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 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.