed to see them in GP2 to evaluate that potential. I think the likes of Jaime was under pressure from day 1 in a team when he should have been demonstrating his talent in GP2.

And you are 100% correct about money over potential argument. I wouldn’t let Rodolfo Gonzalez drive my car never mind an F1 car.

Whats your thoughts?

15

Great article. Glad you and Joe Saward are covering the stories that the rest aren’t interested in.

I completely agree we need more testing. Perfect examples are De La Rosa getting back in to F1 after his Pirelli testing, Massa going from a crash happy wannabe to challenging for the WDC after a few years as a Ferrari tester (and back to crashing now there’s no testing). Hopefully Jaime A will prove your theory right and come back as a stronger driver. Grosjean is a slightly better driver this time around than his first go at Renault so maybe the answer is more seasons in GP2 rather than just more testing?

As for the future, well I am biased but Josh Hill stands a good chance. He has some backing and if he wins the BRDC McLaren Autosport Award that gives him an F1 test but obviously he’ll need some time in GP2 first. But as Bruno Senna is proving, the famous surname helps raise sponsorship funds.

But we are losing some good drivers who don’t have the backing. Dan Wells is racing in China as he couldn’t raise the funds for a FR2.0 seat (and then the series got cancelled). The smaller F1 teams should be bringing on future talent, like Alonso and Webber at Minardi, where money wasn’t the primary reason they were signed. Marussia seem to have it half right with Glock but using Pic to pay for it, same with HRT. Toro Rosso are too extreme and swap drivers more often than I change my shoes without nuturing any potential. But without any control on money the teams will take it where they can get it.

16

James, cant the teams try and incorporate 1 day of testing with each grand prix (not when there are back to back racing weekends). That way, they don’t need separate infrastructure and teams for testing. It will be like the young drivers program that is already running, but more regularly and not just once a year.

17

A new last session of the day on Friday, once all the support races have practiced and qualified. 1 hr of reserve or young driver testing. Spare engine only used for this session…

18

Great article James. It seems to me that testing was banned to lower cost with the travel for most teams of travelling to and from a track for a few days. I totally agree that young drivers or the next gen of talent need experience in a formula 1 and with the start of the weekend given to support races and free practice would it not be better to have testing done after an F1 event on a Monday morning?

The teams and personal will be there just need to fly in some of their test drivers (the next gen drivers) and whatever parts they want to test, no need to travel to the track they are already there, the support races have been and gone and the teams will already have data on their cars going around the track to compare with when they bolt on a new wing for example. Naturally could only be done on a GP weekend with has a 2 or 3 week break to the next one therefore keeping some control to it making sure that top teams can pound round lap after lap at their private tracks. So what do you think? Show up on Thursday, do a race on Sunday and then stay Monday to Tuesday having a test?

19

Why not test on Mondays/Tuesdays after the GPs, everybody is there already!! Even if it only happens at the European GPs, it would make a huge impact at little extra cost.

20

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that we won’t notice any difference. For a long, long time ‘pay drivers ‘have been a part of the sport. Whether that is through sponsorship or actually paying for a drive, this isn’t a recent phenomenon.

21

Sorry if covered already, but do teams value drivers of the tech of their cars? “Its the car stupid”, as it were. The teams have more than enough money to find talented drivers, but prefer to spend it on hardware. So if they cant find driver and prefer pay drivers, its their own fault and, well, tough.

22
DanWilliams from Aust

After reading about the sustainability of F1, I come to the conclusion that there are many problems that need to be addressed, but the biggest prob I think is Bernie… Dare I say if he wasn’t around, most of the other probs wouldn’t be either…

BTW great article James, really makes us think about the future of F1 and hopefully some of the desicion makers of F1 are reading this and/or already thinking about it.

23

I don’t think things are much different from any recent era in F1 – getting in, and getting to the top always demands money or connections. Hamilton wouldn’t have made it without McLaren’s support, ditto Vettel with Red Bull, Alonso with Briatore, Schumacher with Mercedes back in the day. That’s not to say those driver don’t deserve the support, but Grosjean is an example of how the system can work – he’s a driver with little personal backing but by showing his potential (and professionalism in bouncing back from the first crack at F1), he’s worked his way in thanks to Total supporting Lotus.

If we look at the ‘tier two’ drivers – Perez, Grosjean, di Resta, Hulkenberg – I see drivers with potential to become genuine stars. Sure they may not be the greatest ever, but will we know any different unless someone better comes along? On that topic, in my experience there are always ‘promising’ drivers but often it’s someone slightly obscure who comes in and blows them away – as I suppose Schumacher did in 1991.

24

Frankly James, I think it’s unfair to say Red Bull’s junior programme has “largely failed” apart from Vettel. Ricciardo and JEV are in their first full time seasons of F1 – it’s too early to call if they will succeed or not (but FWIW, I think they will). And Jaime Alguersuari only has 50 F1 races under his belt, to go with his track time with Pirelli this year, because he was picked up by the RB Junior Programme.

25

For the amount it’s cost and the 60+ drivers who have been in it, you don’t think that’s largely a failure?

26

Don’t worry folks.

I am on my way. Just hold on!

27

Story on Daily Mail that Mercedes will announce Lewis Hamilton has signed @ Friday morning UK time.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/formulaone/article-2209707/Lewis-Hamilton-replaces-Michael-Schumacher-Mercedes.html

Any basis to this report James? Anyone?

I am an Aussie so have no idea whether the Daily Mail is creditable.

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