The attention of Formula 1 fans was on Lotus F1 Team for the past few weeks, as their star driver Kimi Räikkönen announced he was going to have an operation for his back that wasn’t on the best shape for the last couple of seasons, he aggravated the injury after the Singapore Grand Prix this year. Räikkönen’s announcement meant he has to skip the last two races of the season, so he can fully recover and start training to be in the best possible shape, when starting the new season with Ferrari. Lotus had only few days to decide who was going to replace Räikkönen. The situation was critical as there wasn’t much time to prepare for this decision.
You would think that the teams would like to use their familiar third drivers to replace their racing drivers at these situations. Lotus’ third driver, 2012 GP2 champion Davide Valsecchi was there with the team during the whole year and was waiting for his chance to step into the car when needed. The problem was that Lotus wanted and needed a driver who has experience, so the team could collect as many points as possible from the last two races, to keep fighting for the top 3 positions on the constructors championship, as the championship position is very important financially.
There were loads of names on the air, including Nico Hülkenberg. Hülkenberg rejected the offer to replace Räikkönen as the move would have been complicated - the German admitted that he was looking at the 'bigger picture', and he knew it would have been challenging to get used into a new car, and his move would have let Sauber into a trouble to find a replacement for him. There were also talks that the Sauber team received a small financial boost from Ferrari, who virtually blocked Hulkenberg’s move to Lotus, by paying the unpaid dues of Sauber. Lotus even asked the retired 7-time World champion Michael Schumacher to step into the car, but Schumacher wasn’t interested. In the end after analyzing options, Lotus picked Caterham’s third driver Heikki Kovalainen to replace Räikkönen, and the decision was announced on Thursday only a day before the racing weekend kicked off in Austin.
This decision made Valsecchi furious - and for a reason. He waited for his moment for the whole year. He was travelling with the team since the beginning and he was hoping to get his chance to race with the car. When a chance finally arrived, he didn’t even seem to be an option for the team. It’s easy to understand why Lotus wanted somebody who has experience, as they could continue fighting on the constructors championship, and it’s clear Valsecchi’s experience from this year’s Formula 1 car was quite minimum. Unfortunately for Lotus though, Heikki didn't deliver up to the expectations, mostly bogged down by the poor starts in the two races that he competed. At Austin, He was let down by a 'blocked front brake duct', and a KERS problem. But nevertheless, his best chance was at Brazil, where he once again couldn't recover from the poor start, and admitted that he made too many mistakes in the race. Qualifying and Friday Practice sessions became a talking point of Heikki's stint, as he showed little rustiness, and was up to the speed from the word 'Go'.
But Qualifying is where Heikki always does well, right?
Heikki took it to twitter to confirm that he would not give up on Formula 1 after his lacklustre stint with Lotus!
On the other hand and to be fair, the reason why Valsecchi doesn’t have experience is the fact that he didn’t have many chances to drive the car. He didn’t have any free practice runs this year, and only stepped into the car at Silverstone during the young driver test.
At the Indian Grand Prix, We asked Eric Boullier about the possibility of Valsecchi driving for Lotus in 2014, and he was very skeptic about Valsecchi's experience, as Lotus had already promoted two inexperienced drivers to the race seat, and they didn't have the best of times with either of them in their opening season.
"Davide is on the list but to bring to the grid next year a driver with no experience is a huge step for them - I’ve done it twice with them, first with Petrov and then with a semi-rookie Grosjean and I think I’ve had enough to be honest with you. Davide is on the list because we consider him as a good driver, as a GP2 champion but it’s true that if you favour a scenario for next year it will be a driver with experience. If we cannot find any driver with experience, fitting the strategy of the team, obviously we will go for a rookie driver and then Davide is obviously on the top of the list. It looks harsh, I’m sorry but it’s true." - Eric Boullier
Being a third driver in Formula 1 is very challenging and difficult task in this modern World. There aren’t many third drivers who will have the real chance to run the car during the season. Doing a straight line test for example doesn’t serve into that experience. Only a few drivers have the chance to have some running in first free practice sessions, and this happens basically only in the smaller teams or the midfield teams. Caterham gave a chance to Heikki Kovalainen during some occasions on the second part of the season, and Marussia has been running Rodolfo Gonzales. Toro Rosso also gave Daniil Kvyat the chance to drive their car in Austin, but Kvyat’s situation was slightly different as he already has a contract with the team for next year in his pocket.
It doesn’t make it easier that the in-season testing is banned. There will be a slight change for 2014 as there will be a few tests, and this could pave way for the young and emerging drivers. This is a right way to give young drivers some experience to be prepared to drive the car, if needed. The best possible way would be to allow teams to test during the season, but letting them to use test drivers only for example. This would be a good way to give young drivers some good mileage with the car and to get some more experience and to work closer with the team, and also learning something technical at the same time. And having this kind of possibility would make third drivers more ready and to step into the car when needed, like in the case of Valsecchi for example.
Being a third driver in F1 doesn’t sound appealing without the chance to drive practices or doing testing, and the only thing the driver will get is to make their name a little bit more known, perhaps even getting their face into the TV coverage. Apart from that, it doesn’t give much. There needs to be a change, and this has been discussed for a very, very long time. Otherwise young drivers won’t be able to get the experience and will just become the forgotten drivers without a real chance in F1. Getting into F1 and especially staying in there is becoming more and more difficult.
There are few drivers who have managed to get a race seat after being a third driver with a team. Jules Bianchi, Nico Hulkenberg, Valtteri Bottas are one of the few. Bottas spent the 2012 year as Williams’ test driver and drove almost every weekend in Free Practices. This is quite different from the general situation though, as it was a long term plan from Williams to give Bottas the chance to be a third driver, and let him run on Free practices to help him know the team better, along with gaining experience from the car. Williams was happy with the work the Finn had done, and he got the race seat for 2013. This is something that is going to be more and more rare in F1 and being in touch with a F1 team for long and thereby getting the practice runs is the only way to move forward in career while being a third driver.
There are two youngsters, Daniil Kvyat and Kevin Magnussen who both were involved in a young driver program and both have a secured race seat for the 2014 season. Kvyat comes from Red Bull’s young driver program and gained his Toro Rosso seat even before winning the GP3 championship this year. Kevin Magnussen was part of the McLaren young driver programme and McLaren made a surprising move by signing the Danish Formula Renault 3.5 champion as their race driver. This kinda indicates having a contact with a team can help you a lot, but on the other hand it won’t always guarantee your future. Valsecchi has most probably expected to get involved with Lotus like Bottas did with Williams, but that didn’t happen.
In general, something has to be done to make the role of a third driver more useful and more appealing. Otherwise, there shouldn’t even be such a role of a third driver, if the driver don’t have much to do in the team.
Written By: Sini Salminen