Wednesday, December 30, 2009

One Last Time

One of the odd things about life as a professional sportsman is that, as you hit your early 30s, just as your contemporaries in more pedestrian walks of life might be finding their careers shifting into gear, your own professional life will be beginning to head inexorably downhill. Depending on your sport, your level of physical fitness and, to be blunt, how much you really want to do it, you might go on into your late 30s, but, goalkeepers and golfers aside, there are very few sports stars the far side of 40.

The trouble is, what do you do next? If you're one of the special few who were amongst the very greatest of your generation at your chosen sport, there is every chance that you won't have any financial imperative to work, but putting your feet up for the next forty years is not going to appeal to everyone - and certainly not the kind of highly driven, motivated people who reach the highest echelons of professional sport. But at the same time, there must be the nagging fear that, whatever you turn your hand to, you are unlikely to be as successful, as exceptional, as you were at whatever it was that had brought you such fame and success in your youth. Yes, there are exceptions - Kenny Dalgleish has been as successful as a football manager as he was as a player, but the experience of four time World Champion Alain Prost with his hapless F1 team was perhaps closer to the norm for sports stars going into team management or similar such ventures. As a recent Guardian article noted, an awful lot of sports stars struggle to work out what to do with their lives after retirement.

It is a problem which I rather suspect Michael Schumacher has been wrestling with since he retired at the end of 2006. I wondered at the time whether he might simply walk away from the sport and never been seen or heard of again. He never gave the impression, while he was racing, of having any great, all-consuming passion for motor racing, as opposed to for competing. Yet as it has turned out, he has been a regular presence on the pitwall at Ferrari since his retirement. Quite what was his actual role there was never terribly clear to me. Mentor to Felipe Massa? Tactical adviser? Or simply a highly decorated hanger-on? It left the impression that he had realised, in retrospect, that he had walked away from the sport too soon, and without a clear idea of what he was to do next.

The aborted comeback last year to stand in for the injured Massa added to my belief that, while he might be behind the pitwall, really he felt his place was still behind the wheel. But at 40, and with Fernando Alonso offering his services to Maranello from 2010, he was not the future as far as the team which had once been his own, Ferrari, was concerned. It seemed that Michael would simply have to learn to live with his decision to retire - the F1 world had moved on, and team bosses, or at least those running cars capable of winning Grands Prix, were now more interested in children of the 1980s - Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso, Kubica, than in giving a man in his early 40s a chance to relive his glory days.

But then, of course, Jenson Button unexpectedly walked away from his drive with title-winners, Brawn, to join Lewis Hamilton at Mclaren, and Mercedes, the team who had paid for Schumacher's first F1 drive, all the way back in the late summer of 1991, bought the team from Ross Brawn. It is widely rumoured that Mercedes are angling for Sebastian Vettel in the long term, but with Barrichello having already left the team for Williams, that left a vacant seat alongside Nico Rosberg for 2010. With all the very top drivers, aside from Kimi Raikkonen, having already been signed up for 2010, it was an ideal opening for Michael. The Mercedes car will be based on the machine which won the title for Button this year and, while they probably won't enjoy the kind of advantage they had in 2009, there is every chance that they will still be front-runners. A chance to come back for one last go, to reunite with Ross Brawn, and to show the new generation of F1 stars that he can still perform...

But can he? Some question whether a man in his 40s can have the physical fitness to be truly competitive in F1, perhaps recalling Nigel Mansell's rather embarassing comeback with Mclaren at the age of 42 in 1995. Myself, I doubt this will be a problem. Schumacher was always amongst the very fittest drivers on the grid, and if Lance Armstrong can run competitively in the vastly more physically demanding Tour De France at the age of 39, Schumacher ought to be able to cope with the stresses of racing an F1 car.

On the other hand, I do wonder if he can overcome the race-rustiness that must have set in during his three year break from the sport. We saw just how badly this affected Luca Badoer when he stood in for Felipe Massa at Ferrari last summer, and while Badoer was never a driver in Schumacher's class, and he had been out of racing for a much longer period of time, I still think that he might struggle to find that last few per-cent of performance that he was able to access before his retirement. He is fortunate in that, in Nico Rosberg, he has a good barometer for his performance - Rosberg is quick enough that Schumacher will need to be reasonably near the top of his game, but not so quick that, if he really is still as quick as he was at his peak, he would cause him any trouble.

Those who have been reading this blog for a while will know that I was no great fan of Michael Schumacher. He was undoubtedly a huge talent, but I felt he resorted to tactics and gamesmanship which were unbecoming of one with his enormous natural ability, and I was never impressed by the fact that, it is widely reputed at least, that he had it stipulated in his contract that his team mates could not race him. On the other hand, I'm looking forward to seeing him back in F1 this year, not so much because I've missed him over the last three years, but because I'm genuinely curious to know whether, three years out of the sport, and now in his early 40s, Schumacher still has what it takes. Hamilton in a Mclaren, against Alonso in a Ferrari, against Schumacher in a Mercedes. Oh, and Vettel in a Red Bull. 2010 just mught be very special indeed.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Unanswerable Questions

There have been a fair few attempts by various publications over the years to compile lists of the "best ever" racing drivers. It arises out of the same urge to categorise, list and order that drives newspapers and magazines to put together lists of "the 50 best albums of 2009" and "1000 novels everyone must read" or, mea culpa, "the 10 best drivers of 2009". It's an urge Nick Hornby satirised well in High Fidelity. A couple of weeks ago, Autosport Magazine produced yet another.

What makes the Autosport list more interesting than most such lists is that it was put together by asking the drivers themselves - every living Grand Prix driver they could find. They got 217 responses - probably not much more than a quarter of those eligible to vote but a very decent number all the same. Their list strikes me as no more or less valid than any of the others, though. Was Senna better than Schumacher? Were both of them better than Fangio? Was Clark a greater driver than Moss? Or Mansell than Alonso?

The trouble is, such polls ask an impossible question. It is difficult enough to assess the relative merits of drivers who raced against each other. A quick look on any internet forum to see the arguments raging about the relative merits of Alonso, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Kubica and Massa is enough to demonstrate this. Even when the drivers are in the same cars, as Prost and Senna were at Mclaren in the late 1980s, or Alonso and Hamilton were in 2007, it is hard to find agreement as to who was ultimately the better driver.

Such judgments are always in part a matter of opinion. Senna and Prost won a title apiece when they were at Mclaren together. The Brazilian was usually faster, at least over a single lap, but was it that very pace which was responsible for his higher error-rate than the Frenchman? And how to assess Alonso and Hamilton? On the one hand, Hamilton went in as a 22 year old rookie and quickly matched his double-champion team mate - which suggests advantage Hamilton. Set against that, Hamilton was a Mclaren man through and through, from his earliest years, while Alonso was always something of a paid mercenary. Perhaps the Spaniard did well to match Hamilton in a team that was fast moulding itself around the young Englishman.

Where drivers have raced against each other, there is at least the possibility of making a meaningful comparison. On the other hand, assessing the relative merits of drivers who raced half a century apart - Moss and Fangio versus Alonso or Schumacher, strikes me as a fool's errand. How to assess drivers who never raced each other, who competed in fundamentally different contexts, in very different machinery. Is 2009 World Champion Jenson Button a greater driver than 1950 Champion, Guiseppe Farina? How on earth would you decide? (The drivers, incidentally, appear to think so - rating Button the 30th greatest of all time, and Farina, 32nd).

It is perhaps more meaningful to compare the relative merits of different generations of drivers as cohorts, than as individuals. There are essentially two convincing and contradictory arguments here. The first is that the drivers of the 50s and 60s were much greater, because what they were doing was fundamentally more difficult and dangerous. They didn't have endless testing, well-honed aerodynamically advanced cars that appear to be on rails, and the knowledge that, if they do make a mistake, the worst that awaits is an embarassing walk back to the pitlane. The cars were (probably) more difficult to drive, the consequences of a mistake much more grave and circuits like the old Nurburgring much more challenging than the glittering taste-free zone of the Yas Marina circuit at Abu Dhabi. On this basis, you might argue that such as Schumacher and Senna had no business being rated higher than Clark or Fangio.

The counter-argument is that the greats of yesteryear were big fish in a small pond. In the early years of the Formula 1 World Championship, the pool of talent from which the stars were drawn was much smaller. It was possible for a wealthy amateur to buy himself onto the F1 grid with relative ease, and a good half of the field could hardly be considered to be serious professionals, especially in the 1950s. Thus such as Moss and Fangio might have looked so good because there wasn't really any strength in depth in the F1 grid these days. Compare and contrast with today, where even the weakest F1 drivers - such as Kazuki Nakajima and Nelson Piquet Jr, have come up through intensely competitive junior formulae, with Piquet an F3 Champion and GP2 runner-up and Nakajima a consistent GP2 frontrunner. The leading drivers in F1 today, the Alonsos, Hamiltons, Kubicas and Massas, have proven themselves the stand-out prospects among thousands of aspiring young single-seater racers, and perhaps tens of thousands of karters (after all, if, as a thirteen year old, you showed no aptitude as a karter, what chance any but the most indulgent of rich parents would fund your junior single-seater career?). On that basis, the drivers of yesteryear don't bear serious comparison with today's stars.

The truth almost certainly lies somewhere in-between. Two competing forces have been at work over the years since the F1 World Championship began in 1950, with the pool of challengers growing ever larger and more fiercely competitive, even as the scale of the challenge itself has diminished. Have these factors balanced themselves out exactly, ensuring that meaningful comparison between the generations is possible? That being the class of the field in 1969 was no more or less of an achievement than being the best in 2009? That's a question which can never be answered with any certainty.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

When Good Isn't Good Enough

No driver announced his retirement at the end of the last race of the 2009 season in Abu Dhabi, and it should perhaps therefore be assumed that, at the time at least. every one of the 20 drivers on the grid for that race wanted to be back in five months time when the F1 circus reconvenes in the sands of Bahrain. We have since learned that Kimi Raikkonen has opted to turn down whatever Mclaren were prepared to offer him in favour of driving a Citroen C4 in the World Rally Championship, but every other driver in the field appears intent on continuing their career in the sport.

The vast majority of them have drives in place, though I would be very surprised if Kazuki Nakajima reappeared, now that his long-time patrons, Toyota, have pulled the plug on their F1 team. For similar reasons, it is far from clear that we will see anything more of Kamui Kobayashi, which is a shame because he looked rather handy in his two races for the Japanese team at the end of the season. It’s far from clear whether Renault will be back on the grid next year either, but if they are, I would be very surprised if Romain Grosjean were back in the car after his lacklustre showings with the team this year.

Of the remaining established drivers, though, those with several seasons to their name, only Nick Heidfeld and Giancarlo Fisichella are without drives for 2010. While it seems more likely than not that Heidfeld will find a berth, either at the new Mercedes team or at Sauber if Michael Schumacher really is coming back to F1 with the German squad, it appears that Fisichella’s long F1 career might finally have reached its end.

Giancarlo Fisichella has been around in F1 for a very long time now and he’s one of very few drivers on the grid during 2009 who had experience of the previous generation of slick-tyred Grand Prix cars. In fact, with 231 races over 14 seasons in the sport, he is the fifth most experienced driver of all time, with only Barrichello, Patrese, Michael Schumacher and Coulthard having taken more starts. But what to make of those 14 long years? What did he achieve?

He came into the sport with Minardi in 1996, as an Italian F3 champion who had been driving for Alfa Romeo in the predecessor series to the current DTM, the ITC. The 1996 Minardi, only a minor re-working of the previous year’s car, which itself hardly set the world alight, was not a car in which anyone was going to be able to put in giant-killing performances, but Fisichella was generally quicker than his more experienced team mate, Pedro Lamy. It wasn’t enough to prevent him being moved aside to make way for the hapless but moneyed Giovanni Lavaggi when Minardi’s precarious financial state got really bad. He did enough, though, to attract the attentions of one Eddie Jordan, and for 1997, he was paired up with newcomer Ralf Schumacher in a Jordan Peugeot, where he instantly made an impression. The highlight of his second year in the sport was a second place at Spa in a wet-dry race, but he was also on the podium in Canada, and might even have won in Germany had he not suffered a puncture. In a car which was no match for the Williams, Ferrari, Mclaren or Benetton most of the time, his 20 points represented an impressive haul and identified him as one of the sport’s rising stars.

Then his career took a wrong turn. He switched to Benetton in 1998, just as that team was on a downward path, and he was forced to watch while Jordan’s fortunes rose, enabling them to take their first win in 1998, and to emerge as outside contenders for the World Title a year later. Fisichella spent four years at Benetton, and while he generally outpaced his team mates, Alex Wurz and, for one year, Jenson Button, he was no longer perceived as being destined for greatness. Flavio Briatore, boss of Benetton at the time, publicly criticised his ‘laziness’ and lack of commitment in 2000. He was turfed out for 2002 when the team became ‘Renault’ and its form began to improve. So he found himself back at Jordan, just as things were falling apart for the Anglo-Irish team. A confluence of freak circumstances saw him pick up a win at Interlagos in the rain in 2003, but the team’s general level of competitiveness is best illustrated by the fact that he would score points only once more all year, at the attrition-hit US Grand Prix.

Things took a turn for the better when he cut short his Jordan contract and ended up alongside sophomore Felipe Massa at Sauber. After initially being outpaced by the young Brazilian, whose full potential was then not widely recognised, he established himself as the faster and more consistent of the two Sauber drivers in the second half of the year, bringing in a consistent haul of points. At that point, it was hard to know what to make of Fisichella. Some wrote him off. He’d been around for a long time without ever really establishing himself as a front runner. Ron Dennis, when asked whether he was considering hiring the Italian, said dismissively “If I was going to sign Fisichella, I would have done it years ago.” Others, though, noted that he had proven as quick, if not quicker, than every team mate he had ever come up against and wondered if he was one of the sport’s great lost talents – someone who was simply never in the right place at the right time.

In 2005, we got our answer. After Mark Webber turned Renault down in favour of Williams, Flavio decided to give Giancarlo another crack of the whip, alongside Fernando Alonso. It’s hard to credit now, but at the time, it was far from clear which of the two would come out on top. Alonso was not a double world champion, but, like Fisichella, a man who had won but a single race. He didn’t appear to have quite the devastating one-lap pace of Jarno Trulli and it seemed to me at the time that they might be very closely matched. As it turned out, Fisichella never really even got close to Alonso. He won his first race for the team, but was helped by a freak rainstorm that left the Spaniard way down the grid. Thereafter, he was on the podium just twice more all season, in a car which Alonso took to seven wins and the world title. The following year, Alonso again took the title, and Fisichella again scored only a solitary win, on a day when his team mate had been hit by refuelling woes. And we had our answer, Fisichella didn’t have the right stuff.

To me, Fisichella’s lack of pace in his two years alongside Alonso at Renault remains one of the great mysteries of the sport. Was he just not quick enough? Perhaps, but this was a man who had shown himself as more than a match for the current world champion, Jenson Button, when they were paired at Benetton all those years ago, who had been quicker than last year’s vice-champion, Felipe Massa when they were both at Sauber. Who had looked quicker than just about everyone else he was ever paired up with in F1 (at least until those dismal last few races for Ferrari alongside Kimi Raikkonen). Was it psychological frailty? Briatore had Fisichella marked down as lazy, but I wonder if it was more that he simply couldn’t produce the goods under pressure. Think, for example, of the way he crumbled under attack from Kimi Raikkonen as they fought for the win on the final lap of the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix. Yes, his tyres were shot, but I’d still place a substantial sum that Alonso would have been able to keep the Finn back in the same circumstances. And when the teams opened the radio transmissions up to the TV broadcasters, it was notable how much more encouragement, how many more ‘hurry ups’, Fisichella seemed to need than many of his rivals. It’s always hard to know for sure, but I don’t believe Fisichella’s problem was fundamentally about a lack of innate ability. Rather, it seemed to me that, up against the very best, he lacked the competitive nature, the rage to win, needed to succeed at the highest level.

The irony, though, is that had Mark Webber not turned down Flavio Briatore in 2005, we might still be wondering today how good Giancarlo Fisichella might have proven to be had he got himself in the right car. Had that happened, Fisichella would probably have gone to Grove just as the team were spiralling into their own vicious circle of declining performance and falling budgets. As it was, though, he got his opportunity – he got it late, undoubtedly, but he got it, and he was found wanting.

It is noteworthy, I think, that with the exception of Michael Schumacher, the drivers who have had the very longest careers in the sport have tended to be good, rather than great. Barrichello, Patrese and Coulthard all won Grands Prix, but none of them ever took the World Title. I’m not sure I’d rate Fisichella in quite the same league as those three, but he was undoubtedly a very quick racing driver on his day. But as his career amply demonstrates, that isn’t enough on its own.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Kimi's New Challenge

Kimi Raikkonen. It even sounds like a rally driver's name. Or perhaps, more accurately, it merely sounds Finnish. The 30 year old one-time Formula One World Championship has become far and away the most high-profile racing driver to switch to the world of rallying. Yes, many racing drivers have had a go at rallying, and some have even proven very quick, but far fewer have made the switch full-time, in the way that Raikkonen has.

And in recent years, about the only single-seater racer to go rallying in a serious way was Frenchman Stephane Sarrazin. Sarrazin did enter a couple of Grands Prix for Minardi in the late 1990s, but could hardly be considered to be a 'name driver' in the way that Raikkonen is. Sarrazin didn't do too badly, either, at least when he competed on tarmac, picking up a best result of 4th in a works Subaru. He was, on the other hand, rather more adept on tarmac than he ever proved to be on gravel or snow and appears to have returned full-time to circuit racing in recent years with the Peugeot sportscar team.

So if Raikkonen were to really establish himself as a front-runner in the World Rally Championship, would he be the first man to establish a serious career both on the circuits and on the special stages? Well, not exactly. Sebastien Loeb has looked reasonably adept in his intermittent outings in sportscars, but he was hardly the first rally driver to switch to circuit racing. Back in the late 1980s, when long-time Audi man and two time world champion found his employer, Audi, were more interested in racing GTO sportscars in the States that taking on Lancia and Toyota in the comparatively tame Group A category, he switched with them, with considerable success.

You have to go further back to find a driver who scored points in both Formula 1 and the World Rally Championship, back to the late 1960s, when all-rounder Vic Elford won the 1968 Monte Carlo Rally and scoring a career best finish of 4th in what was his first F1 race, the French Grand Prix of that year. He won the Daytona 24 Hours that year and would meet with considerable success in sportscar racing at a time when the World Sportscar Championship was a genuine rival to Formula 1.

Go much further back, though, and the distinction between race and rally driver becomes rather hazier. What exactly were the great Italian road races? Was the Targa Florio a race or a rally? And what of the Mille Miglia, which was won by F1 great, Stirling Moss? A race or a rally? He used pace notes and had a co-driver, so, despite the fact that the vehicle they used, the Mercedes 300SLR, was much closer to an F1 car than anything which you might use on a forest stage, it was perhaps more of a rally than a race. Go back a couple of decades further and the distinction becomes all but irrelevant. Stage rallying hadn't yet been invented, but the evocative black and white photographs of Grands Prix of the 1920s and 30s show that many of the road circuits of the era more more resemblance to special stages than to the antiseptic cleanliness of modern F1 tracks. Indeed, there's probably more gravel on some of those circuits than on the asphalt stages of the Rallye Catalunya. In that sense, if Kimi Raikkonen does make a successful transition from F1 to the WRC, he won't so much be the first driver to do it, as merely the first driver to do it in quite some time.

So what are his chances? When he entered the 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland last year in an S2000 Fiat Punto, he put in a very respectable performance, prior to eventually exiting the event in a crash, but then the S2000 machinery is generally considered not to be as difficult to drive as the more powerful WRC Citroen that Raikkonen will be driving next year. And furthermore, it has to be said that the quality of the opposition in the S2000 class in that event was hard to assess. The only man in identical machinery was Anton Alen, who while competent enough, is hardly a star in the way that his Dad was. So it's not easy to know how much can be read into Kimi's ability to get really quite close to his stage times.

In a Citroen C4 WRC, essentially the same machine that Sebastien Loeb won the world title in this year, there will be no hiding place. He has, however, always struck me as a driver who succeeded primarilt because, even in comparison with other racing drivers, he has almost supernatural car control. He doesn't appear to be a man who needs to think his way to driving quickly - if he did, then given that he was not one for spending endless hours poring over data traces, he would probably never have been as successful as he was in F1. As such, his skills might translate more easily to the rally world than would some other Grand Prix drivers. After all, F1 drivers have varied enormously in their ability to cope with the transition to the special stage. Jim Clark was startlingly quick in a Lotus Cortina rally car, fellow Lotus F1 man Graham Hill, on the other hand, never really looked at home in it.

I hope he succeeds, and I'd love to see him give it a few years to really hone his talents. I can't help but think that the rally world selects its drivers from a far shallower, and muddier, pool of talent. There's no equivalent in the rallying world of the extensive junior formula network through which today's leading F1 drivers emerge. And away from the two full works teams, many of those in the quickest equipment (the Citroen junior cars and the Stobart and Munchis Fords) are there because they can raise cash, or have connections, rather than because they are particularly quick. There's something a little depressing about the fact that Conrad Rautenbach and Matthew Wilson have regular full-time drives, while Guy Wilkes, Jan Kopecky and Per-Gunnar Andersen do not. Having an F1 driver after a new challenge throwing a cat among the pigeons can only be a good thing. And if it brings some publicity to a beleaguered and struggling World Championship, so much the better.

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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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