As Formula One gets ready for its annual young drivers’ test in Abu Dhabi next week, it’s obvious the sport needs to take a good look at its driver development efforts.
For many teams, the test has simply turned into a money making operation rather than a way to gauge talent. Several reports this week have some mid-field teams selling seats at the test for upwards of $400,000 per day, meaning they stand to rake in more than $1.2 million from aspiring racers eager to get noticed.
While testing isn’t free – it is thought it costs somewhere in the area of $1,500 to $2,500 per lap to run an F1 car, teams offering seats to the highest bidder stand to make a tidy profit. The guys paying to drive in Abu Dhabi likely also have riders in their contracts that make them cough up cash for any crash damage, so the teams take little risk putting them in the car for the three-day test beginning Nov. 15.
Now, it’s tough to fault the lesser teams on the grid for seizing an opportunity to add a bit of green to their bank accounts. Several have pay drivers to always occupy the F1 race grid, so adding another few flush young racers in testing isn’t hugely surprising.
But it means that several also-ran racers get drives in Abu Dhabi while some who finished near the top get left out. For example, highly rated Christian Vietoris, who ended the GP2 season in seventh overall despite missing four races due to injury, is not on the roster.
On the other hand, Max Chilton, who ended the 2011 GP2 season in 20th overall and has a spotty racing record at best, will test for Force India. His most important stat seems to be his father Grahame’s bank account as the elder Chilton is vice-chairman of global insurance company Aon Corp.
That is akin to the Montreal Canadiens selling a draft pick selection to a journeyman player with limited talent and little chance of making the team over a top-10 scorer in the major junior ranks.
Fortunately there are exceptions, such as Guelph, Ont.’s, Robert Wickens, who has earned a one-day test with Lotus Renault due to winning the 2011 World Series by Renault 3.5 title. It is thought he will stick around and get a second day with the Marussia Virgin outfit. Wickens is a reserve driver for the Marussia Virgin team, which will also run a second racer in its young driver program in Abu Dhabi, Adrian Quaife-Hobbs, of the U.K.
The teams near the front seem more interested in evaluating talent, with several taking the chance to give some bona fide prospects a shot, including a pair of rising French drivers. World Series runner-up Jean-Eric Vergne driving for Red Bull while Jules Bianchi, who was 2009 Formula Three Euroseries champion and has finished third overall in GP2 for the past two seasons, gets a seat at Ferrari.
In addition to selling seats, there’s also the issue of who is considered a “young driver.” As it stands now, it’s one with fewer than three F1 starts, which apparently assumes will also mean the driver is “young.”
But those rules allow McLaren to bring Gary Paffet to Abu Dhabi for the test. Paffett is a 30-year-old veteran who has thousands of kilometres under his belt in six years as an official test driver with the team. He has raced eight full DTM Series seasons, winning the title in 2005. He has 16 wins in 81 DTM starts.
While there’s no doubt Paffett is talented and has earned an F1 test spot, he can hardly be considered a young, aspiring driver who needs a hand to break into grand prix racing.
And that’s the real problem here.
Apart from Red Bull’s highly organized junior driver program, F1 teams don’t really have well-defined systems to nurture and develop young racing talent, unless they can bring huge sacks of cash to the table.
Done properly, a proper scouting system and small investment can pay huge returns, as evidenced by the instant success of McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, who was supported by chairman Ron Dennis from his karting days and returned the favour with a world championship as an F1 sophomore.
Simply put, the teams need to put some resources toward finding and cultivating more Lewis Hamiltons at the expense of the Max Chiltons of the world, and not the other way around.
Spengler to test for BMW
Canadian Bruno Spengler will get behind the wheel of his 2012 BMW ride early after being allowed to test for his new team by Mercedes. He will test the BMW M3 DTM for three days next week at Spain’s Monteblanco Circuit, near Seville, beginning Nov. 15 after Mercedes gave the go-ahead.
BMW returns to the German touring car racing in 2012 after competing in the original DTM Series between 1984 and 1993, before leaving to concentrate on an international touring car program.
Although Spengler announced the 2012 move to the Bavarian auto maker last month, it is thought that he will remain under contract to Mercedes until the end of the year.
Spengler’s teammates for BMW in 2012 will be Augusto Farfus, of Brazil, and U.K. driver Andy Priaulx, a three time World Touring Car Champion.
“I am really looking forward to having Bruno as a teammate,” said Priaulx.
“He will bring some great experience with him and I'm sure we will all benefit from him joining the BMW family.”
The 28-year-old Canadian finished third in the DTM points standings in 2011, marking the fourth time in the past six seasons that he’s ended the year in the top three in points. In seven seasons with Mercedes in the highly competitive DTM Series, the St. Hippolyte, Que., native scored eight poles, nine wins and nine fastest laps in 73 starts.
BMW will be joined by Mercedes in Spain along with Audi, the third car maker competing in DTM next season.
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