The Loneliness of the 75% Distance Runner

September 14, 2008

Red Bull’s sporting arm likes to keep it in the family.  David Coulthard’s retirement from Grand Prix at the end of the season will be covered by the Red Bull Racing Team by promoting Sebastian Vettel from their junior Toro Rosso outfit to race alongside Mark Webber in 2009.  This leaves a free seat in Formula 1 – something which is at more of a premium now than it has ever been before.  It may even leave two, with dark murmurings about Sebastien Bourdais, Vettel’s teammate this year, being shown the door.  Bourdais worked for 10 years to get an F1 drive, becoming the most statistically successful CART driver in the United States in the process, and although he’s been largely outpaced by Vettel this season, I’ve not seen enough evidence to suggest to me he doesn’t deserve another go.  His performances at the last two GP, in Belgium and in Italy, have been outstanding and but for appalling luck would probably have seen him cement his position at the team.  But that is how competitive Formula 1 is in the 2008 vintage, that it is perfectly plausible that bad luck could see you on the wrong side of the door come next March.

Assuming, though, that Bourdais will remain, this leaves Toro Rosso looking for one new driver.  Historically, Formula 1 drivers mainly graduate through Formula 3 series in Europe to weed out the weak.  In the past few years, however, GP2 has been a particularly popular avenue.  The series – which runs identical cars with identical 600 bhp Renault engines – shares the bill with the Grand Prix circus during its European campaign, an innovation which has helped a number of its talents attract the attentions of F1 team members.  The Italian Grand Prix today contained a high proportion of GP alumni, considering the wealth of other similar-series available to young drivers today.  Nelson Piquet, Heikki Kovalainen and Kazuki Nakajima all came through the second rung of the single seater ladder, whilst Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and the reigning title holder Timo Glock are all past champions.  Bourdais, too, can boast form – he won the 2002 series when it was called Formula 3000.

On this note, a few weeks ago I read a rather fascinating quote from a senior Red Bull official, arguing that of the GP2 field in 2008, only two drivers are “any good”.  One of them is Sébastien Buemi, a 19-year old Swiss who is currently on the books with the senior Red Bull team as their test driver; the other is Bruno Senna, the 24-year old Brazilian with a frighteningly famous uncle.  Senna is widely tipped to get the nod, with many citing his uncle Ayrton’s close relationship with the now-boss of Toro Rosso, Gerhard Berger.  Indeed, they have both had good seasons in GP2, finishing the series (which ended this weekend) in 6th and 2nd places respectively.

Giorgio Pantano - could do with more Red Bull logos on his overalls

Giorgio Pantano - could do with more Red Bull logos on his overalls

It rather begs the question, doesn’t it?  Who is the man who beat everyone but is, in the view of the decision makers at Formula One’s biggest driver employer, not “any good”.  The answer: Italy’s Giorgio Pantano.

Pantano will be 30 by the time the 2009 Formula 1 season begins in Australia, which is fairly senior by modern standards.  But he’d not be a rookie, as some of you may remember he had almost a season at the top level in 2004 with Jordan.  Then, outpaced by Nick Heidfeld, Pantano’s chances really took a nosedive when he was forced to miss the mid-season Canadian GP.  Replaced for that race only by the team’s then-tester and current Toyota driver Timo Glock, Pantano saw his car being steered to a points scoring 7th place by the rookie, one spot ahead of Heidfeld.  When Pantano’s season resumed and carried on its underwhelming path, he found himself out of a drive for the last three races of the season.  Having come to Grand Prix racing from 3 seasons in F3000, he found himself back at the same level again in 2005, where he has been ever since.  Pantano has not been treading water either: now the most experienced pilot ever in the history of F1’s feeder series, during his victorious season in 2008 he also became its most successful, with a total of 14 wins in the category, encompassing F3000 and GP2.

Given that Grand Prix drives are now very much at a premium, what next for Giogio Pantano?  He does not have the official backing of Red Bull, nor an evocative racing surname.  All he has is his experience and his talent.  It’s not that he’s not good enough for Formula 1, it’s just that his face doesn’t seem to fit.  I’d not be surprised to see Pantano in GP2 again in 2009, trying to defend his title in the face of the inevitable fact that, even if he won every single race, he’ll never be given a chance in a Grand Prix car again.  I’d quite admire him for doing it, too.  Finding your level and sticking to it is common in some sports – take the example of footballers who will stay at a club until they are promoted or relegated before making a move and continuing a solid and professional career elsewhere.  It happens in motorsport, too, but normally the drivers who do it smoke pipes, have beer bellies and their race cars tend to have a roof.  For Pantano to keep plugging away at single-seater level in the face of total indifference is a brave decision, and one which deserves a great deal of respect.

Sebastian Vettel

Someone whose face does fit in Formula 1 is the sport’s newest winner, Sebastian Vettel.  His drive from pole at a treacherous Monza in a lower midfield car will deservedly enter the history books and be talked about for as long as cars are raced.  Standing on the podium, it is impossible to look past the fact that he already looks as though he belongs up there, possibly because he reminds me a little bit in appearance and manner of the young Michael Schumacher.

Now, it’s easy for me to say this at this stage, of course, BUT… I’d been meaning to do a post about Vettel on this blog or one of my other ones for some months.  No, honestly.  And it would have looked quite insightful, too, as I was going to argue that what we had on our hands was a future World Champion.  Now everybody knows it, and I’m sat here cursing my indigence.

I thought Vettel was a decent peddler from the first time I saw him, last year at the US Grand Prix.  At the age of 19, he was the 6th-youngest ever Grand Prix starter and, two hours later, the youngest ever world championship points scorer.  I knew he would be a race-winner from last autumn, when he ran third in the white-water Japanese Grand Prix before crashing out under the safety car.  I was confirmed in this belief a week later, when he put that disappointment behind him to finish 4th at a damp Chinese Grand Prix.  He began this season in spectacular fashion, viz. he crashed out of the first four races.  I knew he was a future World Champion, however, from the Monaco Grand Prix onwards, when Toro Rosso unveiled their new car.  In the nine races since, Vettel has finished in the points six times, been on pole once and now won the Italian Grand Prix, adding “youngest ever” records for the latter two things as well.  Sadly for him, as it stands it appears that his move to Red Bull will actually be a step backwards in 2009.   But that’s a case of ifs and buts.  Because there’s little which is going to hold Vettel back now.

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5 Responses to “The Loneliness of the 75% Distance Runner”

  1. ursus arctos said

    Excellent blog, as I’ve said elsewhere.

    Though I think you are giving Pantano a bit too much credit. Living in Italy and being a regular at Monza has meant that we’ve seen quite a bit of him. To me, his clear talent is outweighed by poor judgement, particuarly under pressure. There’s been plenty of recent evidence of that at both Spa and Monza, but I’ve seen similar lapses before.

    The “pent up demand” for a great Italian F1 driver is very significant (as the continued presence of Trulli and Fisichella on the grid indicates), and it is hard for me to believe if Pantano really was that good he would have a ride by now.

    FWIW, I think that Bruno Senna is also over-rated, but he brings commercial possibilities that are very hard for mid-table teams to ignore.

  2. flagmund said

    This reminds me that I must do some sort of post here about the glut of Italian drivers in the late 80s and early 90s, as well as the equivalent spells of French (late 70s, early 80s), British (1960s) and German pilots (right now).

    Of course, there are quite a number of posts I keep meaning to do. What I need to do is to get some sort of work ethic in this joint.

  3. ursus arctos said

    Don’t shoot your bolt.

    You don’t want to be the Nico Rosberg of the blogging world.

  4. poots said

    Wouldn’t Pantano be well advised to knob off to the US and make loads of money doing a few IndyCar Series, surely that’ll be more lucrative than being stuck driving GP2 while being too old for F1, especially as they seem to be less worried about having older drivers over there

  5. мне кажется: превосходно.

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