“Thoughts on young drivers and driving standards”

Unfortunately, one of talking points to emerge from last weekend’s GP2 action at Barcelona was that of driving standards in the category.

While there is little doubt the competitive end of GP2 contains some noteworthy talent – including the likes of Robin Frijns, Felipe Nasr, James Calado, Sam Bird and points leader Stefano Coletti – there have been occasions when the pack has been a touch… frenetic.

So much so that standards of driving have once again called into question, yet this is by no means just a GP2 problem by any stretch of the imagination.

Having played witness to some truly horrendous and petulant incidents, whether they occur in Formula 3, Formula Renault, GP3, Auto GP or otherwise, far too often too lenient an action has been taken.
Often by the time a number of drivers have reached the level of GP2, the die has been cast by experience.

On the penultimate lap of Sunday’s GP2 Series sprint race, Caterham’s Sergio Canamasas peered down the inside of a struggling Johnny Cecotto Jr (Arden) at the Banc de Sabadell turn, with Canamasas running the kerb as they approached the new chicane.
As the pair leaned in toward Europcar corner – with Cecotto Jr slightly ahead – the Arden racer appeared to swerve very suddenly to the right, clashing with Canamasas. Despite the hit Cecotto Jr to maintain 5th.
From there, Canamasas slowed dramatically and his race was rendered null when moments later he was rear-ended by Rio Haryanto.

Following a review of the collision, the stewards declared the clash to be a racing incident, with neither party receiving punishment – a decision that drew some exasperation from within the paddock. Speaking to Cecotto Jr afterward, the Arden racer was clear about his innocence. “There was contact with Canamasas; I left him plenty of space for him to go to the right and the stewards saw that as well and they took no further action.”
It had been a tricky race for Cecotto Jr. The Venezuelan banged wheels with eventual race winner Stefano Coletti off the start, damaging his steering arm in the process. “I was really struggling, because in the first corner Coletti didn’t give me any space, crashed into me and since then I had steering bent far to the left. It made it very difficult throughout the race, especially in the first lap when I lost two positions because at one corner, the car just didn’t turn at all – I actually thought I had a puncture.”
Somewhat disabled by the opening lap collision drove the Arden racer to push his Pirelli’s harder than he ideally would have. But… that swerve… it is not, nor should it excuse, which makes the eventual stewards decision so unusual.

The incident generated yet more criticism for the already under-fire Cecotto Jr. It is less than two months since the Colombian racer deliberately drove Sam Bird off the track toward the end of qualifying at Sepang and come the following round in Bahrain, Canamasas did the same to Kevin Ceccon – twice.
On both occasions, Cecotto Jr and Canamasas merely had their qualifying times deleted, but with lenient penalties being awarded for such dubious conduct, it is maybe no surprise to find the third weekend in a row marred by such on track manoeuvres. In Malaysia, Cecotto Jr recovered to score points in the sprint race.

As with the series mentioned earlier, GP2 is a learning category, although the competitors within are decidedly closer to the top rung of single-seater motorsport. Ideally, these types of incidents should have been wrung out of a driver’s psyche long before s/he has reached GP2, but the increasing tendency for drivers to act out in such an aggressive manner on track raises the question as to whether enough is being done prior to GP2 to stamp out poor driving standards.
It is no secret that drivers in the ranks have been getting younger in recent decades and while the experience of karting and early race car divisions is clearly in abundance, maturity is often still yet to form, as occasional Formula One Driver Representative Allan McNish explains. “They started racing earlier, so their race craft is better. They’ve been brought up and educated in the ways of motorsport in a wider way than we ever were, but then again, they are still young and they still don’t have that real world experience.”

A former Formula One driver and twice winner of the Le Mans 24 Hour Race, McNish has acted as coach to young drivers, including Carlin’s European Formula 3 driver Harry Tincknell. “There’s never any easy solution, the only thing is young drivers have a lot more talent and energy than experience and you have to learn these things, so it’s partly the education process and the growing up process and you see certain drivers who know how to keep out of trouble and they end up winning championships – Robin Frijns is an example.
“They are definitely more aware and better developed than I was at 16 or 17. Sometimes it’s the stuff away from the racing circuit the working with engineers and all the development of that side of things can also be part of it.”

On Sunday afternoon, one current GP2 driver left me in no doubt as to his thoughts of the situation. “Something needs to be done about the driving standards right now, because some people are getting away with some things and it’s spoiling the racing for other people – there were so many people deliberately driving other cars off the track,” said the race winner, before adding “The tarmac is there for a reason – it’s to be used and for the drivers to use it. Just because they are coming through doesn’t mean that they need to put you on the grass – it’s a completely avoidable accident every time.”
Expanding on the point, he also revealed, “Nobody is learning. We’ve had three rounds now and it’s still going on. You see a couple [of incidents] during the year and think ‘he’s gone too wild there’, but it’s common ground to that now and in my book it’s wrong. There’s defending a position harshly, but fairly and there’s forcing drivers off the track and the latter seems to be the thing to do right now.”

The application of fair stewarding is not purely to act as a monitor fair competition on track, but also as a point of safety, as noted by McNish. “When you take Eau Rouge or even the old last corner [at Circuit de Catalunya] when there was no run off area and there was only one metre between you and the wall, if you did something that was a bit radical, you had a shunt and now if you do something a bit radical, you both go across the run off area or somebody spins and that’s it.
“The ‘get out of jail free’ card is there much than it ever was before, which is correct, because nobody wants to have the shunts that they had before. They hurt, I can tell you from experience, they bloody well hurt.”

The likes of Formula 3, World Series, GP3 and GP2 exist to prepare drivers for the top level of single-seater motor racing, yet while dangerous on track actions persist, it only serves to harm the reputation of junior categories everywhere and the competitors within.
It is about time the sport works to change that attitude to poor driving standards, before petulance does some very real damage.

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