Thursday, 17 March 2011

The Rickety Ladder to Formula One.

A couple of months back, I wrote an entry about how Paul Di Resta was coming into Formula One from a different route by joining from the DTM ranks. Recently, I've been thinking about the various different rookies who'd entered the series from the more traditional single seater ladder. I have to admit, part of this line of thought has come because a couple of Formula 3 Drivers have suddenly started following me on Twitter.

It got me thinking about how the single seater feeder series, from Formula Ford right up to GP2 are bringing through some rookie drivers who never seem quite prepared for Formula One. Now, there is a very distinct ladder to the single seater pantheon, and at each stage, supposedly it is the drivers talent and ability that allows them to attract sponsors and ascend to the next level. It's like a pyramid of drivers, with the number of available seats decreasing at each level. This is, to be fair, the natural way of dispersing a limited amount of seats to the drivers who deserve them - HRT's policy of 'the guy with the most money drives' Non-withstanding.

So, with this filtering process and the amount of seats available, why does it seem that so many rookies coming through struggle quite so badly with the leap to Formula One? We've seen proof that these guys are talented. Nico Hulkenberg was unassailable in GP2, Before last year Bruno Senna's reputation as a race driver was excellent (And was still good enough to get him a test role at Lotus-Renault), Lucas di Grassi was a Macau Grand Prix winner and Karun Chandok had visited podiums in GP2. Yet of all of the 2010 only rookies - Kamui Kobayashi having debuted in 2009 - only Vitaly Petrov has managed to hold onto his race seat for the 2011 season. All of them have credibility, so why did they struggle so much when they stepped up that final rung on the ladder into F1?

As we've established, these are credible drivers - and Kobayashi also had a hell of a year and was probably the most sensational rookie of all, despite being an also-ran in GP2, with his biggest prize in the feeder series being a GP2 Asia championship.

So, realistically, one has to point the finger of blame at the cars. We know there are talented drivers, championship-capable drivers, coming up the ladder, but the problem is that the ladder is composed entirely of single-make series.

Formula Ford uses the same specification of Chassis, although Mygale, Spectrum and Van Diemen all manufacture them. These Chassis are virtually identical in terms of design:

Formula 3 overwhelmingly uses the Dallara F3 chassis for all the various series, although again there is a small output from some other manufacturers.

And when you get above the F3 level, there is literally no diversity in the cars used: the GP3 and GP2 series, which support F1 races directly, all use exactly the same specification of Dallara Chassis:

And yet, when you get to Formula One, there is a different design of car for each team. From Red Bull to HRT, each car not only looks different, they perform differently, drive differently and react differently. From a level playing field, lower tier drivers who get the opportunity to step up to the ultimate stage are then handed a box of tools that is completely different to the team in the garage next to you. All of the drivers in the lower Formulae can change setups on their cars, but at the end of the day, it's still exactly the same car.

Furthermore, with this leap comes the extra pressure that comes from being a Formula One driver. In the lower formulae, most of the sponsors tend to be companies related to Motorsport, but F1 is big money. None of those teams can afford to have a driver who isn't performing, and consequently the rookies coming through seem to only have the one season to sink or swim. And whilst there are more rookies coming through, the transience of these drivers means that the age of the F1 field is increasing season by season.

So what's the solution? the obvious one would be to encourage competing chassis and manufacturers in the lower formulae - but the costs involved in developing the different cars, which would then be passed to the teams, prohibits this. In the current climate, keeping costs down for the different series is paramount - Formula Renault UK only had 11 drivers turn up for their pre-season test a couple of weeks ago, and there are worries that the costs of the series are starting to drive teams out of competing since Renault introduced to newer-spec car, and thats for a single-make national competition. Potentially, the way to encourage difference in driving ability is to do exactly what Force India are doing and look to different styles of series like DTM for their drivers - but this presents its own brand of problems, seeing as Touring Car racing is a completely different style to Single Seaters.

Truthfully, there is no real solution - the system we have now works, because at the end of the day teams will always need drivers. When one retires, there has to be another one to replace them. But perhaps, as a reader for Autosport suggested in a letter that we have none-championship F1 races as well as young driver tests. This could work, but would the F1 teams be willing to shoulder the costs of running their cars for very little reward?

It isn't a problem now, nor will it mean the death of Formula One - but Formula One will not benefit from an increasingly larger field of inexperienced drivers who have been unceremoniously dropped in the deep end.

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