Home Featured Opinion: Is there still room for young, inexperienced drivers across F1?

Opinion: Is there still room for young, inexperienced drivers across F1?

by Alejandro Alonso Lopez

Photos: Haas F1 Team

Recent driver signings and the candidates under consideration for the last vacant Formula 1 seat raise questions about where there is really still room for young, inexperienced drivers in the championship

Aston Martin’s announcement a fortnight ago of Stoffel Vandoorne as one of the team’s reserve drivers for the 2023 season shed light on who will occupy the only F1 seat yet to be confirmed for next year, and also raised questions over Felipe Drugovich’s role within the structure.

Vandoorne will share reserve driver duties with the 2022 Formula 2 champion, who joined Aston Martin as its first ever F1 junior and a reserve driver after sealing the title at Monza back in September. It could be argued that an extended calendar of 24 grands prix and current operational demands require more than one pair of hands for the role.

Nowadays, all F1 teams have a simulator team offering support to those on-track. Therefore, it would be understandable that while one is in the simulator, the other is at the race track just in case an eventuality should happen that would require being called up to race. However, those in the simulator do not need an F1 superlicense to successfully accomplish their task. Nick Yelloly, who has been part of the Silverstone squad since 2015, is a great example of that. Bearing that in mind, why did Aston Martin hire another reserve driver — this one with F1 experience — when they already had one for 2023?

If chances for reserves are already low on these days, they are even slimmer when two drivers have the same role. Then there is of course the debate on who will be nominated for each grand prix —with Vandoorne likely to be absent some weekends due to clashes with his Formula E commitments. Notwithstanding, that could change at the snap of a finger, like everything does in F1.

Logic would say that the F2 champion is capable enough of deputising for one of the official drivers if it were needed, especially when there is an extensive ‘Testing Previous Cars’ (TPC) programme planned to get him up to speed. However, logic is rarely the norm in the pinnacle of motorsport, and if the situation occurred, there is now a higher chance that a driver with several F1 starts under his belts takes the chance instead of Drugovich.

Nico Hulkenberg in GP2 in 2009 and F1 in ’19

Going back to Aston Martin’s announcement, the statement did not mention the team’s famous stand-in for the past three seasons, Nico Hulkenberg. The omission of currently its main reserve driver suggests that the German is finally heading to Haas to replace his countryman Mick Schumacher, and therefore wrapping up the 2023 grid.

It would be presumptuous to put Hulkenberg’s talent in doubt. However, the fact that the most recurrent name for replacing Schumacher is someone who has just competed in five races in motorsport over the last three years is worrying. The situation does not improve when you look at other candidates that have been on the table. Antonio Giovinazzi was another driver rumoured for the seat. His Ferrari ties made him an obvious option, however, like Hulkenberg, he has already had his chance in F1 and he crashed Haas’s car when given a recent free practice runout at the United States Grand Prix. The same reasoning applies if Schumacher were to stay despite his numerous accidents and average performances. There is a lack of opportunities for young promising drivers coming up the ladder.

Haas’ team principal Guenther Steiner even said that he would be willing to take Daniel Ricciardo, did he want to compete in 2023. However, he never openly mentioned the possibility of having a rookie in their line-up, and there is clearly something wrong in the system when a team that is fighting towards the back of the grid is not at least open to consider new face desirous of proving his credentials. But many would argue the other way that Haas suffered exponentially with its all-rookie line-up of Nikita Mazepin and Schumacher last year and wants to avoid such a situation again.

Pierre Gasly’s move to Alpine, a team that has again let his juniors down, and Nyck de Vries’ contract with AlphaTauri off the back of a superb performance in his unexpected F1 debut add to the previous examples in stealing hope from those competing in the F1 ladder of ever getting the chance. Many of those young talented drivers might be wondering whether it is worth the physical, mental and financial effort. Robert Shwartman, who has spent 2022 as Ferrari’s reserve and development driver after finishing runner-up in Formula 2 last year and was another in contention at Haas, recently expressed his disillusionment with the lack of opportunities for young inexperienced drivers in an interview for Motorsport Week. Like him, many others see the F1 dream fade away not because a lack of talent, but because of not having the chance to showcase it.

Photo: Scuderia Ferrari

Testing reductions in order to cut costs have considerably limited F1 teams’ opportunities of evaluating young drivers on track, and the 2022 technical regulations pose a different challenge to the cars that came before them, making them more reluctant than ever to sign rookies for their line-ups. Running a TPC program is nowadays the only real option of having proper tests, and that is something that not every team can afford due to the budget and infrastructure required.

Rookies’ mandatory free practice sessions are the other possibility. The only positive of those sessions is that future stars taste current F1 machinery. The negatives, the amount of time available is extremely limited, and most teams use it for their own benefit with drivers usually completing development runs instead of pushing the limits of the car. In-season young driver tests were by far a better option as they provided rookies track time to be judged before contracts were signed.

Every single driver that has made it to F1 and eventually succeeded has done so because one day they were given the chance to drive. It is at that point where it all starts, therefore, more young inexperienced drivers should be granted an opportunity over drivers who have already had their chance to show what they are can do. Otherwise, F1 might miss out on superlative talents because teams preferred to stay in their comfort zone.

It is true that two rookies coming from F2 will presumably be on the grid in 2023. Oscar Piastri and Logan Sargeant are the lucky ones. However, if they make it, it is not how it should happen.

Piastri had a remarkable junior career winning Formula Renault Eurocup, FIA Formula 3 and F2 titles in consecutive years, yet he had to spend one year on the sidelines and go through a contractual dispute with Alpine to finally earn a seat at McLaren. Did no one think at Enstone that his on-track record was deserving of a seat straightaway?

Meanwhile, Sargeant has been announced by Williams pending on securing the FIA superlicence needed to be allowed to race in F1. He has proven his speed wherever he has driven. Does not he deserve a proper announcement with the honours of becoming the so desired American in F1? Apparently, the answer to both questions is “no”.

Haas’ 2023 vacancy contenders

Driver F1 starts Best F1 result Junior career
Nico Hulkenberg 181 3x 4th 2009 GP2 champion, 2008 F3 Euro Series champion
Antonio Giovinazzi 62 1x 5th 2nd in 2016 GP2, 2nd in 2015 FIA European F3
Mick Schumacher 42 1x 6th 2020 F2 champion, 2018 FIA Euro F3 champion
Robert Shwartzman 0   2nd in 2021 F2, 2019 FIA F3 champion

Teams, FIA, FOM and Formula Motorsport Limited —the parent company organising both F2 and FIA F3 championships— need to come together and look for a solution to this increasing problem. Otherwise, there will be one day when there will be no room for young inexperienced drivers in F1.