On 4 December, 2022, The Race writer Edd Straw released an opinion piece entitled “A Bigger F1 Grid Would Only Give Drivers False Hope” in which he argued against grid expansion by expressing the view that more grid slots would lead to more valuable rides for rookies and other young talent.
Normally, this would not be worth anyone’s attention as there is a noticeable number of Formula 1 fans in favour of the current 10-team grid. Especially after the unsuccessful appearance of three new entrants in 2010 (despite the failure of those teams mostly being a product of political issues), many fans balk at the notion of adding teams unless they are a “guaranteed success” or they provide “value” to the sport.
However, this article featured a number of falsehoods and misconceptions that the author could not let pass without rebuke. Therefore, in order to correct those misconceptions and to syphon some attention from a more successful motorsport website, this month’s Gravel Trap will go over “A Bigger F1 Grid Would Only Give Drivers False Hope” in detail and provide a counterargument to the claims of that article.
“Twenty-eight drivers started a [G]rand [P]rix for the various guises of those three teams. Only two scored points for them (Jules Bianchi and Pascal Wehrlein), while just five went on to do so elsewhere in F1 (Wehrlein again, Daniel Ricciardo, Esteban Ocon, Bruno Senna and Marcus Ericsson).
Of that quintet, Wehrlein, Ocon and Ricciardo were already affiliated with bigger teams, while Senna and Ericsson brought money for their subsequent opportunities. The rest largely sunk without trace given they didn’t have the machinery to do anything other than run towards the back, having either had better opportunities prior to their slide to the back or simply come and gone.
While the idea of a promising driver learning their trade at the back of the grid in a smaller operation is appealing and logical, it doesn’t happen as often as you might think. Unless you are placed there by a larger organisation, as George Russell was at Williams, it can be enormously difficult to make an impression.”
The list of names operates under the implicit premise that that ratio is extreme and debuting in more competitive machinery has a higher chance of success for a driver. A look at the history of Formula 1 from the first season without a 2010 team until now belies that fact. From 2017 to 2022, eighteen drivers earned the privilege of experiencing their Formula One debut. Of those eighteen drivers, nine will be on the grid for the 2023 season. A Formula One debut after the demise of the last of the 2010 teams therefore has an exactly 50 percent chance of being on the grid right now.
If we compare that to the five names mentioned and account for the fact that not all of the twenty-eight drivers debuted for said teams, we are looking at a success rate of 29.4 percent (five drivers moving on to non-2010 teams out of seventeen drivers debuting with backmarkers). This seems to prove Straw’s point, but obviously these calculations are imperfect. In particular the 50 percent above come with a number of asterisks. Given that rookies from 2021 and 2022 were included, we have a number of drivers that have had less time to drop out of Formula 1. The prime example of this being Yuki Tsunoda, who pretty much only is on the grid for 2023 because none of Red Bull’s juniors were performing to standards in this year’s Formula 2 season and AlphaTauri’s attempts to acquire Colton Herta failed. It also includes Guanyu Zhou and Nyck de Vries, where right now only HWNSNBM knows how long their Formula 1 careers will be. If we discount them, we are talking about a mere 40 percent, a pretty irrelevant difference when talking about sample sizes this small.
Of course, on the side of the 2010 teams, there is one factor that the author admits was part of the reason he wrote about this article. While Straw lists the five drivers that have gone on to drive for teams after their time at the 2010 teams, he purposefully omits Jules Bianchi. The author is the first to decry the tendency of Formula 1 fans to think any driver that died young was destined for stardom, so it would have been perfectly fine had Straw been non-committal about him and merely pointed out that his future was unknown. Given as Bianchi was at the time of his accident most likely going to spend another year at Marussia, it would be unreasonable to demand him being counted as one of the five drivers listed above. However, not even giving his fatal accident any mention does feel like intentionally dismissing a highly-talented Marussia driver solely to prove the point.
Straw then proceeds to point out that three of the drivers he mentioned had associations with Mercedes and Red Bull and two of those were paydrivers. This is correct, but not relevant to the point he is making. In the post-tobacco era, being taken up by a junior team of a manufacturer (or Red Bull) is simply the most reliable way for young drivers to secure the massive funding required to make it to Formula 1 in the first place. Drivers that do get to Formula 1 nowadays are either part of a current team’s junior outfit, dropouts of said outfits, or paydrivers, and as has been established, many of those are not long for Formula 1.
All of this points towards a simple truth: as is the case in all sports, finding great Formula 1 drivers is a case of throwing talent at a wall and seeing what sticks. There is a reason that the Red Bull driver program, cynical as it is, has been the most successful one in Formula 1: they know that most drivers just are not it as far as championship contention (or even being in the upper tier of drivers) is concerned and thus they swap out drivers that have not shown the required performance as soon as they got fresh blood they feel is ready to take their ride.
The author will address this point again in the closing argument, but for now there are other parts of the text to point out.
“To an extent, that’s always been the problem. Many hark back to the days of pre-qualifying when F1 peaked with 39 regular entries in 1989, which was a joyous time for those watching but many of those seats gave little or no opportunity to make an impression. Simply being in a regular F1 seat isn’t necessarily an opportunity to do anything other than rack up race starts.
But it was at least possible in those days to produce a little magic once in a while in a terrible car by getting things right on days when others don’t; think Pierre-Henri Raphanel qualifying his Coloni 18th in Monaco in 1989, or Roberto Moreno getting onto the grid at the same venue in the dreadful Andrea Moda in 1992 (pictured above).
But in modern F1, even with small teams being vastly more able than those of 30-40 years ago, those opportunities would not crop up simply because potential is extracted from cars more consistently.”
It took a tremendous amount of effort by the editors to get the author to do more than just place a snapshot of Sir Lewis Hamilton standing alone on the grid for the restart of the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix after this quote and knock off for an early lunch.
Leaving snark aside, pre-qualifying is indeed a relic of a bygone era and would serve no purpose. However, the notion that improved organisation makes it less likely for drivers in non-competitive machinery in today’s age to impress is mere fiction. Outside of the aforementioned Hungarian Grand Prix that gave Nicholas Latifi a chance to score his best result, there is also the very next race, the infamous Belgian Grand Prix. George Russell took second on the grid (and therefore second in the “race results”) because race control started Q3 too early, causing an aquaplaning incident that was leaving sure-fire pole position winner Lando Norris helpless.
Pascal Wehrlein’s and Jules Bianchi’s Top 10 finishes also had (lots) of help by failures up front. However, even now backmarkers need things to go wrong to score. Alexander Albon earned quite a bit of adoration with Formula 1 fans this season with him outperforming his Williams FW44 and yet most of his points finishes were requiring retirements and other blunders. It is, however, a sign of talent for higher cars to separate those who can take advantage of good luck and those that cannot and thus even if it is luck-dependent, chances to shine at the backmarkers do still come up and using them is the best advertisement you can make for yourself as an upcoming driver. To pick one example: Nico Hülkenberg never made it to a top team despite being a great driver, and his demonstrated inability to make the most out of the chances Formula 1 presented with certainly did not help.
“There’s no doubt that more cars on the grid could be positive for driver opportunities, but there’s no guarantee that they will be. The primary reason why F1 sets a high bar for new entrants is that the arrival of newcomers will dilute the prize-money fund that is shared, which is not an unreasonable position given the financial arrangements and cost cap have finally created an economic landscape in [G]rand [P]rix racing that, as time goes on, will gradually make the playing field more level.”
It is somewhat astonishing that someone can both see through the actual reason for objections against new teams, yet in the same paragraph willingly swallow marketing material from Liberty Media.
The notion that the cost cap introduced to Formula 1 will make the field more equal and that distributing prize money further would work against that is simply a narrative sold to make the budget cap more palatable to a fandom that regularly has shouted any notion of a budget cap down with ridiculous arguments of it “being against the sport’s DNA” and being “unenforceable”. While budget caps in most sports do increase parity, they do not outrank competence in personnel. This is of course especially pertinent in Formula 1, given as competent designers outrank the importance of competent drivers by a noticeable amount. Given as the very best of those designers as well as the drivers explicitly do not have their salaries accounted for in the cap, it stands to reason that the teams that are near the top now will remain there and that any team rising up to challenge them will not do so solely because they are on par in terms of budget.
“But bringing in organisations that will add to F1 and genuinely be investing in its growth are welcome. Such teams would be great for drivers too.
This not an argument for F1 remaining at its current level of 10 teams and 20 cars and teams such as Andretti should be allowed a place if they can prove their financial viability and capacity to contribute. But it is broadly supportive of the position of those 10 teams and F1 as a whole that it’s essential any newcomers should have proved their abilities, financial backing and value to F1.”
The problem with the notion of asking new teams to prove their value and that they are “investing in the growth [of Formula 1]” that such questions inevitably can be asked about the current ten franchises in Formula 1. In fact, this is a common problem with the franchising system in pro sports: new organisations need to prove their worth while worthless organisations already existing are never questioned on whether they actually provide the things they ask of a new organisation. This is the key reason why the author has sympathies with fans being against franchising systems even though they otherwise are lightyears ahead in terms of creating parity within a tier of pro sports.
Is AlphaTauri investing in the growth of Formula 1 when they merely chew through young drivers trying to find either the successor to the Red Bull world champion of the hour or finding a competent number two for said champion? Is Alfa Romeo Racing basically just being filler on the grid until the Audi investment arrives “contributing”? Williams Racing are only in Formula 1 to add value through the franchise system until the venture capitalists owning it can sell at a profit: is that providing value to Formula 1?
Those three examples, of course, pale in comparison to the giant mess that is Haas. The implied notion that Gene Haas’s and Günther Steiner’s pool of complacency and incompetency are viable and capable of contribution for the betterment of Formula 1 as opposed to new blood is a personal insult to the author as a motorsport fan and earns Straw an emotion that is best described as “visceral disgust”.
“Having a sub-class at the back is of no use to anyone, and will simply offer drivers the chance to mark time and, potentially, spend money for the privilege of being on the grid.”
Even if the author ignored GP Rejects’s self-serving interest in such a class, there is still the point that that is false for a single reason that was partially addressed earlier.
More Formula 1 chances are inherently valuable regardless of the quality of the seat because finding elite sportspeople is a matter of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. In American sports, which Liberty Media’s Formula 1 is all too eager to copy, teams draft (depending on the sport) 60 to 600 men each year to end up with somewhere between none to at best ten franchise-altering competitors. With that number as comparison, it is ridiculous to argue against grid expansion on account of it not helping young drivers, especially in a system that is already restricting inflow to Formula 1 to an unreasonable amount through its egregiously poorly-designed superlicense points system.
Would more teams, especially underperforming ones, give drivers false hope? Yes. But so would not adding more teams and keeping with the “good” ones. One does not need to be as cynical about the state of Formula 2 and the quality of its drivers as the author to imagine that the 2023 rookie class (Logan Sargeant, Nyck de Vries, Oscar Piastri) will not see all three drivers go on to be Formula 1 legends.
Almost all drivers competing in Formula 1 operate under false hope, given as by the start of next season 774 drivers will have entered races counting for the Formula 1 World Championship yet only 113 have gone on to win one race, let alone any titles. Most drivers competing in motorsport operate under false hope since of the tens of thousands of young kart drivers imagining themselves competing in Formula 1, only the aforementioned 774 have gone on to enter a Formula 1 Grand Prix.
That is indeed all of life. Of the eight billion people on this planet, only few go on to achieve all they want out of life.
“For proof of that, just take a look at the names who lined up for the most recent influx of new teams and see how many you actually remember.”
At GP Rejects, we are not even dignifying that with a response.
Sources: motorsport-magazin.com, StatsF1, The Race
Image sources: Williams Racing