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On the F1 radar

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With all the talk of the big stars making moves to the likes of Ferrari, McLaren and Brawn, it’s very easy to overlook the up-and-coming drivers that are aiming to make the step up to F1 in the next few season. Over the last few years, there haven’t been many youngsters coming up due to the teams’ reliance on proven F1 talent – in recent years, Barrichello, Coulthard, Michael Schumacher, Fisichella and Trulli have all hit the 200 start mark, whilst Ralf Schumacher, Button, Heidfeld and Raikkonen have now passed 150 starts. 20 years ago, no driver had ever reached 200 starts.

There was a subtly different approach, with drivers ending up out of F1 once they had had their chance and not proven themselves to be anything special. Take a driver like Christian Danner, for instance – in and out of F1 several times, with just 35 starts (and only 47 presences) over a 4 year period. Not a bad driver by any means but with a constant stream of young drivers, places were limited. Nowadays, the stream of young drivers is still going but it has been dammed by the teams, who don’t want to risk running youngsters if they’re not going to be any good. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that the grid is dominated by manufacturers who are willing to pay out to get proven talent, whereas in the 1980s and 90s, the grid was mainly made up of privateers who had a different approach, often dictated by money.

So, because of this and the fact that there are less teams in F1 than there were in previous decades, not many young drivers got into F1. There was a period around 2003/2004 where hardly any made it in, particularly F3000 drivers. 2003 F3000 champion Bjorn Wirdheim was Jaguar’s 3rd driver, but never raced, and has since ended up exiled to racing in Japan. Runner-up Ricardo Sperafico never made it beyond the odd test either. 3rd-placed Giorgio Pantano did make it, but only with Jordan, and lasted just a season. The only one of the top 10 of that year’s championship to still be in F1 is Vitantonio Liuzzi, who went on to become champion the following year, where he was again the only one of the top 10 of that year’s championship to still be in F1. Arguably, the standard was lower than other periods, but that’s only a matter of opinion – no one really knows how Patrick Friesacher, Enrico Toccacelo and Townsend Bell would’ve done had they had a proper shot at F1. Robert Doornbos in fact outpaced David Coulthard in his brief stint at Red Bull at the end of 2006, but by then he was just seat-warming for Mark Webber.

But the future looks brighter for the current batch of young drivers. Not only are there some prodigious talents in the ranks, but there are a number of drivers coming towards the end of their careers, with Barrichello, Trulli, Fisichella, Webber and Heidfeld all over the age of 32. Plus, there could be as many as 8 extra grid slots, with the new teams looking for younger drivers to slot in alongside a more experienced head. This year’s GP2 could be seen in years to come as a significant year. Nico Hulkenberg became champion at Monza last weekend and is seen by many as a future star. He has won the championship in pretty much every car racing championship he has competed in – ADAC Formula BMW in 2005, German F3 in 2006, A1 GP in 2006/07, F3 Euroseries in 2008 (after finishing a superb 3rd in his rookie year) and GP2 this year, becoming the first driver to win the title before the final round. With a junior series record that rivals that of Lewis Hamilton, he has long been tipped for the big time, attracting the services of Michael Schumacher’s manager Willi Weber. He was picked up by Williams as test driver in 2007 and they have an option on his services for next year which they are expected to take up. Germany must be pretty pleased with 2 potential superstars on their hands – who needs Michael?

Russian Vitaly Petrov is expected to finish as runner-up this year, and he is another who has been linked to F1 drives. As long ago as 2005, he was rumoured to be talking to Jordan, who were interested in his Russian backing. Since then, he has gone from strength to strength in GP2 and has impressed many people by taking the fight to Hulkenberg and Addax team mate Romain Grosjean, who left halfway through the season to replace Nelson Piquet Jr at Renault. Petrov has now been linked with a Campos drive – he knows Adrian well from the Spaniard’s time as his GP2 team boss, and obviously the team could do with his money.

In 3rd is another GP2 veteran, Lucas di Grassi. The Brazilian has had quite an adventure in the junior categories – he competed alongside Lewis Hamilton in F3 back in 2005, and won the Macau GP that year. Like Hamilton, he stepped up into GP2 in 2006, although Lewis got the plum drive at champions ART, whilst Lucas ended up at Italian minnows Durango. But he did a solid enough job to get an ART drive the following year, as well as backing from and tests with Renault. He finished as runner-up to Timo Glock, but no doors opened up in F1, so he began 2008 as Renault’s main tester in place of F1 graduate Piquet and also development driver for the new GP2 car. Midway through the season, he got a call from Campos, who had dropped Ben Hanley and was looking for a replacement. Di Grassi accepted and blew everyone away, finishing 3rd despite only doing 14 out of the 20 races. This led to a test at Honda at the end of the season, but again no F1 doors opened. Racing Engineering, who won the title with Giorgio Pantano in 2008, signed him up for this year, making him the title favourite, but for one reason or another things haven’t gone his way. It will be a third consecutive top 3 finish but no titles. At 25, this is perhaps his last chance to get into F1.

There are plenty of decent drivers in the series, but it’s unlikely many will make it. Drivers like Luca Filippi, Andreas Zuber and Javier Villa have probably now spent too long in GP2 to make an impact. But if you look further down the championship standings, there is talent to be found. 19 year old Mexican Sergio Perez was the youngest driver to compete in GP2 this year for Arden. He is very highly rated by some, having been a title contender in British F3 last year and won twice in GP2 Asia in the winter. He also possesses a vital tool in his armoury – backing from communications giant Telmex. He is another that has been linked to a Campos berth next year, but he probably could do with another year in GP2 first. A move to Addax, his former GP2 Asia team, seems logical, in which case he would straight away be one of the title favourites.

Below GP2, there are a few hot prospects that F1 teams are already keeping an eye on. One of these in F3 Euroseries runaway leader Jules Bianchi, perhaps the next big French hope. A distant relation of former Le Mans winner Lucien Bianchi, he has taken 6 wins so far this year in the Euroseries for ART, as well as 2 wins in the British series at Algarve. Last year, like Hulkenberg, he finished 3rd in his rookie year, an impressive feat, and he also won the F3 Masters. In 2007, he won the French Formula Renault championship – more significantly, this was only his first year of car racing. Clearly, he is a talent to watch – I would expect to see him follow in Hulkenberg’s footsteps next year by taking a GP2 drive, presumably at ART. He is also thought to be in contention to become part of Ferrari’s planned junior programme – he and his manager Nicolas Todt were recently spotted lurking in the back of the Ferrari garage at Spa.

Behind Bianchi, the chasing pack features a number of drivers that have impressed observers. In 2nd is Christian Vietoris, another young German prospect. He is another former ADAC Formula BMW champion and A1 GP race winner for Team Germany, and has already picked up 4 wins in the Euroseries in the last 2 seasons for Mucke Motorsport. One of his team mates this year is last year’s McLaren Autosport BRDC Award winner, Alexander Sims, one of the best young British prospects around, whilst Sam Bird has also been a consistent points-scorer for the team. This year’s Masters winner Valtteri Bottas of ART and Signature’s Red Bull Junior Mika Maki make up the Finnish contingent. Red Bull also placed Jean-Karl Vernay and F1 tester Brendon Hartley in the series this year and both have been race-winners. Second generation driver Adrien Tambay and last year’s Formula BMW Europe champion Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico are ART’s two rookies for this year and will probably stay on to be title contenders next year. The Monegasque Stefano Coletti is a race winner this year for Prema and has already raced in GP2 for Durango, whilst Spaniard Roberto Merhi has been tipped for stardom by his boss, John Booth of Manor.

The World Series by Renault is often forgotten but it has produced a number of F1 drivers in recent years, including Sebastian Vettel, Robert Kubica and, this year, Jaime Alguersuari. This year, the championship is led by Belgium’s Bertrand Baguette, and he is probably worth considering as an F1 prospect of the future. His Draco team are currently backed by Force India, winning the series will automatically gift him a Renault test drive (providing Renault are still in F1, of course!) and he recently revealed that he is in talks with a number of F1 teams over possible roles next year. What may be holding him back, though, is the fact that he is already 23, quite old in junior driver terms, and that his past results haven’t quite been on the same level as the likes of Hulkenberg and Bianchi. Nonetheless, he has had some interesting competition this year – as well as Alguersuari, this year’s race winners including early leader Marcos Martinez, British hopefuls James Walker, Oliver Turvey and Jon Lancaster, series veteran Pasquale di Sabatino, and title favourite Charles Pic. But it is Fairuz Fauzy, who won at the Hungaroring, that looks the most likely to step up to F1 any time soon – being Malaysian puts the former Spyker tester in an ideal position to pick up a Lotus drive for next year.

The new Formula 2 championship has been dominated this year by former GP2 ace Andy Soucek. The Spaniard has a 32 point lead over Red Bull Junior Mikhail Aleshin, with another, Robert Wickens, in 3rd. But Soucek probably has been around too long to have any chance of an F1 drive, although he is guaranteed a test with Williams if he wins the series. The most likely candidate of the current crop to go all the way is the young Italian Mirko Bortolotti. Last year, he won the Italian F3 championship and was invited by Ferrari to Fiorano to test the F2008, along with 2nd and 3rd placed drivers Edoardo Piscopo and Salvatore Cicatelli. Bortolotti astounded the team by setting the fastest lap around Fiorano this year, which attracted the attention of Red Bull. He is now also a Red Bull Junior, and Ferrari are thought to be keeping a close eye on him. He currently lies 5th in the championship, which is better than it sounds considering the drivers above him are all older and more experienced.

The International Formula Master championship also supports the WTCC and has already been wrapped up by Fabio Leimer of Switzerland. The Jenzer driver has taken 6 wins from 14 races, but it is fair to say that the competition he has had has been pretty weak, with the series struggling to conjure up decent-sized grids. But a championship win is a championship win, and it’ll be interesting to see if Leimer can get a GP2 or WSR drive next year and how he compares to other talents. But the driver everyone has been watching in IFM this year is Alexander Rossi. The 17 year old American is hot property, having dominated the American Formula BMW championship and then won the World Finals in Mexico City. As one of the best young Americans that hasn’t been swallowed up by NASCAR, he has also attracted the attention of Peter Windsor and is likely to be a tester for US F1 next year.

Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. There are a few young drivers that have missed the boat in the major junior series that have an outside chance of making it, namely last season’s two stars in A1 GP, Adam Carroll and Neel Jani. Northern Irishman Carroll is popular in British racing circles and has a pretty good record, including several victories in GP2. But it’s worth remembering that he was released by Honda 3 years ago. My personal opinion is that he suffers with a bit of Davidsonitis – he is unquestionably talented but is he really anything out of the ordinary? Even so, his A1 success may be enough to get him a drive at Virgin next year. Jani has been a front-runner in A1 GP since the beginning and won the title with Switzerland a few years ago. At one point, he seemed like a good prospect with Red Bull backing and a Toro Rosso reserve driver role, but he ended up drifting across to Champ Car. He came back after only a year and has since focused on A1 – maybe not such a good idea if the series is going to collapse. He is soon to test the Force India simulator, along with Karun Chandhok, and that may be enough to get him a test driving role for next year, but at 25, time is running out for him to make the jump.

And what of last year’s top 2 in GP2? Giorgio Pantano began the year in the Megane Trophy, but the former Jordan driver is now competing in Superleague Formula, along with fellow F1 rejects Antonio Pizzonia, Enrique Bernoldi and Sebastien Bourdais. At the age of 30, it seems he will not get a second chance in F1. His rival last year, Bruno Senna, has been competing for Oreca in sportscars, after deciding to turn down a move to the DTM with Mercedes. This was only meant to be a year competing whilst waiting for a chance in F1, but now it seems he has missed the boat. There are plenty of opportunities on the grid but he hasn’t been strongly linked to any of them, which suggests he may have to try and get a testing role or face the rest of his career wondering what might have been had Honda not pulled out.

Meanwhile, in South America, there continues to be talk that former Renault Junior Jose Maria Lopez is in negotiations with US F1 over a race seat next year. The Argentinean was never a great success in GP2 and ended up returning to his home country, where he has become a star in the various touring car series there.  This was definitely a left-field rumour, as US F1 were thought to be looking for a combination of an experienced driver and a young American, presumed to be Alex Wurz and Jon Summerton. But it’s worth remembering that Peter Windsor was very close to Argentina’s last great F1 driver Carlos Reutemann, now a leading politician in his homeland. Lopez is said to having backing from the Argentinean government, as well as major oil company YPF. There is also talk of a return for the Argentine Grand Prix in 2011. Could there be a bit of scheming going on behind the scenes? Keep an eye on it…

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Written by James Bennett

September 18, 2009 at 15:42

Posted in F1, Junior series

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  1. […] Formula Racing Matters” and that of up-and-coming drivers… make sure to check out this piece by James Bennett of the Welsh Grand Prix […]


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