For years now, Formula 1 teams have been debating the merits of in-season testing – it costs too much/it doesn't cost too much; it's essential for car development/it's not essential; we should have more races instead/the current number of races is fine; etc. But another element of the testing question rarely gets as much of a hearing: The opportunity tests provide for young drivers to gain seat time in Formula 1 machinery and – perhaps more significantly in an age in which simulators are nearly as good as the real thing – the opportunity they offer the teams for direct comparisons of up-and-comers on speed, poise and the feedback they provide.
This week's “young driver test” at Magny-Cours was only the second such in-season chance this year (following a truncated two-day session at Silverstone in July), and as such its express purpose of providing driving opportunities to deserving youngsters was undercut by the teams' thirst to take advantage of the rare track time outside of a race weekend to test new concepts. So Mercedes tester Sam Bird spent most of his time trying out that team's new exhaust system and double DRS. The laps may have been invaluable for Mercedes, but arguably less so for Bird, although he did get to debrief none other than Michael Schumacher about the new parts.
Similarly, Jules Bianchi – who led the times throughout the Magny-Cours test while splitting his time between two different teams – also had analysis of his own capabilities blunted by the front wing developments he was trying out for Ferrari, although his Force India run was said to be more of a tryout for a possible race role next season, in light of increasing speculation about Paul di Resta's future with the squad.
Brendon Hartley, who took over Mercedes running from Bird on the final day of the French test, may have helped make the argument for those saying testing is an unnecessary element of judging young drivers with his comment that he felt he was back up to speed in no time, despite having had no running in an F1 car (outside of simulation work) for several years.
Bianchi, too, was adamant that he felt ready to step up to the big leagues next year – but, of course, such impressions are a good deal less significant to the outcome than those of Formula 1 team principals, on whose decisions regarding drivers the fates of multi-million-dollar budgets and the countless man-hours of hundreds of employees hang. It's not surprising that those decisions tend toward the conservative.
Even if you do manage to break into the rarefied world of F1 racers, it can just bring you closer to the next glass ceiling. Sergio Perez, who has worked magic repeatedly in the races this year for Sauber, and has the leg up of being involved in Ferrari's young driver development scheme, has been played down by Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo as a potential replacement for the clearly underperforming Felipe Massa, because “he needs more experience.”
It might be asked, if a young driver isn't qualified for a Ferrari drive after coming close to a grand prix victory twice in a season for a team that has never won one as an independent operation, when is he going to be suitable? And, if drivers like Perez are required to spend a few years in a comparative backmarker operation first, what are the chances that by the time the next vacancy opens up, they will have acquired the “journeyman” label and so be blackballed by the top teams anyway?
It's a difficult conundrum for both F1 teams and the young talents who dream of driving for them, but as long as testing opportunities remain extremely limited – and, consequently, extremely scripted in terms of programs of development – it's bound to remain in place. And so the chances of an outsider getting a fair shake at a top grand prix ride are going to remain vanishingly small.
Andrew Crask is the executive editor of RACER magazine