The old myth amongst the motor racing community was the Formula One was the pinnacle whereas sports-car racing was the home of only the old or the wealthy. In 2014, whilst Formula One still remains the pinnacle of racing an increasing amount of younger drivers are giving up on F1 to pursue a sports-car career instead. What is the cause of the vast sea change in how sports-car racing is viewed by younger drivers?
The biggest reason for the complete change appears to be increasingly difficult financial climate for young up and coming drivers. Whereas in the past success would almost guarantee you attention from the Grand Prix paddock after the end of major car manufacture involvement in F1 when the credit crunch hit between 2008-2010 the F1 teams are now increasingly reliant on driver funding. This is the knock on effect for drivers as the teams themselves are struggling to stay afloat which means they need extra funding from their drivers to ensure they keep racing. Unfortunately it appears very few talented drivers have access to the funding necessary to break through into Formula One.
Whereas these days a seat in a top line GP2 or Renault World Series team will set a young driver back around 1.8 million and 750 000 Euros respectively it’s easy to understand why many underfunded young drivers are leaving the F1 ladder behind to pursue the best possible alternative, a chance to be a paid professional sports-car driver. Although the phenomenon of a young driver diverting into sports-car racing is not a trailblazing one the sheer amount of young drivers carrying on this trend in recent years can only be described as worrying for the future of F1. Whilst the success of previous converts like Tom Kristensen, who won his first of 9 Le Mans 24 Hours victories in 1997, the same year as his final F3000 campaign and Allan McNish, 3 time winner of the 24 Hours, it appears now young drivers are being forced to make this chance because of financial reasons if they are to remain a racing driver at all.
As a fan of all forms of motor sport especially F1 and Sports car racing it worries me that talented drivers such as James Calaldo and Sam Bird are taking drives in the GTE Pro class in the WEC and GTE-AM WEC seats, this despite both having extensive experience in F1 thanks to their links with the Force-India and AMG Mercedes teams respectively, coupled with a CV full of racing success right through the junior categories.
Here’s a video of one of Sam Bird’s most recent GP2 wins at Spa last August. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ag4QGkULil0
Whilst these drivers can not say they are completely out of the picture in terms of F1 these sports-car drives appear to be their white flag in terms of fighting for an F1 career. The loss of F1 is sports-car racing’s gain as the World Endurance Championship gains two world class drivers who will light up their respective GT classes this season. The success of other converts such as Alex Brundle, who has forsaken potential F1 stardom and instead carved out a reputation as a very fast yet clean Sports-car driver competing for the OAK racing team in the new Tudor United Sports-car championship in America.
Indeed only this week several single seater drivers have shown an interest in joining the sports-car ranks as a potential future career move, most significantly this week 2013 GP2 series champion Fabio Leimer was announced with thenRebellion racing team in the WEC and Le Mans 24 Hours this year. Also announced in sports-car’s this season were Formula Renault 3.5 rookie Matthieu Vaxiviere who will dovetail his maiden campaign in the series with a WEC GTE-AM drive for the Prospeed team in their Porsche 911 GT3-RSR this season and 2013 Marussia F1 reserve driver Rodolfo Gonzalez who was announced with the Murphy Prototypes LMP2 team for the full European Le Mans season as well as the Le Mans 24 Hours. Heightening this is the fact this week is also the official ELMS test at Paul Richard in France, where another young driver impressed as young GP2 driver Nathanael Berthon who topped the first day as he looks to dovetail his GP2 campaign with a small sports-car drive for 2014.
The concluding fact is that the sports-car racing in general is vastly improving in terms of driving quality across all series from the WEC, ELMS and United Sports-car Championship to national series such as British GT as their grid are increasingly being filled by young talented drivers who have chosen to follow the professional racing driver life sports-car racing can provide rather than carrying on with the lottery that is F1 racing these days. This may prove to be the best decision they ever make in their careers.