Sergey Sirotkin. You probably haven’t heard of him. Most people haven’t. But thanks to the precarious financial position the Sauber Formula One team finds itself in, the 17-year-old Russian will next year become the youngest-ever driver to start a Formula One race.
Putting Sirotkin into a race seat next year is Sauber’s end of the bargain under a deal the Hinwil-based squad has struck with three Russian entities who have thrown the outfit a lifeline intended to put the squad on a firmer financial footing in the wake of speculation surrounding the team’s survival.
“We’ve gone through tough times before and we know that we can survive. It’s just a question of do you just want to survive or do you really want to sustainably stay in here and hopefully again at some point of time, the sooner the better, make the step ahead,” Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn told reporters over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend at a press conference called to elaborate on the deal first announced July 15th.
“So that was our focus and we knew that if this deal comes through in this way we had that basis on the long term to really make our way up again and that’s what’s going to happen now, step by step,” she said.
The deal with the Investment Cooperation International Fund, the State Fund of Development of North-West Russian Federation and the National Institute of Aviation Technologies (all three of which are state-linked entities), has several aspects to it –from the sharing of technology between the Formula One squad and the Russian parties to promoting Russia’s Formula One debut penciled in for October 2014.
The third aspect -- the catch in the deal -- involves Sauber preparing Sirotkin to make his Formula One debut next year.
But the question is will he be ready? Personally I don’t think so. The same question was put to Formula One drivers over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend. Most backed out of giving a straight answer and if they felt any concern about going up against a potentially underprepared and inexperienced driver, none of them were prepared to say it publicly, none, that is, except for Lewis Hamilton:
“I wasn’t ready at eighteen. I was pretty good at eighteen, so... ,” the 2008 world champion, who burst onto the scene with McLaren in 2007 aged 22, said.
Others were of the view that experience, rather than age, would determine how ready Sirotkin would be to make his Grand Prix debut.
“I’m sure there will be and has also been an 18-year old, I guess,” Kimi Raikkonen, who only had 23 car races under his belt when he made his Grand Prix debut for Sauber, said.
“For sure they will take him if they feel it’s the right thing, so I don’t see that age will be the problem. It’s about experience and that. He might be ready, he might not. Time will tell.”
Frankly, I don’t buy the age argument as something that should count against Sirotkin being ready to make the step up to a race seat.
Just take Sebastian Vettel for example. He became the youngest driver to compete in a Grand Prix weekend when he had his first Friday outing in a Formula One car at the 2006 Turkish Grand Prix at age 19 with the BMW Sauber team.
He then made his race debut at the 2007 U.S. Grand Prix, a few weeks shy of his 20th birthday, when he subbed for an injured Robert Kubica and became the youngest-ever driver to score a point.
I don’t buy the ‘pay-driver’ argument either. Mark Webber said on Monday that the quality of the Formula One field had dropped since his debut back in 2002, as teams these days increasingly opt for drivers who bring funding over drivers who have the raw talent but lack the funds necessary to secure a drive.
Now while that is true and while there are several talented drivers out there who probably deserve a Formula One seat more than some of the drivers currently on the grid, none of the ‘pay-drivers’ on the grid today, I would say, are ill-prepared to race in Formula One. Sure, there are guys who could go quicker given a chance but by no means are the current crop of pay drivers embarrassing themselves.
So, yes, I don’t think the age argument or the ‘pay-driver’ tag count against Sirotkin but what does is his lack of experience. Remember, Vettel was part of Red Bull’s formidable young driver programme. A more effective development programme to churn out Formula One drivers there isn’t and Vettel was very much the programme’s star product.
And as far as the ‘pay-driver’ rookies on the current grid are concerned, all of them have at least three years more single-seater experience than Sirotkin, who first raced single-seaters in 2010 competing in the Formula Abarth series.
This year, Sirotkin is competing in the Formula Renault 3.5 series, where he lies ninth in the standings, and his current team boss Igor Salaquarda also feels it is perhaps a little too early for Sirotkin to make the step up to Formula One.
“All this hype is not good for him,” Salaquarda said. “That’s way too much pressure – he’s only 17.He is definitely too young for (F1). I don’t mean that he can’t do it physically -- anyone can drive a Formula One car today. It’s much harder to cope with the enormous pressure of the world championship.”
“Sergey has only driven in Formula Abarth and Auto GP and Italian F3, but in both those series he had little serious competition. As such, he was fast. But if anyone is expecting him to win here right now, it’s simply too much to ask.”
“He should spend more time in the 3.5-litre class to gain more experience.”
The first thing Sauber will have to do is get Sirotkin a superlicence without which he cannot compete in Formula One. Kaltenborn has ruled out letting Sirotkin drive in Friday practice sessions to gain mileage in the car as had been suggested earlier and with no further in-season or young driver tests scheduled this year, alternative options at getting Sirotkin his superlicence will have to be examined.
But Kaltenborn made it clear that Sirotkin would only be slotted into the race seat provided he was ready.
“We know what responsibility we have. We have been in similar situations before, maybe not with such a young driver...,” Kaltenborn said. “He of course has to fulfill certain criteria and we will do our best that he can do that. We will see how things go. We know on the other side that the people are equally aware of the risks and responsibilities.”