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Waiting In The Wings



31 MAR - 03 APR 2016

Notice anything about the Spanish Grand Prix? An unusual name opposite the fastest race lap – and a ray of sunshine in a difficult start to one young man’s F1 career… Esteban Gutiérrez must have thought he’d done everything right.

At 21, the young Mexican had been looming on the F1 horizon for several years. European Formula BMW champion, first-ever winner of the new GP3 feeder category, a multiple race-winner in GP2 – he had already been test and development driver for Sauber since 2011.

But he knew perfectly well what lay ahead as a fully-fledged Grand Prix driver in 2013 when he said, “This is the start of the real challenge.” Even he may not have realised how challenging it was to be.

Sauber’s rookie finished 13th in Australia on debut, after what team principal Monisha Kaltenborn called “a solid first race”, and 12th in Malaysia before the wheels came off. In China he posted the first of the dreaded DNF’s that no driver wants to accumulate after colliding violently with the Force India of Adrian Sutil.

With admirable concision, Gutiérrez said: “I tried my best to stop, but didn’t succeed,” which would have made the stewards’ job easier. In fairness, he was under pressure from behind as he came up behind Sutil on lap five. “I approached the corner too fast,” he admitted. “I was braking at the same place I usually brake, however I didn’t anticipate the loss of downforce and the amount of speed I had.”

Already Kaltenborn was making public noises about rookie drivers, lack of testing opportunities, and the need for extra running on Fridays at F1 free practice sessions – an idea which the teams have since scuppered, by the way.

Next time out, in Bahrain, he was 18th. “I expected a difficult race and this is what I got,” he observed, but some of Kaltenborn’s fears about her new driver would have been eased in Barcelona. Gutiérrez was 12th, but became the second-youngest F1 driver to claim a fastest race lap.

For Jules Bianchi, the finishing positions may have been lower but the transition seems to have been smoother. Marussia’s French newcomer was 15th in Melbourne (“Can’t imagine a better start to my first season of F1”), followed up with 13th in Malaysia (“I hope this is a trend we can continue!”) and hasn’t failed to finish a race so far, carrying the tail-end fight to rivals Caterham at every opportunity.

Like everyone else, he was on a tyre-conservation strategy early in the piece in Barcelona, where he was 18th again. “I feel like I drove a really hard race today,” he said after an unscheduled lap one pit stop for a new front wing, “but there is not so much to show for it.”

But with other teams already snooping around, Ferrari protégé Bianchi may well have a great deal more to show for it in the very near future – something that would make him an unusually lucky young man among the crop of those waiting in the wings, either for F1 stardom or just for a place at the F1 table.

“Everybody that gets a chance now has to take money, and I can’t see it changing in the near future unless a driver comes out who is absolutely spectacular. It’s very difficult…” The speaker is Sam Bird, the 26-year-old Englishman who finds himself on the fringes of Formula 1 as a test and reserve driver with Mercedes while he tries to take his first significant title in the 2013 GP2 series. In a sport that’s all about numbers, the meaningful one in Bird’s case could be his age: 26.

Our own Mark Webber made his F1 debut at 25 and everyone back then was saying it was a bit late, though Webber of course has gone on to enjoy a long and successful Grand Prix career. Can men like Bird afford to wait much longer?

If he wins the GP2 title in 2013, will that be the last rung on the ladder to the top? Bird took a late call from new outfit Russian Time (which morphed from iSport, a previous GP2 employer of Sam’s) to join them for the 2013 series. Bird obliged, and did so again with victory in Bahrain in only his second weekend with the new-look team.

With Brazilian Felipe Nasr just 0.080 seconds behind him (Bird’s Pirellis were going off – sound familiar?) it was the closet race finish in GP2’s history, now heading towards 180 races. “It’s something that’s quite cool,” says Bird, but with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton the current incumbents of the F1 Silver Arrows he knows it will take more than that to warm up his chances of a Grand Prix debut any time soon.

Down pit lane at Lotus Renault there’s another driver in the same boat as Bird. That’s Davide Valsecchi of Italy. He’s 25 and test and development driver for the team – and he’s the reigning GP2 champion, an achievement you might have thought worthy of a race seat at the sport’s top table. Like Bird, however, he finds himself waiting in the wings, and hanging around is not something a racing driver likes to do.

Especially when there is already a queue forming behind you, like Arthur Pic, brother of Caterham’s Charles, or Antonio Felix da Costa of Portugal, who won four of the last five Formula Renault 3.5 races of 2012 and has already been a stand-in reserve for Red Bull in F1, or American Conor Daly, or… you get the point. Down pit lane in the Sauber garages you will find 21-year-old Dutchman Robin Frijns, who has done everything right in his short career to date – but found himself at the start of the season without a budget to go racing. Frijns, from Maastricht, won the 2012 Formula Renault 3.5 crown, edging out Bianchi but losing out in the bigger race for a Grand Prix drive. Formula BMW Europe champion in 2010, Frijns followed that with overall victory in the 2011 Eurocup two-litre series, so his 2012 success meant a hat-trick of titles in consecutive seasons.

Like Bird, however, and with help from Sauber team principal Monisha Keltenborn, Frijns was only a late recruit to the 2013 GP2 ranks thanks to German team principal Franz Hilmer. He is dove-tailing his racing timetable with test and development work at Sauber in F1.

Lo and behold, Frijns won one of the two GP2 support races in Barcelona last weekend – his second outing with the Hilmer team. But… he’s not even sure he will race in Monaco in the next round. “I don’t have high hopes there because Coletti, Leimer, they have much more experience on that track. I only raced once there and I did not even finish the race. I’ll do the best I can and hopefully score some points, but I don’t see myself winning. The plan is to be there,” he says.

Being there is one thing in F1, making a lasting impression is another. Just ask Esteban… or Jules… or Valtteri… or Max… or Giedo…

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