Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Old Guard's Last Stand?

Joe Saward, writing under the guise of The Mole, was ruminating recently on the current collection of F1 drivers. Specifically, on how many of them might soon be picking up their P45s and heading off to play golf, or whatever it is that retired racing drivers do. His key point was that there are quite a few who have had their chances with a top line team and failed to make much of them, and it's time that they got out of the way and gave the younger generation a chance to prove their worth.

That last point, of course, plainly does not apply to Michael Schumacher, who has made a career out of seizing every chance he's had, but all the same, speculation has been rife over the last 12 months that the 7 times world champion is finally considering hanging up his helmet. My own hunch, for what it is worth, is that he will go the minute he wins another title, and not later than 2008 regardless.

Nonetheless, when the German retires, its going to create a vacancy in one of the big three drives in F1 - the number one seats at Renault, McLaren and Ferrari. (And yes, I know that only Ferrari has an official policy of having a number one and number two driver, but anyone who thinks that Fisichella and Alonso, to pick the more clear-cut case, are truly considered equals at Renault is living in cloud-cuckoo land).

So who to fill it? To be brutally honest, I don't think any of the established big names are really quite up to the job of taking on Alonso and Raikkonen. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of good drivers in F1 just now - and for the first time in a long time, now that Yuji Ide has been shown the door at Super Aguri, there are none that really don't belong there. Other than the big three, though, I'm not convinced there are any truly great ones. The jury could fairly be said still to be out on Nico Rosberg, perhaps on Tonio Liuzzi and, even at a push, Mark Webber, but to my mind, none of the rest quite have what it takes.

There are some good second division drivers in F1 - whether they be mercurial and intermittently incredibly fast guys like Jarno Trulli and Juan Pablo Montoya, or solid professional performers who lack a little spark, like Ralf Schumacher or Nick Heidfeld. To be honest, if I was Flavio Briatore, Ron Dennis or Jean Todt, I'd feel these guys were poor substitutes for Schumacher, Alonso or Raikkonen though.

That said, they're pretty much all that is on offer just now. A team could instead decide to take a risk on a Rosberg, a Kovalainen or a Hamilton but the last two in particular, are somewhat unknown quantities. So why are so many drivers hanging around in the midfield for so long, when there are at least a dozen or so really promising young talents outside of Formula 1?

The answer is that, quite simply, Toyota or BMW don't see their role as being to bring on talented youngsters for the benefit of the likes of Mclaren and Ferrari two or three years down the line. They might agree that Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen, Sebastien Bourdais or Nelson Piquet Jr are more likely to have the ultimate potential to go head to head with Alonso or Raikkonen than do Heidfeld or Ralf Schumacher. But any of those men would represent a substantial gamble.

Take Sebastien Bourdais for example. Sure, he's looked incredible in Champ Car, but couldn't exactly the same have been said for Michael Andretti or Alex Zanardi? And isn't that why Mclaren and Williams, respectively, hired them? It could be argued that even Montoya and Villeneuve didn't fully live up to the promise they showed in Champ Cars, and without wishing to criticise Bourdais, the Champ Car series is not at its strongest, driver talent wise, just now. That's not to say he wouldn't be any good in an F1 car, but its an open question. The same must surely apply twice over to that other darling of the US open wheel scene, Britain's Dan Wheldon. He's been very quick in IRL, but then IRL is mostly an oval racing series, and pace there doesn't necessarily translate. A few years ago, New Zealander Scott Dixon got a Williams test after winning the IRL title. He didn't particularly impress and the Grove squad went with Heidfeld in the end.

What's true of American open wheel racers goes just the same for the young guns coming up through the European junior series. Both Jan Magnussen and Antonio Pizzonia were talked of as if they were the second coming in their F3 days and were quickly promoted into F1. Neither made much impression in a Grand Prix car though. Magnussen now plys his trade in sports cars, while Pizzonia, after dropping out of the Williams testing role, is currently sniffing around for work in the US.

Another problem is that the best young prospects increasingly get tied up to a particular team from a very early age. Heikki Kovalainen is signed up with Renault, and Lewis Hamilton with Mclaren. Plenty of other teams have driver development programmes too - most notably Red Bull, who appear desperate to find another first rate North American. If you are Toyota or BMW, why take a risk on Hamilton when, if he proves as good as his GP2 performances suggest, he would soon be called back to Mclaren to partner Alonso?

An experienced pair of hands gives a team like BMW a useful yardstick by which to measure their progress. They may be well aware that Heidfeld is not truly from the top drawer, but they know that if he says the handling of the car is wrong, then there's something wrong. And if he's 2 seconds off the pace, its because the car needs work, not because the driver is out of his depth. With a youngster, you can never be sure. And in any case, even the best young charger takes time to learn his trade. That will more than likely mean trashed monocoques and weekends lost chasing setup problems that a more experienced driver could easily resolve. All this makes the solid, professional 'nearly man' the better bet for many a team - although it can't really begin to explain Ralf Schumacher's salary.

Another nagging question is whether the current format of Grand Prix weekends works against new drivers. When Michael Andretti came into F1, one of the things which it was said worked against him was the limit of 12 laps per qualifying session (a rule brought in for the 1993 season). Now though, the new driver has to learn each new circuit with minimal running in practice, thanks to the two-races-per-engine rule. Qualifying has been cut back from 2 hour long sessions to a single session which, for the slowest 6 drivers, lasts just 15 minutes and, to cap it all, the parc ferme regulations have led to the abandoning of the Sunday morning warm-up. No wonder, perhaps, that in the past four seasons, of the newcomers, only Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg have really made their mark.

But could change finally be on the horizon? Perhaps. Its hard to imagine that, 2 years hence, Coulthard, Barrichello and Villeneuve will still be plying their trade in Formula 1. Michael Schumacher will almost certainly be gone and its more than likely that his brother, Fisichella and Trulli will be in the twilight of their careers. That's going to be an awful lot of open doors for young talent to be knocking on.


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