These moments, when a new young hero makes themselves known to the paddock is often the same time an ageing animal begins to fall from view. It is the sport changing its guard.
Where at one stage, the presence of a driver could be the final jigsaw piece on the road to success, that same protagonist will eventually tumble down the order from smaller team to smaller team, as they become more and more desperate to stay in the top flight.
Some depart gracefully; others hang on for as long as possible, their reputation dented more and more with every 17th place finish. This situation is not new.
Alain Prost left Formula 1 at just the right time; indeed the Frenchman topped off his stunning career with a fourth title at the Williams team in 1993. On the other hand, the career of the late Michele Alboreto took a nosedive once he left Ferrari in 1988 – at one time a race winner, the Italian would later be subjected to seasons at Larousse, Footwork and Lola where he would often struggle just to qualify.
If one were to examine the 2010 field, it is difficult to see where Nick Heidfeld, Rubens Barrichello or Jarno Trulli go to once their current contracts expire.
When Sauber announced that their 2011 line-up would consist of Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi, it was clear that Heidfeld would be battling for scraps in Formula 1. The likeable German has on occasion hinted at talks taking place with teams for a drive, but it is unclear as of yet who with.
At the weekend, Perez secured runner-up spot to Pastor Maldonado in the GP2 Series Championship and a very strong run this season has seen his stock rose significantly. No doubt four victories, including the GP2 Feature Race at Monaco were helped, but it is no secret that Perez brings plenty of backing from Mexican telecoms company, Telmex.
Unfortunately for Sauber, one thing that neither Perez nor Kobayashi have is experience – something that Heidfeld has in spades. In terms of development and feedback, 2011 could still be difficult for the Swiss squad.
Kobayashi’s former Toyota teammate, Jarno Trulli, also finds himself at something of a crossroads. The Italian has seen his career tail off in recent years and has struggled to be a consistent points scorer ever since he was dropped by Renault in 2004. Now the Italian finds himself at Lotus and while the team has done relatively well on their return to Formula 1, he has generally been outpaced by his Finnish teammate, Heikki Kovalainen.
Neither Lotus driver has yet to be officially confirmed at the team for 2011; although it is widely believed that contracts have been signed, but where Kovalainen is still young and has quite good long term prospects, what of Trulli? Rumours emerged at the Korean Grand Prix that former HRT pilot, Karun Chandhok, has been lined-up to eventually replace the Italian. Should the Indian driver be signed for a reserve position for next year, it may force Trulli’s hand for 2012.
Earlier this season, Chandhok notched up ten races for the struggling Hispania team, before being ousted for financial reasons. The Indian pilot has proved himself both popular and skilled behind the wheel and with the inaugural Indian Grand Prix next October, it may be beneficial for both Lotus and Formula 1 as a whole to have the 26-year-old in a seat, competitive or not.
Unlike Heidfeld and Trulli, Rubens Barrichello has had a very good time of it lately. Following several barren seasons, the Brazilian was a Championship challenger with the high-flying Brawn team in 2009, while this year has seen Barrichello perform some excellent drives with a Williams squad that has been both stuck in mid-field and stuck for cash. Prior to Barrichello’s much-fancied young teammate Nico Hulkenberg leaving the squad, word had circulated that it was the Brazilian veteran that was in danger of losing his seat to Pastor Maldonado.
The Venezuelan driver is an interesting case. Much like Renault’s Vitaly Petrov, the 2010 GP2 Champion has reputation of finding accidents wherever he roams; although he can be very fast on his day. Yet it is often noted that it took four long years for Maldonado to be crowned GP2 Champion, whereas the younger Hulkenberg a single attempt.
Sadly, it appears that the balance books may have decided the driver situation at Williams and while Hulkenberg may have been unwilling become a pay driver, Maldonado has no such qualms. Maldonado, like Perez, brings valuable backing to the table, whereas neither Barrichello nor Hulkenberg have much in the way of sponsorship.
Beyond that, many organisations have spent time investing in junior categories and preparing their own drivers – Red Bull and Renault are just two examples of this formula. One only has to look at the extensive programs run by both squads to understand their forward-looking vision for the sport.
At Red Bull, that vision has just produced the latest World Champion, Sebastian Vettel and waiting in the wings are World Series by Renault runner-up Daniel Ricciardo and British Formula 3 Champion, Jean-Eric Vergne. A further look down their driver list will also reveal Formula BMW Europe peddlers, Carlos Sainz Jr and Daniil Kvyat. This is before one takes into account that Red Bull currently have a second Formula 1 team for their junior drivers – Toro Rosso. That team currently houses Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi, although it is debatable as to whether they are close to quality of driver that Vettel is.
The Red Bull junior programme also bites hard, as Kiwi Brendon Hartley found to his cost late last year. Although solid in previous formulae, Hartley’s form suffered once he broached the Formula 3 Euroseries and two World Series by Renault campaigns. Poor form and errors in two separate GP2 appearances this year have also made his outlook somewhat bleak. As his results failed to reach Red Bull’s expectations, Hartley was cut adrift from the programme.
Renault are also running a junior programme; their young driver route currently hosts Jerome d’Ambrosio, Ho-Pin Tung and Jan Charouz; yet it is their World Series by Renault Championships that allow them greater scope through which to eye emerging talent. It helps also that Renault team principal, Eric Boullier, is also the CEO of Gravity Sport Management – a company that prepares young drivers for their individual motorsport assaults. Their catalogue of drivers currently includes Romain Grosjean, Jim Pla, Alexander Sims, Christian Vietoris and 14-year old French karter Esteban Ocon.
With every driver that falls by the wayside in Formula 1, they are replaced by new blood keen to impress and garner the ultimate success. It is one of the factors that keeps the sport fresh, as talents and personalities from across the globe battle on circuits spread far and wide. Some will have tested at Formula 1′s young drivers test over the last couple of days; some may take to get – some however, may never make it.
With all due respect to Heidfeld, Barrichello and Trulli, they are unique individuals and well-respected talents, but they are not Champions of the future.