The Ben Evans column: Piquet, Moto GP, and the star F1 driver of 2009

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Only a handful of races into the season and already the doom mongers are out for the scalp of Nelson Piquet Jnr The Renault driver’s erratic start to the year is, in some people’s view, enough to cost him his seat should he disappoint again at Monaco.

Now, though I have never been the greatest Piquet Jnr fan, I think it would be a travesty for him to be relieved of his drive six races into his debut season.

Today’s F1 cars are so far removed from any other racing machine out there that (once-in-a-generation exceptions aside) most drivers need 10 or more races to get up to speed.

However Piquet is running the risk of being a one-season-wonder as rising up the Renault development ranks behind him is Romain Grosjean.

As with Lewis Hamilton, Grosjean has the makings of being a quite extraordinary driver. On the track he is devastatingly quick. Ok, he’s only won one of the four GP2 races this year, but he has been easily the fastest driver in each and is clearly the class of the field.

Barring bad luck, Grosjean should walk the title this year as he did in the GP2 Asia series over the winter and F3 Euroseries crown last year. Off the track he is also a fine ambassador for motor racing: friendly to talk to, disarmingly honest, and practically fluent in English, he is everything the marketing men want a modern F1 driver to be.

I would love to see Grosjean in a decent F1 seat, as I believe that he is the only driver on the cusp of F1 who can join Lewis Hamilton as a next generation front runner. In GP2 he is already showing an approach not dissimilar to Hamilton’s as he carved through the field at will in Catalunya (before a mistake on a restart cost him victory).

We could argue all day about the merits of whether Grosjean should usurp Piquet for the Renault seat, that is rather missing the far more important point, which is that there is a strong pipeline of talent waiting to break into F1.

Surely that should be taken for granted? Well, no, actually.

Over in the two wheeled world the situation is rather more serious. Sure Moto GP has a twenty bike grid and two feeder support series, but of those 20 bikes, how many are serious championship contenders? Valentino Rossi of course, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa are all clearly rare talents. But away from that triumvirate, Casey Stoner is reliant on the performance of his bike and Nicky Hayden cannot master the high corner speeds required by the new 800s.

More worrying is that there is not a massive talent pool waiting in the wings to jump onto the highest stage. Most World Superbike riders are from the old guard (Troy Corser, Troy Bayliss, Nori Haga) and wouldn’t move into Moto GP. Likewise top national runners like Leon Haslam and Tom Sykes get more recognition pounding around Brands Hatch than they ever would on the world stage.

Even in the traditional feeders of the 125s and 250s there are not too many riders marking themselves out as ‘special’, a worrying state of affairs as many current Moto GP riders such as Randy de Puniet and Andrea Dovizioso are clearly not world championship material.

For Moto GP this is a worrying situation, which could turn the sport’s clock back almost 20 years. In 1990 there were only four world class 500cc (as was Moto GP then) riders – Eddie Lawson, Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey and Michael Doohan. By 1994 only Doohan was left and the 500s suffered four years of practically unopposed Doohan dominance, where even on equal machinery the other riders couldn’t get close.

For a series that has, in the UK at least, only just dragged itself into the public consciousness, a dearth of top talent at the very highest level could prove disastrous.

However for F1 this is not a problem, and all things being equal, the next few seasons could see a golden generation of drivers fighting for the Championship.

In Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton F1 has three drivers eminently capable of championship success, with a further four – Felipe Massa, Heikki Kovalainen, Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld who could all pinch the odd race win.

With the likes of Romain Grosjean and the increasingly impressive Mika Maki on the way up, over the next couple of years we could be looking at a field with 10 or more potential race winners, with perhaps five title challengers – I can’t wait.

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Ben Evans
Motorsport commentator Ben is RaceFans' resident bookworm. Look out for his verdict on the latest motor racing publications on Sundays....

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24 comments on “The Ben Evans column: Piquet, Moto GP, and the star F1 driver of 2009”

  1. “…Off the track he is also a fine ambassador for motor racing: friendly to talk to, disarmingly honest…”

    This could be written two years ago about Lewis. Now, to these haters he became a “phony”. Poor Romain…

    Put the “devastatingly quick” French driver aside of Fernando and let him free to play the game and you will see what this sentence will become.

    Let’s be honest, Romains could be a great driver and the last place that he could be is in a team with Fernando as team mate. He deserves a free seat to show his hand…

  2. Methinks nothing will get Alonso out of Renault quicker than signing another GP2 all-star for the “2nd driver” seat.

  3. Remember comment that Ron Dennis made in concluding part of 2007 season. There aren’t many talented blokes he can see when he looks at feeder series. Though it sounded very innocuous comment, what was immediately perceived as dig on Timo Glock joining F1 as winner of 2007 GP2 Season. I guess he was looking for partner to LH (Given the way FA-McLaren Relation was curdling). This again tells something about heikki’s position in McLaren team. He apparently was last choice gig Macca could find around.

    The conclusion after that little digression,quality of backup to current lot of drivers on grid is open to argument. And most of the time factors such as Marketability,ability to open a new market, new sponsors are driving factors.

    If Santander had no business in UK. I am sure they’d have walked out of gate after Alonso.Its all about business.

    For Bruno Senna can go on hitting as many dogs around. He will be on grid thanks to “Senna” name.

    Grosjean drives on French license, would be good material for French team to give ride. he can go on harping about “Home driver” “Home team” in most “articulate” way to press ;)

  4. I guess my point is that along with the marketability etc Hamilton and Grosjean have also got the speed. In contrast the likes of Scott Speed ticked all the marketing boxes, but simply never adapted to F1 (or F3 for that matter), whilst others like Adam Carroll can have all the natural speed in the world, but will never tick the big manufacturer boxes

  5. Robert McKay
    21st May 2008, 17:35

    I feel bad that all these great guys in GP2 like Rosberg and Hamilton and all the rest have to progress to F1, where there talents are often well-hidden by unflattering cars and unavoidable aerodynamical issues. [Another reason for my suggested GP1 series :-D (soapbox mode off now)]

    How many guys can you remember were hailed as the next best thing and never really reached the heights they were supposed to because they were lumbered with mediocre cars? I remember how Barrichello and Trulli and Fisi and Button and Ralf Schumacher, amongst others, each of them hailed as the new “potential world champion”, all came in and did reasonably well but not brilliantly. Who of the new generation will fill that category? They can’t all win, even if there isn’t a Schumacher-like period of domination.

  6. “If Santander had no business in UK. I am sure they’d have walked out of gate after Alonso.Its all about business.”

    On a side note it’s a bit curious how they don’t use the Abbey brand in their sponshorships now that Alonso’s gone – why not the 2008 Abbey British Grand Prix ? People here know who Abbey National are and are less inclined to know who Banco Santander are…

  7. I think Santander are going to replace the Abbey brand with their own, in fact hasn’t that been announced somewhere?

  8. “In 1990 there were only four world class 500cc (as was Moto GP then) riders – Eddie Lawson, Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey and Michael Doohan.” He forgot Wayne Gardner and John Kocinski and yes that was probably the best generation ever. Before them we got Kenny Roberts that was untouchable and so was Freddie Spencer (the only one to win 250 and 500 the same year). After them, we got Doohan, Rossi,… now is not another golden age but is definetly a good one, no future for the sport? that’s too much said. Lorenzo is 19, Pedrosa 21 and there are some other good talents waiting in the sides of 125 and 250. And there is a fundamental difference in F1 if you are not with one of the best three teams you don’t have a chance. In motogp you can even watch a team B going for P1, see Collin Edwards on pole last weekend…

  9. On Piquet, I do believe it is way too early to give up on his talents and positives after just a handful of races in his first season. True, he dose need to produce, but how much of a mess would it be for Renault to just yank him now and put Grosjean in the seat? I’m only a new fan, but it makes more sense to me for Renault- who aren’t title-contenders this season- to ride out 2008 with their lineup and wait to make changes. That would also allow the team to feel out Alonso’s preferences and possible moves- Ferrari, anyone?

    The Scott Speed note is a good one- he was let go just when I had started to gain interest in the sport. While I firmly believe bringing back the USGP will do more to raise interest in F1 in America than having an American team or driver on the grid, it dose disappoint me to see virtaully no American talent on the route to an F1 seat. I thought Speed was given up on much too soon, and I hope that sometime in the next decade or so to see the Stars and Stripes hang over an F1 podium somewhere in the world.

  10. William Wilgus
    21st May 2008, 21:05

    I find your dismissal of Felipe Massa, Heikki Kovalainen, Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld rather interesting. Why not tell them directly that they’ll never be champions so they care retire now rather than later?

  11. Plus, for Grosjean’s sake, woulden’t it make more sense to give him a full off-season of testing and introduction to the F1 team before putting him in a race seat? Perhaps I may be seen as being overly-cautious, but I think it’s best to let him have some time to be his own man rather than a follow-on to whoever he would replace.

  12. I heard recently the comments from some journalists close to the Renault F1 team about Piquet. the most criticised is not his ability to be quick it is his commitment. Sounds like he is a very relaxed guy having to many people around him on the GP week-ends, and chating on his cellphone a few minutes before the start.. not the sort of things Renault expects, not the sort of things Fernando does either…

    side note : Like F1 Santander is a world brand but Abbey is not it is their image they want to link with F1 for the good of all their banks in all countries. Like all big banks Santander wants to appear global not english ;-) quite normal for a spanish rooted bank anyway.

  13. theRoswellite
    21st May 2008, 21:18

    Any influence a driver’s “marketability” has on his longevity in F1 can only be described as peripheral. If they have the speed they stay, if not, they go. Most commercial interests want to be associated with winners, in F1 you don’t have to win to be a “winner” (as just making “the show”, as they say in the States, says much about your talent) but you can’t be perceived as an untoward actor…goofing around at the back of the field, or being described constantly in the media as a, “moving chicane”.

    So, in the end it’s all about the speed of his fastball, or in this case….is the boy quick enough, or isn’t he.

  14. I am looking forward to “The Great American Hope, Graham Rahal.”

  15. @the Roswelite : I tend to agree with you but to be honest all these guys are pretty fast. If you put Lewis and Heikki, Fernando, Kimi and Felipe in the Honda, Force India… guess who is going to win the races? and commercial interests are much broader than what you think. Pretty sure the indians for example want an indian driver. Very much the same as the car market some will go for the badge, some for the sheer qualities of a given car, some because of the nationality, and so on… In the case of Piquet I have been told that Renault wants to have a bresilian driver because of their business over there. Of course this is not the only reason as Piquet prooved to be quite quick in GP2 but it also is a reason for him being where he is.

  16. the thing that ruins MotoGP for me is they now use TC!
    i think Hayden has struggled with this as b4 it came in he and other riders used to slide the bike at angles i’d be scared to try on a pushbike!

  17. I am a huge fan of Grosjean’s speed and committment, but no matter how many times I watch and rewatch it, the move that he pulled on Kobayashi on the restart in Barcelona was absolutely beyond the pale. He is quick, yes. He is aggressive, yes. Does he learn to need some on-track ettiquete? Yes. The incident was rather reminiscent of Senna-Prost at Estoril in 1988, fortunately without the pitwall. That aspect of his driving character is unpleasant – as it was in Schumacher, as it was in Senna. It is, however, also indicative of a huge amount of aggression, dedication and will to win. I’m just not sure that Stirling Moss would have approved of it…

  18. Don’t worry about MotoGP – there is a new, young, fresh, talented rider called Marcel Niederhausen who will come along and win for 7 years in a row. I wonder if Rossi is scared?
    As for the future F1 stars – I think the way that Hamilton was treated last year, and is still being treated, is a warning to all the up and coming drivers trying to make it to the top ranks of F1.
    Perhaps its time for the teams to not put so much pressure on young shoulders and just let them drive, and not do so many interviews and PR work?
    I believe that Piquet Jr has was it takes, but there must be tremendous pressure on him not to outshine Alonso either. Its a difficult choice to make….

  19. The problem Piquet has isn’t so much to do with the fact that he, more often than not, is at the back of the grid, but more because he is making too many errors. I do not think there is a single race he hasn’t run off the track.

    Motogp has a 20 bike grid? I think an 18 bike grid is more like it, with a few wild cards thrown in once in a while. But correct me if I’m wrong.

  20. Adding fuel to the fire re: young Piquet, I notice that (always a source I trust) are commenting today that there are ‘rumours in the paddock’ that should the Brazillian not up his game somewhat he may well be replaced in the next few races – with Super Aguri refugees Anthony Davidson and Takuma Sato both being touted as possible replacements. I can’t say that I would be overly disappointed to see one of those thrown an F1 lifeline…

  21. Oliver – I agree he is making errors, but is this because of pressure not to upset Alonso, having seen how he behaved at McLaren, or has he been given a ‘dud’ car?

    George – Getting Davidson back in a seat would be brilliant, he deserves a second chance, but I don’t see Sato going anywhere apart from another Honda team – and surely they both have strict Honda ties anyway?

    I think it would be good to get Grosjean into the Renault seat, to see what he would do!

  22. Piquet …… needs more mileage in his logbook, he shouldn’t be on the F1 grid, nor Vettel, Sutil or Glock.
    All of these names may be good someday but ALL need more F1 mileage, we don’t pay a ticket price to watch rookies in training! Replacements for the above…… De La Rosa, Klien, Davidson and even Sato !!!! I just think of the good people that we’ve thrown away rolling the dice on “hot shoe rookies”.

  23. Michael Counsell
    23rd May 2008, 13:34

    Dovizioso has been right on the pace in a few races, while Toseland is doing great in his first season in MotoGP. And don’t forget Pazzini is coming through.

  24. No one coming up through the ranks of motorcycle racing? Look a little further. Here’s a rundown of people to watch over the next 5 years.

    Alvaro Bautista (who is going to be huge, but has to stay on the bike)
    Mika Kallio – Steady but not a genius. Good enough to compete at the top level, though.
    Mattias Pasini – early days, but definitely a contender.

    Pol Espargaro. Not having such a strong season this year, but potentially brilliant.
    Bradley Smith: hard worker, very focused, very fast.
    Scott Redding: the revelation of 2008. Is going to surprise a lot of folk.
    Raffaele de Rosa: Looking like an interesting prospect
    Micky Ranseder: The next big German star?

    Max Neukirchner: is looking brilliant, will be even better when he gets the full-spec Suzuki. May choose to stay in WSBK though, and not make the jump.

    Joan Lascorz: Looks like the real deal. Blindingly fast on a bike which is not the fastest on the grid. Going to be interesting.

    Red Bull Rookies / Other series:
    Lorenzo Savadori. Making a big impression in the Italian championship, and making a big impression at Mugello this weekend. One to watch.
    Luis Salom: strong background in Spain, and an even stronger showing in the Red Bull Rookies
    JD Beach: another strong American in the Red Bull Rookies. Will be interesting to see how he does if he steps up to either the Spanish championship or the 125 championship
    Daijiro Hiura: Great in the Red Bull Rookies Cup. Japan’s next big thing?

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