Opinion: Don't write off Sirotkin

By on Saturday, July 20, 2013

Sergey Sirotkin is set to race in Formula 1 next year

The news that the financially beleaguered Sauber team was saved by a group of Russian investors is positive news for the sport, even if it does act as another economic warning for some of Sauber’s rivals. Short-term, the Swiss team’s debts can be written off while the new alliance will strengthen Sauber over a longer period. In securing Russian partners, Sauber has opened up his team to a plethora of new sponsors and has once again pulled off a remarkable deal considering the ‘minnow’ status that Sauber has developed over its 20 year period in Formula 1.

Time will show us the productivity of the partnership but for now, it’s much better for Formula 1 to have Sauber as an entrant than having the eponymous 70 year old leaving an employment deficit in a rural Swiss town…

But there was, however, one part of last week’s announcement that raised eyebrows and it was the following quote: a ‘development programme will be set up for the Russian driver Sergey Sirotkin to prepare him as a racing driver for the team in 2014’. That doesn’t explicitly confirm that Sirotkin will make his Formula 1 debut in 2014, but comments from his manager emphatically state that his aim is such. Practice runs could happen later in the year – although not giving Sirotkin a run at the young driver test is slightly peculiar – and although he doesn’t yet possess a super license, you wouldn’t envisage such a task being an impossible hurdle.

Sirotkin’s father Oleg holds a key position within the National Institute of Aviation Technologies, one Sauber’s Russian saviours, and his influence has opened the door for his son. So why the furore over Sirotkin’s promotion into Formula 1?

It’s simple. He’s only 17 years old.

Even by the time of next year’s Bahrain Grand Prix, Sirotkin will still be over a year younger than Jaime Alguersuari, when the Spaniard made his debut at the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009.

But should Sirotkin’s age be the mitigating factor? In a world where discrimination on all fronts is increasingly frowned upon, look at the driver rather than his time on the planet.

Pre-Formula 1 results are never a bona fide assurance about the capability of a potential driver, but Sirotkin’s results show a driver who has the capacity to become a very good racing driver in the elite level. He finished in third place in last year’s AutoGP championship and currently lies in eighth place in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series this year. Ultimately that means, and this isn’t even taking GP2 into account, that seven drivers are more deserving of a Formula 1 seat than Sirotkin. But for a rookie he’s doing a competent, if not outstanding, job.

Now take the age back into consideration. Is he too young, too naïve or quite simply a danger to his rivals?

Peter Sauber rescued his team again

Peter Sauber rescued his team again

Anyone who has watched some of Sirotkin’s races will testify that the Russian is not a danger to his rivals. No doubt tabloid press will claim he’s a danger because of his age, but then again they did when Alguersuari made his debut in 2009. One British tabloid memorably had a full page story, asking whether Alguersuari was ‘the most dangerous man in F1…’ Some GP2 drivers older than Sirotkin have this season shown an inability not to drive like a maniac.

Sirotkin has held his own against rivals who have far more experience both in terms of age and races competed. He’s racing in FR3.5 even though most of his age group is in the feeder series, FR2.0. Talented drivers such as Davide Valsecchi, Robert Wickens and Robin Frijns may never race in Formula 1, so at least Sirotkin has been given an opportunity in the pinnacle of motorsport.

Those with a short memory may have forgotten that Kimi Raikkonen began his Formula 1 career with 23 car races under his belt. As of this weekend, Sirotkin has just passed the century…

So what of the possible negatives?

Well, there’s the issue as to whether plunging Sirotkin into Formula 1 prematurely would hinder his potential. The best way of proving the critics wrong would be a surge in form through the latter half of 2013 and then, perhaps, schooling the opposition in either FR3.5 or GP2 in 2014. That way, age would become a meaningless factor if he demonstrates the talent to annihilate his contemporaries. Throwing a driver into Formula 1 too early can cause problems. Alguersuari, for example, looked horribly out of his depth in 2009, but at least Sirotkin would have the advantage of pre-season testing.

Sirotkin would be the second Russian driver in F1 history

Sirotkin will be the second Russian driver in F1 history

In terms of physicality, Sirotkin will not have experienced anything like the power of a Formula 1 car or a race 90 minutes long. But Formula 1 machines are not the body breaking cars they used to be, meaning that the transition will be more straightforward. The mental approach will be key; so long as Sirotkin is not hopelessly out of his depth in terms of pace and reliability – and evidence suggests he’ll be fine – then he will not be in danger of losing his seat. For all of the draw backs with his youth, he will not be expected to beat his team-mate, whoever that may be. However, combine Sirotkin with a Russian Grand Prix next season and there will be extreme pressure on young shoulders, especially from national press who may not understand the sport and might expect him to be in contention for the win. Sirotkin will face media on a scale he has never experienced and will effectively be a poster boy for the sport in an emerging and massively untapped country for the sport.

But then perhaps in Formula 1 we are naïve about the capability of youth. The reigning triple world champion only recently turned 26 years old and athletes, in general, are achieving extraordinary feats at a younger age. In other sports, greatness in youth is celebrated. Who could forget a 16 year old Wayne Rooney bursting onto the football scene in 2002? Rafael Nadal claimed his first Grand Slam when he was 19, while Boris Becker was two years younger than that when he won Wimbledon. In Formula 1, there seems to be scepticism about the potential of young drivers. Granted, some of Sirotkin’s rivals in Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2 will glance at the Russian’s path with jealousy and understandably so. But in the same boat, they’d take such an opportunity.

It’s not fully confirmed that Sirotkin will race for Sauber next season, but it seems more likely than not that the Russian will smash Alguersuari’s record in Bahrain. But to write him off before he’s even stepped into a Formula 1 car would be foolish.

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