commentator and erstwhile grand prix star Martin Brundle has expressed his fears that talent alone is no longer enough to make it all the way to the pinnacle of the sport, and that now it is 'all about money' – as he laments that the 'fast-rising escalator' of 'perfect specimens' is 'blocked at the top'.
Although there are 24 cockpits on the current grand prix grid – more than there have been for most of the past decade – in truth, the possibilities for young drivers to break into the fold are the most restricted they have ever been. Of the F1 2011 crop, at least five of those confirmed thus far secured their seats by dint of being able to bring significant sums of sponsorship to the table – in this day and age of economic austerity and financial cutbacks, an ever-important commodity.
Some observers opine that the situation has now got so far – in many of the smaller teams, at least – as to render financial clout more attractive than on-track potential, and when a competitor of the undisputed calibre of Nico Hülkenberg is forced out of a team like Williams to make way for the well-heeled Pastor Maldonado, Brundle contends that matters are out-of-hand.
“I'm very concerned about it, on several fronts,” the former McLaren, Benetton, Ligier and Jordan ace admitted, speaking during the annual pre-season Autosport International show. “I see the young driver market as this fast-rising escalator with all the drivers on, and then it's blocked at the top – there's nowhere to go.
“They're coming along, they've been karting since they were eight, they're professional racing drivers in their teens effectively, they're mentally and physically trained, they've got all the technical information and knowledge that they need, they're the perfect specimens by about 20/21 – because if you're not in F1 by then, frankly, you're possibly too old – and then they get turfed off the top of the escalator and there's nowhere to put them.
“We're seeing that with a lot of young drivers – Bruno Senna would be a good example. He's had a few dodgy races in an HRT; he's not had a shot in F1. I said to my son Alex, I don't know if I would have got through in this day and age. I always used to say up until about five years ago that if you had the talent, you will get through – somehow or other, somebody will spot you, somebody will find you, regardless of money – but now I fear it's all about money.
“When I see Nico Hülkenberg losing the Williams seat because of sponsorship from another driver, all my alarm bells are going off about where all these perfectly-prepared young racing drivers are going to go. What are we going to do with them? How do you validate a young driver now there's no testing, to put him in an F1 car?
“Red Bull use the World Series by Renault and put their young guys up against each other; it's easy for them in a way, because they've got two F1 teams to channel them into – other young drivers don't have that chance. We've got all this simulator stuff, but I'm not at all convinced you can truly validate a young driver in a simulator because there's no pressure to deliver, and flat in seventh through Copse in a simulator is an awful lot easier than in the real car...”