Different routes for F1 teams to the Young Driver Test
In 2010, more than 20 eager but inexperienced participants took part in the first Formula One Young Driver Test. The programme, held at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, was billed as a way for the 12 race teams to run the rule over potential track stars of the future.
Among the names in the field that week were Sergio Perez, who tested for BMW-Sauber,Paul di Resta who was given a run-out by Force India and Pastor Maldonado, who ran for both Williams and the Hispania Racing Team (HRT).
All three drivers, as well as Daniel Ricciardo and Jean Eric Vergne, have since gone on to become household names in the world of F1, while Jules Bianchi, Jerome D'Ambrosio and Luiz Razia have taken part in at least a race weekend at some stage over the past two years.
Last season's Young Driver Test in Abu Dhabi saw 25 drivers take part, yet only two - Vergne and Charles Pic - secured an F1 seat this season.
Many critics last year accused teams of using the programme as a vehicle for generating revenue; Dani Clos, the Spaniard, confirmed to The National he had paid for his opportunity to test for HRT, while Fabio Leimer and Stefano Colleti were both rumoured to have paid six figures for their opportunities at Sauber and Toro Rosso, respectively.
For this season, teams were given the option of either testing drivers mid-season after the British Grand Prix or closer to the end of the year, after the November 4 Abu Dhabi race. Of the 12 teams, only three elected to test at Silverstone this week: HRT, Marussia and Williams will complete their final day of a two-day programme this afternoon.
There are different arguments for and against testing at each venue.
While Graeme Lowdon, the chief executive officer at Marussia, says testing in Abu Dhabi would have demanded too much from his relatively small staff, Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren-Mercedes team principal, said his marque strongly believe in the original concept of using a week at the end of the season as an opportunity to test young drivers - a statement that jars slightly considering last year the Woking-based outfit tested in Gary Paffett, a 30 year old, who had been involved with them for more than six years.
"Sadly in F1, while we all know it is important to develop young drivers, every team has different motivations," Whitmarsh said.
"Some teams want to go out and test new parts, other teams want to gain revenue because they sell the opportunity, but the original concept was that at the end of the season, we should do a Young Driver Test and we felt we should try to stick to that original concept."
Lowdon explained that, such is the schedule of the 2012 calendar, testing in the UAE would have meant team staff would have had to work away from home for at least five consecutive weeks.
The test will follow the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which itself immediately follows the race in India, while the two weeks after the test feature the United States Grand Prix and the season-ending contest in Brazil.
"To do the test in Abu Dhabi at that time wouldn't have worked for us," he said.
"We have no problem at all with Yas, the facilities are excellent, all the teams love going there, the circuit is great and the timing is good in that it is near the end of the season, but there is no way we could schedule staff and component turnaround to work on what is basically a five-week continuous stint.
"For it to be held then, meant it didn't work for our logistics."
Instead, Marussia have opted to run the risk of traditional English summer rain to test their drivers this week on two different configurations at Silverstone. Lowdon confirmed Maria De Villota, the Spanish female driver, was in line to take part before an accident last week left her fighting for her life in hospital.
Yesterday, on the same track that Red Bull's Mark Webber secured the British Grand Prix win, Briton's Max Chilton and Rio Haryanto of Indonesia shared testing responsibilities, while today the same two rookies will get behind the wheel on the shorter International Circuit.
"The team gave me my first F1 opportunity in 2010 in Abu Dhabi, however for this test at Silverstone I am much better prepared from a technical and fitness point of view," Haryanto said. "With the limited testing available in Formula 1, any time a young driver can spend in an F1 car is valuable for the future."
Lowdon agreed, adding that providing young drivers with mileage "is the whole point of the programme".
The CEO also dismissed suggestions the team are using the in-season test to improve their performance this season. "We don't use [the week] to test the car," he said.
"There have been various comments about teams trying to develop things, but for us we want to try people out and see how they react. F1 is a highly technical environment, so we want to see how the young drivers work with the engineers."
HRT and Williams are less rigid in their reasoning, conceding that the week can be broken down as 70 per cent driver development and 30 per cent car development. Mark Gillan, the chief operations engineer at Williams, said there are always certain elements of the car that are looked at during a driver test, but that this week is very important in the development of their rookie, Valtteri Bottas.
Rumours have grown in recent weeks that the Finnish driver, who has ran in six Friday practice sessions so far this season, may replace Brazilian Bruno Senna in the team after August's month-long break. Gillan would not be drawn on the possibility, but spoke highly of Bottas's potential and said the two days would be used to "put him through his paces".
"When we have a young driver with the talent, professionalism and promise of Valtteri, an in-season young driver test makes a lot more sense for us rather than at the end of the season," he said. "We run him on a Friday already and any further exposure we can give him to the car can only help us - and him as well - so it works better."
Ma Qing Hua, the HRT test driver, became the first Chinese national to take part in an official F1 event yesterday when he began the first of his two days in the Spanish team's car.
The 24 year old said before taking to the track that the decision to run at Silverstone over Yas Marina was a team decision, but that it suits his development plan better.
"We all agreed to prepare for a test as soon as possible because we feel we are ready for the testing and we think Silverstone is a good chance," he said, adding that the risk of rain is a non-issue as he must learn in all conditions.
"Seventy per cent of the test is testing me as it's my first time in the car and I need time to learn a lot of things: new car, new circuit, new conditions. I need a lot of time and the most important thing is to get a lot of kilometres under my belt over the two days."
Whether Ma Qing makes the final grade will depend largely on how he performs in tests such as this week. Without a superlicence, he is prohibited from taking part in a race weekend, so will continue his development by testing GP2 and World Series by Renault cars. "Only after that," he said, "will we decide the next step."