Not long ago, it appeared that Formula One had toughened its act. Some applications for the prized Superlicence, a requisite for those wishing to compete at the highest level, were actually refused.
But things have changed. The genuinely capable are still recruited on ability (of this season’s crop, David Coulthard and Olivier Panis are the most obvious examples), but at the end of the year there is, increasingly, an unseemly rush by the less financially secure teams to pick up drivers whose appeal lies not in the fact that they are likely to bother Schumacher or Hill (unless while being lapped), but that they can afford to pay handsomely for the privilege of being put in such a position four or five times by the aforementioned.
You can’t blame the teams. If that’s what it takes to survive in F1, then so be it. The trouble is that, like the current World Championship leader’s petulant anti-Hill outburst prior to Jerez, it cheapens F1’s image and diminishes its value as a showpiece.
It was noticeable in Formula 3000 this year that the number of ‘gentleman drivers’ was on the increase, to the concern of many leading teams. There was more than one occasion when a leading runner was eliminated by the haphazard behaviour of one such. Again, their presence was a simple question of economic necessity.
And now, a similar thing is happening in Formula One.
There are those who will argue that it was ever thus, that there have always been makeweights loitering at the tail end of F1 fields. True enough, but the whole point about modern F1 is that it is geared only to accept serious entries. Prospective new teams are required to lodge hefty deposits to prove they have the wherewithal to compete: apply the same principle to the driver market and you attract a richer, but less qualified, clientele.
It is surely time that the FIA imposed minimum qualifications for F1 graduates. A national F3 title and/or a proven history of success there and in Formula 3000 should become compulsory. That might not suit F1’s economic requirements right now, but it’s a measure that’s required for the sake of the sport’s credibility. SA