Of the 23 drivers who will take part in this week’s preseason test at Jerez, all but two are scheduled to race full-time in 2012. There is no longer such thing as a test driver in Formula One and the title of ‘third’ or ‘reserve’ driver is largely symbolic.
Increased testing restrictions over the last five years have removed almost all of the significant work undertaken by reserve drivers. These days, the third driver in a team is more likely to be running a showcar or filming a TV commercial than contributing to technical development anywhere outside a simulator.
Testing restrictions first came into place at the start of 2007 when teams were limited to just 30,000km and 300 sets of tyres in a calendar year. In addition, they were only permitted to run one car at each test session as opposed to two or more. Restrictions were increased in 2009 when in-season testing was banned altogether.
These rules removed the need for teams to hire separate personnel just for testing and contracted race drivers are now able to cover all of the available development work.
Championship contenders used to rely heavily on testing to develop their cars throughout a season and quality third drivers were highly valued. Teams were keen to seek out the best talent available. A testing role with a top team was also an attractive option for many drivers as it guaranteed them plenty of time behind the wheel of a competitive Grand Prix car. Olivier Panis, Alexander Wurz, and Pedro De La Rosa all used a stint as third driver at McLaren to relaunch their racing careers.
With no in-season testing there simply isn’t the same need for highly skilled reserve drivers anymore. Some teams still use third drivers in a technical role but their most important engineering input is confined to a simulator. Specialist Formula One test drivers have effectively been made redundant.
Last year the Renault F1 team - now Lotus - helped display how insignificant the role of ‘reserve’ driver has become in modern Grand prix racing. The team hired five reserves in 2011 (enough to field a basketball team) but when Robert Kubica was injured they didn’t chose any of them as a replacement.
As well as reducing the number of quality drivers attached to F1 teams, the lack of testing also provides fewer chances to develop and evaluate youngster. As such, some are being thrown into Formula One with severely limited testing opportunities and their careers are doomed before they even get underway.
The modern simulators used by Formula One teams represent the very best in dynamic modelling technology, but they will never be a full substitute for on-track testing.
However, you can still develop young drivers without a heavy testing program.
In 2003, teams were offered the chance to run a third car in practice if they agreed to limit their annual in-season testing to just 10 days per year. The teams who chose this option were given their own private two hour session on Friday mornings.
This initiative was designed to help smaller teams who could not afford as much testing as the larger outfits. It also encouraged the bigger teams to cut back on their testing in order to take advantage of the extra time on Fridays.
The use of a third car gave teams the chance to run an experienced driver to help with development, or even just a pay driver to increase revenue. They were allowed to run the car in a separate livery as well which opened up more commercial opportunities, and if nothing else it helped them sell more 1/18 scale models at the end of the year.
Importantly, it gave a number of young drivers the chance to gain valuable experience behind the wheel of a Grand Prix car.
Renault used this to great effect. They ran the experienced Allan McNish in their third car during 2003 to gain the extra mileage and technical feedback. However, the team also put Franck Montagny in the car for the French Grand Prix which gave the youngster a great opportunity in front of his home crowd. It also provided Renault with a beautifully patriotic piece of marketing.
In 2004 this rule was tweaked. The private practice session was removed, but teams placed fifth or lower in the previous year’s constructors championship were still allowed to run a third car on Fridays. McLaren famously benefitted from this in 2005 as they were able to run a separate car for Alexander Wurz whilst fighting for the World Championship.
In 2007 this rule was changed again to what we currently have today. Teams are still allowed to run a third driver in Friday practice but are no longer able to run a third car. This means that any reserve driver taking part in practice is doing so at the expense of a race driver. It is an option that has never been used by the top teams.
Only a handful of third drivers have taken part in Friday practice sessions over the last five years, and very few have been used on a regular basis.
In order to ensure new talent could still be exposed to Grand Prix machinery the sport introduced the annual Young Drivers Test. This is a test session held after the final race of the year and is open only to drivers who have not taken part in more than two F1 races.
The sport could still do more to support young drivers and make the role of third driver an important one.
One idea could be to expand the Young Drivers Test into a separate practice session on Grand Prix Fridays, similar to the arrangement in 2003. The FIA could allocate an extra 90 minutes (or nominate one of the existing sessions) on for teams to use ONLY a third driver.
The FIA would not be required to reintroduce third cars or tinker with the engine restrictions because a rookie session could still follow the existing rules where teams simply nominate an existing car be used by their third driver.
In addition to the huge buzz this would generate on the Friday morning of a Grand Prix, the sport could gain a lot from a regular rookie practice session.
It would give teams a chance to develop and evaluate more young drivers. They could potentially put new recruits on a yearlong development program rather than just a one-off blast in the young drivers test.
The third driver role would regain much of its importance. This would give more talented drivers career opportunities within Formula One, and would also give aspiring youngsters another gateway into the sport.
There are commercial benefits as well since teams would also have chance to run pay drivers or local heroes to boost sponsorship.
Importantly, it could all be done without compromising the existing race program and without returning to full scale in-season testing.
It’s certainly possible to give reserve drivers more presence in Formula One.
This page was written by Martin Porter and posted by James Wilson