There was an issue that really put into perspective just how much importance the role of the third driver can be when it comes to Formula One, especially with 2012 GP2 Series Champion Davide Valsecchi being put to one side when it came to deciding who would replace Kimi Raikkonen at Lotus F1 for the final two races of the season.
It shows that experience is always welcomed when it is all to play for, especially if the replacement driver is someone like Heikki Kovalainen, but it does beg the question – is it fair on those that already have one foot in the door to be swept under the carpet?
Valsecchi said to Sky Sports F1 that he would “drive for free” if that was what it took to get him into a race seat to gain some valuable race weekend experience first hand. But in the aftermath, here was clearly a man that was frustrated and to a point, somewhat emotional in his response to questions when the Finn was announced just as the race weekend in Austin was meant to get underway. It’s true that body language says more than what words people say these days.
One undeniable fact is that the Italian was already a part of the current infrastructure at Enstone, so it would be a foregone conclusion and logical choice to put him in the hot seat. This was because he knew the car, had in some ways helped develop the E21, but it was not meant to be. There is also the major fact that Valsecchi had spent pretty much all season alongside Mark Slade on the pit wall, whereas it had been four years since Kovalainen had worked with the engineer during the team’s tenure as Renault.
When Richland F1’s Trent Price spoke to Davide in Melbourne, he said that Razia, who was pulled out of a race seat at Marussia due to sponsor issues, “deserved” the seat that was then filled by Jules Bianchi. In some respects, you can understand that from a race driver’s perspective is that being the “third” driver can enhance potential opportunities of getting a full-time drive.
In this day and age, when testing is so heavily restricted by the governing body, it doesn’t really give young talents much in the way of experiencing Formula One and its sheer brutality, especially when mileage is concerned.
Then there is the fact that if a young hopeful is not part of a junior programme, like the ones that McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull have in place, drivers like Holland’s Robert Frijns, who was with Sauber until the latter part of last season, will have to fight for sponsorship that will help them achieve their goal. But by no means is a race seat cheap in Formula One, especially when racing is a business, where teams are struggling to survive in the current economic climate.
But with the driver academies that are already in place, it is a case of making sure that the results are there, otherwise it is a case of losing vital backing that is crucial through any young driver trying to make it in the racing world. Brendon Hartley is one such driver, who lost his Red Bull Junior program place as a result of results not being there when it counts the most.
In the last decade, there have been a small handful of drivers that have made it into Formula One from a third driver perspective, which includes Williams F1’s Valterri Bottas, who made the transition from GP3 just like Daniil Kvyat has, but with an extra year of getting used to the animal that is F1. The Russian newcomer will have an incredibly steep learning curve at Toro Rosso, even though he impressed with his outings for the Faenza-based team and Red Bull at Silverstone earlier this season.
Some of the talent that is also rising through the ranks via a junior program includes a very impressive Italian that could be making it to F1 before Valsecchi gets his chance, depending on what happens with regards to the third driver role at Lotus F1 next year. 18-year-old Raffaele Marciello has been competing in F3 this year, and won the FIA F3 European Championship with Prema Powerteam, the Italian powerhouse in this important step of the ladder in a driver’s career.
He is also a product of the Ferrari Driver Academy, which is run by Luca Baldisseri, which has seen Bianchi and Perez pass through their doors en route to F1, and is helping to give those less fortunate talents when it comes to sponsorship a glimmer of hope. Marciello has showed increased performance since his single-seater debut in Formula Abarth four seasons ago, and was incredibly impressive in the recent Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2 tests, where he was posting fastest laps with different teams, and even broke lap records in the process. So this driver is one to keep your eyes on in the next couple of seasons or so, before his jump to F1 is complete.
As per yesterday’s announcement that Antonio Felix da Costa, who was passed up for the second Toro Rosso seat in favour of Kvyat, becomes a test and reserve driver with Red Bull alongside Sebastian Buemi, it seems as though his dream of F1 will potentially be a reality soon. But at least his role allows him to keep racing competitively in the DTM next year, which will not conflict with his commitments with Milton Keynes, despite only finishing third in Formula Renault 3.5, which potentially cost him that seat at Faenza.
So it goes to show that if you slip over a banana skin on your way to grabbing that prize just ahead of you, it can all be over in an instant. Success or failure can determine a career path for a driver in a split-second, where it is a case of survival of the fittest, as well as the size of the pot of gold that is also brought alongside to the party.
Therefore, being a third driver in a team is such a far cry from years gone by, as the youngsters of today only get to go on aerodynamic straight-line tests, or run simulator programs to help those that are sitting somewhere that is a dream for many, but reality for the elite few. So much for getting a chance to prove your worth…
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic (c) and FIA Formula 3 European Championship/Thomas Suer (c)