Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sticking With What You Know

With the news that Toro Rosso have re-signed Sebastien Bourdais for 2009, it is quite possible that the final seat on the F1 grid has been filled. If nothing can be rescued from the ruins of Honda's F1 dream - and with each week that passes I become more doubtful that they will make the grid in Melbourne - then we have our final line up for 2009. Bad news for Takuma Sato, Jenson Button, Bruno Senna, Rubens Barrichello and any number of others who might have hoped to be in F1 this year.

I'm glad that Bourdais got the Toro Rosso seat. For all that Takuma Sato's management made out that the team's decision was driven by financial imperatives, I think Mateschitz and Tost made the right call. Bourdais might not have had the explosive pace of Vettel at his best last year, but in race conditions, especially, he really wasn't far off the pace of the young German star. There can be no doubt that the Frenchman had the lion's share of any bad luck going Toro Rosso's way last year: The refusal of the car to fire up away from the grid at Monza; the fatuous penalty at Fuji and the last minute rain at Spa which cost him places to drivers who had gambled on switching to wets all helped to ensure that his points tally didn't really reflect his perfomances last year. There was less to separate the two Sebastians last year than it might have appeared.

Nonetheless, for much of the winter, it seemed that Bourdais might have been out on his ear after just a single season. The team might have been keen to ensure some continuity and retain Bourdais to partner new boy Sebastien Buemi but with money crucial to the decision, it appeared that Takuma Sato, who had a huge following in Japan, and was thought a better bet for attracting sponsors, or Bruno Senna, who has substantial backing from Embratel, were more likely candidates for the drive. In the end, neither of them got the seat. One can only assume that, in the current economic climate, Sato was no more able to find backers than Bourdais. Senna might have been better placed on that score, but his chances of claiming the drive were, ironically, probably stymied by FOTA's cost-cutting measures, and in particular, the in-season testing ban agreed by the teams.

Sebastien Bourdais

This had a double impact. On the one hand, along with the other measures agreed by the teams, it will have saved Toro Rosso a substantial sum, and helped them to balance the books for this season. Secondly, it will have made the team rather wary of the idea of running two men with no previous F1 experience in a car radically different from its predecessor. It is noteworthy that, unlike its sister team, Red Bull, Toro Rosso has been running throughout the winter testing with last year's car (supposedly with 2009 downforce levels, but I find it unlikely they would be 3 seconds faster than anyone else if this were the whole story). They haven't said why, but I expect that they want GP2 graduate Buemi to get as much seat-time as possible before the in-season testing ban kicks in. Running not just one but two drivers who were new to F1 would be too much of a gamble. And so Senna's chances of a drive fell away.

For all Sato's management say that the team's decision came down to the money, I'm not sure that this makes sense. I rather doubt that Bourdais is bringing cash to the team. He had, throughout, made clear that he is a professional racing driver who expects to be paid for what he does. I haven't heard any announcement of new sponsors coming on board at Toro Rosso as a result of Bourdais' continued presence there. Indeed, I wonder if the team's willingness to release him to take part in Peugeot's assault on Le Mans in June might be a consequence of their recognition that Bourdais has to earn a living, and the team aren't in a position to pay him (or at least, to pay him as much as he would want). Either way, it will be good to see a current F1 driver back at La Sarthe for the first time in years (Off the top of my head, I'm not sure it's happened since Lotus' Johnny Herbert and Jordan's Bertrand Gachot teamed up to win Le Mans for Mazda in 1991).

It's striking how little change there had been in F1's driver line-ups since last year. Coulthard has gone off into retirement, Vettel has been shifted over into the senior Red Bull team and Buemi will make his debut with Toro Rosso. Other than that, leaving aside the implosion of Honda, it's very much a case of 'as you were'. Even the rather underwhelming Nelson Piquet Jr. and Kazuki Nakajima have been retained.

A number of factors are at play here, I suspect. Firstly, with the biggest changes to the rules in a decade or more, teams will be keen to have a driver line-up that is a known quantity. No team wants to be left scratching its head, wondering whether there is something amiss with the car, whether they have got the new aero rules wrong, are struggling with KERS or whether it is simply that their new young signing is out of his depth.

Secondly, with the in-season testing ban, as I have pointed out above, things are going to be notably harder for new F1 drivers than they were for such as Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel or Robert Kubica. What testing time the team have this winter they would really rather spend getting to grips with the new aero-package, the slick tyres and KERS, not just giving their new driver time to get acclimatised to driving an F1 car.

Finally, there is the unavoidable truth that, while there are plenty of young drivers in the junior ranks who look as if they wouldn't embarrass themselves in an F1 car, none have really stood out as exceptional. If Renault were minded to replace Piquet, could they really be sure that Lucas Di Grassi or Romain Grosjean, without the benefit of a year's experience, would do a better job? Di Grassi, after all, was soundly beaten by Glock in GP2 in 2007, while Grosjean flattered to deceive last year. Bruno Senna did a reasonable job in GP2 last year, but in the end, despite driving for 2007 champions ISport, he was beaten by veteran Giorgio Pantano. A man who has already been found wanting at the highest level. ABout the best that can be said for any of these drivers is that it is not clear that Sebastien Buemi deserves an F1 drive ahead of them.

These things tend to come in waves. Between 2000 and 2002, many major new talents arrived in the sport - Raikkonen, Alonso, Massa, Button, Webber. Then, for several years, no major new drivers appeared. Drivers like Da Matta, Wilson, Albers and Karthikayen came and went. Then, between 2006 and 2008, a new generation of drivers, in particular, Robert Kubica, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have burst onto the scene. In a few years, yet another new generation will appear...

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Anonymous Alianora La Canta said...

I wonder if the lifting of the ban on Red Bull sales in France a few months back had anything to do with it. In the context of the current world finance situation, it may well be Red Bull's biggest growth area and promotion would surely be helped with a French driver on board. A dollar gained from sales within Red Bull is as good as a dollar gained from a new sponsor, so that would have been in Sebastien's favour.

Everything you said in the post is true, however, and even without the new market, Bourdais was a good choice.

5:16 PM  

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