Save in the event of injury, such as Michael Schumacher coming in temporarily for Felipe Massa at Ferrari, mid-season driver changes are a relative rarity in Formula 1. But after the German Grand Prix Sébastien Bourdais was replaced by Jaime Alguersuari at Toro Rosso, and a fortnight later, post-Budapest, Nelson Piquet was dropped by Renault, in favour of – we assume, in the absence of a formal announcement – Romain Grosjean.
I have rather more sympathy for the one than the other. Piquet, to my mind, started off in F1 as a disappointment, and made no obvious progress at all through 28 races as Alonso’s team-mate at Renault. To complain endlessly that any new bits went to Fernando, rather than himself, was absurd: at the Nürburgring, after all, Lewis Hamilton got the new bits from McLaren, and why? Because he’s a better driver than Heikki Kovalainen. Such is the way of it in F1, and always has been. Unlike some team principals, Flavio Briatore believes firmly in the concept of a number one driver and a number two, and Nelson can hardly have expected parity with the best driver in the world.
Bourdais, meantime, never lost his dream of F1 through all those years of Champ Car domination, and last year gave up a top team – Newman/Haas – for Toro Rosso, at the time close to the bottom of the heap in F1.
It was almost inevitable that Bourdais would be shaded by Sebastian Vettel, and so he was, but it wasn’t always by much. In the second half of the season the Toro Rosso became a very competitive proposition, and in the rains of Monza Vettel took his first pole position and won his first Grand Prix. Brilliant, everyone said, and they were right.
Bourdais, meantime, finished 18th. At the start of the formation lap he had trouble selecting first gear, and then his engine stalled. By the time the problem had been fixed in the pits, the Italian Grand Prix had started, and he was more than a lap in arrears.
As Gerhard Berger later pointed out to me, however, if you looked at the data you could see that Bourdais drove a race almost identical with Vettel’s. It was just that nobody noticed. On his last lap, German Seb went round in 1min 30.510sec, his fastest lap of the race; on the same lap French Seb recorded 1min 29.258sec.
At the end of last season Vettel moved up to the ‘mother team’, Red Bull, but although yet another Seb – Buemi – was signed by Toro Rosso, Bourdais had to wait endlessly before being finally confirmed.
Given his necessarily greater experience over his Swiss rookie team-mate, Sébastien was now de facto team leader, but unfortunately for him this did not translate into being quicker on the track. Toro Rosso had lost its competitive edge, and Bourdais has always been a driver who needs the car to be ‘right’ to give of his best. More often than not, Buemi was quicker.
Bourdais was very much a Berger signing, and perhaps, if Gerhard had not severed his links with the team, he might have kept his drive. As it was, the irascible Franz Tost chose to dispense with him; so now Toro Rosso finds itself with two rookies, hardly an ideal situation.
Probably Bourdais will go back to the States – but now, as with Alex Zanardi in 2001, as a failed F1 driver, rather than king of the hill. He isn’t the easiest character, and sometimes moans too much, but there is fundamentally a great talent within him, and I for one am sorry that it was never realised in F1, where it mattered most.