F1 Young Drivers Test at Jerez – Click above for high-res image gallery
The biggest football fans don't just watch the NFL. They're watching college football too. If not because they say it's a better spectacle, then simply to see the future pros who'll ultimately be drafted by NFL teams.
Formula racing works the same way. (Well, sorta.) There are countless feeder series staged every year around the world, and most of the drivers in them are hoping for their shot at the big leagues. But with championships split between so many series – from Formula Renault to GP2 and from Indy Lights to Formula 2 – it can be a bit much to follow.
Fortunately this year in the off-season, all the returning F1 teams came together for one massive test at the Jerez track in Spain. There they put the latest crop of up-and-coming talent to the test. Follow the jump to read how it unfolded.
Brawn/Mercedes put former British F3 champion Mike Conway and reigning Japan F3 champ Marcus Ericsson behind the wheel. Ferrari used Jules Bianchi, champion of both the French Formula Renault series and the F3 Euroseries, for most of its testing before bringing in the top three finishers from this year's Italian F3 championship: Daniel Zampieri, Marco Zipoli and Pablo Sanchez Lopez. McLaren put its veteran test driver, Gary Paffett, behind the wheel before handing things over to Oliver Turvey, winner of the McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver award. Before departing the scene, BMW Sauber rewarded Alexander Rossi and Esteban Gutierrez, winners of last year's Formula BMW Americas and Europe championships respectively, with test sessions.
Red Bull – which has one of the most involved young driver development programs of all – brought in reigning British F3 champ Daniel Ricciardo, while Toro Rosso put Brendon Hartley ('07 Eurocup FR2 champ) and Mirko Bortolotti ('08 Italian F3 champ) behind the wheel. Renault, whose feeder series occupy a number of rungs up the ladder, ran Bertrand Baguette (reigning World Series by Renault champion), former GP2 runner-up Lucas Di Grassi, and Chinese racing prodigy Ho-Pin Tung. Williams fielded reigning F2 champion Andy Soucek along with Nico Hulkenberg, its race driver for next season. Finally, Force India brought out reigning Indy Lights champ JR Hildebrand and former F3 Euroseries champion Paul Di Resta.
The test session served a number of functions for the teams beyond evaluating new talent. With new aero regs coming into effect once again next season, this was the first chance the constructors got to try out their new designs. Refueling mid-race will also be banned next season, meaning that every car will need to start with as much fuel as is required to finish the race. The added fuel load will mean increased wear on the brakes and tires, so several of the teams tested heavier ballast to simulate the conditions.
The first day saw Soucek (Williams) top the lap time charts ahead of Di Resta (Force India) and Paffett (McLaren). On the second day, Paffett demonstrated that experience is still worth a lot in F1 by topping the charts ahead of Hulkenberg (Williams) and Ricciardo (Red Bull). On day three, Ricciardo came in with the fastest lap time of the entire session, well ahead of Di Resta and Paffett.
Although the lap times certainly demonstrate proficiency and potential on behalf of both the drivers and the teams, it was hardly the last word in the successful culmination of the session. In fact Bertrand Baguette, who finished ninth out of twelve for Renault on the first day, impressed so thoroughly that BMW Sauber invited him back to test for them on the third day, placing sixth out of sixteen.
The bottom line is this: With the grid expanding next season and an ever-demanding thirst for younger drivers to fill seats every year, we wouldn't be surprised to see many of these names showing up on the grid in coming seasons.