OCTOBER 26, 2000

The danger of hiring drivers who are too young for Formula 1

THE success of Jenson Button has led to an interesting development within Grand Prix racing.

THE success of Jenson Button has led to an interesting development within Grand Prix racing. Suddenly all the team bosses are looking for the next big star and they are looking well beyond their range of activities in the hope that they can get a new star. In the course of the year Benetton has tested both Antonio Pizzonia and Giorgio Pantano while Sauber has gone beyond that and is now considering signing up Finland's Kimi Raikkonen, whose only motor racing experience is one season in Formula Renault.

This is dangerous territory for a Formula 1 team because one season of racing proves very little, particularly in a one-make series where the preparation of a car can make a driver seem a lot better than he actually is. Raikkonen has done a splendid job this year in the British Formula Renault series with Manor Motorsport but his record prior to that in karting was good but not exceptional. There are countless Formula Renault and Formula Vauxhall champions who have failed to make it in the big time and many of the Formula 3 champions also find the leap to F1 to be impossible. Perhaps Raikkonen is special but it is an enormous risk to take. Jenson Button had proved himself to be successful in karting, Formula Ford 1600 and in British Formula 3 so his recruitment was less of a risk than that currently being considered by Peter Sauber.

While all the great champions of recent years have been men who have jumped straight into F1 from Formula 3, there are others who have failed to make the grade because they jumped to the wrong teams or were simply not ready for F1. The list includes Mauro Baldi, Raul Boesel, Tommy Byrne, Johnny Dumfries, Norberto Fontana and others. Roberto Moreno managed to revive his career after a disastrous early relationship with Team Lotus while Scotland's Jim Crawford never really got over a leap to Formula 1 after only 25 races in Formula Atlantic.

The danger for Sauber is that Raikkonen will slip from the team's grasp if he is not signed. This seems unlikely as no-one else seems to be paying much attention to the 21-year-old Finn and he would be very happy to sign a long-term deal with Sauber to test (and perhaps race in Formula 3 or Formula 3000) next year and then progress into F1 in 2002.

Button was exceptional in that he had far more maturity than most 20 year olds and he was able to cope with the pressures that being an F1 driver impose on a youngster. The Sauber team says that Raikkonen has a similarly mature attitude but other youngsters have struggled. The advantage for Raikkonen is that he has the same management as Button so they know how to deal with success at an early age.

Generalizing about drivers is easy, but each individual has a different capacity to cope with Formula 1. The professionalisation of motor sport is now such that from a very early age drivers are being taught what it takes to be a Formula 1 driver. They are serious about the job from when they are teenagers and do not have to learn what they need to do and how to deal with pressure.

If this is the case then referring to drivers who did not make the grade in the old days is irrelevant. Button may simply be the first of a new wave of much younger drivers who arrive in F1 having been better prepared in all respects for the sport than their predecessors were.