Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso have 525 Formula 1 starts between them, the two most experienced drivers on the grid and this week the two champions have offered their perspective on the merits of a young driver starting with a back of the grid team.
The 2015 F1 driver market is slowly closing up and it looks as though some promising young drivers will be ‘placed’ by their powerful teams in lower ranked teams, like Manor. It is a path Alonso himself followed with Minardi, while Daniel Ricciardo’s first season with HRT also allowed him to learn the ropes with little pressure. Button, in contrast was a works driver on debut with Williams BMW and has candidly admitted the problems with that approach.
Drivers like Alonso and Button have raced in F1 for 15 years or more, and drivers with budget taking priority for midfield teams, places for talented young drivers are limited.
McLaren dropped Kevin Magnussen after one season in 2014, as Button kept his drive alongside Alonso, but now another of the team’s juniors, Stoffel Vandoorne, is dominating GP2 and hopes to graduate to F1 next year.
Mercedes also has a young driver on its books: Pascal Wehrlein. The German currently leads the DTM standings and has tested for the team in the past. The manufacturer wants him racing in F1 next season.
Where Wehrlein has the advantage over Vandoorne and Magnussen, is that as Mercedes supply engines to teams up and down the grid, they could use those units as a bargaining ploy to get the 20-year-old an F1 seat. Speculation is already mounting that Wehrlein could join Manor as part of a deal that would see the minnow outfit run Mercedes power in 2016.
Starting an F1 career in a small team has its advantages. Without the pressure of expectation that comes with a front running car, drivers can learn about competing at the highest level and make the inevitable rookie mistakes outside the glare of the spotlight.
Alonso’s advice to Young Guns
Alonso began his F1 career at the back of the grid in 2001, while Button stated with Williams in 2000, a team that was much further up the grid.
The double world champion reckons that starting out with a smaller team is the best way for a young F1 driver to develop, as long as there is a chance to move up the grid later on.
He said: “It’s not fun to be at the back, but we have to choose the best ways to start and if you start in a small team then you don’t have pressure. There are lots of expectations when you arrive in F1, also technical changes and many things you have to learn, so if you do it at a slower pace and are a bit more relaxed, it’s welcome.
“But obviously if you have a competitive car and you show some results as soon as you arrive in F1, it’s also good to show your potential to everyone, so it’s a mix.
“But it’s probably better to start in a small team, as far as you know that for every [low] result you have, you will have a seat in a competitive team later on, [because] that’s the risk with starting in a small team.”
Button’s advice to Young Guns
Button explained that while he enjoyed his time at Williams, the fast pace of the car meant he did not learn the importance of good set-up work, and this hindered him when he subsequently found himself in a less competitive car later in his career.
He said: “[Williams] was a team that was in the middle of the pack, so it was actually really good [and] I really enjoyed my first year, especially with Frank Williams and Patrick Head. It was a good atmosphere and [they were] really good people to learn off of, [and] there was so much experience in the squad.
“It was good, but the problem was that the car worked pretty well so I didn’t really do too much on set-up, which was my failure and I didn’t learn as much as I should have. So when I ended up driving a difficult car it was a lot more difficult for me.
“It’s all experience, but what is the right way? I’m sure we’d have both liked to have jumped in a winning car in our first years, but that doesn’t often happen at the pinnacle of motorsport.
“Then I spent two years developing my skills in an F1 car in the Benetton and then Fernando came along [at Renault in 2003] and stole the seat, so I was basically just doing all the work for him!”
Joining Manor, if a deal for 2016 can be worked out, would be an ideal starting place for Wehrlein and Vandoorne to get to grips with F1. For Magnussen, going to the back of the grid might be considered a step back, but it would still be better than another year on the F1 side-lines.
But the speculation surrounding Button’s own F1 future leaves the possibility for one of McLaren’s junior drivers to partner Alonso next year. While the team’s Honda engines are currently off the pace, the team is a de facto works outfit, even if it is currently stuck in the midfield.
Therefore, in 2016 we could again see new drivers starting their F1 careers at the opposite ends of the grid as Button and Alonso did themselves all those years ago.