Former Jaguar and Red Bull driver Christian Klien believes that the Auto GP series needs to be taken seriously as a potential source of F1 drivers, having made his race debut at Mugello recently.
Although Auto GP has had some success in promoting drivers that eventually ended up in the top flight – former champion Romain Grosjean aided his rehabilitation as a grand prix driver by winning the 2010 title – Klien is adamant that the current breed of car is a match for anything else on the development ladder, and the drivers that come out on top ought to be considered as stars of the future.
“Auto GP has a competitive level of racing,” the Austrian, who last tried F1 with HRT in 2010, explained, “I have not explored the full picture of the championship yet, [but] the car is quite powerful, with a high grip level. The main difficulty is that the car has no power steering – and the last time I was driving a race car without power steering was back in 2003 in F3 Euroseries! You get a very different feedback from the car, as everything just feels very heavy and it's harder to control the car precisely, but it is a lot of fun to drive.
“I think the races should be longer [as], when you race in F1, you have to keep your concentration for much longer and it's physically much harder, [but] Auto GP definitely helps to prepare drivers for F1.”
While the two most recent champions – Kevin Ceccon and Adrian Quaife-Hobbs – are currently plying their trade in GP2, former F1 backmarker Narain Karthikeyan is chasing the Auto GP title in a bid to return to the top flight. Other former F1 drivers, including Giorgio Pantano and Antonio Pizzonia – in 2010 and 2012 respectively – have also tried their hand in the series, which began as Italian F3000 back in 1999 - but it is Kimya Sato, who shares the 2013 championship lead after five rounds, who has come closest to F1 of late, following a surprise test with the Sauber team at Silverstone last month.
"The whole experience has been sensational,” the Japanese ace remarked, “Everything is different there, another world compared to what a driver experiences in his previous career.
“From the driving perspective, the braking and the mid-corner speed are incredible. In addition to that, it's very, very challenging from a physical point of view."
Joining Auto GP for 2013 definitely helped him acclimatise to the F1 machine, Sato reckons, particularly following the series' June double-header on the British Grand Prix layout.
"[That] gave me the key reference points on-track [but], from a technical perspective, [Auto GP] has been the first high-powered car I have ever driven and that definitely bridged the gap from F3 to F1. The lack of power steering prepared me for the physical effort needed, because an F1 car is much lighter to drive."
And the F1 run appears to have had benefits in the opposite direction too, as Sato heads into the title showdown with Sergio Campana.
"I'm definitely going to be more relaxed behind the wheel of my Auto GP car because it will be like a step back,” he concluded, “In addition to that, the speed reference has changed completely, so I know that I can push further, and I will have to optimise the braking after trying to the carbon brakes used in F1..."