Too many drivers, too few seats

By on Friday, January 27, 2012

Sutil - 9th in 2011, but no 2012 seat

Drivers starting young, drivers unwilling to retire and only 24 seats. Houston, we have a problem...

Adrian Sutil, Nick Heidfeld, Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastien Buemi, Rubens Barrichello, Vitaly Petrov, Karun Chandhok, Vitantonio Liuzzi, Narain Karthikeyan and Jerome d’Ambrosio. What do all of these drivers have in common? They all started a race in 2011 yet, unless circumstances greatly change, they won’t in 2012. There are other series outside of F1, but the vast majority of these drivers don't want to race anywhere other than where they were.

There’s a logical argument that dictates that some have had their chance to prove themselves, have enjoyed a great career and should toddle off into a different series or retirement. That would apply to Nick Heidfeld and Rubens Barrichello. Then take away the drivers that have been given a chance (or three) and haven’t got what it takes: Karun Chandhok, Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan.

But that still leaves a significant handful of drivers who have been left off of the grid through little fault of their own.

Adrian Sutil potentially has himself to blame for allegedly stabbing Eric Lux, but the others are on the side lines because, well, why?

Money is a major influence – in a global recession it is critical to keep a Formula One team running and it isn’t a cheap affair doing so. Nevertheless, the chopping and changing of drivers over the previous few seasons has seemed extraordinary and a number of talented drivers are being left off of the grid. So why is this happening?

Schumacher won the title 18 years ago, but he's still around....

Well, there’s a good argument to suggest that it’s because a few of the experienced drivers are simply staying around for so long. Until the 1990s, very few racing drivers made it into F1 at such a young age. Now, a racing driver is put on the scrapheap if he hasn’t made it to F1 by the time he reaches say, 27 or 28 years old. Drivers like Schumacher, Trulli and Barrichello have probably stayed around a few seasons longer than they should have done…

If you go back twenty years, it wasn’t uncommon that drivers would make it to F1 when they were just shy of thirty and retire around forty years of age. That leaves the best with around ten years at the top. Look through history and you’ll see this is the case in most circumstances. Another reason, although one that gladly isn’t the case anymore, is that drivers died frequently, opening up spaces for more drivers.

Now look at a driver such as Fernando Alonso. It feels as if he has been around forever (eleven years), yet he is still only 30. Ditto Jenson Button, at 32. Both drivers conceivably could race on for another seven or eight seasons. Lewis Hamilton is 27 and Sebastian Vettel is only 24. That locks out a few top seats for another ten years.

Add to that limited testing and what hope do young drivers have? There is a constant chopping and changing of drivers that in some cases is having a detrimental effect on the sport. Take the example of Jaime Alguersuari. Granted, his career was handed to him on a platter by Red Bull, but to have your F1 career potentially over by the age of 21 is unbelievable. Several F1 champions hadn’t even been heard of by that age.

GP2 champion, but would Maldonado be present without PDVSA backing? Photo credit: Williams F1

As mentioned before, money is a problem. Yet another issue is so few seats. There are only 24 Formula One seats every season. Up until twenty years ago you had several teams battling to pre-qualify and then qualify. Usually, some drivers would manage to qualify only once a year, yet it still meant that they were in Formula One. This situation is unlikely to ever arise again for a plethora of reasons, yet it would mean that drivers would get a chance. Instead, young drivers have to face another year of GP2, GP3, WSR, F2, F3 and try and gamble on which of the many junior formulae series will be the most beneficial.

Even up until the testing ban, young drivers still had a chance. Now, there are three days at the end of a season for up and coming hot shots and that is it.

Admittedly, there are several drivers in Formula One who should probably be given their P45s – the number varying depending on personal preference – yet there are still too many drivers for too few seats. It’s fantastic having six world champions on the grid for 2012, with the promise of Vettel and Hamilton doing battle for the next ten seasons. There are drivers making their way through, such as Sergio Perez, Nico Hulkenberg, Romain Grosjean, Daniel Ricciardo and Jean Eric Vergne. But at the current rate, what’s to say that in two years’ time, these guys will have been dropped. The current problem is a lack of stability, and this isn’t helped by an increasingly powerful media that enables opinions to be heard. The success of Lewis Hamilton in 2007 also raised expectations that all rookies should perform to his level, something which isn’t possible; the concept of allowing a driver a few years to mature and improve appears to have gone out of the window.

F1 2012 has a fantastic line up, but the current rules need work. Logistically and financially, it will be difficult but there are solutions. Top drivers such as Hamilton and Vettel usually find their way no matter what, but what if someone with superb talent doesn’t? I've realised that in fact I've come to no conclusion, so I've wasted your time. The very fact that it's so confusing points to the fact that F1 has a problem...

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