NOVEMBER 21, 2000

Gene appointment confirms that F1 test drivers are more important than ever

IT was David Coulthard who hit the nail on the head when he was referring to McLaren-Mercedes test driver Olivier Panis.

IT was David Coulthard who hit the nail on the head when he was referring to McLaren-Mercedes test driver Olivier Panis. "It was a great benefit having Olivier involved in the test program," said the Scot. "We had somebody fulfilling this role whose judgement we could absolutely depend on and who was quick enough not to raise any doubts. It certainly helped us to get through a lot more work."

In other words, if you've got an inexperienced kid doing your testing, you're likely to have one hand figuratively tied behind your back. He might be good, he might be promising, but he's not likely to be seasoned in the ways of F1. With Panis, McLaren knew precisely where it was, seamlessly cross-referencing input from the Frenchman to that obtained from Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard. Put simply, they got through at least one-third more work.

Panis's role will now be taken over by the similarly experienced Alexander Wurz for McLaren's 2001 season. Ferrari similarly opt for an experienced tester in the form of Luca Badoer, Benetton have experienced F3000 runner Mark Webber and now Williams has opted for former Minardi racer Marc Gene after briefly talking to the immensely experienced Johnny Herbert.

"When a driver needs to choose between one tire and another, where the lap times produced a pretty much the same and it all comes down to a question of a fine degree of feel, then an experienced driver might be said to be needed in preference to a raw recruit," said Williams technical director Patrick Head commenting on Gene's recruitment to the task.

All of which puts Jaguar's strategy in bringing on Tomas Scheckter and Andre Lotterer seem strangely out of step with the prevailing trends. Both men have obvious potential, but Jaguar's priority seems to be identifying and nurturing young driving talent.

Their critics would argue that the real priority is to get the Jaguars performing to a more competitive pitch than has previously been seen rather than worrying about who might be the best drivers two or three years down the road.

In fairness, it also has to be said that Jaguar has promoted its test driver Luciano Burti to the role of Eddie Irvine's number two for the 2001 season. That at least means that they have the courage of their convictions and are determined to see how their own home-grown talent acquits himself in the thick of the front line action.

As an aside, it was also interesting that Jaguar Chairman Neil Ressler was recently quoted as saying that he thought Michael Schumacher was a splendid "role model" for younger drivers. Colleagues of the triple world champion, who have been on the receiving end of Michael's ruthless swerving maneuvers as they accelerate away from the starting grid, might be forgiven for taking a rather less benign view of his talent than the Jaguar team chief.