A New Dawn?
You might well ask: Who cares who drives for the Spyker team anyway? A fair question, I suppose. They haven't really been able to achieve much over the past couple of years, and I doubt that even Mike Gascoygne is going to be able to change that overnight. Nonetheless, the news that they had signed Japanese F3 champion and Macau frontrunner was pleasing. Not least because, for the first time that I can recall, the F1 grid would appear to be entirely made up of people who really belong there. The overall standard of driver on the F1 grid has, in my view, been steadily improving over the last few years - helped perhaps by the demise of the Minardi team and the recent purchase of Jordan/Midland by a consortium who harbour ambitions of turning it into a proper racing team again. But it is only now, with the replacement of the amiable journeyman Tiago Monteiro with Sutil, who looked blindingly quick in Friday practice last year, that there is really no dead wood on the F1 grid.
Look at it this way. Next year in two of the top teams, we will have two of the most promising debutants to appear in the sport in years - GP2 winner Lewis Hamilton and last year's runner up, Heikki Kovalainen. Going into their second full seasons in F1 we have 2004 F3000 champion Vitantonio Liuzzi and 2005 GP2 champion Nico Rosberg. The underwhelming Christian Klien has been shown the door and, with Webber in at Red Bull, a second chance has been handed to Alexander Wurz, whom I suspect may be a little better than he was made to look at Benetton. Anthony Davidson has been given a chance over at Super Aguri, who are beginning to look an awful lot more like a proper racing team these days.
Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, for the day when some of the current elder statesmen throw in the towel (and the clock must be ticking on the careers of Messrs Fisichella, Coulthard, Schumacher Jr and Trulli, though they are all Grand Prix winners, rather than mere makeweights) we have Franck Montagny over at Toyota and Nelson Piquet Jr at Renault. And just recently, Toro Rosso have been giving Sebastien Bourdais a proper try-out, perhaps with a view to ditching Scott Speed at the end of next season, or perhaps with an eye on promoting Liuzzi to the No.1 team when Coulthard retires.
I spend a lot of time complaining about the way the sport is run, and there is much about modern F1 to be unhappy about. But it really does appear to me that the overall standard of driving talent is as high as it has ever been. I can't recall the last time that I looked at an F1 entry list and found it so devoid of pay drivers, eccentric choices and guys chosen for a simple lack of available talent. When Grand Prix winners like Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher look like some of the weaker links in the chain, then something must be going right.
There is a myth, propagated in some circles, that pay drivers are a new phenomenon and that if you were to go back a decade or three, the likes of Baumgartner, Ide and Yoong would never have made the F1 grid. This is, of course, arrant nonsense. In the 1970s, the entire back half of the grid were little more than playboy dilettantes, there for their own amusement, and of no serious consequence. Go back to the 1950s and much of the field was made up of those rich enough to buy their own F1 car - and wealth alone has never made anyone quick behind the wheel.
Ironically, I suspect that it is the very fact that F1 is now so expensive that explains the absence of rich amateurs on the grid. Running an F1 car is far beyond the means of all but large corporations, and anyone looking to spend serious money putting a pair of modern F1 cars on the grid is going to want to make sure they are being driven to something like their full potential. That's not to say that drivers who can bring money to the table will be absent - but rather that they will have also to be reasonably quick in the bargain if they want a drive.
Perhaps later in the year, it will become apparent that I'm horribly wrong. Perhaps Davidson will look no more up to the job than the Japanese pay drivers Super Aguri ran in its No.2 car this year. Perhaps Adrian Sutil's performances in the Midland this year will turn out to have been more about low fuel runs and turning up the revs on the Toyota V8 than they were about a great new young talent. Maybe Kovalainen and Hamilton will turn out to have been terribly over-hyped. But for now, maybe its just the dawning of a new year, but I'm feeling optimistic...