Friday, May 18, 2012

How to become an F1 driver

The recent win of Pastor Maldonado in Spain was quite a good match to revive this old topic, very exhaustively covered originally by Ivan Nikoloff here.
Ivan is from Bulgaria, a compatriot, and he is, I quote: "Management & IT solutions for motor racing / Helping produce the F1 broadcasts in Bulgaria / Giving an innovative view from inside F1" His Twitter account is here.
I have his explicit written permission to link and translate his original post. I hope you will enjoy his insights just as much as I did.

I'm sure that every fan of Formula 1 wants to know what makes these drivers so special and how they have done it?
There's no definitive and straightforward answer, so let's start explaining the specifics.

First, he has to be quick, i.e. to have a feeling about the car, managing the pedals and the steering wheel. A sense for speed and lateral acceleration, just as well as mental strength and clear brain to process all these information subconsciously. In addition to that, that brain must have the capacity to collect the data and plan ahead, and finally a good vision, though this can be corrected with lasers.
The physical parameters of the body, such as weight, are less important, but still, the engineers will appreciate lower Center of Gravity.

In general, there are quite a lot of similarities between F1 drivers and military airplane pilots - why am I mentioning this? Remember Williams F1 team had a technical partner, Qinetiq, who has done a research on how the nerve endings are sending info to the Cerebellum (smaller region in the lower part of the brain) about perceptions of yaw, pitch and roll. The research claims that if stimulated at early age, these perceptions are being developed much faster - what's the relation with F1 drivers? Kart racing. A driver that has started kart racing after age of 10 will have worse results than the one started as early as 8!

That claims makes a lot of sense, especially if we look back at Senna, Michael Schumacher, Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel. Even the 8 time rally champion S├ębastien Loeb has started as gymnast at the age of 3!
So, kart racing is clear: KF3, KF2 or KF1 if you want to be professional. Alternatives like Rotax Max or Easy Kart exist, but in Rotax class there's a distinctive characteristic: the engine doesn't have enough torque on low revs, which is probably why there's not many succeeded, as opposed to Easy Kart, which has a better and equal engine, but it is yet to become popular.
TKM is widely known in UK (primarily), but drawing the bottom line reveals that drivers who have competed in WSK or Italian Open have had notable success after kart racing.

Kart racing is very popular in Italy - everything there is very professional and very expensive, too. I'm talking about a ballpark figure of several hundred thousand euros. After that kart stage in Italy, you need to decide what to do, i.e. when to step in for the larger cars.
  1. As early as possible - even if that means 12-13 years age. 
  2. Race in kart up to 18-20 years - preferred by Jos Verstappen :)
Both variants have their pros and cons. In the former option the driver is getting used to a larger car, real track and setup very early and more quickly, which is an advantage and experience. The latter option offers the possibility of having training at its full size.
Back on option #1, it's still not that popular and hasn't produced an F1 driver, because just a handful of pilots have made the early transition from kart to a formula car. There are, however, some interesting talents out there.

Last year Valtteri Bottas has become a champion in GP3, and he's likely to get a real chance from Williams other than Friday practice sessions.
Another driver which is worth mentioning is Mitch Evans from New Zealand. He had scored the most points in the dry races in GP3, but made some errors in the wet races and thus lost the title.

The other extreme is to debut at age of 18-19 and quickly make way through the crowd ahead - just like Kimi and Jenson did. This option isn't really popular, as budgets in kart racing have recently become almost equal to GP3 or F3.

Couple of weeks ago Sergey Sirotkin (16) and Matheo Tuscher (15) managed to surprise lots of people by getting pole positions in Auto GP and Formula 2 respectively. Evidently, contemporary drivers are able to cope with serious cars at that age, if they have had a proper training and wins before that.

Now, there's the choice of category: Formula Ford, Formula Abarth, Formula Renault or Formula Master ADAC.
Formula Ford gives you the chance to drive a lot at affordable price, but no aerodynamic downforce is present - the driver controls the car only via mechanical grip provided by the tires.
In the other three formulas you have to learn everything, but including the complexity of the aerodynamics.
Lots of people think that your first step has to be Formula Ford, because you need to learn gradually, whereas Formula Abarth or Renault are two steps at the same time. At this stage the driver must work at least 2 years, unless you are Kart legend like Trulli or Liuzzi. The first year you get used to formula car with suspension, and then next year you can fight for podiums, wins or the title.

From that point, however, everything is decided by the budget and the current levels of the championships.
In F3 Euro series and British F3 there's a lot of testing with Dalara's cars and in the end the whole experience is close to F1. F3 is also a really important step because the driver has the chance to participate in parts development - something that happens all the time in F1.

The last level, GP2 or Formula Renault 3.5, is for successful drivers from previous series.
You have to adapt quickly to the highest levels of power, the carbon brakes, strategies and pit stops. The cars are quite complex and it is expected that a developed driver will win at this point. The increased pressure from the fitness point of view is also here to tell you that, if you win the title, you should be expecting a seat in F1 soon.

Generally, these are the steps prior to getting into F1. Missing a step is as vital as missing a class in school. With every step further the chances to test, practice and therefore cleaning your mistakes become less and less. Making the right step is usually a bit easier if you have the financial backup, but then you need patience, hard work and dedication.
Certainly, if you do not follow the development of each of the series, you can easily be mislead from a cool marketing presentation.
Still, if you don't make it into F1, but you have a lot of wins, you can become a professional driver - they are usually preferred in GT series or touring championships because of their high level of car and team education , but mostly because formula cars are the hardest to drive.

Essentially, this is the really short and straightforward answer how to reach F1 today. It is really hard, even if you have a finance plan, simply because the expenses are too high, and a normal person would hardly reach that level. Not impossible, but some extra million bucks would make that less painful.