In the final part of our look at the reserves drivers of F1 2011 we’re running through McLaren, Renault, Williams and Virgin. Incredibly, these four teams have a total of seven non-racing drivers between them, five of whom are employed by a single outfit. Sheer greed.
Gary Paffet seems destined to forever remain an F1 tester, never ascending to the race seat he so covets – and deserves. The Brit has spent most of his career on McLaren’s books, becoming their number one test driver following the departure of Pedro de la Rosa at the conclusion of the 2009 campaign. However despite his obvious abilities he’s never landed a race seat, the closest he’s come having been a rumoured berth at the aborted Prodrive F1 project.
Not that Paffett’s racing skills are wasted – he is one of the top DTM drivers of the past decade, winning the title in 2005 and finishing as runner-up in 2004, 2009 and 2010. The latter saw him miss out on the title to now-Force India racer Paul di Resta by just four points, and it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest the Gary is as quick, or perhaps quicker, than his Scottish rival. But, unlike di Resta, Paffett is yet to get the call to take up an F1 race seat. If, as now seems likely, he never does, he will rank among the most talented drivers of his generation not to get a crack at motorsport’s highest level.
Renault boast a ridiculous five non-racing drivers, three of them ‘reserve’ plus two extra young drivers. Yet despite this they brought in an outsider to replace the injured Robert Kubica – it speaks volumes about the trust they have in their stable of racers.
That said Romain Grosjean is rated very highly by team boss Eric Boullier; it’s fair to say that were money not an issue he and not Vitaly Petrov would be sitting in the second car this year. The Franco-Swiss pilot will contest the GP2 championship for DAMS in 2011 and is a pre-season favourite to take the crown, particularly after his strong showing at last months GP2 Asia event in Abu Dhabi. However even if he does so a promotion to the Renault team is unlikely – chances are he’d be placed at a smaller team, a la Jerome d’Ambrosio.
Bruno Senna meanwhile is there as much for his marketing potential as his ability, with his 2010 nightmare at Hispania giving him little in the way of development experience or technical nuance. The sight of that famous yellow helmet in the JPS-esque liveried Renault is a dream, but for Bruno this does provide a chance to get a look inside a top-notch F1 operation. His racing future almost certainly isn’t her, but it’s still a possibility he’ll return to an F1 race seat – a minor miracle after last year’s debacle.
Then there’s Fairuz Fauzy, who transfers over to Renault with the backing of Group Lotus. Never a contender in GP2, Fauzy surprised many by taking runner-up spot in the highly competitive Formula Renault 3.5 series in 2009. Last year he ran a handful of first practice sessions for Tony Fernandes’ Lotus Racing and in 2011 he will return to GP2 – as the oldest driver on the grid by a fair distance – with British squad Super Nova. Don’t expect him to give Grosjean too much to worry about.
The team have also got a pair of young drivers on the books, neither of whom have yet displayed the ability needed to compete in F1. Ho-Pin Tung has a poor record in GP2 whilst Jan Charouz has been so-so in a number of single-seater categories, though he’s proved himself pretty able in sportscars. Realistically though neither has any hope of racing for Renault.
As t’was in 2010 it is in 2011- third driver-wise at least – as Williams retain Finn Valtteri Bottas for a second year. Career-wise, he was supposed to win the F3 Euro Series title last year but could only manage fourth, and thus takes a sideways step this season to race in GP3 with reigning champions ART Grand Prix. He really needs to conquer it if he’s to gain the sort of reputation that helped propel Nico Rosberg and Nico Hulkenberg in to race seats with the Grove-based team.
We conclude with Virgin, who don’t actually have a reserve on the books at the minute. Chances are it’ll stay like that, unless an up-and-coming racer is willing to pay for the privilege. Last year the role was initially filled by F2 champion Andy Soucek, but the Spaniard left when it became evident that he wouldn’t get any seat time in the VR-01. Luiz Razia was on the books all season though he didn’t drive the car until the post-season young driver test, whilst Jerome d’Ambrosio took up a tester position with the Yorkshire-based team late in the year, ran some free practice sessions and subsequently took the team’s second seat for 2011. That’s how it’s done!