NOVEMBER 28th, 2013 (F1plus/Bruno Ferreira).- Being a rookie in F1 has always been a grim task. As the saying goes in motorsport, get into the world of grand prix is not as difficult as it is to remain there for a long time.
Despite the little experience of the young drivers, F1 is an environment moved by results, which makes the situation a ruthless one. If the driver is not delivering, he’s out.
Nevertheless, the scenario became even trickier for beginners from four years to now. In the 2009 season, new testing rules were placed into action that outlawed any kind of practice between the grand prix. From the following year, the pre-season started to have just 14 days to be shared between the two drivers, as just one car per day was allowed.
To put that in numbers, Lewis Hamilton kicked-off his F1 career in 2007 with 29 test days under his belt, in which he gathered 10935 km. Such mileage is almost the same than all the five 2013 rookies together (10962 km).
That’s why modern F1 rookies need to find other options to make sure they’re ready to join the world championship. All of the five had different ways to come to F1 and F1Plus spoke to them to understand which way may be the best one.
Gutierrez took more than half of the season to feel 100% confident
Although Esteban Gutierrez took the best (in theory) path to F1 by spending three seasons in GP3 and GP2, he doesn’t hide he struggled to find his pace on the first part of the 2013 season.
The young Mexican was outqualified by teammate Nico Hulkenberg in all the first 12 races of the year and just managed to score points in the 15th race in Japan.
“It is very difficult at the moment because of the amount of testing that the rookies have before the season. Is pretty difficult to adapt to things quickly – and not only the driving itself but also the atmosphere”, he said.
“You need to have the big picture of the complexity of the things you have available in the F1 car to use it for your own benefit. This is something that can take a little bit of time, but once I got it, is special.”
Gutierrez thinks that people in general don’t realize exactly how serious the scenario is.
“People don’t see from the outside the reality of this situation. In Sauber we don’t have a simulator, which makes it even harder. There is all the pressure, the talk about the economical situation of the team… As a rookie, to cope with all of this it takes a lot of energy. You have to go through it”, he reckons.
The Sauber driver thinks he just got to the ideal level in Singapore, where he first showed a glimpse of competitiveness.
“There I’ve reached a good level of experience and had also the aggressive side. It was a point where I was quite confident, and I’ve been doing well since then.”
However, he thinks the situation will be even harder next year.
“Obviously the rookies are having a hard time this year, last year and the previous years. For next year, is going to be very challenging with the new regulations, as the teams will need to focus on things other than the driver.”
The key is always show some improvement, says Chilton
Marussia’s Max Chilton focused his junior career in GP2 where he competed for three years. He also agrees that the transition to F1 is not easy, but the tough task is to extract 100% from the car.
“GP2 for me was key, because we learn the tracks we race in F1, similar sort of tyres. The races are not as long as in F1, but it has one hour, with pit stops. It’s the perfect feeder series”, he said to F1 Plus.
“When you first jump into a F1 car you feel completely in control. It surprises how quick you are initially, and once you are comfortable with that, you start to exploit the other bit which is the harder bit. That is sometimes tricky.
“Sometimes it takes more than the winter testing to extract the maximum of the car. It’s another level of technicality – you just need everything perfect, even more than in the junior classes.”
He adds: “The cars these days are not easy. You have to learn in order to have the right feedback, as there are lots of things to handle; there is KERS, DRS… There is a lot to get used to.
“Here in F1 there are such big teams. In the junior formulae, we might have an engineer, maybe a data engineer and two mechanics, but here it’s about 60 people on the track.”
Despite the tough year he had with Marussia, Chilton considers himself fortunate because of the schedule he had at winter testing. Issues with his then teammate Luiz Razia (who in the end was dropped from the seat) meant that the Briton was the only driver of the team for almost all the pre-season.
“I was quite lucky because we didn’t have the second driver until was quite late at winter testing. Okay, it’s a small amount compared with what seen years ago with thousands and thousands of kilometres before the start of the racing, but in the current scenario I’ve got a lot winter testing”, Chilton said.
For the British driver, it’s not possible for a rookie to show his maximum right on the first races, but he believes the key for the success is always show some development.
“At the second half of the year I just felt more relaxed. I think I started to show some improvement back then”, he said. “Although you won’t deliver 100% straight away, the key is always improve.”
Caterham’s Giedo van der Garde agrees that the biggest challenge for a rookie is to be able to extract the maximum of the package, although without crossing the line.
“At the first few races I’ve been struggling quite a bit especially with the race pace, the tyres were going off quite a bit, my style of driving was overaggressive.
“It wasn’t easy, but race by race I was going better and better. Once we got the middle of the season I settled in very well with the team and it went our way”, he told F1 Plus.
“I got more comfortable with the car, with the team, the way they work, the way you do everything. Since then I’ve been very confident.
“The only this is experience – you have to understand what you’re doing wrong, which are do you have to improve, to work on. I have to say that I worked a lot this year.”
The best way is race at both GP2 and World Series, reckons Bianchi
Unlike Chilton and Gutierrez, who spent their last step in junior career in GP2, Jules Bianchi believes that the best way to get ready to F1 is share the time with Renault World Series.
The Ferrari protégé raced for two years in GP2 and switched to F-Renault 3.5 last season, finishing second behind Robin Frijns. Bianchi believes that’s the best way to proceed because it makes possible to extract the best from the both feeder series.
“GP2 is good because you have the same tyres as F1, so you can learn about its degradation, which is really important to race here. In World Series car is a little bit quicker in high-speed corners and low speed corners as well.
“The schedule of World Series is more similar of F1’s, with more testing before the races, two qualifying, so you have more running and time to adapt yourself”, he compared.
“It’s not that one is better than the other. I think the best way to be ready for F1 is do one season in GP2 and other in World Series. Switching around these two series is better than doing two seasons in the same series.”
Bottas believes he did the right thing by focusing on reserve role
Before joining F1, Williams’ driver Valtteri Bottas took an unusual step in his career. Instead of doing a couple of seasons in GP2, the Finnish driver skipped the main feeder series and focused on the reserve role in the Grove team in 2012.
By that he had the opportunity to drive in 15 free practices last year, besides working closely with the team’s staff in meetings.
“Travelling with the team, driving at many Fridays, learning new tracks and seeing what the drivers were doing setting up the car. I’ve got a lot of information. Because of that there weren’t any surprises for me. It was the right decision just to focus on the reserve role”, he said.
“With the possibility nowadays, with so little testing and everything, that’s the best you can have. You have the Young Driver Test, some Friday outings and you can spend more time with the team… That’s your best chance because there is no way you can drive more.”
He said he never felt any regret by have not competed in GP2.
“No, I felt good all the time. Sometimes it was a little bit hard because I wasn’t racing, I was just watching. Sometimes I wanted to race, but that’s what it is. I really think it was the right decision and I wouldn’t change anything I did.”
Kvyat’s task will be even tougher, believe current rookies
In 2014, another driver will start his F1 career having last competed in GP3. Daniil Kvyat will make his F1 debut at Toro Rosso also skipping the main feeder series, which make the current rookies believe that the Russian will go through a situation even trickier than the usual.
Valtteri Bottas admits that current GP3 car is more similar to F1 than it was at his time in the series, but Kvyat’s low mileage with Toro Rosso may turns out to be a problem.
“The GP3 car now it’s a bit more powerful than it was when I drove it. It’s difficult to say. He’ll just have two Fridays”, Bottas said.
“But it really depends of the driver. If you have the talent and you’re good to learn new things, it should be no problem. It’s never going to be easy. F1 is a different level.”
Chilton understands that Kvyat’s transition can be shocking.
“Is going to be a big leap, and winter testing will be even more crucial, even more than it was for me last year. We need to learn pit stops – it sounds easy, but there is lot to do other than stop the car and go. Getting used to longer races, because the longer they do is 35, 40 minutes, while in F1 it can get two hours”, he said.
“There is more stuff to deal with. You can never relax. In some other junior formulae, you have some time to kind of a relax in the straights. In F1 you can’t get this luxury.”