Two drivers preparing for the 2008 Formula One season may be a little more nervous than the others. Sebastien Bourdais and Nelsinho Piquet are making their debuts in Melbourne and are the only men to be doing so.
Both Piquet and Bourdais have made their way into Formula One by racing in the junior motorsport categories throughout Europe. Sebastien may have been competing in the American Champ Car series for the last five years but he was the Formula 3000 champion previous to that.
In fact all of the drivers currently in Formula One were part of the European racing scene before stepping into Grand Prix machinery. There only way to climb motorsport’s Everest is to start in Europe.
Yuji Ide was the last man to break into Formula One with no European experience and it didn’t go particularly well for him. Poor Yuji had his superlicence cancelled by the FIA due to his poor performances after just four races. He is the only driver in the last ten years to have raced in Formula One without competing anywhere in Europe.
Strangely, the 2006 San Marino Grand Prix is the only European race that Ide has ever started, and it lasted less than one lap.
Asia and North America produce some excellent motorsport, but neither can compete with the professionalism of the competition in Europe. If you want to be a Formula One driver that is where you have to go.
However, the exact path to a seat on the F1 grid is not exactly clear.
The 'feeder' series to Formula One is GP2, formerly known as Formula 3000. Conventional wisdom suggests that a driver should compete in this championship before graduating into the main show. Almost half of the current F1 drivers have done just that, and most of those combined their racing duties with a Formula One testing role. David Coulthard, Nick Heidfeld, Mark Webber, Heikki Kovalainen, Kazuki Nakajima, and Nelsinho Piquet raced in F3000/GP2 whilst testing with Grand Prix teams.
Rubens Barrichello, Fernando Alonso, Nico Rosberg, and Lewis Hamilton also raced in the junior category but did so without spending time as a test driver. They all impressed greatly in their first seasons which justified their decisions to skip a year of testing.
Those who haven’t competed in Formula 3000 (or GP2) have usually made the jump from Formula Three instead.
Timo Glock and Sebastian Vettel made their Grand Prix debuts after racing in the Formula Three Euroseries. This championship has only been around since 2003 but has already produced some quality drivers, and is one of the big Formula Three titles available.
The other is Britian’s own Formula Three Championship. It is a good stepping stone for drivers and is where Jenson Button made his name before signing with Williams. Jenson’s promotion from British F3 was a surprise as he had only finished third in the 1999 championship. It must have really irked Marc Hynes who actually won the title, and whose career has long since stagnated.
Super Aguri teammates Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson also raced together in British Formula Three before making their F1 debuts in 2002. Funnily enough they were teammates back then also and staged a massive battle for the championship. Sato prevailed with an impressive 12 victories from 25 races, although Davidson scored more points than Takuma in the second half of the season.
Adrian Sutil also made it into F1 last year after driving in Formula Three, although his journey was a little different. Sutil won the 2006 All Japan Formula Three Championship before securing his position at Spyker. Pedro De La Rosa is the only other Japanese F3 champion to have made it into the sports highest level.
Not everyone came from Formula Three though. Felipe Massa chose another option and ended up winning the 2001 European Formula 3000 Championship instead. It isn’t exactly the most competitive series, but Massa was so dominant that he and earned himself a contract with Sauber.
Robert Kubica also got his big break in an unconventional fashion. He became a Grand Prix driver in 2006 after winning the World Series by Renault title. The WSR is a bit like a Formula Three championship and past winners include Fernando Alonso and Heikki Kovalainen. However, Kubica is the only man to use it as a direct springboard into F1.
Sebastian Vettel would have won the title also in 2006 had he not withdrawn to become BMW’s third driver.
Nevertheless, none of the current drivers can boast a career progression as unconventional as Giancarlo Fisichella’s. He won the Italian Formula Three title in 1994 before switching to touring cars. Fisichella raced in the short lived International Touring Car Championship (now in a much different form as the DTM) and did enough to impress the Grand Prix paddock. A year after sitting in an Alfa Romeo 155, Fisichella was lining up on the Formula One grid for Minardi.
That is quite a massive step.
The road to Formula One is long and hard. There are so many junior categories available that it is challenging for a driver to be recognised amongst it all. It is incredibly difficult to advance through the pecking order and most drivers have to spend several years winning absolutely everything they enter to even get noticed. Allan McNish spent fourteen years racing around Europe before getting his break in Formula One. There will be many capable Formula One stars who never get their chance, simply because they get stuck in a junior championship somewhere.
However, there are also a few that ‘jump the queue’. There are some drivers whose freakish talents behind the wheel place them in a Formula One car almost immediately after karting. Two of those superstars line up on the grid in 2008.
Both Kimi Raikkonen and Jarno Trulli were racing Go Karts just twelve months before making their F1 debuts. That is insane!
Trulli made brief guest appearances in the Italian and British Formula Three championships whilst competing in Go Karts, but his first full season of car racing was in 1996. That year he won the German Formula Three title by crushing the opposition, and immediately scored a drive in Formula One. His quick promotion to the top was not unjustified as he almost won the Austrian Grand Prix for Prost in his first season.
Raikkonen’s rise to the top was even more amazing. He drove in only 20 Formula Renault races before lining up in his first Grand Prix. What makes it all the more amazing was that Peter Sauber had to fight with his sponsors to give Kimi the drive, and lost Red Bull’s backing as a result. What a huge gamble! Kimi won half of the junior races that he started, but was still so inexperienced that the FIA only gave him a provisional superlicence.
Sebastien Bourdais, on the other hand, has had to wait a very long time to get his Grand Prix chance. He was publicly unhappy that most F1 teams ignored his success in America and had to win four consecutive Champ Car titles before anyone took him seriously. That is the very reason why most drivers head for Europe instead of racing elsewhere.
At least Bourdais will be a well prepared rookie.
Nelsinho Piquet can also consider himself prepared and ready for F1. He won the British Formula Three title, he finished runner up to Lewis Hamilton in GP2, and also won the very first A1 Grand Prix.
A year of testing with Renault has also served Piquet very well and perhaps it is a shame not every driver will get that opportunity.
Although perhaps some don’t need it.
Both Bourdais and Piquet may be nervous about the F1 debuts but they needn’t be. Both have the pedigree of European racing that ensures their careers won’t end up like Yuji Ide’s.