Where would Formula 1 be without the likes of Lando Norris, George Russell, Charles Leclerc and, need I mention, Max Verstappen? I don’t want to think about it. These youngsters put on the best show every weekend, routinely outperforming their high expectations and occasionally breaking my heart. But it’s ok, because every victory or disappointment — big or small — is another step on the way to race wins and, possibly, championships.
We wouldn’t be talking about any of those drivers today if they didn’t get their rookie breaks, and an important new stipulation for the 2022 season aims to ensure those breaks keep coming for future stars. F1 will mandate that every team must run a driver who has never contested a grand prix before in two Free Practice 1 sessions next year, according to Racer’s Chris Medland.
Two FP1 sessions might seem insignificant, until you consider the continual reduction on the length of preseason testing over the last decade. That trend has been partly influenced more recently by the pandemic of course, but also owes itself to the cost cap. Just three days of testing were held at Bahrain prior to the 2021 campaign, and in 2022 there will be two blocks of multi-day testing held at Barcelona and Bahrain, which will likely total seven or eight days. If you go back a decade, there were 15 days of testing held ahead of the 2011 season, excusing dedicated young drivers’ and tire tests.
Teams entering the first race weekend of the year knowing less rather than more tends to result in more surprises, and makes the running order less predictable. But it’ll be harder to get away with that in 2022, when sweeping new aero regulations are set to take effect. Young drivers who’ve had some experience in testing sessions but haven’t yet raced, like Alfa Romeo’s Callum Ilott and Alpine’s Guanyu Zhou, will essentially have to relearn everything they gleaned from their limited experience with existing F1 cars, because the ground effects-equipped chassis from next year onwards will behave very differently from those of today.
Constructors will be free to choose when they’ll have their young drivers run their mandatory sessions. I suspect they’ll mostly come earlier in the season for leading teams, when the stakes are lower. McLaren’s Andreas Seidl and Mercedes’ Toto Wolff have been very supportive of the decision, according to Racer. Here’s how Wolff put it:
“We need to give young drivers the opportunity to have a little bit more stress during the race weekend, have a comparison against the other guy in the garage, work with the team,” Wolff said. “I very much welcome the regulations for next year.”
Frederic Vasseur, Alfa Romeo team principal, also supported the new rule when asked about it two weeks ago, before the number of sessions was decided upon. However, he cautioned that the emphasis on FP1 could inhibit drivers from pushing a car as hard as they need to to become comfortable with it. From GPFans Global:
“It is the best exposure we can give to the kids and I’m not sure the FP1 is a very relevant session.
“We did a lot in the past with Charles [Leclerc] and Antonio [Giovinazzi] and Callum [Ilott] but it’s not always easy because they are jumping in the car, they are not allowed to crash because we have FP2 two hours after.
“It means the first point is ‘guys, you don’t crash’.”
The reason the young drivers’ session must be FP1 is because of sprint race weekends. In those instances, FP2 occurs on Saturday after traditional qualifying, which happens following FP1 on Friday. It’s another issue perhaps F1 should consider if it wants to seriously ask itself whether sprint races are truly worth it, though that conversation seems to be moot at this point. The FP1 solution may not be a perfect one, but it is nonetheless necessary, and F1's future talent needs all the seat time it can get.