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DECEMBER 6, 2000

Should Raikkonen be given a Superlicence?


The granting of Superlicences in Formula 1 is a subjective business. There are rules written out in the FIA Formula 1 Sporting Regulations but these are not clear. Article 10 of this code states that all drivers, competitors and officials participating in the Championship must hold a Superlicence and that applications must be made to the FIA through the application's national sporting authority but there are no lists of qualifications necessary. All that remains nowadays in the International Sporting Code is a clause which states that the FIA "reserves the right to refuse the issuing of a Superlicence without having to give reasons for this".

There was a time when one had to win a major Formula 3 title to qualify for a Superlicence but now it seems that all you have to do is convince the Formula 1 Commission that you will not be danger to other drivers and that you are fast enough to warrant a licence.

History is not a good guide because Superlicences have been granted to the likes of Taki Inoue, Giovanni Lavaggi and Jean-Denis Deletraz while they have been refused to Sandro Nannini and Hideki Noda, despite the fact that both were obviously capable and competent to race in F1. In recent years the F1 Commission has stipulated that youngsters must complete 1250 miles of testing before the start of the season and if they do nothing stupid they will be given the licence. This was used in the cases of Esteban Tuero, Jenson Button and Gastone Mazzacane. As part of the arrangement the drivers in question have to complete a full race distance at racing speed to show that they will not fall asleep at the wheel.

But all of the people applying for licences were experienced in Formula 3 racing at the very least. Raikkonen can only claim to have done 23 car races in his life and they have been in Formula Renault.

Knowing the rules of Formula 1 is an important issue and a driver like Raikkonen who has catapulted straight to Formula 1 will not have the same understanding of the regulations as a driver would if he has done two years in Formula 3000. But learning the rules is just a matter of time and application by a driver. The other basic qualification is knowing how to behave on a race track. After just one season in Formula Renault there may be one or two question marks about whether Raikkonen knows enough. He is experienced in karting but the driving behavior between karts and single-seater racing is not identical.

There does not seem to be an issue as to whether Raikkonen is fast enough. He was seventh quickest on the first day of testing in Jerez so he clearly has more than a vague idea of how to drive a racing car.

Some argue that if Raikkonen is granted a Superlicence it will only be a matter of time before a kart racer is signed up by an F1 team and applies for a Superlicence with absolutely no experience in open-wheelers. If the FIA grants him a licence there is a very strong argument that it could not refuse a top kartist.

But it is more than just a question of experience and knowledge. The FIA must take into account the legal ramifications of what would happen if a young driver were to cause an accident which claims the life of one of the sport's stars. It could happen and the FIA would be responsible (and therefore potentially to blame) if such an accident occurred. The sport must protect itself from lawyers who would claim that the governing body was acting irresponsibly.

At the same time there is a political argument as well which must be looked at. If the good drivers are being hired from Formula Renault and even karting, what is the point of having the feeder series such as Formula 3 and Formula 3000. They serve no real purpose if drivers can jump straight from the small cars into F1. This has always been argument against Formula 3000 because when you analyze previous years it is clear that the very best F1 talents come straight from Formula 3 while the top F3000 are not always guaranteed F1 drives. This year the top three in the Formula 3000 series have not gone into F1. The champion and the runner-up have gone to CART and the man who finished third is staying in the series and acting as test driver for an F1 team.

Another point which the F1 Commission needs to discuss is whether it is the right moment to make such a decision. At the moment everyone in Formula 1 seems to have been bitten by Button Fever. Everyone wants to find the new superstar and they are looking further afield than ever before. But at the same time they are ignoring some proven talents in the hope that hiring Formula Fords drivers will bring them a goldmine.

The announcement that BAR has signed up Anthony Davidson as a test driver is a case in point. Davidson may be brilliant but all he has done to date is win a couple of races and the Formula Ford Festival. He did not even win the British FF1600 title. And one has to wonder how anyone can make such a decision when there are drivers of the calibre Giorgio Pantano and Antonio Pizzonia wandering around without F1 deals. The F1 world has gone mad about youngsters.

And that leads to another set of questions. Is it right to open the way from youngsters to jump straight into F1 from the junior formulae. This will increase the pressure on all young drivers. That will mean that they will be more desperate to be successful at a younger age and given the poor example set for them by some of the F1 stars of the modern era this will mean there will be more accidents. People will get hurt. At the same time the crashes one is seeing in the junior formulae make racing less interesting as there are so many red flag incidents at the start of races.

There is a strong argument also that allowing young drivers to do too much too soon is actually doing them no good at all. If they want to survive in Formula 1 in the long term they need to learn the skills of the job. They will be better and more rounded drivers if they are allowed to develop a little more slowly and that will mean that they may be able to last longer in Grand Prix racing. The kids who arrive now must deliver or they will be written off. No-one would think of appointing someone who has just finished secondary education to be a college professor.

This is what Formula 1 is proposing to do with Raikkonen.

Whether the Formula 1 Commission will even discuss all these issues is doubtful. They will probably look at the timesheets and say "OK". Most of those on the Commission are not there because they have the interests of the sport at heart. They are there because they happen to own F1 teams and one could argue that they are not the best men to judge what is best for the sport in the long term.