Last week all of the active Formula One teams took part in the first ever official ‘young drivers’ test. Teams were given three days to run unlimited mileage, but were only allowed to use rookie drivers that had competed in less than three Grands Prix. Twenty youngsters from fourteen different countries and eleven different championships got the chance to prove themselves, and with a large number of spaces still available on the 2010 grid, there was plenty at stake.
Despite the number many different racing backgrounds being represented in last week’s test, all of the times were very close. If you exclude the fastest time set in the most favorable conditions, just three seconds separated the whole field. No-one was off the pace which is impressive given the difficult and varied nature of the 2009 spec F1 machinery.
The future of F1 is in safe hands.
Fastest – Daniel Ricciardo – Red Bull
Red Bull has a number of juniors attached to its young driver program and one of the most promising is Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian has a very impressive CV and is well on his way towards a Formula One future. He claimed the British Formula Three title this year in commanding fashion having previously finished third in the World Series by Renault.
Daniel started his career in Formula Ford where he was largely unsuccessful but his results improved dramatically in the UK and Asian Formula BMW series. In 2008 he raced in two Formula Renault championships, winning one and finishing second in the other.
Next year Ricciardo will compete in the World Series by Renault alongside fellow Red Bull driver, Brendon Hartley. Both are in contention for the Red Bull F1 testing role so the pressure is on both as their results will determine who goes one step closer to Grand Prix racing.
Ricciardo’s best time last week was a cool 1.3 seconds clear of his nearest rival, and although his car was the best out there, his efforts were still very impressive.
2nd fastest – Gary Paffet – McLaren
It isn’t a shock to see Gary Paffet near the top of the timesheets since the Brit driver already has significant F1 testing experience. He started as McLaren’s test driver in 2006 and performed so well on debut that he went very close to securing Lewis Hamilton’s race drive alongside Fernando Alonso. Paffet is now 28 and his chances of entering F1 are getting slimmer, but he still he showed his worth at the rookie test and was a half second quicker than everyone else on day two.
Gary was very quick in the British and German Formula Three series before moving into the DTM where he has been with Mercedes since 2003. He won the 2005 championship and has finished runner up twice, amassing a total of 13 wins.
Paffet has usually been quick behind the wheel of a McLaren and it has been suggested that he will eventually get a drive with a Mercedes sponsored team. His pace at the rookies test would have done his chances no harm.
3rd fastest – Paul Di Resta – Force India
Paul Di Resta is hotly tipped to become Force India’s third driver in 2010 and would be very deserving given his strong showing at the test.
Di Resta won the highly competitive Formula Three Euroseries in 2006 ahead of Sebastian Vettel, Kazuki Nakajima, Kaumi Kobayashi, Sebastien Buemi and Romain Grosjean. After winning the title Di Resta moved into the DTM alongside Paffet and finished runner in the 2008 championship by just four points. He is consistently quick in everything he drives and is now closing in on his F1 chance. Paul is still young so time is on his side.
Interestingly, Di Resta was successful in Formula Three with the Manor team so could be an outside chance alongside Timo Glock at Virgin Racing.
4th fastest – Mike Conway – Brawn
Mike Conway was quick in last week’s test but he would have expected as much having been Honda’s test driver for two years. When Honda pulled out of the sport last year their young driver program went with it, and Conway was forced to move to the USA.
Mike won the British Formula Renault and Formula Three titles before signing with Honda and moving into GP2. Despite a win at Monaco his GP2 results were disappointing and over three years he averaged just 18th in the championship. He fared slightly better in this year’s IRL series and finished the year 17th.
Conway will be hoping his strong showing at the rookie test will get his international career back on track but he is likely to seek a future in the USA.
5th fastest – Andy Soucek – Williams
Soucek’s test was a prize for winning the Formula Two Championship, a series that runs cars built by the Williams F1 team. He didn’t disappoint and narrowly outperformed Nico Hulkenberg who has already been signed by Williams for 2010.
After a strong showing in Spanish Formula Three and the World Series by Renault, Soucek moved into GP2. In two seasons he scored three podiums and a handful of points finishes, but was never anything spectacular. This year Andy focussed all of his energy on the inaugural Formula Two Championship and that proved to be a very wise choice. He won almost half of all the races and finished miles ahead of his nearest challenger. In fact, he almost scored more points than second and third places combined.
Soucek has confirmed talks with Lotus, Manor/Virgin, and Campos for 2010, and his speed in the test (where he was actually quickest on day one) will help those negotiations.
6th fastest – Nico Hulkenberg – Williams
The only driver at the test to already have a race contract for 2010 was Nico Hulkenberg so the young German might be a little disappointed to only finish sixth fastest.
Hulkenberg has already enjoyed a very successful junior career. He won the German Formula BMW title before rising to prominence in A1GP where he was head and shoulders above his rivals. Hulkenberg won that Championship for Germany before winning the Formula Three Euroseries and this year’s GP2 championship.
Nico will be under enormous pressure to deliver in 2010 but will have the experience of Rubens Barrichello to help him.
7th fastest – Bertrand Baguette – Renault and BMW
Bertrand Baguette was given a day of testing by Renault for winning the company’s World Series championship this year. Interestingly, after claiming his prize on day one of the test, Baguette got another chance to impress when he jumped behind the wheel of a BMW on day three. He went 1.2 seconds quicker in the BMW which is a sign of just how much difference a little experience can make. Baguette was solid in the junior ranks of Belgian and French Motorsport but never won a major title, his best result being third overall in Belgian Formula Renault. Bertrand raced in more Formula Renault championships in Europe with less success before moving into the World Series by Renault. He finished seventh in his first season after taking a solitary win.
This year, Baguette utterly dominated the World Series. He managed only five wins (the driver who finished seventh in the series took four) which probably says more about the consistency of the field then it does about his own talent, but he still got the job done and the scorecard doesn’t lie. He was the best driver out there and deserved his F1 test.
8th fastest – Oliver Turvey – McLaren
Turvey received last week’s test with McLaren for winning the Autosport BRDC award twelve months ago. Ironically, new McLaren driver Jenson Button got his first F1 test with the team after winning the exact same prize in 1999.
Turvey was chosen for the award in recognition of his British Formula Three performances last year where he finished runner up in the championship to Jaime Alguersuari. This year was less successful for Oliver as he raced in the World Series by Renault, but he still took a victory and claimed fourth overall. Turvey has now moved into the GP2 Asia series.
Before his F3 days, Oliver raced extensively in Formula BMW with little success so will be hoping that GP2 gets the best out of him.
9th fastest – Marcus Ericsson – Brawn
Marcus Ericsson was instantly successful when he started racing and won his debut Formula BMW meet in 2007, the first time that he had stepped outside a kart. The Swede took another six victories that season and impressively claimed the championship. He moved into British Formula Three the following year but was less triumphant and failed to take any wins.
Marcus was on good form again throughout 2009, winning the Japanese Formula Three title and taking pole position at the Macau Grand Prix. He moved into the GP2 Asia series this winter but finished outside the top ten in both races at Abu Dhabi.
Ericsson will need to become more consistent before being considered for a serious testing role, but the talent and potential is surely there.
10th fastest – Lucas Di Grassi – Renault
Di Grassi has been on the verge of Formula One for some time and has finished third or higher in the last three seasons of GP2. He also tested for Honda in the past and has been active more recently with Renault where he was a serious contender for Nelson Piquet’s vacated seat. Di Grassi has been linked to Manor (with whom he raced in Formula Three) and also Campos for the 2010 season and looks set to move out of GP2 next year one way or another.
Lucas has finished runner up or third in nine different championships but has never actually taken a major title. He cut his teeth in South American Formula Three before moving to Europe where he shadowed Lewis Hamilton through F3 and GP2. Although Lewis and his other contemporaries have graduated into F1, Di Grassi has become stuck in the feeder series where he has now collected 21 podiums.
11th fastest – Jules Bianchi – Ferrari
There was plenty of hype around Jules Bianchi leading up to the young drivers test last week, and rightly so. He has been rewarded with a precious Ferrari contract and is the first man to go through the Scuderia’s new young driver program. His path through Ferrari is helped by Nicholas Todt who acts as his manager.
Of the four young drivers that Ferrari trialled at Jerez, Bianchi was the fastest and was a full 1.5 seconds clear of the other three. That’s not a bad effort considering how difficult the F60 is to drive, especially for a newcomer.
Bianchi dominated the Formula Three Euroseries this year, and also won two races in the British Formula Three championship from just four starts. He is now moving into GP2 and if he continues to impress he will likely be farmed out to Sauber or another Ferrari powered team in 2011.
12th fastest – JR Hildebrand – Force India
John R Hildebrand was one of two American drivers to be given a chance last week and didn’t seem to mind that he was a second off Paul Di Resta’s pace in the same car. JR was simply thrilled to be given the chance, but he still showed well for a 21 year old more used to oval racing in the Indy Lights series.
Hildebrand carved his way through the junior US motorsport ranks and has been racing the Indy Lights cars (or a version of them) since 2007. He has grown stronger each year and won the 2009 title with success on a mixture of oval and road courses. JR will now be looking to expand his career stateside, but his adventures last week might push him a little towards Europe.
It’s a little ironic that Formula One currently has two national teams – Force India and USF1 – but it’s the Indian team testing a US driver.
13th fastest – Esteban Gutierrez – BMW
BMW Sauber gave their vacant testing berths to a pair of youngsters that won their two major Formula BMW Championships. Esteban Gutierrez was one of them having claimed victory in the European series this year.
The Mexican has been out of karts for three years and has spent two of those in Formula BMW. He finished runner up in the 2007 US series, and won last year’s European Championship along with third place at the World Final. This year Gutierrez has been racing in the Formula Three Euroseries but has only managed one podium.
Esteban did well in the test to outperform the highly rated Alexander Rossi in a car that was known to be quite difficult.
14th – Alexander Rossi – BMW
Tipped by some as the next US driver to reach Formula One, Alexander Rossi has a fairly decent junior record. He took regular wins in categories supported by the US Skip Barber Racing School and won the Western Regional Final. Like Gutierrez, he then spent two years in Formula BMW and managed to claim last year’s American championship.
Rossi competed in the International Formula Masters this year, a relatively new European series that supports the WTCC. Alexander took a number of race victories but failed to mount a championship challenge.
Like many others at the test, Rossi will race in the GP2 Asia series this winter and has started well by finishing fourth and fifth in the opening two races at Abu Dhabi. He will certainly be on USF1’s radar in the future.
15th fastest – Pablo Sanchez Lopez – Ferrari
Pablo Sanchez Lopez will be one of the happiest drivers after the rookie test after beating his two main rivals on the timesheets. Sanchez Lopez got the chance to drive the Ferrari having finished in the top three of this year’s Italian Formula Three championship. The competition between the trio was always going to be fierce, especially in the difficult F60, and although Pablo had the best track conditions he will still be impressed with the result.
The Mexican was a little lucky to be selected for the test as he only just scraped third in the F3 series. He finished just a few points ahead of fourth place by winning the last two races of the season.
Pablo started competing with the US Skip Barber racing school before spending a few years in Italian Formula Renault and Formula Three. Despite little success he moved up into the World Series by Renault in 2008 but didn’t get the results and moved back to Italian F3 this year.
16th fastest – Daniel Zampieri – Ferrari
Daniel Zampieri was the 2009 Italian Formula Three champion after spending a number of fruitless years in Formula Renault. He won the title with a decent margin back to the four drivers that contested second place.
Zampieri will likely seek a drive in a more competitive Formula Three championship next year and any link with Ferrari might come in handy should he make it as far as GP2.
17th fastest – Brendon Hartley – Toro Rosso
Brendon Hartley may be disappointed with his showing in the rookie test, and although he still drove well in the difficult Toro Rosso, he was overshadowed by main rival Ricciardo who ended up four seconds quicker.
The New Zealander has not had a great 2009. He started the year as Red Bull’s third driver but his World Series by Renault performances were disappointing. When a vacancy came up at Toro Rosso mid season, Hartley was overlooked in favour of the unknown Jamie Alguersuari. He now looks like being overlooked again in favour of Ricciardo.
It’s perhaps lucky that Brendon is only 20 because he has plenty of time to forge a decent career.
Hartley has been one of the busiest Red Bull drivers around having competed in seven different championships in the last three years, and that doesn’t include the bonus events like the Formula Three Masters. He has scored a handful of wins in various F3 categories but made a name for himself in the 2008 British series with five victories and third place in the championship.
Next year Brendon will race in the World Series by Renault again and will be hoping for much better results, especially since Daniel Ricciardo will be his teammate.
18th fastest – Ho Pin Tung – Renault
Ho Pin Tung became the first ever Chinese driver to test a Formula One car in 2004 when he got behind the wheel of a Williams. Since then he has driven a BMW F1 car in a demonstration event and has now driven a Renault as well. His outright pace might not be fantastic but he isn’t that shabby, and the publicity of having a Chinese driver in the car is huge. If just 2% of the Chinese population followed F1 they would have the largest fan-base of any country in the world.
Ho Pin Tung is also managed by one of the companies that is currently looking to buy the Renault Formula One team, and that is the real reason for his appearance at this test.
Pin Tung started his career in Formula BMW where he won the Asian title, before drifting between different European F3 series. He won the German Formula Three championship in 2006 but has not tasted much success since. He has competed in A1GP and GP2, but has scored just a handful of points in each. He competed most recently in the bemusing Superleauge Formula.
19th fastest – Marco Zipoli – Ferrari
Zipoli drove well to second in the Italian Formula Three championship this year but might be a little disappointed to be fourth of the rookies at Ferrari. He finished a full two seconds off Bianchi’s pace, although it might be interesting to know how Badoer would fare on that scale.
Zipoli has only driven in minor Italian championships with little success, but 2009 was his breakthrough year. He finished runner up in the F3 series despite taking only two wins, but scored enough podiums and points to do the job. His consistency was rewarded but he will need to show more raw pace if he is to get another F1 test. He still performed very well considering he was one of the most inexperienced drivers at the test, which is very significant when everyone is a rookie.
20th fastest – Mirko Bortolotti – Toro Rosso
Mirko Bortolotti hit the F1 headlines last year when he was offered a test with Ferrari for winning the 2008 Italian Formula Three championship. During his run around Fiorano, Bortolotti broke the lap record, beating the previous best time in the F2008. He was hailed as an overnight sensation and may be part of the reason that Ferrari have since looked into starting a young driver program.
With that in mind it was a bit of a shame he didn’t make it further up the timesheets.
Mirko competed in the new Formula Two championship this year but managed only one win. Besides that, he hasn’t raced outside of Italy where he has been focussing on Formula 3 and Formula Renault. He won the F3 title in 2008 but has only taken a handful of wins in other categories.
Currently, Bortolotti has no plans for 2010 but the rookie test is unlikely to open any doors in F1.