Ten ways to get a drive in F1 (part 1/3)

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Fernando Alonso won the Nissan World Series before joining Minardi and Renault

Brits on Pole duo Andy & LJH start a three-part look at how the current F1 field got their big breaks in Formula 1.

Long-term job security isn’t a concept many would associate with Formula One – but at the other end of a driver’s career you’d be forgiven for thinking that a network of junior formulas and the possibility of a testing role offers a predictable career path for an ambitious and talented youngster.

Not so. The 22 drivers who lined up on the grid at Melbourne for the start of the 2008 season took a wide variety of routes to get into motor sport’s most elite club – and not all of them were there because they overtook their peers on the race track.

From famous fathers to loyal sponsors, from bare-faced cheek to sheer bloody-mindedness, the careers of this year’s crop of Formula One pilots offer all kinds of conflicting suggestions about what it might take to follow in their footsteps.

So if your ambitions lie in that direction, here’s the low-down:

1. Cough up the cash

This is a topic so pervasive in Formula One over the years that it seems advisable to deal with it upfront. There’s nothing more pernicious than the pay drive, right? Some idiot with delusions of grandeur who has parted with hundreds of thousands in cash for the dubious privilege of trundling around at the back of the field, acting as a mobile chicane and a danger to other, more competent racers.

This is in contrast to the kind of blazing raw talent that cannot be ignored, the kind that wins world championships and sets record after record. Sounds about right – until you realise that current and recent drivers such as Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber and David Coulthard have all dipped their toes into the pay drive waters in some form or other at some point in their careers.

In fact, it’s uncharitable to name those four since almost any driver who’s made it to F1 has likely sullied his pure ambition with a little bit of commercial wheeler-dealing. Because cash for cars isn’t only as blatant as buying a drive with a back-marker team that hangs out a hoarding advertising its need for the readies. Whether it’s a case of bringing personal sponsorship to a cash-strapped team – as Timo Glock did during his first stint in F1 at Jordan – or securing yourself a test spot with an upfront payment, money is almost certain to have changed hands somewhere along the line.

Take Mark Webber, a driver with enough talent that no-one seriously questions his right to be on the F1 grid. His big break came when he impressed fellow Aussie Paul Stoddart, who was an Arrows sponsor at the time and was able to sort him out a test with the F1 team and a drive with the Formula 3000 team. That got him in front of Flavio Briatore, who was then able to place him at Minardi after Stoddart bought the team. Money spoke – and produced the right result.

There are no blatant pay drivers on the grid this year. Even the weakest teams have enough in the bank to avoid the need, and the shoestring privateers of the past are no more. But, in a sport where money unashamedly rules the roost, we think the ‘talented driver’ versus ‘pay driver’ distinction is now pretty much a false one, which is why we’ve got it out of the way first.

Read more about these drivers

2. Build an early relationship with an engine supplier

Takuma Sato started every one of his 90 F1 races with a Honda engine

This appears to be the nearest thing to a sure-fire bet for anyone seeking a drive with a world-championship contender. It’s worked for Kimi Raikkonen, who made his debut for the Ferrari-supplied Sauber team and got his superlicence thanks to Peter Sauber’s personal backing.

Felipe Massa, who has Italian ancestry, served his time in a plethora of national and international series including driving for Ferrari stablemate Alfa Romeo in the European Touring Car Championship. He was also a graduate of Peter Sauber’s ‘powered by Ferrari’ Swiss finishing school and this makes Sebastian Vettel, in his Ferrari-powered Toro Rosso, look like a very hot prospect for a future Ferrari drive.

Heikki Kovalainen worked with Renault-powered cars in junior series for most of his racing career before moving to the manufacturer’s F1 team in 2007. The top teams are often the most conservative and like to know what they’re getting in advance – including placing potential recruits with suitable outfits in order to watch their performance for a year or two.

And then, of course, there’s the irrepressible Takuma Sato, who didn’t take up racing at all until he was 19. Once he did start, in an unconventional but extremely shrewd move, he trained at the Honda-run Suzuka Racing School in Japan. Clearly they go to extraordinary lengths for their alumni…

Read more about these drivers

3. Work your way up through the junior ranks

Lewis Hamilton did Formula Renault, Formula 3 (above) and GP2 before F1

This is perceived as the ‘conventional route’ to an F1 drive, and has a pleasing narrative about it because it suggests that drivers can actually make it to the top table through merit rather than money or nepotism. And, you know what? That isn’t entirely untrue.

But it isn’t entirely true, either – just ask Giorgio Pantano, whose GP2 title this year is highly unlikely to land him a seat in F1 next year. Or Darren Manning, who turned in the best performance since Ayrton Senna in Formula 3’s all-star race, the Macau Grand Prix, in 1999. It led to a testing role with BAR Honda for him, but it was that year’s runner-up, Jenson Button, who made it onto the Formula One grid.

While Jarno Trulli placed second at Macau and went on to win the German F3 title, Rubens Barrichello beat David Coulthard to the British F3 championship, and Giancarlo Fisichella has the Italian title on his CV, most of their contemporaries did not make it.

In fact, in the last 10 years the only Macau winner to arrive in F1 so far has been Sato, suggesting that success in the world-wide network of F3 series is a useful addition to a CV, but not enough on its own to seal the deal.

In recent years GP2 has existed explicitly as a support and feeder series for F1, and its 2005-2007 champions, plus the runners-up from the first two years, are all competing in the current season. But, like F3, nothing is automatic. McLaren F1 boss Ron Dennis has gone on record recently lamenting the lack of talent in this year’s line-up, and serious question marks hang over whether or not front-runners like Pantano, Lucas di Grassi, Bruno Senna or Romain Grosjean will make the leap up.

When Kimi Raikkonen’s lack of junior experience prior to his F1 career is taken into account – Max Mosley was sniffy about whether he had done enough to be safely issued with a superlicence – it’s easy to draw the conclusion that the feeder championships are full of talented drivers toiling away in hope, without any real chance of winning the ultimate prize.

Winning in the junior ranks might guarantee you a seat in Superleague Formula – but to make it into Formula One you often need something more than just a winning record.

Read more about these drivers

We’ll take a look at three more ways to get into F1 tomorrow.

This is a guest article by Andy & LJH. If you want to write a guest article for F1 Fanatic you can find all the information you need here.

8 comments on “Ten ways to get a drive in F1 (part 1/3)”

  1. AmericanTifosi
    4th October 2008, 13:51

    Great feature. It’s incredible that Sato started racing when he was 19! Most of these guys start under age 8.

  2. I can’t help wondering if GP2’s talent pool looks a little shallow because of the reverse grid rules for the sprint races preventing a smaller number of drivers from dominating the top spot during the course of a season…

    Perhaps if GP2 wants to be taken seriously as the de facto F1 feeder series, it should seriously consider dropping this gimmick.

  3. I can’t help wondering if GP2’s talent pool looks a little shallow because of the reverse grid rules for the sprint races preventing a smaller number of drivers from dominating the top spot during the course of a season…

    Perhaps if GP2 wants to be taken seriously as the de facto F1 feeder series, it should seriously consider dropping this gimmick.

    I dunno…all the GP2 guys who made it to F1, like Hamilton, Rosberg et al. came through the same reverse grid system. I think it’s just the case that the last couple of years have been very strong and GP2 has been very lucky to have some clearly stellar drivers. It was bound to happen that there’d be a weaker year.

    To be fair I think there is a lot of talent there still, just not necessarily ready yet. Di Grassi, Senna, Grosjean, Maldonado are all looking quite good – just need a bit more development time.

  4. The reverse grid ain’t the problem, it actually makes the sunday race a good way to notice which drivers have the most potential. And I agree that Di Grassi, Grosjean, Senna and Maldonado all look pretty good and if we still have 24 cars in the grid, they might all made it till 2010. Also GP2 hasn’t graduate that many drivers yet: 2006 had only Rosberg, 2007 Kovalainnen and Hamilton, and this year Glock, Piquet and Nakajima. Given that Nakajima (like next year Buemi) got his seat more from his connections than because of his GP2 performance, the average so far has been GP2 champion graduates the next year, while the runner up in the year after that. Pantano will broke that but he was never really chasing a F1 seat at GP2.

  5. I agree with Pete Walker. All the reverse-grid concept does is punish the fast guys for being fast.

  6. Wow… Sato started pretty late. I never knew!

  7. Why is Kimi in with the “build an early relationship with an engine supplier”? He didn’t have any relationship with Sauber or Ferrari or anyone before he entered F1. His manager almost had to trick Peter Sauber to give him a f1 test, Peter Sauber didn’t really want to give him a test.

    If anything I would say Kimi wouldn’t have made it, if it wasn’t for luck and most of all his his manager.

  8. How was Kimi building a relationship with an engine supplier?…

    Sauber were using Ferrari engines at the time…

    The Robertson’s got him a Sauber test and he did enough to get Peter Sauber to **** off Red Bull by not using their driver… and enough to get Ron and Jean to support his provisional licence I believe…

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