Monday, September 24, 2012

The Young Driver Test Situation

I am no specialist when it comes to the different feeder series and other junior racing categories in the pre-F1 ladder, but even a casual onlooker could tell you there's a lot of things wrong with the way F1 teams handle the Young Driver Test in 2012. As I'm writing this, the second part of the hopefully only-three part festivity recently took place at Magny-Cours where Mercedes, Force India and Ferrari were supposed to give some car time to their hot prospects but instead were doing who-knows-what. Without further ado, let's cut to the chase - this thing is wrong and I can tell you why it's wrong and why somebody should probably fix it.

The Lineup

It is to my and, I believe, every other spectator's understanding that the Young Driver Test is supposed to show off the best upcoming talents to F1 teams so that they could later hire the driver into their programme, for a test role or even as one of their two drivers in F1. The punchline is, though, that the reality does not reflect on that little dream world of ours at all, with F1 teams either using the test opportunity to give the car to moneybags who have no business in F1 or to give some more time to the main driver of their programme. Both of those things shouldn't be happening yet it's this year that they've reached an absolute high point. Out of the six teams that have run (or are running) the Young Driver Test by now, I can point to one team and one team only that isn't completely wasting it. 

Williams - despite the fact that they're kind of sort of supposed to run the F2 champion during the YDT, the team decided to go ahead with the mid-season test at Silverstone and ran Valtteri Bottas during both days. Bottas is unquestionably talented and it's great that Williams are giving him an opportunity... that totally isn't like the other 15 opportunities they will give him this season as that's the number of FP1 sessions he's supposed to complete in 2012.

HRT - the Silverstone test might've ran for two days, but HRT figured they didn't need that much, instead of opting to run on Thursday only. Who did they run? Ma Qing Ha, who would later go on to become the first Chinese driver in a official timed F1 session and whose single-seater record suggests he's about as deserving on F1 seat as I am. 

Marussia - the only team with a semblance of sense and decency when it came to that question ran Max Chilton and Rio Haryanto. Both men are talented, have been impressive in GP2 this year (Chilton in particular) and run for Marussia's squad in that series. Good job.

Force India - the team ran Jules Bianchi, Luiz Razia and Rodolfo Gonzalez in the YDT. I can't question the involvement of Razia, as his GP2 campaign has been stellar so far. But Bianchi and Gonzalez just shouldn't be there - one because he already does a ton of FP sessions for the team and has run in YDTs before and the other because his 10 points in 4 seasons of GP2 don't exactly make him worthy of that. And I'm pretty sure he's already a Caterham tester. Just what in the hell, guys.

Mercedes - the German factory squad ran their usual test driver Sam Bird but also decided to give Brendon Hartley a shot because they felt real generous. Bird is long overdue an F1 seat, but he has previous F1 car experience and has no business in a test like this. Hartley, meanwhile, has raced all of four GP2 races this year, instead mostly focusing on prototypes... and also has previous F1 car experience. 

Ferrari - the Italian team ran Davide Rigon and... Jules Bianchi. Again. Rigon has been listed as a Ferrari test driver for a while but this is his first proper shot at driving the car, so that's kinda okay, except for the fact that the guy hasn't done single-seaters since 2011 and has been mostly doing endurance racing. 

The Dates

Previously, the YDT took place right when it should - i.e. at the end of a season with F1 almost over and most of the junior series wrapped up. It made lots of sense, too - F1 would be looking for people to hire for next year with teams having all the results of this year available so that they can make a reasoned choice. Plus, a YDT test would be used as a reward, like for Robert Wickens and Mirko Bortolotti last year (both winners of a junior series that got a day of testing for their success).

Well, it's now looking like that's a thing of the past, since the F1 season isn't exactly over and neither are the junior categories yet we've already had 6 out of 12 F1 teams run their YDTs. This honestly does a great deal to undermine the initial point of the whole event as F1 teams, very clearly instead of looking at what goes on in the world of junior series racing, just lend the YDT opportunity to the biggest bidder or run their usual test driver. They don't care about who achieves what down the ladder and they're making it pretty damn obvious.

The most irritating thing, however, is the impact this has on the "series win" reward idea that generally was pretty good for drivers who lacked funds in the past. Last year the reward for winning the Formula 2 title was testing the Williams at the YDT - but I'm not quite sure how that can continue this year, seeing how Williams already did their tests and the Formula 2 season isn't even over. You still have to see what comes out of this, but it's upsetting at best.

The Testing

Here's another reason why running the YDT midseason should just be outright forbidden - because teams use it as a testing opportunity and pretty much every team lacks those in F1. It makes sense, I can't blame them for it, but it gets ridiculous when the main thing discussed about the Mercedes YDT is the upgrades they're gonna test, not the actual "young driver" they're running. Again, there's clear shoddy organization and a conflict of interests here, but doesn't mean it's not seemingly really easy to fix.

The season so far in junior single-seater categories has gotten us to notice some very talented guys who most of us would probably like to get a shot at F1. The names of James Calado and Felipe Nasr popped up in GP2 with both of them mounting great rookie campaigns and putting up more than a fight against the regulars. The four people in contention for the GP3 title produced a wonderful show with some really mature and cool-headed racing. Robin Frijns has been setting the world alight in WSR, regularly beating Bianchi and Bird and, at the moment of writing, being the clear title favorite. Yet, with 6 teams out of 12 having gotten their YDT out of the way, none of them seemingly got an invite. And THAT is pretty shameful for the sport and an indication that something isn't quite working right at the moment. It's up to the FIA to figure out what that is.

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