Talented young drivers have a ridiculously tough time getting into Formula One—so should the teams be forced to give them a helping hand?
As recently as ten years ago, F1 had unlimited testing. Any team that felt so inclined could book a track and do as many laps as they liked in any car they chose using any driver they wished.
Aside from the benefits it brought in terms of car development, testing was an excellent way to try out a young driver or four. If a team spotted a youngster who seemed to have potential, they could give them a run in an F1 car.
If it went well, great—the youngster had proven himself in an F1 car, thus raising his stock significantly and showing that bringing him into F1 wouldn't be such a huge risk.
If it went badly, it didn't matter—the team hadn't really lost anything.
Fast Forward to the Present
Now, the F1 world is very different. Financial constraints mean teams are restricted to a handful of proper tests. These are so few in number that they can't really afford to use them to try out young hopefuls.
There is a single, three-day Young Driver Test which takes place once a year, allowing teams to give some track time to inexperienced drivers. But one opportunity per year isn't much to aim for.
The teams may also run a third driver (sometimes a youngster) in the first free practice session (FP1) of each Grand Prix weekend.
But most teams don't do this, because the youngster must drive in place of one of their race drivers—in his car. Unless a sponsor is paying them to do it, there's very little incentive for the team.
That's why smaller teams will resist it when they can, and you'll never see the likes of Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes or McLaren doing it.
So young drivers have very few chances to prove themselves in an F1 car. And promoting an untested driver to F1 is a risk—however good a driver looks in F3 or GP2, we never really know how they'll perform in F1 until they've driven the cars.
Jenson Button got his break in 2000 after doing old-style testing for Williams. When I spoke to him late last year, I asked for his opinion on the issue of track time for young drivers being significantly limited compared to how it was when he got into F1. He said:
When I got into Formula One it was good because you had a lot more testing, and the teams could test drivers and see if they thought they were talented enough, and if they gave the right feedback, and obviously their fitness. Nowadays it's a lot more difficult.
Button spoke of the young driver test being a specific opportunity for young drivers, and mentioned that some teams use young drivers in FP1. He continued:
A lot of the smaller teams need funding to race, so if you come along with a good budget and you're reasonably talented, you have a chance of getting into Formula One. But for the really talented guys, without the money, it's really tricky.
He added that it was, of course, a tough sport to get into, and so it should be. It always has been and always will be. But at the moment, the odds seem to be stacked too far against up-and-coming youngsters.
There are plans in the pipeline (reported in autosport) for 2014 to extend FP1 and permit driver changes during the session. It's due to be approved by the FIA today.
This will (in theory) make the idea of running a third driver a more attractive proposition. But several team principles have already said they will not be doing so. McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh said:
I don't think it's something that we would necessarily want to do unless the regulations required [you] to have a young driver.
Then you would go to work on how to use that half-an-hour to do aerodynamic testing and not performance testing. We would just be doing a whole range of component changes and data-logging on the straights.
So it probably wouldn't have the desired effect.
Mercedes boss Ross Brawn had a similar outlook, saying:
We will stick with the race drivers.
The ability to change drivers during a session is not that easy and if you have drivers that have too much variance, that's not such an easy thing.
It's never a good sign when an idea is shot down by the big boys before it's even been tried out.
An alternative proposal (coincidentally, Whitmarsh mentioned something along these lines in the quote above) would be to enforce the use of a third driver for a certain number of race weekends.
At 14 races (teams may decide individually which ones), each team would only be allowed to run one race driver in FP1. Each race driver would sit out seven sessions over the course of the season, alternating with their teammate.
The number would be set at 14 to allow teams to use both race drivers at the events where they deemed it would be most beneficial. For example, the opening race of the year, a new circuit or later in the season if they're involved in the title race.
The other car could only be used by a young driver of the team's choosing. "Young driver" would be defined as a driver with fewer than five F1 starts.
Exceptions to this rule could be allowed with unanimous agreement from the other teams.
When a team is running a rookie as a race driver, he would be allowed two extra weekends to take part in FP1.
Impact on the Kids
The big teams which don't currently utilise a third driver would have to—so the first impact would be the total number of opportunities available rising to 11.
One of the most useful things economics lessons teach is that (in theory, and usually in practice) when supply rises while demand remains constant, the price falls.
Drivers with a small sponsor budget would have a greater chance of getting into the lesser teams, who would still no doubt require some level of contribution.
And the big teams? Red Bull, Ferrari and co. wouldn't dream of selling their third driver berth to the highest bidder.
They would want only the very best available youngsters in their cars. This would open the door wide to the truly talented drivers who may lack the (often ridiculous) levels of sponsorship needed to buy an F1 seat.
That's just four of the 11 drivers who would by now have vital F1 experience at multiple tracks around the world.
The sporting impact—how it would affect what happens on the track when it matters—is hard to gauge. Many smaller teams already use a third driver in FP1 at certain races, so they wouldn't notice too much of a difference.
At the sharp end, losing FP1 running seven weekends per year might have some impact on the drivers.
But it isn't likely to be significant. For example, Adrian Sutil comfortably beat Vitantonio Luizzi in 2010 regardless of who gave up FP1 to Paul di Resta.
Besides, they're experienced professionals—and it'll be the same for everyone.
The current situation needs to change. The proposals to extend FP1 to two hours and permit driver changes is a step in the right direction, but forcing all the teams to use a third driver would be better still.