Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Winter Testing

The idea of instituting stringent restrictions on testing in F1, in order to save money, has perhaps been one of the most effective cost-saving measures to have emerged from the work of the FIA and FOTA to save the sport from financial suicide. I remember, not so many years ago, when it seemed that every weekend there wasn't a race, there was a test going on somewhere. The test ban might also have had the incidental benefit of shaking up the established order in the sport, or at least making the individual races a little less predictable. Without time to test new parts and ruthlessly optimise aero-packages and setup for every circuit, there seemed this year to be a slightly more of a random aspect to the performance of individual teams at particular tracks. Without having had the chance to test exhaustively any new parts, and with the radical rules shake-up rendering previous years' experience less useful than it might have been, there was a greater variation in teams' performances from race to race.

No bad thing in my book. A dose of unpredictability helped to keep my interest up during a season in which the actual quality of the racing didn't really stand out. There were an awful lot of high-speed processions. The problem with the testing ban was that it put new drivers at a severe disadvantage. Where in the past anyone making their F1 debut would have had the luxury of having spent endless hours pounding round the Circuit di Catalunya or Jerez, two drivers making their debut in the middle of this year's season had tested an F1 car only briefly, and in a straight line. Of the others, Romain Grosjean, drafted in to replace Nelson Piquet Jr, had almost no experience of the 2009-spec slick-tyred, smaller winged F1 cars and Sebastien Buemi, the only one to have the luxury of a full winter testing schedule, looked far and away the strongest.

So the institution of a 'young drivers' test at Jerez this week, where drivers with more than 3 Grands Prix under their belt are barred from participating, is a long overdue move. It would probably have been helpful to have such an event during the season, but at least now the teams are being given an opportunity to evaluate potential stars without losing out on valuable testing mileage which a more experienced driver would be able to put to much better use. By forcing all teams to use drivers with little previous GP experience, teams are forced to use inexperienced drivers if they want to test at all, and youngsters are given a chance (the exception, to some extent, was Mclaren, who, in Gary Paffett, ran a man whos is a very experienced test driver who just happens never to have taken a Grand Prix start.)

So, who was in action, and who might we be seeing again? The champions of all the major sub-F1 single seater series were there in some capacity or another. Of those, GP2 Champion Nico Hulkenberg is the only one with a guaranteed race drive, with Williams next year, but arguably the man who is really in the pound seats is F3 Euroseries Champion Jules Bianchi, who has done enough in his first day in a Ferrari to get a long-term deal with the team. F2 Champion Andy Soucek, whom I have long thought was better than his GP2 results suggested, ended up quickest in his day with Williams. It's difficult to know how much to read into the times - how much of that came from the driver, how much from the car, and how much from the fuel load and programme he was on? Hard to know, but he's done himself no harm by topping the timesheets in his first F1 test in four years.

Headline writer's dream Bertrand Baguette got a Renault test as his prize for winning the Renault World Series this year. He wasn't particularly quick, but the Renault was not a particularly quick F1 car this year (I still think it was made to look rather better than it was by Fernando Alonso - and even in his hands it didn't exactly look fast). He did enough to earn a run with Sauber tomorrow, though that test will be worth a lot more if the Swiss team get a slot on the 2010 grid (Toyota really ought to do the decent thing and pass their team's slot to Peter Sauber's men rather than the worryingly Qadbak-esque Stefan GP outfit). It's hard to know what to make of him, not least because it took him no less than three attempts to come to the fore in the Formula Renault Series, and generally, the reallty special drivers don't need that long. That said, there are a lot of unfilled seats on the F1 grid just now.... Indy Lights champion JR Hildebrand got a test with Force India after - depending on who you believe - outshining Neel Jani and Karun Chandhok in the simulator, or writing a larger cheque. He didn't come close to the pace of Paul Di Resta, who wound up second on the opening day and - though its always dangerous to read too much into testing times - looks a good bet for an F1 ride somewhere in 2010.

Finally, British and Italian F3 champions Daniel Ricciardo and Daniel Zampieri have been handed testing opportunities at Red Bull and Ferrari respectively. At the time of writing, Zampieri has yet to get any seat time, but Ricciardo has looked promising in the Red Bull - perhaps the soft drinks manufacturer has plucked the wrong British F3 champion for its junior team. Although we didn't get to see how quick Alguersuari might have been in the same conditions.

It was harder to fathom what lay behind the appearance of some of the other drivers at the test this week. Mercedes/Brawn ran Mike Conway - last seen plying his trade in the IRL, and Marcus Ericsson, who, after looking very special in Formula BMW a few years back, has rather faded after a poor year in British F3 in 2008 where he failed to win a single race. One rather doubts that either man will end up partnering Nico Rosberg, so I can only guess that, in the absence of an established Mercedes junior programme, they were simply looking for experienced single seater drivers to help them concentrate on developing the car.

Brendon Hartley's continued placement in the Red Bull Junior programme rather baffles me. Yes, he was decently quick in British F3 in 2008, but he was beaten there by Alguersuari and Turvey. He split his time between the Euroseries and Formula Renault this year, but did nothing of any note in either. He spun the Toro Rosso on Tuesday and sat at the bottom of the timesheets. In his defence, Mirko Bortolotti, another Red Bull junior, was no quicker in the same car the day after - whether this is indicative of the limitations of the Toro Rosso, or of the Red Bull Junior Programme, I couldn't say. What price Ricciardo in the race seat next year?

In some ways, one of the most interesting questions concerns the fate of those drivers not present at Jerez this weekend. There are a good number of drivers who could be considered suitable candidates for the seats at Campos Meta, Manor, Lotus and USF1, who were not selected to test by any of the established teams. A1GP champion Adam Carroll has been talking optimistically of a race seat next year. GP2 front-runner Vitaly Petrov is said to have vast amounts of cash to spend and looked decently quick in the Barwa Campos car. Charles Pic has been there or thereabouts in the Renault World Series for a couple of years and is from a wealthy background, so might appeal to teams needing a driver who brings a budget. And there are a few drivers who have been sitting on the sidelines who really ought to be in the frame. I might sound like a stuck record on the subject, but Anthony Davidson showed flashes of brilliance in his year at Super Aguri, and Takuma Sato is a known quantity who is something of a folk hero in the Japanese motorsport world. And then there's Kamui Kobayashi - not someone I would have considered an F1 prospect until he got in the Toyota at the end of the 2009 season and was instantly on Jarno Trulli's pace.

In all truth, I rather sympathise with F1 team bosses with unfilled seats, facing the question of deciding who to put in their cars next year. Assuming that you don't have millions to tempt Kimi Raikkonen out of retirement (and only Mercedes might be in a position to do so) it strikes me that there are an awful lot of decent, solid number two-type drivers up for grabs, and a good number of junior racers who show signs of promise...people who might well have what it takes if they are given the chance. But on the downside, there isn't really anyone who stands out, head and shoulders above the rest, as a really outstanding talent. Yes, Hulkenberg was quick in GP2 (though he's already contracted to Williams) and Bianchi dominated in the Euroseries, but they were with the stand-out team. Yes, Soucek
romped home in F2, where the cars are centrally run and more equal than in any other single-seater category, but who exactly was he beating? And Baguette won convincingly in the Renault World Series, but when Fairuz Fauzy could finish second, does that suggest the standard of driver wasn't that high. And why has it taken him so long to become competitive there? And how accurate a barometer of ultimate potential is junior formula success, when a guy like Kamui Kobayashi, a midfielder in GP2, can come into F1 and look much more comfortable and confident than frontrunners in that category like Romain Grosjean and Nelson Piquet Jr. And that's the dilemma facing you before you even start thinking about who can bring a budget to ensure you have the money to get on the grid...

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