Thankfully, last weeks Young Drivers Test failed to be overshadowed by the subject of Pirelli tyres. Consequently, it was a vital opportunity for the young protagonists in junior formula to showcase their array of talents. The performances were clinical and impressive from several drivers in particular and the resounding opinion from around the paddock is that these drivers will get their chance in the sport. However, the question is, how long will it be before they receive their career defining opportunity and will this be yet another golden generation of drivers?
One attribute that these drivers have on their side is time. Two of the youngest debutantes at the the test where Red Bull rookies Carlos Sainz Jr and Daniil Kvyat, aged 18 and 19 respectively. While both are currently competing in GP3, the context of their achievements cannot be undermined. It is important to note that Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button all made their F1 test debuts while in their late teens. World Champions have the talent to be recognised at such a young age and drafted into programmes governed by the Formula One teams themselves, which allows the best conditions for driver development.
Moreover, the GP3 and GP2 series are a fantastic way for youngsters to hone their skills. Following the Formula One tour, drivers are able to gain experience of single seater competition on the circuits which are a staple of the calender. Being in and around the paddock during race weekends also allows youngsters to maintain contact with F1 team bosses, as well as team personnel.
For Daniil Kvyat, his schedule this season is packed to the brim. The Red Bull protege is competing in not only the GP3 series, but also the European Formula Three Championship. The Russian sits P8 in the GP3 standings after excellent performances in Silverstone and the GP3 standalone weekend in Valencia. However, he has lacked consistency and will hope to address this in the coming races.
Regardless, Kvyat does not lack confidence in his own ability. Following his YDT outing in the Toro Rosso on Friday, the Russian clocked up 22 laps as his dreams of Formula One became somewhat of a reality. Asked by Autosport on Friday evening if he felt the test had brought him closer to an F1 seat, Kvyat replied: “Today made my dream even bigger. My first dream was to drive an F1 car. Today it’s done, and now after this session I feel like with more mileage I should get more comfortable with the car and I’m confident I could be quick in this car. Unfortunately it’s really limited for young drivers these days but hopefully my job has not gone unnoticed. I’m sure it hasn’t. For now, it’s not up to me. My main concern is the championships I’m racing in.”
Meanwhile, fellow Red Bull rookie and GP3 star Carlos Sainz Jr received an even greater opportunity at the YDT, after accepting a session in both the STR8 and the RB9. His run in the Toro Rosso on Thursday afternoon was especially impressive as the 19-year-old came within a few hundredths of Daniel Ricciardo. However, Sainz did not fall into the trap of focusing on the testing timesheets and has maintained a grounded approach. “This test is just a test – and it is not because of doing this test or doing a good job in this test that I am one day going to be racing in Formula 1,” he told Autosport. “If I am here, it is because Red Bull has chosen for me to try to do a test. But this test does not mean anything. The only thing I hope is that they are happy with my performance and I am mature enough to do more testing, because of course after doing one test you need to do more. You always want more and more.”
This mature response will be noted by Team Principals not only in F1 but in GP2. Rather than acknowledge the success attained despite his tender age, Sainz realizes that there is a long road ahead before he can reach his ambitions. Asked to judge his own performance, he said: “I think it is more for you, and the Toro Rosso guys, to judge my position,” he said. “It is not up to me.” Evidently, he is confident in his own ability and does not feel the need to attract attention off track; He believes his on track performances are ample advertisement.
Both Sainz and Kvyat are in a profitable position at the moment. The Red Bull young driver programme is possibly the best development path to enter, especially considering the array of current drivers who have profited from the scheme including Jean-Eric Vergne, Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel. Meanwhile, Formula Renault 3.5 driver Antonio Felix Da Costa will surly be adding his name to the list very shortly, with the possibility of a vacant seat at Toro Rosso for 2014, regardless of whether Daniel Ricciardo makes the step up to Red Bull or not. The team have a history of making rash decisions when it comes to driver line-ups, and Jean-Eric Vergne’s seat may be under threat following his immediate rejection by Red Bull as a possible replacement for the departing Mark Webber.
The Formula Renault 3.5 Championship certainly seems to be a popular training ground for youngsters in recent times. The field currently features several drivers on the F1 radar, including Sergey Sirotkin; The 17-year-old Russian who has been awarded an un-conditional seat at Sauber for 2014 following the investment negotiations. Meanwhile, the main protagonists at the head of the pack include Da Costa, (who came third in the GP3 series last season), Stoffel Vandoorne, Will Stevens and Kevin Magnussen, who currently leads the championship.
Kevin is one driver in particular who has shown all the attributes a Formula One driver requires. The 20-year-old has now completed three Young Drivers Test’s, topping the timesheets on two test days. The determined Dane is yearning for his chance in the sport, which he feels he is ready for. Asked whether he hopes to make it into F1 in two years, he replied: “We have a plan that I should try to win the FR3.5 Championship this year and then hopefully get a chance in Formula 1 somewhere. We all know it’s not easy and you have to adapt to the circumstances and do the best you can all the time and see then where it takes you.”
The Magnussen name is one which has been heavily associated with motorsport for years. Kevin’s father Jan is a former McLaren and Stewart driver who clocked up 24 Grand Prix starts. He was once described by Jackie Stewart as the “best prospect since Ayrton Senna”, yet he failed to live up to the billing. However, his switch to the WEC in 1999 brought Jan great success. He has achieved a sublime four GTS class wins for the Chevrolet Corvette Team at Le Mans and become somewhat of a living-legend within the historic squad.
His son Kevin is one of the brightest prospects at the moment. However, his role within the McLaren Young Driver programme is significantly limited compared to the likes of Red Bull’s youngsters. Moreover, McLaren are not a team known for selecting their own drivers to step up to a race seat, (with the 32-year-old Gary Paffett a prime example of how McLaren youngsters can have their career’s stifled). Hopefully, Kevin does not follow a similar fate, as his talent warrants at least an opportunity in F1.
Formula One is a ruthless business. The current financial issues are making it even harder for young drivers to break into the sport. Sauber’s predicament is a prime example of how team’s are being restricted by money. Last season, they signed Esteban Gutierrez, a man who finished just third in the GP2 championship, while series winner Davide Valsecchi was left without a race seat. While Esteban was a member of the team’s programme, the decision was made on the fundamental basis that he possessed links with Telmex. The current controversy with Sergey Sirotkin is another example of a team’s dependence on a drivers pocket as oppose to a driver’s ability. Sirotkin is a driver who is currently struggling in FR3.5, yet is guaranteed a seat next year. Gone are the days when it was feasible to declare that the 22 drivers on the F1 grid were the 22 best drivers in the world.
In answer to the initial question; Yes, the next generation are a very strong collection of drivers, who have the capabilities of being the next multiple champions. However, the main question is, have they got the lucrative funds to buy their way into a seat? That question in itself threatens to jeopardise our sport.