For all of F1's top teams there is a protege coming through the ranks. Mercedes have Pascal Wehrlein, Ferrari have Charles Leclerc, Williams employ Alex Lynn while Red Bull have most of the GP2 and GP3 field. How many of these will reach the highest level of F1 is debatable. Some will manage it as part of development programme like Pascal Wehrlein and Stoffel Vandoorne. Others will develop through other feeder series like Valtteri Bottas who earned his seat via a GP3 title victory. All we know for certain is that times have changed and so has the development process, but which is better and is there a way that's best to ensure you are teams’ next world champion can unleash his potential.
In the 1980s test drivers weren't really a big thing, certainly not the fashion accessory they are for teams today. Drivers won feeder series to progress, whether it was Formula 3000, Formula Ford or whatever category they went up the ranks and eventually signing for a backmarker team. Take Ayrton Senna, for example. He won in junior formulae and signed for Toleman, a backmarker in F1 and then set about achieving all he could in his car. By sheer talent he moved to Lotus, McLaren and finally Williams as he made his mark up and down the grid.
That wasn't the case for all drivers. Martin Brundle may have drove a long career in F1, however, he never reached the potential he showed in his younger days. The backmarker teams never showed enough pace to allow drivers to stand out. Many wonder if without the famous Monaco Grand Prix, Senna would have been spotted at Toleman and given his chance to shine at Lotus. Not only were the backmarkers incredibly slow, they were also cash strapped. Pay drivers were starting to enter the fold and increasingly made it difficult to turn down. Backmarkers were so far off the pace that no good driver could make them points scorers or even competitive enough to get higher up the ranks and get more money from championship bonuses. In fact a pay driver could make more money available for reliability which in a race of attrition could potentially cause a miraculous points finish.
By the 1990s, however, test drivers were becoming more common. Their roles back then though we're incredibly different to what they are now. Back then all they did was test. If they were lucky enough to see a race driver leave the team, they would be promoted, providing they impressed the bosses. Alternatively they may sign for a lower team, but without financial backing this was becoming increasingly sporadic.
Natural progression still existed. Michael Schumacher proving the feeder series were important as he earned a debut with Jordan F1 team in 1991 and quickly moved on to Benetton and Ferrari where he became an icon of the sport. Despite this, test drivers were making their presence known. Williams were one of the first to show this as when Ricardo Patrese departed the team in 1993, Damon Hill entered the fold. Only months later David Coulthard was able to gain his promotion to the race seat when Ayrton Senna, a protege himself, was tragically killed.
So, as we entered a new millennium the roles of test drivers changed again. Now not only did they test, they also competed in some Free Practice sessions which would show both their employers and suitors what they could do in a car. Many of these drives were merely publicity stunts who were never heard from again or remembered. However, some did make it through the ranks to reach F1 either for the team they initially practiced with or elsewhere. Jordan demonstrated this perfectly with Baumgartner signing for Minardi two years after debuting in a practice session in his home nation of Hungary and Timo Glock who went on to race for Toyota and Virgin/Marussia after debuting three years prior for Jordan.
With in-season testing spiralling out of control, the testing allowance was cut for 2008 to 30000 km and again halved for 2009. This effectively put a ban on anything other than pre-season testing with teams needing to rely more than ever on feeder series to mature their prospects. Some drivers like Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel made the ranks before the ban and turned into some of the best drivers the modern era has seen. The stars after the ban however have turned out less successful with Valtteri Bottas, Romain Grosjean (who briefly raced in 2009 after Nelson Piquet's sacking from Renault) and Sergio Perez. As talented as these drivers are they have come nowhere near the achievements of Hamilton and Vettel.
With the testing gone, teams set about other ways to grow their drivers. For the rich teams it was easy as they merely set up a second team purely for driver development. Red Bull, only 12 months old themselves at the time, bought out the fledging Minardi outfit and ran it as Toro Rosso, a team used solely to give experience to their crop of young drivers. Since then only four drivers have ever earned a promotion to the primary team (excluding Sebastien Buemi who has run as the team's test driver since 2012.)
Honda were the next team to try their hand at development as they heavily supported Aguri Suzuki's new F1 Team Super Aguri throughout their short existence. The team, led by recently replaced BAR Honda driver Takuma Sato, made a desperate mission to find a Japanese star driver to lead their brand and even ran long time test driver Anthony Davidson in 2007-2008 as a further way to support their B-Team. The team wound down a short way into their third season, the same year Honda closed their F1 operation. After all this time, no drivers went on to drive for Honda or under their new owners Brawn in 2009. A failure of all levels.
These days in-season testing has made a return in the form of organised testing for all teams to attend. This has made their test drivers have a chance to get F1 level practice. Despite this Mercedes have used the engine supplier status to give Manor racing a discounted price in exchange for running youngsters Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon for the 2016 season. Other teams have also got in on the act but in other ways. Former McLaren protege Kevin Magnussen used his 2014 experience to find a seat with Renault this season. After Fernando Alonso's heavy crash at Australia ruled him out of the Bahrain Grand Prix, their test driver and reigning GP2 champion Stoffel Vandoorne scored his first ever points in F1.
So, with Toro Rosso proving to have limited success, Super Aguri being a shambles, most of the F1 grid graduating through feeder series and test drivers now able to show their worth again, do we really need to see Toro Rosso-style F1 teams to find talent and never unleash their potential? Or do they provide a platform to develop a career away from F1 in series such as Formula E or WEC, which they wouldn't have had the access to without the previous experience? Whatever your opinion, the teams all differ and only time will tell who can produce the start to win the next generation of championships.
by Matthew Gannon