Who are the reserve drivers?

By on Saturday, February 4, 2012

This is the closest some drivers like Stefano Coletti can get...

The role of being a Formula One test driver is significantly reduced compared to the days when unlimited testing was permitted before cost cutting took place in 2009. While test drivers nowadays receive very little track time, it is still a key way of getting into Formula One. Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg, Daniel Ricciardo, Jean Eric Vergne, Narain Karthikeyan and Bruno Senna all spent a significant part of 2011 as a test driver which meant that their role was simply to turn up but not race.

Some were lucky enough to receive track time, while others did eventually get a race seat. Nevertheless, the significant changes in the midfield mean that there is a new generation of test and reserve drivers this year, potentially moving up to a race seat by 2013, if not sooner. So who are these drivers that we need to keep track of?

Red Bull and Toro Rosso: Sebastien Buemi

A familiar name to many race fans, Buemi competed in three seasons for Scuderia Toro Rosso, having been a Red Bull test driver before his promotion in 2009. Buemi, 23, was replaced by Daniel Ricciardo for 2012 and with no other Formula One opportunities; he accepted a role as reserve to both Red Bull teams. Buemi was chosen for his good simulator work and because of his longevity within the Red Bull ‘family’. It’s difficult to envisage this assisting Buemi in getting back into the frame at Red Bull, particularly considering the high opinion held of Ricciardo and Vergne within the team, while it will be difficult to see other teams picking him if he isn’t getting any track time. Nevertheless, this opportunity enables him to work with the World Champions as well as remaining in the Formula One paddock.

McLaren: Gary Paffett and Oliver Turvey

Paffett returns again in order to help McLaren win the Constructors championship for the first time since 1998. Paffett, the 2005 DTM championship, is known for his positive work in the simulator and has been part of the team for several years. He is now their official reserve driver following the departure of Pedro de La Rosa to HRT. Paffett is joined this year by Oliver Turvey, the 24 year old former McLaren Autosport BRDC Award winner. Turvey’s junior formula career has been sketchy, although he impressed in his sole GP2 outing in Monaco last year.

Ferrari: Giancarlo Fisichella, Marc Gene and Davide Rigon

Ferrari’s trio of test drivers consist of racers with very different results. Former race winner Fisichella now spends his time in sportscars and won the 2011 LM GTE Pro Class in the Le Mans Series, alongside former Minardi driver Gianmaria Bruni. Marc Gene, who picked up a few results with Minardi and Williams, frequently acts as a pundit on Spanish TV having won the Le Mans 24 hours in 2009. Davide Rigon, 25, is a driver who comes with little fanfare, yet deserves greater credit than he receives. Rigon has won the now seemingly defunct Superleague Formula championship twice, although a stint in GP2 yielded little success. His 2011 season was cut short because of a serious leg injury in the opening GP2 round, although now part of the Ferrari Driver Academy, he could yet find himself in F1.

Jerome d'Ambrosio. Photo credit: Marussia Virgin Racing

Lotus: Jerome d’Ambrosio

Jerome d’Ambrosio unsurprisingly joined Lotus as their reserve driver – he is part of the Gravity Management Scheme – after a difficult year at Virgin. Nevertheless, d’Ambrosio showed strong pace in trying circumstances and was, like several drivers, a victim of someone coming along with greater financial injection (although this isn’t to discredit the talented Charles Pic). A line-up of Raikkonen and Grosjean will, Lotus hope, remain for several years, in order to give the team a strong foundation on which to challenge for the title. Despite this, d’Ambrosio probably has a better shot at getting back into Formula One than staying at the back of the grid, an area from which it is difficult to make a positive impression.

Force India: Jules Bianchi

The three musketeers of French motorsport actually have a fourth companion yet to join them. Bianchi’s star may not be shining as brightly as it was a few years ago, but he is still one of the most talented youngsters around and he is part of Ferrari’s academy. Yet Ferrari didn’t like the idea of giving him time instead of Felipe Massa this season, as that would be a big too obvious that they want to dispense with the Brazilian’s services. Therefore, Bianchi will test in at least nine Friday sessions for Force India. The Silverstone based team has a good record of helping young drivers, as the role occupied by Bianchi was vacated by Nico Hulkenberg, who is now racing for the team. Similarly, he replaced Paul di Resta, ditto. Bianchi’s likely career progression will be into Formula One and maintaining a link to Ferrari, meaning that Sauber is a likely course. However, he may well face stiff competition from the reserve driver in the next door garage.

Sauber: Esteban Gutierrez

A useless fact for you is that Sauber is the only team with a trio of drivers where there is no European racer. Two of these are Mexican and it is one of these who is the reserve driver. 2010 GP3 champion Esteban Gutierrez joined the team prior to the 2011 season, although has yet to receive any track time at Grand Prix’s. When Perez pulled out of the Canadian Grand Prix, Sauber drafted in De La Rosa rather than Gutierrez. It may have seemed a kick in the teeth, but Gutierrez was doing an exam in Mexico and the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is hardly an ideal location for a 19 year old to race an F1 car for the first time. Even Pedro struggled a bit. Gutierrez continues in GP2 this year and should be the man to beat. Finish in the top three and he will enter into the foray for a race seat. Continuing rumours linking Mexico to a return to Formula One return will assist his cause, so it isn’t out of the question that he could line up in place of Ferrari-bound Perez next year. All hypothetical of course.

Valtteri Bottas

Bottas will get more track time this year

Williams: Valtteri Bottas

‘If you want to win, hire a Finn’ goes the famous saying and that’s what Williams have done by signing Valtteri Bottas on for another season as their reserve driver. Bottas’s 2011 season wasn’t make-or-break, but it was damn close. A series of unfortunate circumstances meant he was the driver who broke ART’s succession of F3 Euroseries titles in 2010. Racing with the crack squad in GP3, he struggled until the middle of the season, from which he had a breakthrough and stormed to the title. Williams will hand him time in testing plus 15 Friday sessions and many predict he will be given a 2013 seat with the team. That isn’t a given, although he won’t race anywhere else this year in order to focus on his role. If Senna doesn’t set the world alight this year, F1 will probably have three Finns in 2013.

Giedo van der Garde - could he replace Trulli?

Caterham: Giedo van der Garde

Finally, Giedo van der Garde has found a team with which he might actually start a Formula One race. Van der Garde has been around for ever, although he is still only 26 years old. He won the FR3.5 championship in 2008 and has had a couple of solid years in GP2. The Dutchman was originally with Super Aguri in 2006, before defecting to Spyker in 2007 amidst complicated legal wrangling. He has seemingly been in contention for several backmarker seats every year since and was widely rumoured to be at HRT this year a few weeks ago. However, he finds himself with a Caterham team who are looking to break into the midfield this year, have healthy funding and a driver who is nearing retirement. Giedo will be given track time in pre-season testing as well as in Friday practice sessions during the season, as Team Lotus did in 2011 with Karun Chandhok and briefly with Luiz Razia and Davide Valsecchi.

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