Given smaller teams’ impact on F1’s current grid, they still matter

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A fascinating piece penned by veteran F1 scribe Nigel Roebuck for the U.K.’s MotorSport Magazine out today addresses the root of the problems facing Formula One at the moment, and outlines how some of the decisions over the last six or so years have led to the current state of affairs where Caterham and Marussia are off the grid and others have been rumored to be in financial peril.

In looking through the remaining 18 drivers on the grid, it is interesting to note where each driver got his starting point within F1, and note how few have done so at the immediate top of the grid:

  • Sebastian Vettel, BMW Sauber (1 race), then Toro Rosso
  • Daniel Ricciardo, HRT (now defunct)
  • Nico Rosberg, Williams
  • Lewis Hamilton, McLaren
  • Kimi Raikkonen, Sauber
  • Fernando Alonso, Minardi (forerunner to Toro Rosso)
  • Romain Grosjean, Renault (forerunner to Lotus)
  • Pastor Maldonado, Williams
  • Kevin Magnussen, McLaren
  • Jenson Button, Williams
  • Sergio Perez, Sauber
  • Nico Hulkenberg, Williams
  • Esteban Gutierrez, Sauber
  • Adrian Sutil, Spyker (forerunner to Force India)
  • Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso
  • Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso
  • Felipe Massa, Sauber
  • Valtteri Bottas, Williams

As you see, Williams (5 drivers) and Sauber (5) tie for the most of the 18 with a combined 10 drivers getting their careers started there. Sauber has been the perennial midfielder, and that’s not a negative – Peter Sauber and later, Monisha Kaltenborn, have excelled in their talent-spotting ability.

Williams, while one of the most successful teams in Formula One history in terms of Driver’s and Constructor’s Championships, has seen its fortunes ebb and flow over the last 20 years. At no point when Rosberg, Maldonado, Button, Hulkenberg or Bottas debuted for the team was the Williams one of the top two or three cars on the grid. Button’s initial sojourn was BMW’s first go-’round in 2000, and was a learning year for both parties before the Williams-BMW package won its first races in 2001.

But in looking through the remaining eight, you still see midfield teams as the rule, rather than the exception, to being the place of launching driver careers. Ricciardo, Vergne and Kvyat are all part of the Red Bull empire, and two of the three have graduated into the top Red Bull squad – Vergne, the exception, is hanging on to his F1 career.

Alonso began with the forerunner to Toro Rosso, Minardi, and is the lone Minardi graduate still active in F1 today. This is the team that also launched the career of Mark Webber, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli among others, all of whom went onto become Grand Prix winners.

Sutil began with the Force India forerunner of Spyker, and now races with Sauber, even though he hopes his contract will still be honored next season. Sutil is a rare perennial midfielder in modern day F1, a driver who has held onto a career making the most of his circumstances without being in one of the top three or four cars on the grid – much like his countrymen Nico Hulkenberg and Nick Heidfeld, for instance.

Grosjean has been with Renault in two forms – both as the factory Renault squad and now, as Lotus. In 2012, he fought to save his reputation while in 2013, armed with a podium-contending car, Grosjean was a star of the second half. But as the team has regressed, so have Grosjean’s results, but his talent level has not changed.

It is only in the form of Hamilton, who has been in nothing short of a race-winning car all years bar one (2009, and even then, he still took two wins with a difficult McLaren chassis) and Magnussen, this year with a McLaren that has ranged anywhere from being the third-to-fifth best chassis depending on the circuit, who have made their debuts in what you would call immediate podium-contending equipment.

Even in looking at Caterham and Marussia, there’s few within F1 who doubted Jules Bianchi’s star on the rise in his time with Marussia – he seemed destined for a Ferrari seat. Sadly, his Suzuka accident has left him fighting for his life, rather than fighting for a top seat on the grid. We continue to wish the best for him and his family – #ForzaJules.

Teams you don’t see anywhere on that list? Manufacturer outfits. Whether Ferrari, Mercedes, Honda, BMW or Toyota, none of the drivers who are racing for Ferrari and Mercedes or raced for any of those manufacturers who have since pulled out as a factory entry (Honda returns in 2015, but as a power unit supplier) made their debuts with a manufacturer operation. It’s very interesting to note.

The overview of the grid and where the drivers – plus the countless mechanics who’ve all started with the smaller teams as well – is all important because one of the keys to talent discovery in F1 is finding people who can outperform their machinery level once they’ve made it to F1.

It’s why most of the aforementioned drivers are in their current seats; they have long flattered their machinery and thus made themselves more valuable to a Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and/or Williams/Lotus down the line.

If down the road there’s a further team reduction to where it’s nothing but top teams left, and third cars become de rigueur, F1 risks losing this semblance of its history. While there’s something to be said for young drivers having an opportunity in top-flight machinery from the off, it seems to mean more if they work their way up and then eventually make it to a top team, rather than being gifted the opportunity straight away.

It’s one of the fascinating elements that makes F1 so special, and this can’t be overlooked as the future progresses.

The midfield matters, because the current grid wouldn’t be what it is without those launching pads.

Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”