There are four British drivers on this year's F1 grid and another four in 6P2, in tantalising reach of the summit. We spoke to them about hope and ambition
writer Simon Arron
Before we begin, it's important to appreciate the fragmented mess that passes for an international single-seater ladder.
The sport used to have a pleasingly simple structure, although starter categories varied according to where you lived: Britain had Formula Ford, France had Formula Renault and there were similar alternatives elsewhere, but drivers usually took one step at a time and the cream could be assessed in F3 and F2 (later F3000), before the very best were invited to the top table.
During the past 20 years, however, the picture has become horribly cluttered, with categories treading on each others' toes or else being created to fill a space that didn't exist. It has become very tricky to distinguish the genuinely talented from those who are simply the pick of an average crop.
In recent times, though, there has been one passable constant: GP2 is acknowledged as F1's most dependable ante-chamber and has a strong track record as a finishing school. Since its inception as F3000's successor, in 2005, only two champions have subsequently failed to start a grand prix (and one, last year's winner Davide Valsecchi, is waiting in the wings as a Lotus reserve). Of the 22 drivers on the F1 grid, 11 are GP2 alumni and at the time of writing three of our featured Brits had won races at this level.
Despite the name — a by-product of his father's Portuguese ancestry — James Calado hails from Worcestershire. Of all the sport's upcoming Brits, he had accumulated the greatest career momentum by the start of 2013.
"I've been quite lucky," he says, "because my dad only ran me in my first year of karting, after which Tony Purnell — then with Jaguar F1 — took over. The trickiest bit for me was when Tony left the team, shortly after Red Bull bought it late in 2004, and I was potentially left without a drive. That's when the Racing Steps Foundation came along..."
RSF is a private, non-profit enterprise that successful businessman Graham Sharp founded in 2007. Since then he has helped many budding racers and riders — and Calado is foremost among the present group.
"You do need a lot of funding," he says. "Look at Marussia's current reserve [Rodolfo Gonzalez], who was just about the least competitive driver in GP2 last season but has still landed an F1 role. It's quite mind-boggling, but if you ignore teams that need a lot of money just to keep going and look higher up the field, I think an element of talent remains important. If you have the ability and find yourself in the right place at the right time, I think it's possible to make the step."
Calado emerged as a GP2 title contender during his rookie season in 2012, when he scored two wins and five other podium finishes, but assorted misfortunes (including a poor strategic call from the team as he dominated in Valencia, gearbox failure at Silverstone and food poisoning in Singapore) dropped him to fifth in the final standings. He remained best newcomer, though.
"It's hard to win the GP2 title as a first-year driver," he says. "The tyres degrade very quickly and last year we had four sets of slicks per meeting. When you have 30 minutes of free practice, the maximum you can do is about 10 laps because you have to save rubber for the races. I'd never driven in Monaco prior to 2012, but did only eight laps of free practice and went into qualifying with no real idea about which gears to use and so on. I wasn't comfortable.
"In the past you could do lap after lap during free practice, to get a feel for unfamiliar circuits, but at the moment it's not so much about driving quickly as performing like your granny in order to save tyres, which is not that nice."
He relishes the depth of the challenge, though. "It causes complications when experienced, talented drivers join the series at the last minute," he says, nodding at Sam Bird, "but I'd rather have a competitive field. There are some really quick people in GP2 this season — and it's good having four Brits because it creates a kind of mini-competition."
His performances have not gone wholly unnoticed. In Valencia last year, I was part of a small group chatting to an F1 team principal over a pleasant glass of red. Our conversation was off the record, and the specifics must remain so, but we were discussing up-andcoming drivers. Principal X talked about his own contracted youngsters, explained why one had greater potential than the other, then paused and said: "But I believe James Calado is a better prospect than both."
Career in brief
2000 Formula Renault UK Graduate Cup, 2nd; Formula Renault UK Winter Cup, 1st; Formula Renault Portugal, Winter Cup, 1st
2009 Formula Renault UK, 2nd
2010 British F3, 2nd
2011 0P3 Series, 2nd
2012 0P2 Series, 5th (top rookie)
2013 0P2 Series, ART
My finest race
"A lot were probably in karting and my favourite was at Rowrah, Cumbria, in 2001. Five of us were in contention for the British Cadet crown and whoever won the race would basically be champion. Three of us crossed the line as one and I won the race, and the title, by one hundredth. There have been a few choice car moments, too — in the 2010 British F3 series, Jean-Eric Vergne and I swapped places 12 times in one lap on slicks in the wet at Silverstone!"
The most experienced member of this quartet, Sam Bird's single-seater career began when a BMW scholarship prize enabled him to bridge the gap between karts and cars. He also has useful F1 experience, having completed thousands of laps for Mercedes (mostly in the team's simulator, occasionally on track). Prior to joining Mercedes in 2010, he also tested for Williams.
Bird thought he'd be spending most of 2013 in the Mercedes simulator. With less than a week to go before the opening race, however, he learned he'd be contesting the GP2 Series. The defiantly upper-case RUSSIAN TIME has entered with cars purchased from iSport, one of Bird's previous teams, and chose its drivers (Frenchman Tom Dillmann races the other car) on the basis of speed and experience, rather than budget.
"It all feels fairly familiar," Bird says. "Many of the old iSport mechanics are involved, although the engineering side is different. I need to acclimatise to the tyres, which have changed since I last raced in GP2, but I've done well before and there's no reason to think I can't do so again, even though I missed the pre-season tests. I want to take the fight to guys like him [he gestures at James Calado, sitting close by]."
He proved immediately competitive on his return to the category but, after several seasons towards the top of the junior staircase, has he ever felt tempted to pursue a career away from single-seaters? "I don't think the door is shut just yet," he says, "and I'm still very involved with Mercedes. I've done lots of hard work to make it this far, but the next step is enormous — and 90 per cent of the time it seems it can be crossed only with the correct funding. You don't see many drivers graduating to F1 on the basis of pure talent — Valtteri Bottas is the latest example, with Williams, but he's an increasing rarity. Most other newcomers have brought huge funding — and in the current climate that's extremely hard to find if you're British."
Career in brief
2004 Formula BMW Rookie Cup, 2nd
2005 Formula BMW, 2nd; Formula BMW World Final, 4th
2006 Formula Renault UK, 4th (top rookie)
2007 British F3, 4th (top rookie)
2008 F3 EuroSeries, 11th
2009 F3 EuroSeries, 8th; Macau GP, 3rd
2010 GP2 Series, 5th
2011 GP2 Series, 6th
2012 Formula Renault 3.5, 3rd
2013 GP2 Series, RUSSIAN TIME
My finest race
"Two stick out. One was my first GP2 win at Monza, where team-mate Jules Bianchi and I qualified on the front row, with him on pole. I got ahead at the start and disappeared. It was quite nice to beat a Ferrari junior driver at Monza. I love Jules to bits and he's a great driver, but it was very satisfying to demoralise him that afternoon. The other one was winning at Monaco in Formula Renault 3.5 last year, although the weekend's highlight was probably my pole lap [he took top spot by seven tenths]'
It's well known that being the son of a Formula 1 racing father can be equal parts help and hindrance: is the progeny competing for reasons of a rabid desire to win... or simple expectation?
Ask a paddock insider to provide a list of prominent rising stars and Jolyon Palmer's name is unlikely to feature. Results, though, don't always paint a full picture.
Palmer Jr's route to GP2 differs from that of his peers. He cut his single-seater teeth in Formula Palmer Audi, the category created by his father Jonathan. FPA was initially intended as a career formula, a cost-effective alternative to F3, but was later downgraded to a club series before regaining some of its early impetus. Jolyon was an occasional race winner and finished third in the 2008 series before stepping up to F2, another curate's egg. Despite its name, the category was perceived to fit somewhere between GP2 and F3, although it attracted diverse entries — from Formula Renault graduates to GP2 cast-offs via most points in between. Palmer was a winner from the start in 2010, his second year in the championship, but eventually lost the title to highly rated rival Dean Stoneman.
His switch to GP2 was initially unproductive. He failed to score a point in 2011, but swapped teams at the season's end, for a nonchampionship fixture in Abu Dhabi, and immediately finished fourth and third against a strong field. He joined iSport last season and was quick from the off, although a string of mechanical problems — neither his fault nor the team's — compromised early-season performances. He scored a comfortable victory in the second Monaco race, but it was in adversity that his true mettle became apparent as he conjured some vigorous recovery drives from the depths. There was no questioning his commitment, either. At Monza in September he dispatched Esteban Gutierrez around the outside of Curva Grande — one of the season's best moves, period.
"It's nice to see that a few of the guys I was racing — and quite often beating — are now in Fl," he says. "Realistically, you can't rely on driving alone to get there, but the need to raise backing is actually a motivation, because you have to make people believe you're worth supporting. I want to win this year's championship, obviously, but top three has to be the minimum goal. I had a decent 2012, even though the results didn't always reflect as much, so it's time to put everything together."
This year's campaign didn't begin brilliantly — throttle problems pushed him well down the grid for the first race in Malaysia and he stalled before the start of the second — but that trademark racecraft was visible once more as he stormed through to finish sixth and ninth.
Does it worry him that such performances seem often to be overlooked?
"I'm not fazed by what people think," he says. "I've shown I can win races in GP2, so just need a few other things to fall into place to have a chance of being on the F1 grid in the future. It's nice to prove people wrong and I think I did that last season."
Career in brief
2007 Formula Palmer Audi, 10th
2008 Formula Palmer Audi, 3rd
2009 FIA F2, 21st
2010 FIA F2, 2nd
2011 GP2 Finals, 4th
2012 GP2 Series, 11th
2013 GP2 Series, Carlin
My finest race
"Last season's GP2 win in Monaco was certainly my most prestigious success, but I got a good start and pulled out a huge advantage when about half the field crashed behind me on the first lap, so it was probably the easiest drive I had all year. It was the best result, but not the best race. The sprint race at the first Bahrain meeting was good, when I came from the back of the field to finish seventh. Those tend to be the more enjoyable ones, although they don't always produce the best results. If you do that in GP2 you have to pass some pretty good people, because there aren't many idiots out there!'
He's the only Rookie in this group, but the opposition holds few surprises for Adrian Quaife-Hobbs. He raced cars against Palmer as long ago as 2005, when both were in the T-Cars series (a tin-top training ground for teenagers, which Quaife-Hobbs won), and competed wheel to wheel with Calado in GP3. After two years at that level, however, he switched to AutoGP — a series whose profile is all but invisible in the UK (although Romain Grosjean took the title in 2010, while rebuilding his career between F1 shifts). Quaife-Hobbs won it, too.
"It proved to be very beneficial," he says. "AutoGP has pitstops, two different tyre compounds and the second race features a partly reversed grid, so it is run along similar lines to GP2. The races aren't quite as long, but in Budapest we were only a couple of seconds slower than the GP2 guys so it's a very fast car. It isn't just a glorified club series — it's a proper championship with some really good drivers. It was ideal preparation for what I'm doing now."
Like Bird, Quaife-Hobbs is driving for a team new to GP2 — although many of his crew have prior experience. "We're finding our feet a bit," he says, "and three of the first four tracks on the calendar are unknown to me. My engineer hasn't worked in the series for some time, either, so it might take a while to get on top of things. The latest tyres make it harder for rookies, because the more experienced guys know exactly what pace to set — and when. I hope I can get my learning done while the team is still finding its feet and then hit the ground running when the European leg of the season gets into its stride."
Have the impending financial hurdles ever discouraged him from pursuing his F1 idyll?
"No," he says, "and a lot of people clearly believe they can make it, because this year's GP2 field is one of the strongest I can remember. The opportunities are still there, even though the press tends to focus on drivers who pay a lot for their seats. There are other ways and you just have to hope you'll find one. And if you do a good job in GP2 but don't get the right F1 breaks, you should still be able to pursue a worthwhile career in other disciplines."
Career in brief
2007 Formula BMW UK, 10th
2008 Formula Renault Eurocup: 26th
2009 Formula Renault Eurocup, 4th
2010 GP3 Series, 15th
2011 GP3 Series, 5th
2012 AutoGP, 1st
2013 GP2 Series, MP Motorsport
My finest race
"There isn't really one particular event that sticks in my head — I tend just to take each weekend as it comes. I had quite a few strong drives in AutoGP last season [five wins] and also enjoyed my GP3 victory at Valencia in 2011. I didn't score any points in that season's first two meetings, then won in Spain and remained in contention thereafter. It was a pivotal moment and that's the kind of turnaround I hope to achieve this season."