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Monday, December 17, 2012

How do you tell if a driver is good enough for F1? A Public Apology

It's a question that I always find difficult to answer, as nothing more than an enthusiastic fan.  There's always a surprise package in the mix.

Davide Valsecchi, GP2 Champion 2012
Copyright: Lotus F1/LAT Photographic
Please bear with me whilst I explain this one from my own perspective.

Look at Giorgio Pantano, a driver that I have always slated inside my own head and once or twice in earlier posts on this blog.  I mean the guy bought his way into a Jordan seat in F1 in 2004 and spent much of the early season at the back of the pack.  He never did anything in the car.  His inability was highlighted in Canada when he was replaced by Timo Glock on a one-off who, in his first race brought the car home in the points in 7th.  Pantano then came back and once again disappointed until he was replaced after the Italian GP by Glock for the remainder of the season.  Pantano was a blight on the Jordan Team and I, an ardent Jordan fan, spent many angry hours ranting about him at the time.

It turned out later that Giorgio had been the one who decided to stop because of the money his family were pumping in to keep him in the seat.

Now I've spent the last 8 years hoping against hope that no driver of that standard, no Pantano, would ever be able to come into F1 no matter how big his wallet.

I may have been wrong

After decent results in GP2 with Super Nova Racing in 2005 Fisi, Giancarlo Fisichella, gave him an opportunity in 2006 to race for his FMS GP2 team.  He clocked up 3 wins, a podium and 5 points scoring finishes out of 15 races, three of which he retired from.  He came fifth in the championship that year.

He came third with Campos Grand Prix in 2007 and won the GP2 championship in 2008 with the Racing Engineering Team, beating Bruno Senna, Lucas di Grassi, Romain Grosjean, Pastor Maldonado, Sebastian Buemi, Vitaly Petrov, Karun Chandhok, Jerome d'Ambrosio, and Kamui Kobayashi

Like Romain Grosjean, this is a driver who, after having a massively bad experience of Formula 1, went back and began all over again with great success in the lower formulae.

The rumour was that he would come back to F1 in 2010 with Campos Meta (HRT) but the word was that he was overlooked in favour of Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok because he was considered, at 31, to be too old for F1.

Timo Glock, his 2004 replacement at Jordan, won the GP2 championship the year before Giorgio and was installed again in an F1 car in 2008 with Toyota at the ripe old age of 28.  He raced for Marussia in the 2012 season at the age of 31. Nico Hulkenberg won GP2 in 2009, the year after Pantano and he, a young whipper-snapper at 25, is moving to Sauber for the 2013 season..

To put the achievement of Giorgio Pantano into context:

Nico Rosberg won in 2005 with Heikki Kovalainen coming in second,
Lewis Hamilton won in 2006,
Timo Glock won in 2007,
Nico Hulkenberg in 2009,
Pastor Maldonado in 2010, and
Romain Grosjean in 2011.

All of these guys are now Formula 1 drivers. So I owe Giorgio Pantano a real and deserved apology.

All of this leads to a question about ageism within the Formula 1 circus.  Call me a starry-eyed eejit, but surely merit should be the most important element of any decision to hire an F1 driver. If GP2 is intended to operate as a feeder series then the GP2 champion should be the most sought-after driver for the following F1 season, almost guaranteed a race seat, regardless of age.  Didn't happen with Giorgio Pantano and history would appear to be repeating itself this year.

Davide Valsecchi at the Young Driver's Test in Abu Dhabi
If he's not on the 2013 grid the GP2 series lacks credibility
Copyright: Lotus F1/LAT Photographic
This year Davide Valsecchi won the GP2 Series. He's only 25, the same age as Nico Hulkenberg but he would seem to have been passed over by the F1 teams for a race seat next season in favour of better funded drivers like Luiz Razia, Esteban Gutierrez, Max Chilton and Giedo van der Garde, all of whom he beat to the title this year and all of whom have been given or are linked to F1 seats this year..

Razia is 23, Gutierrez 21, Chilton 21, and van der Garde a very old 27.

Valsecchi last sat in an F1 car as test driver for Lotus in Abu Dhabi this year but has never entered the rumour mill for a race seat in 2013.

The pointlessness of the series, in the absence of the champion being fielded on the F1 grid the following season, is that, as champion a driver can no longer race in the series, therefore he can neither defend his title nor will he be on the F1 grid.  The F1 "Feeder" series becomes a complete joke if these circumstances arise.

How do you tell if a driver is good enough? Beat's the hell out of me!