Archive: Lucas Di Grassi

I can hardly believe we are already more than halfway through the Formula 1 season. It has gone by so quickly. Normally I look at the performances of the drivers at the halfway point. But this year I haven’t felt as able to keep on top of everything, so instead I will look at the constructors.

12. Hispania

Of the three new teams, Hispania have probably had the hardest job after taking over the Campos entry at the eleventh hour after it hit severe financial difficulties. Although their car is probably the slowest, it does not have the poorest reliability record, and as such the team currently sits ahead of Virgin in the Constructors’ Championship. Hispania have also acted quickly to sort out the problems with the Dallara chassis, and have hired big name designer Geoff Willis to sort out the mess for next season.

However, recent musical chairs involving their drivers have left a sour taste in the mouth. Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok are both well-liked drivers who have done an admirable job in hugely difficult circumstances, even though you might say neither is a potential future World Champion. Sakon Yamamoto is not liked very much, and is not terribly good as demonstrated in his previous two stints in F1. But the team appear to be desperate to get him into the car nevertheless. The process has been handled appallingly.

11. Virgin

On the track, Virgin is probably the least exciting of the new teams. Their reliability record is poor, and the speed is not particularly impressive, even if they occasionally manage to beat a Lotus every once in a while.

On the plus side, their controversial approach to design the car without the use of a wind tunnel has proved the doubters wrong, as the car has not been disastrously off the pace.

Both drivers have shown flashes of brilliance. But you sense that Timo Glock in particular would be capable of more if only he had decent equipment.

10. Lotus

Lotus have very quickly established themselves as the fastest of the new teams. But it has not all been plain sailing for them, and their reliability record needs improvement. I also wonder how much better they would be doing if they had two better race drivers than Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen, although the experienced line-up is probably ideal in a development sense.

The next target for Lotus is to start beating the established teams on a regular basis. But with Williams and Sauber both having made significant improvements recently, it is difficult to see how they can make much headway beyond battling with Toro Rosso. Whatever, next year will be important for Lotus — anything below ninth in the 2011 Constructors’ Championship would surely be a disappointment. But that just shows how far they have come already.

9. Williams

Although they have begun to make strides up the grid in the past few races, the fact remains that this has been another disastrous year for Williams. They have spent much of the season battling at the wrong end of the grid, counting Sauber and Toro Rosso among their rivals.

Perhaps the most worrying thing is that when you hear the likes of Patrick Head and Sam Michael try to explain the team’s performance over the past few years, they seem to be at a loss, except for vaguely talking about money being an issue. Williams lack answers.

Rubens Barrichello has been doing more or less the sort of job you would expect him to do. Meanwhile, promising rookie Nico Hülkenberg has not shown as much promise as you might have hoped. This has been coupled with a heavy dose of bad luck. I hope the second half of the season is better for Hülkenberg, of whom I am a fan.

8. Toro Rosso

I am finding it difficult to draw any firm conclusions about Toro Rosso yet. They have had some very poor showings indeed. But on the plus side, you must remember that this is their first year as a ‘proper’ constructor, designing their own chassis. On this basis, this season must be regarded as a success, even if they have not always been as quick as they may have liked.

Both Jaime Alguersuari and Sébastien Buemi are continuing to improve. Alguersuari has shown some real flashes of brilliance, and has impressed me a lot this season — particularly in a couple of battles with Michael Schumacher!

But with a more anonymous season, Buemi has been keeping his nose clean and has picked up the majority of the team’s points haul so far. That is mainly due to his assured performance at Canada, where he did well standing his ground as he briefly led the race as the pitstop phase was shaking itself out.

7. Sauber

After a promising winter testing season, the start of the actual season itself was deeply embarrassing for Sauber as they totally failed to convert pre-season promise into real race results. The car was not only frightfully slow, but it was also horrendously unreliable, making Sauber easily the worst of the established teams.

A question mark also hung over the choice of drivers, probably the riskiest on the grid. The decision to opt for Pedro de la Rosa, who had not raced since 2006, was bizarre — and I am a fan of de la Rosa! Meanwhile, Kamui Kobayashi was a man whose entire reputation was built on two races in odd circumstances.

The good news is that Sauber have turned the corner. de la Rosa is not making a fool of himself, and only needs more luck now in order to start scoring points. Meanwhile, Kobayashi looks set to become a points-scoring regular now. His performance in Valencia was absolutely superb, and he backed this up with another solid performance at Silverstone.

Sauber have also acted quickly to improve the car, making the decision to hire James Key early on as the car’s deficiencies became clear. The improvements he has made since joining the team can be seen vividly in the results.

Yesterday, I began looking at this year’s new F1 teams. This was following Ferrari’s controversial blog post and the news surrounding some of the new teams that has dominated the F1 news websites.

Yesterday I looked at the good aspect of the process — the relative success of Lotus and Virgin. Today, I turn my attention to the bad and ugly sides.

The bad side of the process

Campos’s fall from grace

It is unfortunate for Campos. At first they were regarded as among the most credible of the new teams. But unfortunately the money seems not to have been coming in. It looks as though the team has been saved. This week, as part of the process, its name was changed to Hispania. And today the car was finally launched.

But the car won’t get any proper running until it arrives in Bahrain for the first race, which doesn’t bode well. The last time a Formula 1 team turned up to a race without having tested was Lola in 1997. Running up to six seconds off the pace, the Lola remains one of the worst F1 cars of recent years.

Campos had previously run a successful GP2 team, and had signed a big name driver in the shape of Bruno Senna. For whatever reason, though, the prospect hasn’t brought in the sponsors.

Up until very recently, the driver line-up was still uncertain. For a period, it seemed as though Bruno Senna wasn’t safe. I do wonder if, counter-intuitively, Bruno Senna has been hindered by his name.

I have an immense amount of admiration for Bruno Senna. For my money, he was the class of the GP2 field in 2008. Yet, look at the other GP2 drivers from that season who have made the transition to F1 on more solid foundations: Lucas di Grassi, Romain Grosjean, Sébastien Buemi, Vitaly Petrov. Now you can add Karun Chandhok to that list.

I guess teams avoided hiring Bruno Senna for fear of being accused of only signing him up because of his name. So instead, shaky drivers like Jaime Alguersuari get parachuted in.

Hopefully Bruno Senna will be able to make something out of this mess. Considering he was unable to race for ten years in his youth due to his family’s wishes, he has done an amazing job to become as good as he is.

The situation at Campos / Hispania has been messy, and it’s clear that the team almost failed to make it. But it looks as though things are coming together. The new team principal Colin Kolles has experience in running a lean team from his Midland / Spyker / Force India days. Meanwhile, former Red Bull and BAR / Honda technical director Geoff Willis is also linked to the team.

We’ll have to wait and see if the Dallara chassis is any good. But while Campos were unable to pay the bills, there can’t have been too much work being done on it.

USF1: Another kick in the teeth for American F1 fans

The situation is even worse for USF1. Regarded very early on as a clown-like team, things have gone from bad to worse. It has to be said that Peter Windsor often comes across as someone with a rather child-like over-enthusiasm. Apparently we can add child-like naivety to his list of qualities too.

It seems as though Peter Windsor was genuinely the last person in the world to twig that USF1 wouldn’t arrive in Bahrain with a car. Stories from disgruntled USF1 employees have been leaking out for weeks now. The verdict on his management of the team, along with that of his business partner Ken Anderson, is damning.

With just weeks to go until the first race in Bahrain, USF1 was left with no car, and having done no testing. Peter Windsor was allegedly in tears when he broke the news to its sole announced driver, José María López (a driver who, incidentally, has not raced an open-wheel single-seater in anger for four years). He has apparently been lying low, having not been seen at the factory recently.

This week, when USF1’s employees were finally put out of their misery and told that the game was up, neither Peter Windsor nor Ken Anderson were present. When considering also the news that USF1 apparently had offers to save the team, but the shareholders rebuffed all of these efforts, I begin to assume that this entire exercise was all about ego, and nothing to do with any of the patriotic clap-trap they came out with.

Yesterday, the FIA finally kicked them out of the championship, too late for a more credible team such as Lola or Prodrive to be brought in. That didn’t stop one shady outfit from sniffing around though…

The ugly side of the process

Second hand car business Stefan GP

Serbian outfit Stefan, led by Zoran Stefanović, originally attempted to enter F1 along with the other teams last summer. It was not viewed as credible by anyone. It was noted that the way Stefan went about securing an entry was rather unconventional. For instance, they did their best to upset the FIA by complaining about the entry process itself — which won’t exactly get you in the FIA’s good books.

However, fast forward to this winter. Quietly, Stefan has secured the intellectual property to Toyota’s car, with the manufacturer having recently pulled out. Clearly, actually having a car is a fairly good weapon in an F1 team’s arsenal, particularly considering that certain teams (not naming any names, but I’m talking about USF1) did not even have a car, despite having been preparing for at least a year.

With the shit hitting the fan at USF1’s factory in Charlotte, Bernie Ecclestone was apparently trying to help Stefan make it onto the grid in an attempt to keep the field full. The trouble was that, despite having a car, Stefan still wasn’t terribly credible.

Their preferred form of communication was by bizarre press releases bemoaning everyone and everything in broken English. And when they attempted to test their car a couple of weeks ago, everything was all set, apart from the minor fact that they forgot to arrange a tyre supply!

And I hardly know where to begin with the drivers Stefan are rumoured to have been talking to — the likes of Jacques Villeneuve and Ralf Schumacher. Michael Schumacher’s comeback is cynical enough, but at least he is talented and has the ability to come back after a few years away. Jacques Villeneuve couldn’t even spend half a season away in 2004 without coming back even worse than normal.

All-in-all, this entire process hasn’t been F1’s proudest moment. And Formula 1 in recent years is littered with bad news. Here is hoping that Jean Todt will manage to bring some sense into the FIA’s processes. I won’t hold my breath though.

Update: Read more about the dodgy Stefan operation.

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, Ferrari have raised eyebrows by choosing to speak the truth about the new teams in Formula 1:

This is the outcome: two teams will limp into the start of the championship, a third is being pushed into the ring by an invisible hand – you can be sure it is not the hand of Adam Smith – and, as for the fourth, well, you would do better to call on Missing Persons to locate it.

This week, that fourth team — USF1 — finally threw in the towel, after weeks (indeed, months) of speculation. And this evening they have been officially removed from the entry list. But I’ll discuss USF1 in further detail later.

However, this news once again shines the spotlight on the new teams, and the FIA’s process for selecting them. Right from the beginning there was controversy surrounding some of the choices. There is also the fact that new entrants were seemingly forced to use Cosworth engines.

It is worth remembering that there were at least two highly credible entries that were rejected by the FIA, to the surprise of many. David Richards and his Prodrive operation has been looking at entering F1 for years, and indeed had a slot on the 2008 grid until the future of customer cars was thrown into doubt. Lola were another highly credible entry with the ability to field a strong car.

So, what’s going on with the new teams? In this short series of articles I will take a brief look at the five main protagonists — Lotus and Virgin (the good side of the process), USF1 and Campos (the bad side) and Stefan (the ugly side).

The good side of the process

The Lotus position: last?

Lotus driver Jarno Trulli openly admits that the team expects to turn up at Bahrain four seconds off the pace. And yesterday Heikki Kovalainen back-pedalled from comments attributed to him that this year’s Lotus is worse than the Minardi he tested in 2003. The Finn claims the comments have been taken out of context.

Nonetheless, for my money the Lotus team has good long-term prospects. The jury is out on Mike Gascoyne’s abilities as a technical director. He is well regarded and appears to do a good job, but critics point out that he has never produced a World Championship-winning car.

Lotus are at pains to point out that they have had just five months to create this F1 car. That is nowhere near long enough to produce a competitive package. In the long term, they could be headed for a respectable role in the midfield.

The driver line-up of Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen is unadventurous, but at least it is credible. Trulli and Kovalainen have both won just one race each, and neither is particularly convincing during the race. But at least they are two established and experienced drivers.

Virgin’s CFD gamble

Virgin — the Richard Branson-backed F1 entry of Manor which has been highly successful in lower formulae — has taken a gamble by exclusively using CFD to design the car, without ever having put the car in a wind tunnel. The car has been blighted by several reliability issues, while typically lapping five or six seconds off the pace. If testing form is anything to go by, there is little for the team to be optimistic about.

On the plus side, they have a credible driver pairing in the former Toyota driver Timo Glock and experienced GP2 racer Lucas di Grassi. Perhaps more important, given the current climate, is the fact that the team appears to have been highly successful in attracting sponsorship. I guess sponsors are magnetically attracted to the golden Virgin brand.

Lotus and Virgin are the two teams that are described by Ferrari as “limping” into the start of the championship. That is the best side of the new teams. The other two new teams, Campos and USF1, have both teetered on the brink of collapse. But that is for the next article…

It has to be said, unintended consequences are never far away in the world of F1 rule changes. For just one example, take a look at how quickly aerodynamic flick-ups have resurfaced, despite their supposed banning. Skate fins? What on earth?

Now we are presented with a number of oddities that have come about as a result of this season’s new testing restrictions. In-season testing is banned completely. Each team is limited to 15,000km, but according to James Allen it looks as though no teams will top 10,000km, because this year’s testing events have been so heavily disrupted. Teams that go to Portugal and Spain get relentlessly rained on. Those that go to Bahrain are treated to sandstorms.

Moreover, what little testing time there is has been eaten into by the need to test 2010-spec tyres. The bans in refuelling and tyre warmers coming into effect next season will put different demands on the tyres. As such, Bridgestone need to get data so that they don’t end up barking up the wrong tree as they develop the new tyres. But with no opportunity to do this later on in the season, some teams (McLaren and BMW) have had to sacrifice some time from their already tight pre-season test schedule.

Now McLaren’s test driver Pedro de la Rosa has expressed concerns that the lack of test time is actually dangerous for reserve drivers. Should a reserve have to come in for some reason, he will be thrown into the deep end, straight into the action having had little experience of the car. That would be bad enough in a normal year, but with the radical rule changes that have come into force this season you can expect out-of-practice drivers to be even rustier.

Now it is becoming obvious that the testing restrictions are damaging the careers of young drivers. All winter, it had looked as though Rubens Barrichello’s chances of retaining his seat at Honda / Brawn were close to zero. Reading some reports, you’d believe that Bruno Senna was practically a shoo-in.

Now it looks as though Barrichello has been given the nod, leaving Senna with nowhere to go. The ever-excellent trailed the possibility a few days ago, noting that “Barrichello is a better bet [than Senna] as his experience will be useful in a year when there is little opportunity for young drivers to learn how to drive F1 cars.”

From this perspective, it looks like Honda / Brawn have made the right decision here. Moreover, Barrichello outperformed Button last season, and it would have been a real shame if Barrichello’s career ended with a snub. Mind you, there is the risk that Barrichello will have a David Coulthard-style final season of doom, and we wouldn’t really want that.

But what now for Bruno Senna? Holding out for an F1 seat, he has more or less ruled out staying in GP2 for a third season. Indeed, it is difficult to see what he could achieve with another year in GP2. Drivers who spend too long in a category like GP2 tend to have their potential stunted.

In a sense, this is a predicament which is yet another symptom of the serial mismanagement at Honda which has deteriorated this winter to extreme levels for obvious reasons. Senna sounds pretty frustrated over this situation, and wouldn’t you be?

But any other year it would be no big deal. Senna could sign as a test driver for one year, as countless other drivers have done before, and spend the season racking up the miles on the test track in preparation for his first full season. And should he needed to replace another driver mid-season, he would have experience required of him.

Failing that, he could have gone on to make a decent career as a test driver. It may not have the glamour of a race role, and you can bet your bottom dollar that all test drivers yearn to race. But it is, at least, a decent income earned from driving cars — and they can always hope. People like Luca Badoer, Marc Gené, Anthony Davidson, Alexander Wurz and, yes, Pedro de la Rosa, have all made a decent living out of testing F1 cars. Felipe Massa started out at Ferrari as a test driver, and today he challenges for Championships.

Now what? All Bruno Senna can do is twiddle his thumbs. He can always suffer the humiliation of going back cap in hand to a GP2 seat. But this could backfire on him, and all the best seats have already been filled.

Could this be one reason why there is only going to be one rookie this season? Sébastien Buemi is the only newcomer to F1 this season, but he has done plenty of testing for the Red Bull teams and he is filling a vacancy that David Coulthard voluntarily left behind.

Remember when everyone was certain that Renault were not going to re-sign Nelsinho Piquet? Then, out of nowhere, they signed him for another season. Is that because, for all his faults, he at least has experience that the likes of Romain Grosjean and Lucas Di Grassi now cannot hope to attain?

Let us not forget another major FIA-instituted change for 2009, which is yet another instance revealing the lack of joined-up thinking inside the FIA. This season sees the inauguration of Max Mosley’s Formula Two project. Remember, this new feeder series was supposedly invented specifically to make it easier for young drivers to reach F1.

Well, it’s all very well adding yet another “second-top” rung in an already-cluttered world that contains GP2, A1GP and World Series by Renault among others. But the top rung now has a fundamental crack that will cause the ladder collapse when a driver reaches it, sending him — and his career — crashing to the floor.

There might be an allowance in F1 for “young driver training”, but this is no more than a fig leaf. A “young driver” is someone who has not tested on more than four days in the past 24 months. How is a young driver supposed to progress with such scant “training”?

Max Mosley likes to use F2 to make out that he is opening doors for young drivers. The reality is that this door leads drivers up the garden path. There have seldom, if ever, been as many feeder series as there are today. An F1 team can take their pick from 20+ GP2 drivers, countless A1GP drivers, anyone from WSR who takes their fancy and goodness knows how many F3 drivers. F2 isn’t needed, especially now that young drivers will find the welcome mat at F1’s door cruelly swiped from their feet.

Another thing I haven’t got round to writing about yet is the climax of the GP2 season which happened in Monza.

As it was, Giorgio “Pants” Pantano took the championship with a sprint race to spare. He had a commanding lead in the championship for a long time running up to Monza, so that was no real surprise. However, in the feature race he managed to underline why he finds it so difficult to find an F1 drive.

What should have been a relaxed cruise to a vaguely good result from pole position (he only needed to come 3rd) was made a lot more touch-and-go when he made a silly mistake coming out of the pitlane. He crossed the white line — and not by a little bit. Astonishingly, almost half of his car was over the white line. For a driver with that amount of experience, that is simply unforgivable. Pantano has had 78 GP2 starts plus 34 Formula 3000 starts in addition to his 14 F1 starts.

Getting such a silly drive-through penalty in such a high-profile situation was unlikely to endear himself to many F1 teams. Ian Phillips, who worked with Pantano at Jordan, was speaking on Radio 5 Live over the course of the Italian Grand Prix weekend. He was pretty disparaging about Pantano, saying he never saw what was so great about him and that none of the teams are particularly interested in him.

Earlier in the season Pantano seemed quite optimistic about his chances of getting an F1 drive for next season. But his demeanour after the GP2 feature race in Italy spelled it out — he’s going nowhere. After four wasted years in GP2, Pantano looks set to head to the States to try and carve out a career for himself over there.

The demeanour of Bruno Senna could hardly be more different. Despite losing out to the GP2 championship, he looked happy, relaxed and confident. He says he has spoken to most of the F1 teams except for Ferrari and he is almost a certainty to be in F1 in the near future.

Whether he is ready to get a drive for next year is uncertain. Despite a few strong performances early on in the season, he tailed off a bit towards the end and does not quite look like the complete package yet. Although he was strongly linked to a race seat at Toro Rosso for next season, Red Bull’s people appear to prefer Sébastien Buemi and it looks increasingly likely that Senna will be unable to find a seat for next year. In fairness, another year in GP2 would probably do Senna a lot of good.

Coming third in the championship was Lucas Di Grassi. This is a rather impressive driver who managed to come close to the top of the table despite having missed the first three events (worth a potential 60 points)!

I am not so sure that Di Grassi is quite ready for F1 yet. He doesn’t really stand out on the race track, but he certainly gets the results. He already has very strong ties with the Renault F1 team as a result of his participation in the Renault Driver Development programme. He is already a Renault test driver, so could be a very good shout as a replacement for Nelsinho Piquet.

Another Renault Development Driver is Romain Grosjean. He was pre-season favourite to take the title, having dominated the GP2 Asia series last winter. But he waned in the main GP2 series and could only finish fourth. Grosjean looks like a potentially exciting talent for the future, but he needs to clean up his act a bit before he can be seriously considered for F1. He is in danger of becoming known for his overly-aggressive moves and he has picked up one or two penalties as a result of his ham-fisted defending.

In fact, the person who looks most likely to get a seat in F1 next season is the aforementioned Red Bull protégé, Sébastien Buemi. He only finished sixth in the GP2 championship, behind Pastor Maldonado. Buemi has shone once or twice this season, most notably in the French sprint race. However, for much of the season he has been rather anonymous, collecting plenty of points but with relatively little fanfare.

Whatever, the people at Red Bull clearly feel that they have got a good return on their investment so far and look set to put him into a Toro Rosso seat for next season. Is it wise for Toro Rosso to select Buemi over Senna? I’m not so sure. I feel that both could do with an extra year in GP2. And both have undoubtedly shown flashes of talent. But Bruno Senna feels like the more complete driver so far.

Given the marketing value of the Senna name, it would be a bit of a surprise if Buemi gets an F1 seat and Senna doesn’t. At least I suppose it would show that F1 isn’t all about money. Not quite yet.

There might still be five races to go in the Formula 1 World Championship. But the Italian Grand Prix is the last European race of the season. That means that this weekend sees the climax of the GP2 Series for 2008.

This has been the first year I have watched GP2 races in full and I am a convert. It has been a thrilling season of GP2 action. It is an excellent complement to Formula 1.

If you’ve never seen GP2 before, the format is as follows. There is one race on Saturday called the ‘Feature Race’. Scoring for this race is exactly the same as in F1. On Sunday there is a shorter ‘Sprint Race’. The top six score points as follows: 6-5-4-3-2-1.

Whoever gets pole position for the Feature Race scores two points. Both races offer a point for the fastest lap (although a driver has to meet a number of conditions to qualify for scoring the point — he must start from his allocated grid position, complete 90% of all race laps and finish in the top ten). All in all, this means that a driver has the potential to score 20 points in a weekend.

Pre-season favourite was Renault Development Driver Romain Grosjean who dominated the GP2 Asia Series last winter. However, although Grosjean does still have a (slim) chance of winning the championship, in the end it has come down to a battle between former F1 driver Giorgio Pantano and rising star Bruno Senna. Another Renault Development Driver, Lucas Di Grassi, lies in third place. Di Grassi cannot be underestimated and he has scored this many points despite not even competing in the first three events!

The current standings are as follows:

Pos. Driver Team Points
1 Giorgio Pantano Racing Engineering 71
2 Bruno Senna iSport International 60
3 Lucas Di Grassi Campos 53
4 Romain Grosjean ART 53

Amazingly, the two main contenders have been unable to capitalise on each others’ misfortune and mistakes over the past two events. Unbelievably, both Pantano and Senna ran out of fuel during the Feature Race in Valencia. Senna was also unable to score in the Valencia Sprint Race, although Pantano managed to finish third.

However, Pantano found himself excluded from both races in Belgium after crashing into Di Grassi then overtaking under a Safety Car. Meanwhile, Senna received a drive-through penalty for an unsafe release from a pitstop that was very similar to the one Massa was let off with in the European Grand Prix. The Sprint Race was not much better for Senna as he had to retire after a crash with Sébastien Buemi. As such, Pantano scored nothing and Senna got just two points for his pole position.

Anything can happen in GP2. The drivers are younger and more hot-headed than the F1 drivers, and while it can look a bit amateurish in comparison, there is absolutely no doubt that GP2 provides plenty of action for the viewers.

Since this is the Championship showdown, I have decided to liveblog the GP2 races this weekend as a bit of an experiment. I will be very busy so apologies if it does not quite go to plan! I could do with some help, so if anyone is up for helping me moderate then that would be great.

The feature race starts at 1500 UK time, and ITV4’s coverage starts at around 1430, which is when I plan to start the liveblog. That’s very handy as that is directly after qualifying has finished. So if you find yourself at a loose end after qualifying tomorrow, come back here, switch on the television and join us for the liveblog!

I can’t leave the British Grand Prix weekend alone without enthusing about the awesome weekend of GP2 action that came with it. Beforehand I wasn’t too sure about the skills of the current crop of GP2 drivers. But after the races there were a few drivers that I knew I had to keep an eye on for the future.

The feature race was quite slow to come alive. But then Pantano surged his way through the field in the hunt for the lead. Then towards the closing laps there was some thrilling battles at the sharp end of the field. The race was a demonstration of six of the hottest talents in GP2. The stakes are high enough — these guys are racing for a career in F1. The six protagonists of the British feature race may all have done themselves a favour.

In the British feature race the widely-tipped Romain Grosjean was leading early on. But struggling on badly-worn tyres the canny Giorgio Pantano used his experience to outwit his younger counterpart at the Abbey chicane.

Later on Pantano pulled off a really intelligent move while battling for the lead with the fancied Lucas Di Grassi. Pantano lined himself up for a pass on the outside at Stowe. Di Grassi was preparing to defend on that basis, when all of a sudden Pantano lurched to the inside to catch Di Grassi completely unaware. Pantano had the speed to pull it off. An amazing overtaking manoeuvre.

Meanwhile, Andreas Zuber back in 4th place was finding himself under a lot of pressure from a growing train of cars that eventually included Karun Chandhok, Bruno Senna and Sébastien Buemi. Zuber desperately defended his position, even banging wheels with Chandhok after leaving it far too late to close the door.

There was an inevitability about Zuber eventually losing his place, and in the end the Austrian couldn’t cope with the pressure and went off the circuit after going way too deep at Vale. Having held up the three drivers behind him, he lost the three places immediately.

Once Zuber was out of the way, Karun Chandhok had two things to contend with. First of all Romain Grosjean was still struggling with his tyres and the whole train was beginning to reel him in. But Chandhok himself was coming under pressure from Bruno Senna. Senna in turn had to deal with Buemi.

With five laps to go another train for third place had formed, but this time with Grosjean instead of Zuber under pressure at the front. For the final five laps we were treated to a jaw-dropping display of hammer-and-tongs racing between the four drivers.

Sébastien Buemi was the first to strike, taking Senna at bridge after the Brazilian was compromised by being too close to Chandhok. But it was only a matter of time before Chandhok could take Grosjean. The Indian was released. Once that had happened, Grosjean, Buemi and Senna were three abreast through Maggotts and Becketts. Holding each other up, Chandhok was now assured third place.

Now the battle was a three-way tussle for fourth place. It doesn’t sound like especially high-stakes stuff — the difference between 5 points and 3 points — but they were all driving their backsides off in the final two laps of the race, probably looking to impress the F1 bosses.

Coming down the Hangar Straight, Buemi was losing out as a result of the side-by-side driving through Becketts. Senna bounced over the grass in his desperation to re-take Buemi, but he lost little time and was right back on the tail of the train.

In the final lap, for the second lap in a row the drivers went three abreast through Maggotts and Becketts. This time Buemi got the advantage over Grosjean. Soon enough Senna too was harrying Grosjean along the Hangar Straight and got him through Stowe. But ultimately Grosjean was able to re-gain the advantage as Senna ran wide at Priory, one of the very last corners of the race.

It wasn’t all bad news for Bruno Senna though. He took the sprint race in difficult damp conditions. Then this week have come rumours that he is in line for an F1 drive.

So what about the six protagonists of the race, who all finished in the top six of the British feature race, and are all looking for an F1 seat?

Giorgio Pantano

Pantano may have been dismissed as an old has-been. He is the only former F1 driver in a GP2 field filled with young hopefuls. But Pantano has the drive as well. And his weekend at Silverstone demonstrated an astonishing intelligence to his driving that I haven’t appreciated in him before. Not only did he plough his way to a race in in the feature race, but he also impressed in the damp conditions during the sprint race where he finished 3rd despite starting 8th on the grid as a result of his feature race win.

Giorgio Pantano may not have impressed in his first stint in F1, but I am starting to wonder if he deserves a second try. He is, after all, pulling out an impressive lead at the top of the GP2 standings. And he has the experience and racecraft to make a decent race out of a bad situation, as he showed by coming through the field twice in Silverstone.

Lucas Di Grassi

Lucas Di Grassi is currently the Renault F1 team’s third drivers. Having finished 2nd in GP2 last year behind Timo Glock, he has his foot in the door of F1. But he has only one GP2 win to his name — the 2007 Turkey feature race. And despite finishing second three times in his four GP2 races so far this year, I don’t see him as a potential F1 star after he was outwitted by Pantano.

Karun Chandhok

Chandhok impressed by seizing the initiative. He wasted relatively little time in passing Grosjean compared to Buemi and Senna, and in the end managed to pull out a 5 second gap to the three remaining scrappers.

It is difficult to say if Chandhok is F1 material. But his Indian nationality may prove useful to a certain back-of-the-grid team that gets a lot of publicity in India. If Force India want an Indian driver, they should seriously consider Karun Chandhok. After all, he can’t be that much worse than the increasingly embarrassing Giancarlo Fisichella, can he?

Sébastien Buemi

I don’t understand why more people don’t tip Buemi for a race seat. He seems to have it all. He’s certainly got the talent as his performance in Britain demonstrated. He also impressed in the damp conditions of the French sprint race by storming through the field from 21st on the grid to take the race win. Along the way he made a smart move on his team mate Senna on the run up to the Adelaide hairpin.

Sébastien Buemi also has the advantage of having backing in the form of the Red Bull Junior Team driver development programme. Although the scheme has had limited success in the past, impressing as part of the programme does help drivers get a drive at Red Bull or, more likely, Toro Rosso. He is already a test driver at Red Bull Racing, although Sebastian Vettel is more likely to get the race seat for next year.

That neatly leaves a gap at Toro Rosso though. Even though there is uncertainty as to the future direction of the Toro Rosso team, it still seems feasible that a Red Bull junior driver would get the spare seat, as pointed out by Toro Rosso chief Gerhard Berger. Plus, with a name like Sébastien, I don’t know how Toro Rosso can resist!

Romain Grosjean

Romain Grosjean was widely tipped to win the GP2 series prior to the start of the season. He won last year’s F3 Euroseries and dominated the winter GP2 Asia series. He also looks set for an F1 drive some time in the future as he is currently Renault’s test driver.

But this year he has struggled a bit in the GP2 series. His relatively poor performance in Britain, struggling on badly-worn tyres, underlined that he is not yet the complete package. I think another year in GP2 is required before Grosjean can start thinking about getting into F1.

But you never know with Renault. If they get fed up with Nelsinho Piquet, he could be in with a good shout of taking that race seat.

Bruno Senna

Senna has turned heads during his GP2 career. He won in Monaco, inevitably launching a thousand cheesy comparisons to his uncle Ayrton Senna. There is more to the comparison than just the name though. Bruno seems to have some genuine talent. The disappointment of the British feature race was forgotten when he took victory in the difficult conditions of the sprint race.

Now rumour has it that Toro Rosso are interested in his services. I would say that Bruno Senna is inevitably going to get a race seat in F1. Whether he has the talent to shine enough in F1 is almost by the way. The PR opportunities for a team having a driver by the name of Senna are massive. It is helpful that he also also handy behind the wheel. Senna may have to wait a year before getting an F1 drive. At least he doesn’t seem to be fazed by the rumours surrounding him at the moment.

As outlined in a previous bluffer’s guide, there is no promotion or relegation and the decision for teams and drivers to enter F1 is essentially a business decision. But of course drivers (and sometimes teams) do not just appear out of thin air. There are countless other categories of motor racing that drivers also compete in. There is no set route towards Formula 1, nor do all paths necessarily lead to F1. But Formula 1 is generally regarded to be ‘top of the tree’ that most drivers aspire to compete in.

However, a cursory glance at the various championships organised by the FIA alone (never mind non-FIA championships) reveals that motor racing is a hugely diverse category of sports. The skills needed to be a top F1 driver are very different to the skills required to succeed in rallying, drag racing and hill climbing!

The next two bluffer’s guides will cover those categories where you should look out for future (and sometimes past) F1 stars. I have done research on the careers of every driver that has entered a Formula 1 race in the past five seasons. This has revealed which junior formulae are the most common early destinations for future F1 stars. This post will cover the major series from GP2 to Formula 3 and everything in between.

The following diagram shows the links between categories en route to F1. Any moves made by two or more drivers are represented in the diagram. Down the centre column is by far the most common route: Formula Renault / BMW / Ford → Formula 3 → GP2 → Formula 1. Other links show more unorthodox but nevertheless common routes to and from F1. The area of the boxes denote the number of F1 drivers that have raced in that category.

Routes to F1

Tier two (maroon boxes)


The most conventional entry point to F1 is GP2. This was designed specifically as an F1 “feeder” series in 2005. The cars are similar to, but less sophisticated than, F1 cars. GP2 is a spec series (meaning that all of the cars are the same). GP2 replaced Formula 3000, which in turn replaced Formula 2 in 1985.

Current F1 drivers Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen, Nico Rosberg, Timo Glock and Nelsinho Piquet all graduated from GP2. Every year in GP2’s short history, the GP2 Champion has been offered an F1 drive for the following year so it is the place to look for up-and-coming talent. Look out for Romain Grosjean, Bruno Senna (Ayrton’s nephew) and Sébastien Buemi who could be on their way to becoming F1 drivers in the near future.

Occasionally, but not so often, former F1 drivers compete in GP2. Timo Glock entered GP2 after a fleeting appearance in F1 and after a few years he got another drive in the top category. Giorgio Pantano is another former F1 driver currently competing in GP2, but although he is relatively successful in GP2 he is getting on now and there is little interest in him from F1 teams.

The main GP2 series is a ‘support’ race at most European F1 events, so GP2 drivers get the opportunity to learn many F1 tracks. Interestingly, Giancarlo Fisichella can be seen casting a watchful eye over proceedings when he has finished his F1 sessions — he owns a GP2 team, Fisichella Motor Sport.

GP2 Asia

GP2 also has a spin-off series called GP2 Asia which runs during winter. Two events — Malaysia and Bahrain — are also F1 support races. As the name suggests, this is focussed on Asian circuits where there is an emerging interest in motor racing, though many of the teams and drivers are the same as the main GP2 Series.

Formula Nippon

Formula Nippon is the Japanese equivalent of GP2 / Formula 3000. In the past a few drivers have graduated from Formula Nippon. These include Ralf Schumacher and Pedro de la Rosa. Michael Schumacher also drove for one race in Formula Nippon prior to racing in F1.

However, the talent available in Formula Nippon not generally up to the standards of F1. The series is more likely to supply under-performing Japanese drivers such as Yuji Ide and Sakon Yamamoto. The best Japanese drivers are more likely to prove their worth in a European category, with Formula Nippon remaining primarily a Japan-centric series.

Tier 2.5 (red boxes)

I have invented ‘tier 2.5′ for the purposes of this post. It represents categories that are not as major as GP2, but are arguably more important than Formula 3.

World Series by Renault

This is a relatively new — and rapidly growing — series of motor racing. Part of Renault’s massive motor racing programme, this is also known as Formula Renault 3.5. It is designed to slot in between Formula 3 and GP2.

The series can be traced back to its roots as the Open Fortuna by Nissan in 1998. Back then it was a particularly Spanish motor racing series. But it quickly gained a reputation as a stamping ground for hot new talent. Almost every winner of the series has gone on to make a name for himself in F1 including Fernando Alonso, Heikki Kovalainen and Robert Kubica.

Over the years the series has cultivated a more international feel with races in nine different countries. The most recent winner of the series is Álvaro Parente who is currently racing in GP2. Part of the prize drivers get by winning the World Series by Renault is a test drive with the Renault F1 team.


The self-styled “World Cup of Motorsport” likes to think of itself as a major rival to F1, though in reality it is quite a minor championship. Running in winter to avoid clashing with F1, A1GP is an unusual concept in that the focus of the championship is not on drivers or teams but on nationalities.

Like GP2, A1GP is a spec series. A1GP pulled off a major coup by persuading Ferrari to design and manufacture the A1GP chassis and engine which will be used for four seasons from 2008-2009.

In its favour, A1GP has attracted entries from a number of countries which do not have a strong tradition in motor racing. This may help bring motor racing to new audiences. However, the drivers are often treated as disposable commodities, with teams swapping drivers about all season.

A1GP has not proved to be a good feeder series, with only relatively poor drivers Scott Speed and Nelsinho Piquet having graduated from A1GP to F1. Former F1 drivers can be found racing in A1GP. Ex F1 drivers to have taken part in A1GP include Jos Verstappen, Narain Karthikeyan and Franck Montagny.

Superleague Formula

Superleague Formula is, like A1GP, a slightly eccentric idea for a racing series — but might just work. It is new, hence the uncertainty. Instead of teams as we know them, drivers will be representing football clubs on the racing circuit with the spec cars decked out in each football team’s colours.

One British club — Rangers FC — is involved, along with a number of other major football clubs from around the world. The only notable driver confirmed for Superleague Formula so far is ex-F1 driver Robert Doornbos.

Formula 3 (orange box)

Formula 3 is a very important category for F1. All but four of the 45 drivers who have raced in F1 in the past five years raced in F3 along the way. As such, F3 is a great category to keep an eye on for those interested in F1’s future talent. Six recent F1 drivers including Jenson Button, Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella all made the jump directly from F3 to F1. However, success in F3 could just as easily spell a career in another category such as touring cars.

The champions of five F3 series are each eligible for an FIA Super License for 12 months. The five series are Formula 3 Euroseries, British F3 International, Italian Formula 3, Formel 3 Cup and Japanese Formula 3.

F3 is not actually a single championship. Rather, there are several championships which are part of the F3 category.

Formula 3 Euroseries

A very new series but already arguably the most important is the F3 Euroseries. As the name suggests, circuits from all around Europe are used. F3 Euroseries was originally intended to replace the separate French and German F3 championships. The French F3 series ended, but German F3 continues in a different form to this day.

Lewis Hamilton won the F3 Euroseries championship in utterly dominant fashion in 2005, the year before he entered GP2. Other notable F3 Euroseries graduates include Robert Kubica, Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel. Those still to make it to F1 but making waves nonetheless include Romain Grosjean and Sébastien Buemi. One name to watch out for among the current F3 Euroseries drivers is Nico Hülkenberg who already has a relationship with the Williams F1 team.

Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix

The Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix is an annual event that brings together many of the top F3 drivers from the various F3 competitions around the world. The Macau street circuit is a challenging racetrack. As such, drivers who excel in Macau often do well in higher categories. 13 of this year’s 22 F1 drivers have competed in this event.

Famous winners include Ayrton Senna, David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher. Recent winners include Lucas di Grassi and Mike Conway, both currently making waves in GP2.

Masters of Formula 3

Another major international F3 event, this is Europe’s most important F3 race. Like Macau, 13 of this year’s F1 drivers have competed in this event. Recent winners include Lewis Hamilton, Christian Klien and Nico Hülkenberg.

British F3 International

The F3 championship with the longest history is British F3 (now known as British F3 International). The ‘British’ in British F3 refers only to the circuits that are used. The championship itself is open to drivers of all nationalities, but all of the races are held in Britain.

The list of British F3 champions includes many familiar names that went on to make a name for themselves in F1. Most notable in recent years is perhaps Mika Häkkinen who won the 1990 British F3 championship and went on to become a double F1 World Champion in 1998 and 1999. In 2000, Jenson Button caused a stir by leaping straight from F3 to F1, even though he only finished third in the British British F3 championship! But the British F3 roll of honour also contains a number of promising youngsters whose stars faded before they could reach the top category.

Seven of this season’s F1 drivers competed in British F3. Additionally, several test drivers honed their skills in this series. F1 takes a great deal of interest in British F3 and Kimi Räikkönen co-owns a British F3 team, Räikkönen Robertson Racing. Recent British F3 drivers to look out for in future include Mike Conway, Álvaro Parente and Marko Asmer.

Other F3 series

Other F3 series include the Formel 3 Cup (originally German F3, which Michael Schumacher won in 1990 and several other F1 drivers competed in their youth), Japanese F3 (which Adrian Sutil won in 2006) and Italian F3 (whose biggest name has been Giancarlo Fisichella). Drivers from Latin America including Rubens Barrichello and Nelsinho Piquet have competed in Formula 3 Sudamericana.

Keep an eye out for the next bluffer’s guide which will look at entry-level series and non-open wheel series.