Wednesday, 17 July 2013

‘An unsettling era for Young Drivers’

Sergey Sirotkin being announced as a race driver for 2014 has come as a real shock to me, and I am sure I am not the only one who feels this way.

Sirotkin is a pleasant young man with a fair bit of potential, but do my compliments extend much past that? No. The reason being he is a 17 year old with 82 car races and 11 wins to his name! It is impossible to think he is ready for Formula 1. I do not doubt that he will be able to drive a Formula 1 car reasonably quickly, but will he be able to drive it to the best of his ability? No. Long term development is crucial for any young driver or athlete across all sports. Sportsmen and women have to be able to develop their skill set in a structured and well delivered manner. This cannot and should not be rushed. Failing to learn the necessary lessons at a young age will prolong your learning curve and prevent you from maximising your potential. What is more important to Sirotkin's investors: Having a Russian Formula 1 driver in time for Sochi 2014, or having a Russian Formula 1 driver capable of winning Sochi 2016?

What I find frustrating is that Sergey Sirotkin is not just another driver with money. I am commentating on his 2013 World Series by Renault campaign and I have seen enough to say that he definitely has good potential. He has a very good feel of what the car is doing underneath him and is comfortable exploring the limits. However it is also clearly evident that he is already suffering from the example I've explained above. He is lacking the knowledge, experience and skill set to compete with the very best in WSR this year. Understandably this is only his first season in WSR so he should be prone to a mistake or two and that is what we are seeing. Surely then with this in mind he should continue to learn his trade and learn a better way of winning before he moves up to the pinnacle of the sport. Rushing drivers through their development to align with commercial ties is not a healthy trend to be getting into too. Throughout my time in the sport results have always been more important than merely taking part, but can we say the same today?!

This is a very unsettling era for young drivers, and for all of us who care deeply about the sport and the values it withholds. We are now well into an era whereby the graduating 2012 GP2, WSR and Formula 3 Euroseries champions cannot even dream of a Formula 1 drive. That in its self is a very sad statistic. The precedent being set by the Formula 1 teams is that results do not guarantee you success nor do they seem to count for much. Robin Frijns is a prime example. He has won every Championship he has competed in and in some style. Yes, you can argue that he is part of the Young Driver Test this week courtesy of his reputation but he cannot progress that into a race seat because of budget. The sport is now effectively starving itself of talent because of the financial difficulties currently being experienced by 80% of the pit lane. The next generation of talent is seeing the deserving fall by the wayside and the wealthy journeymen progress. If this model continues, I hate to think what Formula 1 will look like in 5 years’ time.

The solution is not an easy one as I can see both sides of the coin. Rumour has it Sauber may not even have been in Hungary had they not secured the Russian investment. Historically, drivers bringing money is nothing new and I fully appreciate that the smaller teams rely on this income to survive. However, what we are seeing today is almost unprecedented with the bigger teams now looking towards that income also. The gross spend in Formula 1 is excessive and the budgets required to win are mind boggling. Is this sustainable? If you analysed the financial stability of the pit lane today, you would have to say no. The longer this almost insolvent trend continues teams will have no option but to source new forms of income and the more paying drivers we'll see on the grid.

I fear for the mind sets of young drivers today. How do you deal with the realisation that Formula 1 is an impossible dream? Drivers spend their whole careers trying to prove their ability and seek recognition. Now they are being taught that this fundamental concept of competition does not matter. Formula 1 needs to address the capital outlay of the teams and reinstall the values of the sport, whereby drivers are rewarded for their ability. This is pivotal for the growth of the sport at grass roots level, right the way through to the quality assurance of Formula 1.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Driving Standards and setting the wrong precedent.

I said after the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend that I was very tempted to blog about GP2 driving standards but chose not to. It is a topic I feel passionately about and based on social media this weekend, I think it is a topic that you at home feel passionately about too. In fact it is not often I feel compelled to write negatively about something but after witnessing GP2 driver Johnny Cecotto Jnr side swipe Sergio Canamasas at the weekend and not get a penalty, I felt incensed. 

The reason I've decided to blog about this is firstly because I do not think I'm the only one who feels aggrieved and secondly because I feel the situation needs addressing. It is a tough subject to broach without naming individuals but Johnny Cecotto Jnr is a repeat offender. However, it is not my intent to name and shame drivers as I do not feel it is productive.

I strongly believe, in all sports, that relying solely on the individual to show sportsmanship, grace and honesty, in this modern era, is wrong. Yes, we can and should expect those on show to have a moral obligation to the organisers, sponsors and fans to behave sportingly but we cannot rely on it. What we can and should rely on is the rules and regulations to be implemented properly. Then, should an individual stray away from their moral compass, they are instantly corrected and punished accordingly. If this concept is followed correctly then we would not be feeling cheated or aggrieved, and most importantly the competitors would have more respect for the environment they are competing in and those around them. 

I think I am right in saying that after Johnny Cecotto Jnr's display of petulance in Malaysia, many of you felt that his punishment was not severe enough. I agree, without doubt, that he was not punished sufficiently and it is no coincidence that two weekends later, his driving standards are yet again back in the spotlight. Surprisingly, he has yet again escaped unpunished. 

The precedent set here is alarming and a dangerous one in all respects. A GP2 driver from this weekend actually tweeted that driving standards were now at an all time low and I would have to agree with him. The characteristic displayed here is not too dissimilar to a referee failing to take control of a football or rugby match. From a players point of view, the pressure is palpable, and when you start to feel unfairly judged, or even worse that the rules and regulations are being unfairly exploited by the opposition without any judicial ruling from the referee, then historically it leads to players taking matters into their own hands; a reaction born from frustration and losing out. Unfortunately I feel that is precisely what is happening here in GP2. Drivers are straying away from their moral compasses as unruly driving is going unpunished. For me, last weekend was not only about silly mistakes but more about petulance and frustration. 

Ultimately, I feel sorry for GP2 as their name is getting dragged through the mud on social media because of mistakes made by the rules and regulatory body in charge of regulating the formula. I also feel if it was down to GP2, this might not be happening. In World Series by Renault, the structure and culture is very different. Renault operates a very strict rule of thumb when it comes to driving standards. But they have the ability to steer their own ship in this department whereas GP2 is relying on the FIA stewards to deliver continuity and equality. 

GP2 is blessed with another crop of very talented individuals this year and they deserve better. They are young, impressionable and fighting for a dream. That hunger needs to guided and challenged at times. Free reign will only end badly. None of us want to see that in a sport where danger is prominent. Something needs to be done to address this behaviour before it becomes the norm.

One solution I would like to see implemented is the penalty points system currently being mooted by the FIA. The Formula 1 teams have already given it the green light. However, three points for causing a dangerous accident is too lenient. With a total of twelve points on offer that means you can cause four serious accidents in a calendar year before you get a race ban. Surely that is too many? Personally I would like to see a three card system similar to what we see employed by football and rugby match officials. That way after Malaysia and Barcelona, Johnny Cecotto Jnr would have two yellow cards equalling a red now, resulting in him serving a one race ban. More minor racing incidents can carry a warning but deliberate acts of aggression need to be charted and penalised. 

The issue you still face, however, is ensuring the correct personnel are delivering this concept and that the system is also rolled out to the GP support series.  Continuity and standardisation is paramount otherwise the system will serve to fan the flames rather than quell them. Drivers need to recognise their mistakes or negative actions will result in consequences. The best way to do this is to instil into them that each negative action carries a consequence. Having a penalty system would mean that they would carry that responsibility around with them for the whole year.