Formula One is the pinnacle of single seat open wheel racing. Its drivers become superstars and its technology shapes the future. But just why does the pool of British hopefuls to the series seem ever dwindling?
Britain has long been the central hub for many of the current Formula One teams, with 8 of them having factories here in the UK. Britain also boasts a varied quantity of feeder series allowing young drivers to establish themselves on the radars of those in the sports, Formula BMW, Formula 3, formula Renault and formula ford have been the proving grounds for some of our best loved drivers but yet in the world we live in today it seems to take a lot more than natural talent and race wins for drivers to be able to have their dreams of Formula One stardom realised, and this is down to two factors.
Formula One is a very financial orientated sport. With some teams spending anything up to 199 million euros on one season’s racing. It is this high spending nature that has led us back into the pay as you go drivers. These drivers no matter their ability have a large financial backing from one of two sources, family assets or business sponsorship.
Those teams at the lower end of the grid and therefore on a tighter budget seem rife with these pay to play drivers at present. As a rule paying for your drive is not always a bad thing, both Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher progressed from a pay to race deal, however with the ever increasing number of these drivers, talent is being pushed aside to make room for more money and the last two seasons have had some real examples of business before talent.
Take Vitaly Petrov for instance, in 2010 the Russian driver was outscored by his team mate Robert Kubica by 109 points, but with a reported 15million being brought into Renault from both family and business sponsors Renault chose to keep Vitaly on for a second year, a chance which would have been snatched from his grasp had he not had such a large quantity of money as his support.
During Vitaly’s rookie year in F1 Pastor Maldonado won the GP2 title and was quickly snapped up by Williams in a pay to race seat for 2011, bringing with him substantial backing from a Venezuelan petrol company. His results for the year make him the worst f1 driver in Williams’s history scoring just 1 point in the season, yet Pastor will once again find his name on the side of the Williams cockpit when the cars roll out for the first race of the year.
You cannot, however, blame the teams who field the pay to race drivers it is good for business and a logical decision, yet unlike Venezuela and Russia, the British economy cannot justify ploughing money into a sport as rich as Formula One, which is also understandable.
However it is this need for fast cash that is a large factor in forcing the real talent out of contention for the few seats we see available in Formula One each year. There is only so long we can rely on Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton to keep drawing in the UK’s audiences, it is about time a new crop of Brits was able to take a step onto the F1 scene.
The second reason is down to the ban of in-season F1 testing and limiting of testing off-season. It was during this testing that young un-experienced drivers gained their experience and were able to prove themselves head to head against regular f1 drivers. They were able to gain a feel for the cars understanding the down force and tyre issues first hand and show themselves off to the watching team members. Drivers like Heikki Kovalainen and Mark Webber served their time as test drivers well wrapped up within a team and unlike test drivers today, able to pit themselves against the best.
A recent addition to the Formula One calendar is the young driver test which takes place at the end of the year. In Abu Dhabi in late 2011, Britain was represented by 4 drivers out of around 22 present for the 3 day test ay the Yas Marina track.
Two of those were Gary Paffett and Oliver Turvey both with McLaren and both seeming to be constantly overlooked for any race action by a team. Gary signed with McLaren after clinching the DTM title in 2005 has now been with the team over 6 years and his eligibility for the young driver test speaks volumes. During his test career with the team he has continued to compete in DTM winning multiple races and the title in 2010 for the second time, yet a step up to Formula 1 is still not on the cards.
Also in attendance were Sam Bird and Max Chilton for the UK, but with a large amount of drivers with financial backing in attendance the credibility of the talent has been discussed by many, and with only the lap times from the years grand prix at the track there is no direct comparison with the seasoned drivers and no knowledge to be learnt by the young drivers. Over the years much of our driving talent has been lost overseas, the late Dan Wheldon was forced to America to continue his career as was Indy car champion Dario Franchitti and ex Formula One driver Justin Wilson, but how we stop this is a lot harder than it seems.
The McLaren Autosport BRDC award was set up in 1989 and awards a young British driver a test in a McLaren F1 car as well as a sizeable cheque to aid their careers. This has proven to be of great help and can boast 5 Formula One drivers in its winners including World champion Jenson Button and current f1 driver Paul di Resta as well as countless champions from other series’.
In 2008 the Racing Steps Foundation was created by businessman Graham Sharpe and now boasts Racing legend Sir John Surtees as its ambassador. The Racing steps Foundation have been working hard to help those British drivers with the talent that without financial aid would be lost. At present Racing steps has around 11 young Brits under its wing in various junior series on both 2 wheels and 4, allowing them to continue racing and hopefully get noticed but there is only so many drivers Racing Steps can help and the McLaren young driver award is only open to one candidate a year.
With the economy in its current state it does not look like the British F1 stock will be increasing with any speed. Chances like that of Lewis Hamilton with McLaren are few and far between, who is to say just where Lewis would be today had he not had the support of McLaren from his karting days and been moulded into the f1 world champion we see before us today. However with drivers such as Tom Blomqvist, Jake Harvey, Alex Lynn, Dino Zamparelli and Oliver Rowland, McLaren Autosport young driver award winner 2012 all battling hard in lower formulas we can only hope that the well funded teams within the Formula One fraternity take a chance on one of them or promote one of the young Brits already within their folds.