It’s all too easy to denigrate drivers who bring money into the back-end of Formula One. Pat Symonds’ (Marussia’s recently departed technical chief) thinly-veiled observation (believed to be directed at Max Chilton) that Marussia’s drivers were leaving 5-tenths on the table compared to seasoned operators like Alonso might well have been designed to raise Symonds’ own stock, but I doubt Ferrari would’ve promised the road to El Dorado to Fernando if it wasn’t the case.
The truth is, regardless of dowry proportion, all of the ‘pay drivers’ currently in Formula One have proved themselves capable of holding their own. You only have to cast your mind back to Juji Ide’s asinine stint at Super Aguri to realize that.
Despite this, there’s always a fresh target for derision. Last year it was Pastor Maldonado, while in 2013 Giedo van der Garde has been the object of the poison pen – despite both Giedo and Pastor both driving superb races in Hungary. Yes, van der Garde has had some shaky races, most notably by chopping across Mark Webber’s front-wing in Canada, but the resulting five-place penalty at Silverstone was the main cause of Giedo being beaten to the flag in Britain by Max Chilton’s Marussia.
Giedo’s Caterham team-mate, Charles Pic has been consecrated as “most likely to succeed’ out of the two, and rightly so given Pic’s outstanding performance against ‘veteran’ Timo Glock at Marussia last year. However, van der Garde knows he can beat Pic, as evident from his 2008 Formula Renault 3.5 title win (against the Frenchman) in 2008.
As such, van der Garde hasn’t been thrown off by Pic’s initial advantage in 2013 and used the time to be analytical and work on deficiencies in his own performance. As Giedo, himself has stated: “the plan we’d set for this season (was) about learning and improving race by race”.
In Spain, van der Garde hauled his Caterham into 18th on the grid ahead of Jules Bianchi, Max Chilton and team-mate Pic and built on that performance on Sunday by fighting with Jenson Button and both Williams drivers during the opening stints before his race was cruelly ended with a left rear wheel becoming detached. Likewise, a superb qualifying during tricky conditions at Monaco saw Giedo make Q2 for the first time this year – comfortably ahead of Pic, both Marussias and outpacing Maldonado and di Resta on merit. Again, van der Garde made a brilliant start, but was hit by Maldonado and was forced to continue the race with a damaged floor and a loss of KERS from lap ten.
A lackluster run from Canada through to Germany could’ve seen Giedo drop his head, but in Hungary he struck back in a methodical (if not headline-grabbing) display.
In a tiring, feverish grand prix, van der Garde jumped from 20th to 18th at the race start, relegating his team-mate down the order and keeping ahead of Valtteri Bottas until the first stop. Moving onto the medium compound and a three-stop strategy, Giedo had no option but to make the scheme work, and that he did; finishing a career-best 14th in the process. Opportunism and race-craft mixed with a determined drive finally reaped the reward that should have been his in Barcelona. Whilst Charles Pic has initially disappeared up the road this season, Van der Garde hasn’t panicked and just got on with business; in much the same way Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Rosberg have responded to their own team-mates.
Why is this? Well Giedo has learnt to be patient. After impressing during his debut Formula Renault season in 2003, van der Garde was signed to the Renault Driver Development programme; only to be dropped after two consecutive 9th places in Formula 3 the following year. Then, after landing an ASM drive alongside Sebastian Vettel and Paul di Resta, Giedo was unable to sustain a serious challenge and finished sixth in the standings – di Resta eventually winning the title from Vettel.
Like di Resta, van der Garde has been forced to play the long game by testing for Super Aguri and sitting in as a reserve driver for Spyker (now di Resta’s home in Force India guise). A disciplined and businessman-like approach to securing funds in the hope of finally landing a Formula One drive have not only achieved his goal, but perhaps changed Giedo’s approach to driving. You don’t put the hard yards into securing sponsorship and then throw it all away by binning the car at the first corner.
It’s currently 6-4 in the qualifying stakes between Pic and van der Garde and with the Dutchman steadily improving on his race performances, the shine might just begin to fade a little on Pic’s star. But then the meat and potatoes that dictate the ebb and flow between team-mates is often lost in the search for a headline.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic