"When did Formula 1 become a development series?" – Stefan Johansson
By Stefan Johansson | Retired F1 and IndyCar racer
Former Ferrari and McLaren F1 driver Stefan Johansson is perplexed by what he views as an increasing trend towards Formula 1 teams hiring drivers that are still climbing the development curve.
Writing in his blog, the Swede expressed his bemusement at teams opting for inexperienced drivers on the assumption that they’ll mature into the role.
“It’s a very strange situation,” he said. “Apparently you’re finished by the time you’re 23 years old these days, too old for F1. They’re bringing in guys who are 19 or 20 who have been in a lower series for a year or two, maybe. When did Formula 1 become a development series for drivers?
“I always thought the whole point of F1 was that you hire the best drivers in the world. How the hell do you know if a guy who’s 20 years old and has very little experience is going to be good enough? Fast enough, yes, but getting the job done on Sunday afternoon, no-one knows at that stage of their career until they’re thrown in the deep end.
“[Max] Verstappen is an extraordinary exception, but even he, with all his speed and natural talent, has had to develop in F1. He’s certainly made errors that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a driver in F1. And now they’re giving [Daniil] Kvyat a third chance at Toro Rosso. Apparently he is now in a much better place and is ‘very calm’ compared to how he was when they fired him a year or so ago. How do they know that if he’s not even done one race since he last raced in F1?
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“It’s one thing the be calm and in a ‘good place’ over dinner, it’s a whole different matter when you sit on the grid and the red mist starts to rise. It’s only then you can really judge how good a driver is. Let’s hope they are right, but I’m having a hard time understanding how a driver can become a better racer by not doing any races? It all seems a bit odd to me.”
Johansson also took aim at the junior development programs that have tripped up the likes of Mercedes-aligned Esteban Ocon, who might be forced to spend 2019 on the sidelines after Force India’s change of ownership cost him his current seat.
“It’s really becoming evident now that the junior programs for drivers that the teams have been obsessed with aren’t working that well,” Johansson said.
Ocon: Future uncertain. Image by Bloxham/LAT
“One team starts a few years back and then everybody has to follow. It’s always the way. Red Bull had Verstappen come through the ranks, and he’s been successful and become an asset, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who comes out of a junior program is.
“Now, Mercedes has got all of these guys locked up. There should be a natural culling system, but the problem is that because everything is so expensive, even in the junior formulas now, it’s gotten completely screwed up. Most of the young drivers that are any good are part of a junior program of some kind, whether it’s McLaren, Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari.
“But very few of them ever get anywhere because they’re stuck in these programs. Their options are limited to literally those programs. What are the chances that one of those maybe 10 guys will filter through? It’s almost impossible. Once they’re discarded, you don’t even hear of these guys anymore. Most of them end up out in the wilderness – lost, gone.
“Mercedes has now released [Pascal] Wehrlein. He was the great hope for a while but he’s now out of the system. It’s definitely counter-productive, and as usual, money is the problem. If you don’t have the right backing, particularly in the junior categories, you’re not going to go forward. Money is always the problem, and no one is taking their foot off the gas in terms of trying to diminish the costs of running these cars.”
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