Monday, July 14, 2008

No Room At The Inn

I didn't see it, because I was busy watching Lewis Hamilton giving a wet-weather driving master class to rank alongside Ayrton Senna's magnificent 1993 European Grand Prix win and Jackie Stewart's domination of the 1968 German Grand Prix, but I'm told that this year's Wimbledon Men's Final, between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, was one of the all time classics of the game. In order to get to that final, Nadal and Federer had to come out on top in a knock-out tournament with 126 other competitors, any of whom could, in theory have won.

Contrast that with Formula 1. At the moment, there are just 20 slots on the F1 grid. and just 4 to 6 of those seats are likely to provide a realistic shot at winning a Grand Prix. OK, so the outstanding talents usually, though not quite always, find their way into the best drives once they have got their foot in the door and secured an F1 drive in the first place (Alonso didn't take long to come to the world's attention even at Minardi, while Raikkonen impressed from the outset at Sauber). There is though, a strong element of luck involved in determining who gets a shot at F1 in the first place. It's a fact which has come to play an ever bigger role as the junior single seater series have burgeoned at the same time as the number of cars on the F1 grid has decreased and drivers careers have tended to become longer than once they were. It is all the more of a lottery for the fact that a good number of the great F1 drivers were merely good rather than outstanding in their time in the sport's lower echelons. After all, what did Michael Schumacher ever really achieve in F3000? And wasn't Nigel Mansell pretty uninspiring in F3?

As a way of illustrating the point, I've attempted to put together a list of 20 British racing drivers who, on the evidence available, might make a decent first of an F1 opportunity if it presented itself. I'm not claiming that all 20 of them have a particularly strong claim to an F1 seat - they don't - but I do think few, if any of them, would be an embarrassment in the Zsolt Baumgartner or Gaston Mazzacane sense of the word. It is not a nationalistic or patriotic point I'm trying to make here. Britain may produce disproportionately many racing drivers, given its history, but I'm sure a similar list of German, American, Spanish, Brazilian or Italian drivers could be put together by someone more familiar with those national racing scenes. I have simply stuck to what I know...

The Current F1 drivers

Let's start with the easy bit - the 3 men already here. Grand Prix winners, Lewis Hamilton, David Coulthard and Jenson Button. Are they all from the very top drawer? No. Hamilton? yes Button? Maybe, Coulthard? Not quite, in my view, but you don't win 13 Grands Prix without doing something right. To this list, I would add recently redundant former Super Aguri man, Anthony Davidson. He generally outpaced his more experienced team mate Takuma Sato (and this despite the fact the team was essentially built around him) at least in the latter half of 2007 and Mark Hughes, for one, reckons he's at least as quick as Jenson Button.

Going Stateside

A number of British drivers, faced with a lack of opportunities to find paid work in Europe, have chose to up sticks and ply their trade on the other side of the Atlantic. Amongst them is former Minardi and Jaguar man Justin Wilson, who now races for Newman Haas in the IRL. OK, so he was outpaced by Mark Webber at Jaguar during his time there in 2003. That said, he was very much the new boy in the team, while Webber was the established team leader. Furthermore, he seemed to get closer to Webber in his last couple of races for the team, and perhaps had everyone woken up to how quick the Australian was, Wilson might still be in F1. Other than Davidson, he's to my mind the British ex-F1 driver most deserving another shot.

Former IRL champion, Indy 500 winner and current front-runner, Dan Wheldon is another man who would definitely be on the list. Rumour has it that he was seriously considered for a role at BMW, but turned the German team down when he was told any testing role would not automatically lead to an F1 drive. You can see this one from both sides. Thiessen was doubtless mindful of the sport's experiences with US champions like Michael Andretti and Alex Zanardi and didn't want to find himself saddled with a man who could not adapt to F1. Wheldon, as a tIRL champion, probably felt a testing role beneath him. If Wheldon is in, then an equally strong case can certainly be made for reigning IRL champion Dario Franchitti. A former Autosport Award winner, he seemed destined for F1 at one time, but his European career stalled and he went off to the US. He may be struggling in NASCAR right now, but then so is Juan Pablo Montoya. My final Stateside choice is a slightly eccentric one, Foyt Racing Enterprises driver Darren Manning. OK, so he appeared to fluff his big IRL opportunity with Ganassi a couple of years back, but since then he has worked small wonders with the unfancied Foyt team and this, combined with his gutsy showings in the unloved Reynard Champ Car back in 2003, is enough to earn him a place on my list.

Bubbling Under...

These days, it seems that GP2 is the established finishing school for wannabe F1 drivers. While there are, on the face of it, no really first-rate British drivers in the field just now, I reckon all of this year's British contenders have shown enough flashes of promise that they wouldn't necessarily be out of their depth in F1. Mike Conway may only have won one race in his year and a half in the category, but he has been both the victim of more than his share of bad luck, and he has not been driving for one of the big teams. He was quick around Monaco, which is always a sign that a driver fundamentally has the talent. He was a good bit quicker than Bruno Senna when they were teamed up in British F3 too. Ben Hanley had a difficult few races at Campos before he found himself dropped from the team but a man capable of winding up 2nd in the competitive Renault World Series last year can't be too far off the pace, and you never know what he might be capable of with the right breaks, with a team he feels at home with. Adam Carroll has been floating around in GP2 as something of a troubleshooter for teams struggling to get to the root of their problems. He's probably too much of an old-fashioned, scruff-of-the-neck racer to fit into modern F1, but I'm sure he'd be great to watch. And nobody else has made Fisichella Motorsports look remotely competitive in GP2 in a while...

Silver Arrows

One of the peculiarities of Mercedes' approach to motorsport is that they seem to spend so much time and money on promoting the junior careers of various drivers only to cut the strings - or rather shunt them sideways into the DTM, just when their single seater career looks to be really going somewhere. Take Jamie Green for example. He beat Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Robert Kubica to the 2004 F3 Euroseries title, but didn't have the support to move on up to GP2 the following year. Rosberg, of course, whom he had beaten to the 2004 title, went on to become GP2 Champion and earn a drive with Williams. It's much the same story with Dario Franchitti's cousin, Paul Di Resta. Winning the 2006 F3 Euroseries was not enough to persuade anyone to fund a run at the GP2 title, and he too has been plying his trade in the DTM ever since. On the subject of DTM drivers, Gary Paffett has often been talked about as a potential GP driver and I've heard it argued he's one of the sport's great lost talents. Others, who've seen him testing for Mclaren, reckon he's not quite got it. Chances are, we'll never know.

World Cup Stars

The so-called 'World Cup of Motorsport', the A1GP series has suffered from a rather patchy driver line up, since it came into existence back at the end of 2005. On the one hand, ex-F1 drivers such as Narain Karthikayen, Jos Verstappen, Alex Yoong and Ralph Firman have featured, but on the other hand, the Lebanese and Indonesian entries, in particular, have been utterly out of their depth. In the light of this, it is hard to assess just how quick and Robbie Kerr and Oliver Jarvis really are. There has been no doubting, though, that they have been consistently near the front throughout their time in A1GP, and that's enough to earn both of them a place in this list. It's probably too late for Kerr, but Jarvis just might go further in the sport yet.

Wild Cards

Every now and again, a driver seems to just slip through the cracks and disappear without trace. That's not quite true of Ryan Sharp but things do seem to have gone rather quiet for him since he fell out of GP2 half way through 2005. OK, so he only ever scored a couple of points but 1) he was often monumentally unlucky and 2) he was driving for DPR - hardly the most competitive team on the grid. He's been doing a good job in the JetAlliance Aston Martin GT alongside Karl Wendlinger and he's worth a punt. Fellow Scot Ryan Dalziel (there do seem to be a lot of Scots on this list...) never really got the breaks that his talent deserved. Twice runner-up in Formula Atlantic, he spent some time in Grand Am and in ALMS but what impressed me was the pace he was able to show with the inexperienced Pacific Coast Motorsports team last year in Champ Car's messy swansong season. To the best of my knowledge, he's out of work now, but that's no reason to leave him off my list.

Some drivers, of course, make the leap straight from Formula 3 to Formula 1. Ayrton Senna, for example. Or Mika Hakkinen. So it's not a bad idea. While I don't see anyone in the current crop of F3 drivers who seems ready for such a drastic move, I do think that Oliver Turvey shows just enough promise to make it onto my 'fantasy grid'. OK, so he only has one win to his name, but British F3 has been unusually competitive this year, and he's managed to do this whilst preparing for Finals in his engineering degree at Cambridge. The kind of background knowledge which could prove very useful in this increasingly technical sport...

Over to you...

The more eagle eyed amongst you might have noticed I've only included 19 drivers. That's because I'm interested to know who you think I have unfairly left out. By way of explanation, I ought to add that the reason such as, for example, Allan McNish is off the list is that I've tried to stick to drivers still young enough to make a decent fist of F1. McNish is undoubtedly still quick, as anyone who saw this year's Le Mans will know, but at nearly 40, I can't see him getting back into F1. The other obvious omission is Ralph Firman, whom I have left off because, though he may well be as quick, if not quicker, than several of the names on this list

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Anonymous drive said...

well I really couldn't name any more possible British F1 drivers, but I'm sure it was quite unfair to pick Zsolt Baugartner as a real loser. at least he scored a point for his team, which couldn't be said about his teammate Bruni or Alex Yoong for example. but I agree, Baumgartner wasn't F1-material either.

4:51 PM  
Anonymous Underdog said...

With regards to Davidson I really had a lot of expectation when he finally landed a permanent position in the grid. I really can't say he lived them up, specially with a erratic teammate as Sato.

5:50 AM  
Anonymous Boy Goerge said...

Hamilton is the man right now. He is having a fantastic year.
Cool post very informative.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Nicebloke said...

How about karting star Ollie Millroy?

There's a ton of awesome British drivers in sportscars, many with decent single-seater backgrounds, any of whom might have been successful in F1: Darren Turner, Stuart Moseley, Adam Sharpe, Johnny Mowlem, Ben Devlin, Oliver Gavin, Stuart Hall and Guy Smith.

Often when a single-seater career goes off the rails a driver ends up in touring cars - what about Tom Chilton or Andy Priaulx?

9:47 AM  

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