Friday, 15 November 2013

The Problem of Young Drivers

As you may be aware, Kimi Raikkonen has ended his 2013 season early. A bad back has required an operation, and thus the final two races will proceed without the Ice Man. This has sparked quite a debate within the F1 community, and it centres on who has replaced Raikkonen for the final two races.

The third driver for Lotus is GP2 champion Davide Valsecchi. GP2 is traditionally regarded as the stepping stone for F1, but in the past few years this hasn't been the case. Valsecchi won the championship in 2012, and was drafted to Lotus to undertake testing sessions in 2013. Now, the premise of having a third driver was to have a reserve, or at least someone to test and develop the car. It seems that Valsecchi however has had very limited running - and indeed was overlooked as Kimi's replacement for the final two races of the season, instead being replaced by Heikki Kovalainen.

Now, I take no issue with Heikki coming back to F1 - even if it's just for these few races. It's great to have him back and in a car that is right at the front, and Lotus do need a proven talent to grab them the points. However, I think the whole situation makes a mockery of the third driver system, and more generally of GP2's role in bringing the next generation forwards into F1.

I think that this goes right back to the start of the year. As soon as Valsecchi got the third driver role, he should have been given free practice sessions to prepare him for F1. Instead, he has completed very limited testing in young driver days and filmwork. For someone who grabbed a brilliant GP2 championship, this isn't acceptable.

The way GP2 works means that the champion for each year is prevented from returning to that particular championship. Instead, it used to be thought that these winners would progress to F1 - as was the case with Romain Grosjean (after his second spell in GP2 and following his GP2 championship win). However, I wouldn't call Valsecchi's place in F1 'progress'. He seems to have spent the entire year waiting for his chance, and now that it has arrived he is not experienced enough to take the opportunity. As I said, I completely understand Lotus's reasons for this - they are still fighting for points. But, without the chance to test and practice, how are young drivers expected to get into F1?

Next year, we do have a couple of young drivers coming into the sport. McLaren have recently dropped Sergio Perez in favour of Kevin Magnussen - a Formula Renault driver. Toro Rosso also confirmed Danny Kvyat as their replacement for Daniel Ricciardo - a move that received wide criticism, as Kvyat has competed only GP3, and was picked over Antonio Felix da Costa, Red Bull's Formula Renault driver. However, we currently have no new GP2 drivers for 2014. The only 2012 GP2 driver to enter the 2013 F1 season was Esteban Gutierrez. The winner (Valsecchi) and runner up (Luis Razia) from 2012 instead missing out on opportunities.

In fairness, a good many of these drivers do get the reserve/third driver positions. However, they often do not get the race drives, or even practice sessions. Despite this, even younger and more inexperienced drivers (but with a lot of cash) get the drives. Ok, they will probably have a lot of talent as well, but why are these drivers immediately expected to do well, while third drivers such as Valsecchi are not?

I think a lot of the problem comes from the lack of testing. If we had more in-season tests, the drivers would get the experience, and could be utilised appropriately if one of the main drivers drops out. What has happened to Valsecchi is disappointing. He should have been given more opportunity throughout the year, and you have to question why Lotus even hire him if they won't give him any chances. Instead, perhaps Valsecchi would have been better going off into another championship for this year, rather than being forced to sit in the garage and watch opportunities as they pass by. There has to be a change in this system, and talent should be rewarded.