Archive: test drivers

There is a surfeit of motor racing championships that aim to usher in the next generation of Formula 1 stars. But only a few are worth paying serious attention to.

GP2 — the ‘official’ way to progress to F1

The most well-known by a long way is GP2. Backed by Bernie Ecclestone, GP2 is the closest thing there is to an ‘official’ feeder series to the pinnacle of motorsport.

Since its inception in 2005, GP2 has been a stepping stone for some of F1’s biggest names. With a solid F1-style car and a unique status as the support race to almost every European grand prix (thereby giving drivers vital experience at many F1 circuits), there is no doubt that GP2 is a strong category.

The main alternative: World Series by Renault

World Series by Renault logo

But beyond the ‘official’ routes to F1, World Series by Renault (sometimes known as Formula Renault 3.5) has established itself as a series to take seriously.

No fewer than 18 F1 drivers have raced in World Series by Renault or one of its earlier incarnations. Among them are Robert Kubica, Heikki Kovalainen and Kamui Kobayashi. In 1999, World Champion Fernando Alonso also won what was then the Euro Open by Nissan series.

Most impressively, in 2007 Sebastian Vettel was leading the championship when he became an F1 driver mid-season. We all know how that story ends.

Strong drivers in World Series by Renault

This year’s World Series by Renault field has some very strong drivers in the field. Two of the favourites for the championship, Daniel Ricciardo and Robert Wickens, are currently already F1 test drivers, for Toro Rosso and Virgin respectively. These drivers are so hotly tipped that both have been rumoured to become race drivers before this season is even finished. I will certainly eat my hat if they are not racing in F1 in 2012.

The pair put on a wet weather masterclass in Race 1 at the Nürburgring two weekends ago. In changeable conditions, they had the measure of the rest of the field while engaging in a tense battle for the lead.

The talent doesn’t end there. Other current F1 test drivers participating in World Series by Renault include Fairuz Fauzy and Jan Charouz (both for Renault F1).

Meanwhile, Jean-Eric Vergne is next in the queue behind Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull Young Driver sausage factory, and rightly so. His performances at Spa-Francorchamps were at times jaw-dropping.

Young Estonian Kevin Korjus (Race 2 winner at the Nürburgring) has also turned heads in his rookie World Series by Renault season.

Scrappy driving in GP2

When you compare it with this year’s GP2 field, the ‘official’ feeder series seems to lack that edge slightly. No driver has managed to take full control of the championship — nor has anyone shown signs that they deserve to.

Romain Grosjean has come the closest. But you could argue that he ought to be. He is highly experienced compared to most of his competitors, and even has some F1 races under his belt. He is this year’s Giorgio Pantano. He has been involved in some questionable incidents. He managed to crash into his teammate at Barcelona. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he then climbed all over him as part of the truly farcical scenes in the qualifying session at Monaco.

Meanwhile, the hotly-tipped Jules Bianchi (who is a Ferrari test driver) has been surprisingly clumsy, lurching from needless crash to avoidable gaffe. After a promising (albiet curtailed) GP2 Asia campaign last winter, Bianchi currently languishes in 15th in the championship, having managed to score points in just two of the eight races so far.

Giedo van der Garde has arguably been the most consistent, but still manages to make needless errors. In Valencia, he was penalised for overtaking under yellow flags.

Beyond this, it is difficult to see where the F1 stars of the future are in this year’s GP2 field.

A good alternative for both viewers and drivers

Moreover, the World Series by Renault season has been more action-packed for my money. This season’s calendar visits seven current Formula 1 venues, including some of the best circuits in the world. Spa, Monza, Silverstone and even Monaco all have slots in World Series by Renault. The calendar is refreshingly light on Tilke designs.

The Formula Renault 3.5 cars themselves are impressive, providing an ideal bridge between the well-established Formula Renault 2.0 cars. They typically run just a few seconds a lap slower than GP2 cars.

From next season, the car will step up a gear with a more powerful engine and greater downforce. But most eye-catching is the introduction DRS-style moveable aerodynamics. It could well be that the new Formula Renault 3.5 cars will prepare drivers for F1 better than a GP2 car can.

The combination of superb F1-style cars, excellent circuits and promising drivers is creating great entertainment. For me, it is the feeder series to watch.

In my review of the European Grand Prix, I didn’t mention Luca Badoer, who made his high-profile Ferrari début at the race. It was always going to be a tough ask, because the odds were so heavily stacked against him.

For one thing, he had to get used to the car, which he had never driven at racing speeds before. According to Ted Kravitz:

Evidently the Ferrari F60 is a very complicated car to operate. There are many buttons and dials to turn and twist: Kers harvest and usage settings, brake balance and bias levers, fuel and oil pumps, front flap adjusts and the usual revs, throttle and mixture settings.

I’m not sure if he is implying that the F60 is more difficult to get used to than other current F1 cars. But whatever, it is certainly new territory for Badoer who is used to driving cars in the relatively tranquil environment of the test session rather than the intense spotlight and razzmatazz of a grand prix weekend. To deal with all of this in the first time he’s properly driven the F60 — and in his first race for ten years at that — is undeniably a big ask.

Luca Badoer must have been as shocked as everyone else when it was announced that he was to race in Valencia. It is typical of Badoer’s luck. F1 has shat on this driver for his whole career. I would highly recommend his biography on F1 Rejects for a full overview.

He may not be F1 championship material. But he is the 1992 Formula 3000 champion, having beaten Rubens Barrichello, Olivier Panis and David Coulthard among others in the process. So he is no fool.

But in F1 he never got the proper chance to demonstrate his abilities, being stuck with back-of-the-grid teams Scuderia Italia, Minardi and Forti — and despite usually having the upper-hand over his team mates on the racetrack, politics often meant he found it difficult to move ahead in his career.

You might have thought that signing with Ferrari to become their test driver in 1998 would have seen an upswing in his fortunes. In a lot of ways, Badoer must be the unsung hero of Ferrari’s success since then. He is the test driver who has helped develop cars capable of winning Championship after Championship following a twenty year drought for Ferrari.

Normally a team’s test driver would be the first choice to step in if a driver needs replaced. Inexplicably, when Michael Schumacher broke his legs in 1999, Ferrari opted to look outside the team. They placed Mika Salo in the car, when most observers expected Badoer to get the nod. Subsequently, Badoer stayed on with Ferrari having been promised that he would be the reserve driver.

Since then, Ferrari has had a remarkable period of driver stability. Between 1999 and 2009, Ferrari changed drivers only three times (Irvine replaced by Barrichello, Barrichello replaced by Massa and Schumacher replaced by Räikkönen)! At no point did any driver have to be replaced at short notice. No space for Badoer ever emerged. One must imagine that after twelve years waiting, he would have given up believing.

Then Felipe Massa was injured at Hungary. In the year that there was a radical change in technical regulations which is said to be the biggest in 25 years. In the year that testing is banned. In the one year that Luca Badoer had never driven the Ferrari car. And when the next race was at a brand new circuit which he had never visited.

Of course Luca Badoer didn’t get the call. Michael Schumacher did instead, and the media could barely contain their excitement. Schumacher is a seven times World Champion, but still people openly wondered: is Schumacher up to the task? Can he get used to the new car? Is he fit enough? At 40, will he be too old? In the end, it turned out that Schumacher couldn’t do the job because of the injury he picked up while racing Superbikes in Germany.

So it was down to Badoer to shoulder the responsibility of making something out of the pickle that Ferrari found themselves in. Of course, the media won’t be lining up with the same excuses that were already being served up on Schumacher’s behalf before his comeback. This was despite the fact that there are actually quite legitimate reasons for Badoer to be off the pace. Badoer is not much younger than Schumacher, and is the oldest driver on the grid. But that is not an excuse apparently, despite the fact that it supposedly would have been for Schumacher.

Instead, the media has spent its time openly laughing at Luca Badoer, almost willing him to do badly. The schadenfreude soaked through the reports as the journalists gleefully reported Badoer’s four pitlane speeding offences on Friday, a symptom of the fact that the pitlane speed limit is substantially higher during test sessions and Badoer needed time to adjust to the new braking points required.

All I can say is, Badoer is not the one who parked his car at Rascasse, but never mind. Of course, the journalists were just taking it out on Badoer because he isn’t Princess Schumacher so they lost their “fairytale” story that is so desperately needed to sell a turgid circuit like Valencia.

I found the gulf in opinion between the journalists and the drivers very interesting. While the journalists were busy thinking up oh-so-witty nicknames like “Look-how Bad-you-are”, the drivers in contrast felt sorry for the situation that Badoer found himself in. Jarno Trulli described Badoer’s situation as “impossible”. Lewis Hamilton said that Badoer has “done a good job just to keep it on the track”, while Kovalainen shrugged: “I don’t know what else you could have expected.”

The split was also demonstrated on the Chequered Flag podcast. David Croft mocked, “even Yuji Ide had more promise” (which is totally untrue — Badoer has already achieved much more in his career than Ide could ever hope for). F1 Racing‘s Bradley Lord said, “Badoer approached this race as a test — and he failed this one.” Ha-very-ha. Anthony Davidson had plead to his bloodthirsty journalist colleagues, “give him some space!”

David Coulthard summed up the situation nicely: “Who would be Luca Badoer? You wait 10 years for your chance to race for Ferrari and then, despite having no preparation whatsoever, you get slated for not being Michael Schumacher.”

In Checkpoint 10’s excellent analysis, it is shown that Badoer was not actually half as bad as the journalists would have you believe. His qualifying time was 103.4% of the fastest time, when the 107% rule used to eliminate drivers on a regular basis.

He struggled during the race. After a good start, he was obviously spooked by being surrounded by other cars on lap 1 and spun. He then panicked in the pitlane, seemingly allowing Romain Grosjean to overtake him before he crossed the white line. And he had a worryingly erratic second stint. But overall, Badoer showed improvement as the race progressed, and noticeably caught up with Räikkönen’s pace as the race progressed and Badoer became more comfortable.

In sum, yes, Badoer had a very disappointing weekend. But that is mostly because driving standards are so high these days. You don’t have to go far to find real joke drivers who definitely did not deserve to be racing and did a much worse job than Badoer.

I grew up watching people people who paid to get a race seat trundle around up to a dozen seconds per lap off the pace. Hell, you only have to go back a few years to encounter and Yuji Ide, who suffered the ignominy of being stripped of his super license. The last pay driver went when Sakon Yamamoto lost his seat. Driving standards all the way through the grid are very high compared with ten or even five years ago. This amplifies Badoer’s rustiness.

Badoer’s performance in Valencia is the sort of thing that would have been commonplace at the back of the grid in the mid-1990s. You might say that this is not the mid-1990s, but when you consider everything that is stacked against Luca Badoer — his age, his lack of experience, never having driven the F60 before, never having been to the Valencia Street Circuit before, and having to get used to the modern-day race weekend environment — I think he should be cut a bit more slack.

I feel very sorry for Badoer, who has had a very tough F1 career where he has been given the rough end of the stick at almost every turn. It looks likely that Badoer will be replaced come Monza, which would be fair enough if he doesn’t show a perceptible improvement in Spa.

But now Badoer will probably be remembered for these two difficult races where he was thrown in at the deep end, and everyone decided to point and laugh at this man (who, do not forget, is actually putting his life on the line when he goes out to race). I am not sure whether this is better than being remembered for breaking down in tears at his previous European Grand Prix, in 1999.

Wow, a day certainly is a long time in F1. I am not sure when I will get round to actually writing about the Hungarian GP, though at least there is a long break until the next race.

But the big news this evening is that the next race will feature Michael Schumacher on the grid. He has been announced as the replacement for Felipe Massa while the Brazilian makes his recovery.

A lot of names have been bandied around over the past few days, and none of them seemed terribly lucky. Optimists suggested that Fernando Alonso or Robert Kubica might be able to get out of their current contracts to move to Ferrari mid-season.

Mirko Bortolotti was another driver on the radar. Last year’s Italian F3 champion has impressed in previous tests with Ferrari. He is currently building up his skills in Formula Two is widely tipped to have a bright future. But it is near enough unheard-of for Ferrari to hire a young rookie.

Some talked up the chances of David Coulthard or Anthony Davidson getting the role. That seemed a bit like pie in the sky thinking though.

The other drivers who currently have relationships with Ferrari are the team’s official test and reserve drivers, Marc Gené and Luca Badoer. But they were unlikely to step in for a whole host of reasons. Neither has a particularly strong track record as a race driver, although you can argue that neither ever had a decent opportunity to show their skills.

But their lack of fresh experience will have seriously counted against them. Gené last raced five years ago for Williams, and faced the ignominy of being replaced by Antônio Pizzonia for being too slow! Meanwhile, Luca Badoer hasn’t raced in F1 for ten years.

The last time Ferrari had to replace a driver midway through a season was when Michael Schumacher broke his legs at the 1999 British Grand Prix. Then, it was widely expected that Luca Badoer, as Ferrari’s test driver, would take his place. Instead, the Scuderia controversially overlooked him and hired Mika Salo.

It was a bad year for Badoer, who came close to finishing 4th for Minardi in that season’s European Grand Prix before his car broke down. He has never had an opportunity to score a World Championship point since.

Luca Badoer has held the test role at Ferrari for a staggering thirteen years without there ever being a sniff of a race drive. If he was overlooked in 1999, he was going to be overlooked today.

Now that testing is banned, it makes you wonder just what the point of a test driver is any more. I recently read that neither Marc Gené nor Luca Badoer have had any mileage whatsoever in this season’s Ferrari F60, in which case the advantage of selecting them over Michael Schumacher — who has loads more talent and, perhaps even more importantly, ocean loads of PR value — is non-existent.

This comes mere weeks after an elaborate re-arranging of deckchairs at Red Bull, as they apparently sought ways to replace Sébastien Bourdais at Toro Rosso without putting Brendon Hartley in the car. Up until the mid-season point, Hartley had been the official Red Bull reserve driver. But mere days before the reserve driver would actually be needed, he was replaced by Jaime Alguersuari.

Other drivers left twiddling their thumbs this year include: Pedro de la Rosa, Gary Paffett, Christian Klien, Romain Grosjean (though perhaps not for long), Adam Khan, Kamui Kobayashi, Nicolas Hülkenberg, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Anthony Davidson and Alexander Wurz.

If a team had to bring in a replacement driver, how many of these would be considered ready and able to race? Not many of them have much in the way of decent mileage of 2009’s cars. Who is to say, for instance, that McLaren would not rather stick Paul di Resta in their car over Pedro de la Rosa? Would Toyota happily give Kobayashi a seat, or would they prefer to take Nakajima?

Just a few years ago it looked like drivers could make a decent living out of being a test driver. Now they never get to test, and they’ll be lucky to get to race.

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 Grandprix.com 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.

Over the past couple of days, Vitantonio Liuzzi has re-emerged into the consciousness of this F1 fan. He remains in his role as test driver for Force India. But apparently it’s an “open secret” that the Italian has a contract to race for the team in 2010 and 2011.

I, for one, applaud this news. I have always been perplexed by the way Liuzzi was sidelined and shunned by all teams. That goes especially for Force India, who have possibly the two most easily-dropped drivers on the grid.

Giancarlo Fisichella — never the most exciting of drivers — is well into the waning phase of his career. Meanwhile, Adrian Sutil has precious little to show for his two full seasons, besides a one-off good run in Monaco which he partially attained by illegally overtaking under yellow flags. The only way you could construct a rustier partnership with current F1 drivers would be if you paired Rubens Barrichello with Nelsinho Piquet.

But why Liuzzi?, I hear you ask. Quite simply, he hasn’t had a proper chance to demonstrate his considerable talent in F1.

I say considerable talent, because that is what he has. Look back at the 2004 Formula 3000 season. Liuzzi was not only the last-ever F3000 Champion. He utterly dominated the field.

Granted, the field wasn’t the most exciting. The only other drivers to win a race that season were Enrico Toccacelo (whose career path fell off the edge of a cliff after that season), and Robert Doornbos and Patrick Friesacher, both of whom got a drive in F1 with disappointing results.

But someone who wins seven out of ten races and finishes second in two of the others in one of the most important feeder formulae needs to be seriously talented. Indeed, at one point he was supposedly destined for a role at Ferrari.

Unfortunately for him, he ended up getting tied up in the overly political world of the Red Bull driver development programme. In his first season as a Red Bull F1 driver, he was forced to share the seat with Christian Klien (another person whose career was left on the scrapheap). Even then, it was not exactly a fair share. He ended up racing just four times, as the Red Bull management clocked that having two drivers with limited experience was not as good as having one driver with solid experience.

For 2006, Liuzzi was offloaded to Toro Rosso where he partnered Scott Speed. It was the first year of the team’s existence, and an outdated and (deliberately) underpowered Cosworth engine did not help matters.

2007 should have been better, and things did begin to look up towards the end of the season. If we believe what we read, the atmosphere within the team was very political, and neither driver saw eye-to-eye with the management. Scott Speed left the team after allegedly being physically assaulted by team boss Franz Tost. After that, Speed came out and said that Franz Tost and Gerhard Berger were “pushing like hell to get rid of me and Tonio.”

Nonetheless, Liuzzi, unlike Speed, saw out the season. He was partnered by a certain young Sebastian Vettel. Today people note what Vettel has gone on to achieve, and how Liuzzi’s performances in the same car show the Italian in a more favourable light — as the Grandprix.com article highlights. This is perhaps slightly unfair. Vettel’s F1 career was just a few races old. By the end of 2007, Liuzzi had 39 races under his belt.

Nonetheless, you cannot avoid the fact that Liuzzi has not yet had a fair crack of the whip. He has never had decent machinery, nor has he ever had a favourable political environment to let him get on with the job.

Now his relatively large amount of experience would make him an ideal candidate for an F1 drive. This is especially the case now that (thanks to the ever-ingenious Max Mosley and the FIA) young drivers can’t get enough testing mileage to get proper experience before being thrown in at the deep end.

Tonio Liuzzi has played a canny move by taking part in the Speedcar series. Apparently his performances have turned heads. It certainly ensures that he won’t get race rusty.

I, for one, hope he makes it back into F1, if only for him to get a proper chance to show what he’s made of. A race seat at Force India is not exactly the Ferrari that seemed to be his destiny four or five years ago. It’s the least he deserves.

I think this year Felipe Massa has converted a lot of people. Particularly, his performance — both on and off the track — were a demonstration on what a true sportsman should be all about. After turning in a perfect performance in challenging conditions, Massa had the World Championship snatched from his grasp by events outwith his control in the cruellest of fashions.

His behaviour after this shattering event has won widespread praise, and rightly so. Dignified in defeat, where others may have gone in a sulk, Massa took the hammer-blow on the chin and vowed to try again next year.

With his behaviour, Felipe Massa has completely won me over. Not only that — his driving has won me over too.

Massa has always been tainted by his début season in 2002 which the Brazilian himself confesses was too erratic. A year out of racing gave him the opportunity to test for Ferrari. He impressed the Scuderia so much that he was offered a race seat in 2006.

At Ferrari he has been mentored by Michael Schumacher and has forged an important partnership with his race engineer Rob Smedley. Today’s Felipe Massa, as opposed to the erratic guy Sauber hired, is a product of the Ferrari team. They recognised that Massa had the talent and the speed — and they learnt how to shake the errors out of him.

The transformation has been slow, and like a frog being boiled it has happened so slowly that we almost didn’t realise it. Massa has retained the image of the erratic driver who can’t stop making errors. But in a season littered with driver errors, Massa has not done much worse than many others.

Lewis Hamilton had the pressure on him because he was expected to do well. But Massa had more pressure on him because he was expected to do badly. But Massa has shown the critics. After a shaky start to the season, Massa has proved that he has the ability to become true World Championship material.

Somewhere along the way, Massa got a reputation for being poor in the wet. I particularly remember his performance in the 2007 European Grand Prix underlining this. His five spins at Silverstone this year did not help.

But any fair assessment would have to take into account the fact that Kimi Räikkönen also spun a number of times during the same race. Maybe not as often as Massa, but it suggests that there was something wrong with the car rather than the driver in that instance.

Look at some of the other wet races this season. In Monaco, Massa had a slight problem when he ran wide at Ste Devote, losing a place to Robert Kubica. But three of the best drivers on the grid — Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen — all made contact with the barriers, while Massa did not.

In Spa (tainted though that victory may be in the eyes of many), Felipe Massa won a race in wet conditions which completely got the better of Räikkönen. And victory in Brazil never looked in any doubt.

The other main taunt that Massa received is that he was only good at certain circuits, namely Bahrain, Turkey and Brazil. This year he won all three of those — but he also added France, Europe and Belgium to the list. Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps being, of course, the driver’s circuit, a true test of skill and bravery.

Is Felipe Massa the more improved driver in recent years? I struggle to think of anyone who can rival him for that title. Felipe Massa is living, breathing proof of what you can achieve when you set your heart to it. The sub-par driver who was a laughing stock has had the last laugh — even if the title still (just) eludes him. If he doesn’t get another crack, I will feel sorry for him.

With just four races of the season left to go, none of the ten teams left in the championship has made a change to their driver line-up. No teams show any sign of ditching their drivers any time soon.

Earlier on in the season there were rumours that Renault were losing patience with Nelsinho Piquet. But a lucky drive to 2nd place in Germany helped his cause. It has to be said, he has steadily improved in his performances. He appears to have secured his place until the end of the season.

There were also murmurings that both Force India drivers were threatened with being replaced with test driver Vitantonio Liuzzi. But little has been heard of this rumour for several months as Adrian Sutil and Giancarlo Fisichella have both performed adequately.

Additionally, there was a rumour that David Coulthard would retire immediately after the Italian Grand Prix. However, this too has died down and it looks as though the Scot will see out his final season.

If all twenty drivers manage to see out the season, it must surely be the first time this has ever happened. I’ve checked every season right back to 1989, but I can’t be bothered to check the rest — but I’d be surprised if any season had this kind of consistency in its line up.

Arguably, 2008 doesn’t quite make the cut either as Super Aguri, along with its two drivers Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson, withdrew from the championship prior to the Spanish Grand Prix. But that can’t detract from the achievement of the other 20 drivers in the championship who are on the verge of, collectively, achieving what no other F1 grid has achieved before.

For me, it is a testament to the quality in display in F1 this season. The cars are all incredibly close to each other in performance, and the twenty drivers in the grid are all pretty much deserving of their seat.

Formula 1 appears to have shaken off the curse of the pay driver. I read earlier in the season that 2008 is the first time there has not been a pay driver on the grid, and I can well believe that. Thankfully we haven’t seen the likes of Sakon Yamamoto, Yuji Ide or Ricardo Rosset on the grid this season.

This is how the pinnacle of motorsport should be: twenty slots for the twenty best grand prix drivers in the world. It doesn’t often happen, but I think it has happened this year. The twenty drivers that have raced all season can reasonably argue that they are genuinely among the most talented in the world. F1 teams’ reluctance to hire any of this season’s GP2 drivers underlines this.

With the news this week that Toro Rosso will evaluate Takuma Sato for a race seat at a test in a couple of weeks, there have been the same gasps of confusion we hear whenever Sato is linked to another team. The usual question people ask is, “Why don’t they choose Anthony Davidson rather than Sato?”

Let us leave aside the reason why Toro Rosso are pursuing Takuma Sato. As F1Wolf pointed out last week, it makes perfect commercial sense for Toro Rosso to do this, so why not?

What I want to focus on is why so many people think that Anthony Davidson is better than Takuma Sato. Seriously, why? Because I for one don’t see it.

There is absolutely no doubt that Anthony Davidson has a very sharp mind. That is evident from his increasingly frequent forays into the commentary box for BBC Radio 5 Live. And I wouldn’t quarrel with the argument that he is an excellent test and development driver.

But does he cut it as a race driver? I am not so sure. For years, Davidson was always the “what if?” man. What if his first two races were in a team better than Minardi? What if his engine didn’t crap out on him not long after his one and only start for long-time employers BAR? What if he wasn’t driving a boat on wheels when he was at Super Aguri?

Fair points all. However, after his first two abortive stints as race driver, he was shown a lot of faith by Super Aguri who raced him for the whole of the 2007 season, and intended for him to race for all of 2008 (albeit in undoubtedly difficult circumstances). This prolonged period as race driver finally gave us the chance to see what a non-race-rusty Davidson was capable of. Did he impress? I’m not so sure.

You can argue that Takuma Sato didn’t impress much either. But that ignores one small fact… He did impress. At least, he impressed those who paid attention. Don’t forget that Sato earned four points for Super Aguri in 2007 while Davidson’s highest race finish all year was 11th, a whole three positions away from scoring even one point. He even only achieved that twice.

Plus, Takuma Sato’s overtaking move on Fernando Alonso in the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix was just brilliant. Many drivers would have bottled it. But Taku just kept his foot down and pulled the move off with perfection. It doesn’t exactly fit in with his “crash-happy” image.

Show me anything that Davidson has ever done that even comes close to this. I don’t mean just mean a one-off qualifying lap or “he was running in 12th in the Bumshire Grand Prix until his car broke down”. I mean something that genuinely makes him stand out as a great racing driver. Because I never saw it.

The results don’t lie. Even though the Super Aguri was slow, at least it was not too unreliable. This gives us a good opportunity to compare results between team mates. Out of 9 races which both Davidson and Sato started in 2007, Davidson finished ahead of Sato just twice. Meanwhile, Sato scraped up the only points Super Aguri ever scored.

While Takuma Sato has a reputation for being rather erratic and “crash-happy”, he has had moments of great success. Having scored 44 points throughout his career, he is far and away Japan’s most successful F1 driver ever (and there have been many Japanese F1 drivers). He had a series of excellent results in 2004 including a well-deserved podium in Indianapolis. This was good enough to finish 8th in the Drivers Championship.

When you throw in the fact that Takuma Sato has started almost four times as many Grands Prix as Davidson and therefore has bucketloads of experience, I really scratch my head as to why so many people consider Davidson to be better than Sato. I just don’t get it.

Sato is erratic, yes, but on his day he has the pace and the guts required. Davidson is dependable but anonymous and slow. Am I not right? What am I missing?

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.

At last, bluffer’s guide makes its return. For the past couple of months I’ve been too busy to continue the series, but now I have some more free time. Previous bluffer’s guides have looked at the rules and aspects of strategy. This guide will look at issues around teams and drivers: how they enter, why they enter and what their job is.

Entry requirements

At present there are ten constructors (the posh word for teams) in Formula 1. Each team enters two cars, meaning that 20 cars are entered into each event. There is nothing set in stone about these numbers. It is thought that according to the Concorde Agreement (which will be covered in a future bluffer’s guide) a minimum of 20 may enter. According to the FIA Sporting Regulations, a maximum of 24 cars may start a race.

Teams normally stick with the same two drivers throughout the season. However they may use up to four different drivers in one season, or more at the FIA’s approval.

In addition to the two race drivers, every team employs test drivers. These test drivers may be used during the Friday Practice sessions, although each team is still limited to running two cars. For this reason, teams tend to use their race drivers anyway.

A driver must be awarded an FIA Super License before he may compete in Formula 1. To achieve this, a driver must show consistent form in a lower category. Failing that, a driver may get a Super License with the unanimous approval of… whoever makes that decision — provided he has tested for at least 300km at racing speeds in a current car.

This is basically to prevent rubbish but rich drivers from paying loads of money to achieve his childhood dream of entering a Grand Prix. However, it hasn’t stopped the occasional bad egg from slipping through the net!

The decision to enter

Unlike some other sports, there is no promotion or relegation in F1. The decision to enter Formula 1 is essentially little more than a business decision. Once a team has met the FIA’s requirements, all a team has to do is be able to fund itself in order to keep going.

The huge costs involved in running an F1 team are enough to keep the list of potential entrants low. There is space for 12 teams in the Championship and only ten of them are taken. One of those teams is currently up for sale. There is little point in setting up a new team if you can easily buy an existing one.

This season began with 11 constructors. But when Super Aguri ran out of funding it had to pull out.

Similarly, drivers have few requirements to meet. They must have a Super License (as outlined in the section above). But apart from that, all they have to do to get a drive is basically to persuade a team to give them a drive.

This does not depend on talent alone, although that is of course a huge factor. Many drivers get a slot at a poorly-funded team by bringing sponsorship money. Such drivers are known as ‘pay drivers’ because they effectively pay for their drive at a team.

Some pay drivers have gone down in history as being notoriously awful. Ricardo Rosset had lots of cash as he was the heir to an underwear business. Fittingly enough, his performances in F1 were, indeed, pants.

The 2008 season is said to be the first year for a very long time (perhaps ever) when the grid did not contain any pay drivers. However, it is also thought that Nelsinho Piquet and Adrian Sutil bring substantial sponsorship moneys to their respective teams.

A team sport or an individual sport?

Formula 1 (along with most other forms of motor racing) is rather unique among sports because it is both a team sport and an individual sport. A good driver would be nowhere were it not for a team of hundreds working tirelessly to provide him with a good car. On the day of the race, an army of people analyse the race as it happens to try and come up with the best strategy for the conditions. And the efforts of the pit crew cannot go unnoticed, as they must be relied upon to ensure that pitstops are carried out smoothly.

In this sense, you can say that Formula 1 is a team sport, but one that places a huge amount of the responsibility on one individual. Once the driver is on the track, there is not much more the team can do to help him, and it is up to the driver not to make a mistake. For this reason, there are two championships in F1 — one for drivers and one for constructors.

Each team enters two drivers and these are often referred to as “team mates”. However, often there is nothing “matey” about the relationship between these two individuals. Indeed, they might hate each other because the one person they want to beat more than anyone else is their team mate, who is usually racing with equal equipment. Comparing team mates with each other is an important barometer of a driver’s skill, so it is usually in a driver’s interest to undermine his team mate.

However, pragmatically a driver has to remember that he is an employee of his team. If a team decides that it is in their best interests to help one driver more than another, they are within their rights to do this. This is known as “team orders” and is part of racing. (Team orders will be discussed in more detail in a future bluffer’s guide.)

Testing

Teams spend a lot of time testing their cars to make sure that their developments work properly before racing with them. Such tests must be held at an FIA-sanctioned circuit. Testing is limited to 30,000km per team per calendar year. This limit excludes promotional events and young driver training. A young driver is defined as a driver who has not competed in a Formula 1 event for 24 months or has not tested an F1 car for more than four days in the past 24 months.

Teams often employ test drivers whose specific job is to test the car. Often race drivers are used at test sessions in addition to test drivers. Some drivers become highly regarded for their ability to give feedback to their engineers and for their knowledge of how to set up a car. Examples of such drivers include Pedro de la Rosa, Alexander Wurz and Anthony Davidson. These drivers are all highly regarded as test drivers but struggle to get a race drive.

Car development

F1 teams do not just launch a car at the beginning of the season and race with it all year. Teams work throughout the year to improve their performance and developments are made to the cars several times per year as the teams see fit. In most cases, the car at the end of the season is completely different to the car that began the season. Check out Formula1.com’s excellent technical section to keep up with the main car developments throughout the year.

Logically, though, the largest leaps are made over the winter when there is no racing going on. Usually each car is an evolution of the previous year’s car. Sometimes cars are re-designed almost from the ground up each year. This used to happen fairly often, but is increasingly rare these days — unless a team hires a new chief aerodynamicist or some other radical team structural change.

Every time there is a major change to a chassis, its name changes. Usually the name changes in a predictable way for the start of each season. For instance, in 2007 Ferrari’s chassis was the F2007 and McLaren’s was the MP4-22. This year those teams’ chassis are the F2008 and the MP4-23 respectively.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop a team from using the same chassis for two years in a row (although this usually doesn’t happen because the pace of development is such that running a two year old chassis would be a serious disadvantage to any team) or from running two different chassis in one season — just as long, of course, as the chassis met the technical regulations. It is quite common for a team to use their old chassis for the first few races of the year if the development of the new car has been delayed for some reason. This happened to Toro Rosso this year, whose new STR3 was not used until the Monaco Grand Prix, six races into the season.

Liveries

Historically, teams ran traditional liveries with each nationality having a traditional colour. Britain, of course, had British Racing Green, and Italian cars ran in the deep scarlet colour (‘Rosso Corsa’) made so famous by Ferrari. Of course, with the introduction of sponsorship in the late 1960s, this was never going to last and now teams appear in whatever colours take their fancy. But is it true that F1 cars are “glorified cigarette packets”?

The arrival of sponsorship does not mean that the history has gone forever. McLaren (Mercedes) run with a predominantly silver livery and red car numbers, a reflection of the Silver Arrows’ history. BMW run with their corporate colours of navy blue, though the majority of the car is white, Germany’s traditional racing colour.

Honda and Toyota have also run in Japan’s traditional white and red (although today Honda runs in a white, green and blue ‘Earth’ car to highlight environmental concerns). When tobacco sponsorship was still allowed in F1, Honda cleverly used the Lucky Strike logo to double up as the traditional ‘red sun’. Ferrari, of course, are famous for running their traditional ‘Rosso Corsa’ colour. However, in recent years this shade has become lighter, more similar to the shade of red used in Marlboro packets (Phillip Morris still heavily fund Ferrari even though tobacco sponsorship technically does not exist in F1).

Ligier / Prost used blue until the team’s demise in 2002. When Jaguar briefly participated in F1 at the start of this decade, it ran in a deep green. However, it was slightly lighter than British Racing Green, apparently to make sponsor logos stand out better on television. The team that Jaguar bought, the (Ford-powered) Stewart team ran in white and blue, the American racing colours.

Of course, there is nothing in F1’s rules that dictates that teams should use traditional colours. These rules were relaxed in 1970. But clearly many F1 teams still value their heritage enough to run colour schemes that are inspired by history.

Some aspects of the livery are restricted though. The two cars of each team must look “substantially” similar at every event in a year. In 1999, the new BAR team (owned by British American Tobacco) wanted to advertise two of its cigarette brands, one on each car. However, the FIA would not be moved. BAR’s compromise was to advertise one brand along the left side of the car and a different brand on the right. The resulting livery was a real mess and widely derided. From 2000 onwards, BAR’s ditched the ‘dual livery’ scheme.

Each car must display the badge of the car make on the front of the car. The name and national flag of the driver should be displayed on the side (usually just behind the driver’s helmet on the engine cover). The car number should also be visible from the front and the side. However, many spectators complain that the numbers are so small that you cannot see them.

Nowadays, a different way of telling apart the two cars of each team is to look at the ‘T-cam’ (the onboard camera that appears on top of the rollover structure just above and behind the driver’s head). For the lead driver, this is a fluorescent red. For a team’s second driver, it is fluorescent yellow.

Of course, another way to tell drivers apart is to look at their helmets. Traditionally, drivers design their own helmets although these days they are covered in sponsor logos just like the cars are. A good helmet design can become as famous as a historic car livery. Just think of Ayrton Senna’s yellow helmet, Graham Hill’s deep blue helmet with white tabs around the top (an adaptation of a London Rowing Club design, and also used by Graham’s son Damon) or Jackie Stewart’s white helmet with a tartan band around the top.

Car numbers

A minor, but interesting, point is how car numbers are allocated. Car numbers are published by the FIA before the start of each season and remain the same all season.

The current World Champion always races with the number 1. His team mate is allocated number 2. In instances when the World Champion is not participating in the race, it is probable that the Constructors Champion would use the numbers 0 and 2.

Under the old system of allocating car numbers (which ran until 1995), this happened in 1993 and 1994 when Damon Hill ran with the number 0 for two years running. The first time was because of the retirement of Nigel Mansell and the second time was due to the retirement of Alain Prost.

After the numbers 1 (or 0) and 2 are allocated, the following numbers are allocated according to the finishing position in the previous year’s Constructors Championship. So, ignoring the Constructor bearing numbers 1 (or 0) and 2, the highest-scoring constructor will carry the numbers 3 and 4, the next highest-scoring will carry the numbers 5 and 6, and so on. The number 13 is skipped for unclear reasons, though it’s safe to assume that this is due to superstition.

Not all superstitious numbers are removed though. In 2005 Japanese driver Takuma Sato was allocated the number 4 which is an unlucky number in Japanese culture (ominously being closely associated with death). True enough, his season was riddled with bad luck and strange mistakes.

This season McLaren are racing with the numbers 22 and 23 because they were excluded from last year’s Constructors Championship. Super Aguri were allocated numbers 20 and 21. Although Super Aguri no longer participates in F1, McLaren’s numbers remain 22 and 23 for consistency throughout the season.