Opinion: The Young Driver Test debacle

In 2012 the Formula 1 teams have demonstrated a saddening disregard for exciting young talent with its treatment of the annual Young Driver Test...

Photo: Renault Sport/DPPI

In 2012, the Formula 1 teams have demonstrated a saddening disregard for exciting young talent with its treatment of the annual Young Driver Test…

Last week’s announcement from the Lotus F1 Team that they will give 31-year-old sportscar racer Nicolas Prost a run when they do their Young Driver Test next month is the latest in a long line of developments this year that have shown that the Formula 1 teams are not bothered about giving opportunities to young talent and the deserving F1 drivers of the future.

There had been complaints before, particularly last year, that teams weren’t taking the Young Driver Test seriously, but things have plummeted to new lows in 2012.

It started with the majority of the teams’ reluctance to run the test in its usual slot after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. With dedicated testing teams quite rightly no longer permitted on cost grounds, there were fears that the test just added to the strain on the team members towards the end of a marathon 20-race season. That seems like a fair enough point and one I can understand.

However, running the Young Driver Test at any other time of year is just massively unsuitable on so many grounds. Running it in November or December means it falls after the end of the season in all of the junior categories, meaning it doesn’t interrupt the young drivers’ campaigns. Whenever a driver, their management or the F1 team they’re affiliated is asked during the season about F1 opportunities, the stock response is that they’re “concentrating on their season for now.” And with good reason. With F1 speculation comes media interest, which is totally distracting if you’re trying to win a championship or reach whatever target has been set.

And then there’s just the logistics of it. Take the Magny-Cours test, where Formula Renault 3.5 title rivals Sam Bird and Jules Bianchi were given mileage just days ahead of their latest race at the Hungaroring. Bird was sensibly given the final day, the Thursday, off but Bianchi was not. The Frenchman did around 100 laps a day for three days in France before flying out Thursday night to Hungary before a three-day race weekend. That sounds far from ideal to me. Is it just coincidence that Robin Frijns extended his lead over the pair during that race weekend?

Another reason why running the test in the middle of the season is not ideal is that the test is often used (and here’s a positive) as a prize for achievements in a feeder series. Since the FIA Formula Two Championship was launched, Williams have had a commitment to run the champion in a test at the end of the year. However, because they decided to do their test at Silverstone in July, this year’s champion Luciano Bacheta does not get the chance in a proper test. He will get to drive an F1 car in the coming weeks, but it will be an older car and the experience gained will be less beneficial and unless it happens to take place on a quiet day F1-news-wise, he won’t get as much exposure out of it either. And given how fast this year’s Williams is, he could have actually recorded a very impressive position on the leaderboard in an official test which could have done wonders for his future.

Luciano Bacheta

Bacheta will have to make do with testing an older Williams in private (Photo: Formula Two)

On a similar note, the test should also be used to reward drivers who have had impressive seasons. But it’s hard to do that if it’s done mid-season. And offering such an incentive mid-season would again be a distraction or an unsuitable target for a young driver.

The end of the season is also the right time to do it because it acts as a great shop window for drivers for the following year, allowing them to show people what they can do and also gain media exposure that could assist them in getting the necessary extra support. Doing it mid-season doesn’t make it as beneficial for the drivers, which what the test should exist for in the first place.

Regardless of the time of year, the situation that has emerged in 2012 where the tests have been conducted on three different dates at three different venues is a farce. Doing so removes the ability for comparisons between times and while testing times are not always relevant, if a driver sets a good time they should be able to brag about it. There were circumstances why the proposed Silverstone test didn’t work out, but if the teams were really concerned about the young drivers they would have taken a compromise and all agreed to do it in Abu Dhabi as usual and given their staff an extra bonus for the extra work.

Beyond the scheduling of the tests there are other concerns that prove the teams are not interested, primarily the way that many seats are seemingly sold to the highest bidder. Now in general I understand the need for teams to consider funding for race seats because large amounts of money can be offered to help the teams balance their books and ultimately that team’s performance is at stake if they take a driver on who is not so good. But the amounts that drivers are presumably paying for a day at a Young Driver Test cannot be making a huge amount of difference. And ultimately the teams are abusing the philosophy of the Young Driver Test if they are awarding drives to the biggest wallet rather than the most talented driver.

What had Rodolfo Gonzalez done in his abysmal GP2 career to earn at day driving a Force India at Magny-Cours? Force India are actually one of the best teams when it comes to respecting talent with the opportunities they have handed drivers on Fridays so it’s a shame I have to criticise them. I know they are potentially in financial difficulties because of Mallya’s troubles but how much difference would it really have made to their survival in the sport if they had run, say, James Calado that day? When you really think hard about it, it’s disgusting that the teams are giving drives to the highest bidders because they are exactly the people who do not need opportunities like this. Underfunded but proven drivers should get the chance to show what they can do, increasing their reputation and exposure and getting their foot in the door which is otherwise so hard to do without some cash.

Rodolfo Gonzalez

Gonzalez in the first of two, frankly, undeserved F1 outings so far this year (Photo:Caterham/LAT)

There are other examples of teams abusing the original intention of the Young Driver Test. It’s become clear, particularly recently, that the priority of the teams at the tests is to do yet more car development, not to help the drivers themselves.  That was certainly the case with Mercedes, who had only agreed to run simulator driver Brendon Hartley on the final day if Sam Bird had finished their programme regarding car development. So basically they weren’t there for the benefit of Sam or Brendon, they were there for the benefit of themselves.

This is another reason why the test should be done towards the end of the year, when teams are (slightly) less concerned with car development and such a test would not be as beneficial to them in that respect. I’m not saying the teams can’t use the test for car development as of course that is certainly a useful experience for drivers, but the primary focus should be on helping the drivers and not the car for just three of the 365 days in a year.

A worrying development as far back as 12 months ago is that teams look like they are starting to flout the ‘rules’ of the Young Driver Test. With testing limited and the Young Driver Test being important for car development, it seems there are drivers who are starting to become ‘career Young Driver Testers’, so that teams end up with a very capable and experienced development driver in the car at every Young Driver Test. See Gary Paffett for example. There’s the possibility that with F1 race seat options looking limited for them, Jules Bianchi and Sam Bird could also become ‘career Young Driver Testers’ with decreasing motivation each year for their teams to try and push them into a race seat because they would then lose an increasingly valuable asset as the driver gains more and more testing mileage. To solve this problem, teams should have to run a new driver for at least one day each year, or something like that.

Lotus using Prost is another sign that teams’ priorities are in the wrong place. He’s not actually got backers to pay for the drive, but he is managed by Gravity who are presumably taking the opportunity to give him some exposure for their own gain. Gravity manage a number of promising young drivers like Kevin Korjus, Richie Stanaway and Marco Sorensen, and the aim for Gravity with them is to help them get into F1. With Prost the primary aim of managing him I assume is to milk his surname for commercial reasons. So running him in an F1 car will be a great opportunity to increase his reputation and increase commercial opportunities, and arguably that could give Gravity more money to invest in proper young drivers. But that fact they are denying a proper young driver a day’s running at a test specifically held for that reason once again proves that priorities are wrong. There must be other opportunities out there for Gravity to promote Prost. Ultimately Lotus do not have aspirations of one day running Prost in an F1 race, so therefore they should not be running him at the Young Driver Test.

Marco Sorensen

Sorensen, a Gravity driver that should get a test in a Lotus F1 car (Photo: Renault Sport/DPPI)

“Enough complaining, what about some solutions?” I hear you cry.

First the test has to be run on the same date after the end of the junior categories’ seasons. If the calendar needs to be adjusted to make this easier, it should be. Then, stricter rules need to be put in place, by the teams, the FIA, FOM or whatever, to govern the drivers that can be run in the test. Make it illegal to run a driver with a CV like Gonzalez.

Also, you could take a leaf out of Renault’s book. Each year the company invites the top finishers from a range of categories like F3 and Formula Renault 2.0 to take part in a proper post-season Formula Renault 3.5 test. Without knowing exactly how it works, presumably Renault allocates the drivers amongst the teams (with some negotiation so drivers with ties with particular teams can drive for those squads) and covers the costs, because I don’t believe drivers are ever unable to do that test because their budget for the year doesn’t allow it. The aim of course is so FR3.5 gets the best drivers and arguably it works, because the quality of this year’s grid is staggering. And F1 needs to think similarly.  If it doesn’t provide opportunities for the best young drivers, they will not get to F1 and either be left in the wilderness or switch to another discipline like Indycar, the DTM or sportscars. And F1 doesn’t want that, surely?

In the three-day test at Abu Dhabi, there could be one day where there drivers involved are the top four from GP2 and FR3.5 and the top two from GP3 and F3 that year. So, based upon some tenuous links between teams and drivers and some total random calls, I’ve come up with a hypothetical lineup for this year:

Red Bull: Mitch Evans
McLaren: Pascal Wehrlein
Ferrari: Jules Bianchi
Mercedes: Sam Bird
Lotus: Daniel Abt
Force India: Luiz Razia
Sauber: Esteban Gutierrez
Toro Rosso: Davide Valsecchi
Williams: Robin Frijns
Caterham: Nick Yelloly
HRT: Daniel Juncadella
Marussia: Max Chilton

Okay, it’s not what I’d call my ideal lineup with Calado and Sorensen narrowly missing out to certain others (no names) but you can certainly call it fair and it’s bound to be more appealing than if the teams were left to come up with their own lineup. Okay there would be some politics to sort out in terms of which championships get how many drivers selected and which drivers go to which teams, but F1 is great at sorting out politics, right?

This isn’t all about the Young Driver Test. There needs to be a serious change in mentality amongst the teams towards young drivers. Maybe I’m biased towards the drivers, but I’m not the only one with this opinion. Some say F1 isn’t the be-all and end-all of motorsport, and they’re right – there are great alternatives where you can get paid and have a great career. But if the lifelong ambition of the most talented young drivers around is to get to F1 they should be bloody well be allowed to fulfil that. And F1 will be a better place for having them on the grid.

If you haven’t seen them yet, can I point you in the direction of a great article on a similar subject by respected journalist James Allen. It’s not just me kicking up a fuss.