Monday, February 22, 2010

New Kids On The Block

Last year, it seemed that the in-season testing ban, combined with the severe restrictions on race-weekend mileage imposed by the limits on engines and gearboxes that a team could use over the course of a season, had together frightened F1 teams away from hiring drivers without previous F1 experience. Doubtless, there was a fear that the lack of opportunity for drivers to get seat time in a Grand Prix car would seriously hamper any newcomers and Toro Rosso were alone in turning up at Melbourne last year with a driver who had never taken a Grand Prix start before - Sebastien Buemi. Others came in over the course of the year, as first Toro Rosso and then Renault became disillusioned with the drivers they had started the year with and replaced Sebastien Bourdais with British F3 champion, Jaime Alguersuari and Nelson Piquet Jr with Romain Grosjean, while Toyota drafted Kamui Kobayashi to fill in for an apparently injured Timo Glock but in comparison with previous years, last season was not a vintage one for fresh talent.

This year, though, there will be at least three drivers making their F1 debut in Bahrain in just over two weeks time, and possibly more if Campos, Stefan GP or USF1 defy the odds and make it to the grid this year. The three drivers who will definitely be there are the men who finished first, second and third in this year's GP2 championship, Nico Hulkenberg, Vitaly Petrov and Lucas Di Grassi.

Forced to pick one of these three as the man most likely to establish himself as a real star of the sport, I'd have to choose Willi Weber's latest protege, Hulkenberg. He is, after all, managed by the man who plucked one Michael Schumacher from obscurity, but more importantly than that, he won last year's GP2 championship fairly convincingly at his first attempt, despite the fact that most of his rivals were in their second or third year in the category, and comprehensively overshadowed his team mate Pastor Maldonado, who had been thought one of the fastest drivers in the series. He's also a previous winner of the F3 Euroseries, and helped Germany to the A1GP title back in 2006/07, while still a teenager.

The Williams seat looks like a good bet for the youngster too. The Williams FW32 should be competitive enough for him to show what he's capable of, but not so quick that he'll face the presssure of being thrown straight into a potentially title-winning team while he's still learning the ropes (although this didn't seem to do Lewis Hamilton any harm). In Rubens Barrichello, he's got a team mate who is vastly experienced, knows how to set up and develop a car, and who is fast enough that beating him will gain him credibility in the paddock, but who, crucially, is now going into his 18th season in the sport and who is almost certainly not quite as quick as he used to be. If Hulkenberg is really as good as his junior career suggests, he should be able to get the better of Barrichello from time to time, at least by the second half of the season.

The man whom he beat to the GP2 title, Russia's first F1 driver, Vitaly Petrov, will have a harder time at Renault. The Renault R30 is, on the balance of probabilities, likely to be about as competitive as the Williams, but if you were a young driver going into his first F1 season and you were given the choice, you'd probably prefer to be paired up with Barrichello than with Robert Kubica, a man whom many (including myself) see as being in the same league as champions Alonso and Hamilton. And that's before you take into account the fact that the second Renault has proven to have been something of a poisoned chalice. Add to that the fact that, unlike Hulkenberg or Di Grassi, he has little previous F1 testing experience, and he faces a very steep learning curve indeed. Perhaps the fact that Petrov Sr. is reported to be putting up £10m for his son's drove will ensure that he gets a decent shot.

But even if he does, is he quick? It's hard to say. When he arrived in GP2 back in the middle of 2006 he appeared to be a rich kid who was desperately out of his depth - perhaps not surprising when you consider that he had little single-seater experience beyond 'Formula Lada Revolution', whatever that may be. He stuck at it and learned the ropes, though, winning his first race in 2007, becoming a more regular front-runner in 2008 and finishing runner-up last year, something which suggests that, whether or not he's really from the very top drawer, he knows roughly what he's doing. And when you consider that he's a late starter, considerably less experienced than most racing drivers of his 25 years, he could yet turn out to be better than his junior career has suggested. There's no doubt he got the drive ahead of more obviously qualified candidates thanks to Daddy's millions, but it's now up to him to prove he deserves to be thought of as more than just a pay-driver.

Lucas Di Grassi wound up third in last year's GP2 championship and is the final member of this year's rookie trio. The Virgin VR01 is a rather less enticing prospect than a Williams or a Renault drive, but the vast pool of young drivers chasing a small number of race seats, an ambitious young hopeful would probably be well advised to take any seat going. And he might be feeling very glad he didn't sign for USF1 or Campos right now. Di Grassi has never struck me as being a really quick driver, a decent journeyman, but not someone whom I'd expect to see emerge as a regular race winner. In GP2 he's always been there or thereabouts, somewhere near the front, but even in the year he spent with multiple title winners ART, he never established himself as a regular winner.

It was a steady points-scoring approach that enabled him to come close to snatching the 2007 title from his Virgin team mate, Timo Glock, but the German driver always looked a good deal quicker, and frankly it would have been a travesty had Di Grassi snatched the title from under his nose simply because his ART machine never broke... He was reported to have been well respected as a development driver when he was a tester at Renault, though, and that could turn out to be more important than those last couple of tenths of outright pace in his new role at Virgin. On the plus side, the car hasn't looked too slow out of the box at Jerez, and it looks as though Nick Wirth's gamble on building a car without reference to a wind-tunnel just might pay off, but so far, the car has proven woefully unreliable.

If he wants to establish a long term future in F1, Di Grassi will have to do what he couldn't do in GP2 and get on terms with Timo Glock. In the first half of the year, he might be given the benefit of the doubt, but F1 is an unforgiving world and if he isn't matching Glock by the second half of 2010, he'll never be anything more than a journeyman in the eyes of the Grand Prix paddock. His task is the same as that facing Hulkenberg, and most dauntingly, Petrov, to get on terms with a much more experienced team mate. It's asking a lot, but since Lewis Hamilton rewrote the rules as far as what can be expected of a talented newcomer, anything less may not be enough.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Money Talks

A couple of years back, I remember stumbling upon the quite startling claim that the cost of Lewis Hamilton's junior career - from karts to GP2, was on the order of £3mIt's a quite incredible sum of money, and gives some indication of the scale of the obstacles facing a promising teenage karting star who has his eyes set on Grand Prix stardom.

In short, the costs involved in competing in the junior formulae, be it Formula Renault, Formula 3, Formula 2 or GP2, far exceed any sensible estimate of the commercial value to be had in sponsoring a team or driver at that level. A season in British F3, for example, is reputed to cost well north of half a million pounds for a competitive seat, and yet the media coverage and wider public awareness of racing at that level in minimal. Certainly not so great as to be worth spending half a million pounds to have your company's corporate logo emblazoned upon the side of some young gun's car. Millions of potential customers are not going to become aware of your product because it's name is on the side of an F3 car.

So how do racing drivers do it? In many cases, the answer is straightforward - the young racing driver has the backing of vast family wealth. Ever since the earliest days of motor racing, it has been to a significant extent the plaything of the immensely wealthy. In the pre-war days, that might have been the Counts and Lords of the landed aristocracy where these days it is more likely to be the sons of entrepreneurs and city traders. Take for example, Ayrton Senna, the son of a wealthy Brazilian landowner, Niki Lauda, the scion of one of the major movers in the Austrian financial industry, Nelson Piquet, whose father was a senior Government Minister, or, going back further, Stirling Moss, whose father's dental business was sufficiently successful to enable him to buy Stirling a Maserati F1 car to kick-start his career in the sport.

It's not something which has changed. Look at the sponsors adorning the sides of many a young hopeful's F3 or GP2 car and you will see the names of businesses and products with family connections to the driver. Think, for instance, of the Medley Pharmaceuticals logos on anything Xandi Negrao raced, the Conway Engineering stickers on Mike Conway's cars, or the Jelson Builders backing for Stephen Jelley's motorsports exploits. Sometimes it's not quite so obvious, but the backing offered by everyone from Eternit to Highland Spring for David Coulthard's early career is easier to understand when you realise that all these businesses made extensive use of Duncan Coulthard's freight company.

And yet, and yet... Look into the background of the any of the real stars of the last fifteen years or so, Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, Mika Hakkinen or Lewis Hamilton, and it becomes apparent that they were from ordinary working or middle class families and could never have written their own cheques for GP2 or F3 rides. In fact, it's arguable that Ayrton Senna was the last real star of the sport to have come from a background of serious wealth (though I have to confess to being a little hazy as to Jenson Button's back story).

That's not to say that there haven't been an awful lot of moneyed young men in F1 since then, but for the most part, they haven't been quite at the very front, they haven't been the ones to have won World Championships. The aforementioned Coulthard, for example, won plenty of Grands Prix during his time at Mclaren, but was never quite the match of either Hakkinen or Raikkonen when he was teamed up with them. Is it mere coincidence? Or is it simply that, with rare exceptions like Ayrton Senna, those who grew up in opulent, wealthy surroundings are unlikely to have the killer instinct, the determination, which those who have had to fight tooth and nail just to get themselves into motorsport in the first place?

How did they do it? No two of the motorsport's front runners got there in exactly the same way, but the long and short of it is that all were funded to a significant degree by either an entrepreneurial driver manager with an eye on a share of that driver's future earning potential, or by a team, of more commonly, a motor manufacturer, wanting to have first call on that driver's talents at a future date. Michael Schumacher, the bricklayer's son, was the beneficiary of both - the wealthy hotelier Willi Weber helped him on his way, and then Mercedes, for whose sportscar team he drove, bought him his first F1 drive. Fernando Alonso, whose father was an explosives technician in the quarrying industry, was picked up early by Flavio Briatore, a man who has done remarkably well for himself as a manager of young drivers given his professed lack of interest in the nuts and bolts of the sport.

Kimi Raikkonen had perhaps the most unusual route to the top of the lot, being managed by the father and son team of Steve and Dave Robertson, who talked Peter Sauber into giving the young Finn a drive after just a single season of Formula Renault and a few Formula Ford races, at a time when he was the veteran of only 23 car races. Hamilton, by contrast, was perhaps the best-groomed F1 debutant in the history of the sport. As is well known, he was picked out by Ron Dennis while he was still in his early teens, and a karting star and had the full weight of the Mclaren team behind his junior career. Of the other current F1 front-runners, Mark Webber is another who had help from Briatore, while Sebastian Vettel had backing from both the Red Bull and BMW junior programmes and Robert Kubica was helped by the Renault Young Driver Programme - appropriately enough, as he has now wound up driving for the team this year.

It's fair to say, I think, that not one of those drivers could have paid their own way in their junior racing days, and it is perhaps the widespread existence of junior programmes and mercenary managers prepared to invest their own cash in a driver who has caught their eye, which explains how it is that the current F1 grid has perhaps greater strength in depth than any in the sport's history.

And I wonder if it just might turn out to be the high-water mark. The global recession has forced most of the car manufacturers out of the sport and resulted in the slashing of team budgets. The departure of Toyota and BMW has meant the end of their junior programmes, and surviving teams have little cash spare for that sort of luxury. The economic downturn will have had a double negative impact on anyone hoping to rely on the largesse of a gambling entrepreneur like Weber or the Robertsons - men willing to fund promising but penniless youngsters in exchange for a cut of their future earnings if they make it big. Firstly, such people will be thinner on the ground in the first place, and may have less money, but secondly, the knock-on effect of the economic crash has been to reduce the amount of money sloshing around in F1 and by extension, the kind of salaries that the top drivers can command.

All well and good from one perspective. I can't help feeling that something has gone wrong in the world when the likes of Raikkonen or Schumacher can command tens of millions just for driving cars - no matter how good they may be at it. Unfortunately, though, unless it is accompanied by a fall in the cost of competing in the junior formulae, it could have the effect of making it hard for all but the independently wealthy to raise the kind of cash required to compete in GP2. Given the long odds that any particular youngster will turn out to be the new Schumacher, a significant reduction in the kind of sums that even a new Schumacher could earn might make any young star appear a rather less enticing investment opportunity. And that's before one considers that, increasingly, novice F1 drivers are being expected to bring money to cash-strapped teams, rather than draw a salary. See, for example, Petrov and Renault, or (so it is rumoured) Kobayashi and Sauber, let alone those being lined up to drive for Campos and USF1, should they make the grid at all.

Perversely, then, the effect of big money's disappearance from the sport could end up being to lessen the overall quality of the field, by making it harder from quick youngsters without the backing of family wealth, from ordinary backgrounds, to take on the gilded youth of the world's super-rich. A return, in many ways, to the sport's early days. I hope I'm wrong...

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Sunday, February 07, 2010

Up and Coming...

The motor racing season never really ends these days. Time was, not so long ago, when between early November and mid-March, there was a four month dead period in which there was only the Monte Carlo and Swedish rallies and the Daytona 24 Hours to keep race fans distracted. Then along came the GP2 Asia and A1GP series and ensured for a time that the single seater calendar was a 12 month affair.

I was never too sure quite where the money for A1GP was coming from, and with the series hitting the financial skids at the end of last year, it seems perhaps that the money was never really coming from anywhere. The GP2 Asia series, though, is just about keeping its head above the water and the second round of that championship at Abu Dhabi last weekend was the first major event of the single seater racing year. Regular readers will know that I'm somewhat sceptical about the merits of the GP2Asia series as a championship, and that the vast majority of the serious runners appear to treat it as an extended test for the GP2 championship proper, which will get underway later in the year but feeling starved of on-track action, I tuned in all the same.

Thanks to Eurosport's innovative EurosportPlayer software (which has a very reasonable subscription cost of £4/month, worth it for their fantastic coverage of the Monte Carlo Rally on its own!) I was able to follow the event online. The racing was reasonably entertaining, with ISport team mates Oliver Turvey and Davide Valsecchi duking it out for victory in the first race and Charles Pic and Jules Bianchi putting in aggressive drives from the back in race two, showing that overtaking in a modern powerful single seater may be difficult, but its not impossible. On the other hand, with the benefit of reflection I'm not any keener on the new Abu Dhabi circuit than I was when it first appeared on our screens at the end of last year. There are worse race circuits in the world, but given the sheer amount of money spent on the place, it would have been good to have some more elevation change, rather than a glow in the dark hotel that reminds me of nothing so much as the Bullring in Birmingham city centre. That said, it is at least a circuit on which passing is just about possible, and the mile long main straight followed by a very slow slightly more than 90 degree left provided its fair share of action.

Really, though, the main reason to follow GP2 Asia is that it just might give us some hints as to what to expect in the GP2 series proper, and by extension, who might be appearing on the F1 team bosses' radar over the next year or two. Where F3000 ended up being a bit of a dead end for aspiring young racing drivers, GP2's record has been much more promising on this score. Of the series' champions, only Giorgio Pantano, who it could be argued had already been given his chance, did not go on to drive in F1, and other frontrunners, including the two GP2Asia champions, Romain Grosjean and Kamui Kobayashi and series runners up Kovalainen, Piquet and now (with the help of Daddy's millions, admittedly) Vitaly Petrov have secured Grand Prix drives, albeit with varying degrees of subsequent success. And if Campos Meta make it to the grid, one can add 2008 runner-up Bruno Senna to this list to complete the set.

So, on the basis of last weekend, who might be in the running for the 2010 Championship? Despite putting in the best performance of his career to finish second in the Sunday sprint race, I expect that Romanian/Belgian Michael Herck and his family-run team will be more than minor point scorers. Sunday's winner, Davide Valsecchi, on the other hand, is a more intriguing prospect. He's been around in GP2 for a couple of years now, and hadn't exactly stood out prior to the races in Abu Dhabi, but the Durango team for which he drove were hardly front-runners, so his two wins for the team (one in GP2 proper, and on in GP2 Asia) perhaps suggest a driver punching above his weight. With ISport for 2010, he'll have no excuses now.

One thing he'll have to do is beat his team mate and Saturday Feature Race winner, Oliver Turvey. Turvey was narrowly beaten to the British F3 championship a couple of years back by Jaime Alguersuari, but his form improved notably once he'd got his University finals out of the way and by the end of the year he looked quicker than the man who did win the title. He was generally a shade quicker than Alguersuari when they were paired up in the Renault World Series, come to that. With top level motorsport an immensely technical discipline, having a good engineering degree won't do him any harm either. Against Valsecchi, he'll be at a disadvantage in that this will be his first year in GP2 and he won't necessarily know all the circuits or be as familiar with the car. On the other hand, Nico Hulkenberg this year demonstrated that if you're quick enough, that shouldn't matter and Valsecchi aside, most of the other potential front-runners will be in their first year too.

One of those, on the basis of his previous record, the fact he'll be driving for 3 time champion team ART, and the fighting drive he put in last weekend, is F3 Euroseries winner, Jules Bianchi. Bianchi, like Hulkenberg and Hamilton before him, arrives in GP2 with ART, having won the Euroseries the year before and must therefore be considered one of the favourites to win the series. Last weekend, in his first GP2 drive, he picked up a podium in race one and then, perhaps even more impressive, drove through the field after starting dead last, having stalled on the dummy grid, to finish seventh, passing people left, right and centre as he did so.

If Bianchi goes in as an obvious favourite, his compatriot, Charles Pic was not a man who had much impinged upon my consciousness prior to this weekend. All I knew of him was that he had won the odd Renault World Series race, though he had been around there for a couple of years. He didn't stand out in the first round of the series, last year, but this time round, he grabbed pole in the hitherto unfancied Arden car and would probably have finished in the top three or four had he not been punted off the road by Luca Filippi at around half distance. In the second race, he was again impressive in the way he cut through the field from the back, if not to quite the same extent as Jules Bianchi. Whether this was a one-off weekend from Pic, or whether he's going to be a future star, only time will tell.

Anyone else? Well American Formula BMW graduate Alexander Rossi looked pretty handy in the second Meritus car, though he didn't appear to be quite able to live with the very fastest drivers in the field. I'd not heard of Vladimir Arabdazhiev before last weekend, but the Bulgarian looked pretty racey with the new Rapax team, and certainly when set against his countryman, Plamen Kralev who keeps up Trident Racing's reputation for being willing to take on anyone prepared to offer them cash to play at being a racing driver for a few weekends. Marcus Ericsson (previously championed here, some 2 years back) has shown flashes of pace, though whether his SuperNova team will be in a position to threaten the front runners remains to be seen.

So, will these drivers all make their way to the F1 grid? At the first race of 2012, in Bahrain, or Australia, or who knows where, will Valsecchi, Turvey, Bianchi, Pic, Ericsson and Rossi all be there? Almost certainly not. There will be others, in the more junior formulae right now, most likely, who will emerge and have a stronger claim on a shot at Grand Prix superstardom than some of these. And some will disappoint. Remember how quick Asmer looked until he got to GP2? Or how Pastor Maldonado showed early promise only to be comprehensively destroyed by the less experienced Hulkenberg when they were paired up at ART last year? All the same, I'd be very surprised if one or two of the above didn't make it to F1 over the next couple of years. Most likely? Forced to choose, Jules Bianchi looks the most promising of the bunch. With the champion team, if he proves as quick as he looked to be in F3, and with a Ferrari testing contract already in his pocket, I'd be surprised if he's not going places...

Endnote - 144 characters? Can you really say anything worthwhile in 144 characters? As someone with a tendency towards the verbose, Twitter is probably not for me. But I've decided to succumb, all the same, and Motorsports Ramblings now has its very own twitter feed...

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