AN ALMOST SUPER LICENCE~By Tim Swietochowski

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Buemi
The triumphs of Brawn GP in its first two races against a backdrop of technical, political and sporting friction, have served to overshadow the efforts of another new guest at the Grand Prix party. Sébastien Buemi, the first Swiss in Formula One since Marc Surer called time over 20 years ago, more than held his own in Melbourne, outpacing and outracing Sébastien Bourdais in the sister Toro Rosso, while in Malaysia he scored the eighth fastest lap after a qualifying error cast him to the blunt end for the start.

Thus, Buemi has held up a shield to his critics, who suggest that he is solid rather than stellar and perhaps even undeserving to some degree, particularly in consideration of his lack of title victories en route to the top. It is argued that he is a fortunate beneficiary of Red Bull’s young driver programme which, overseen by Helmut Marko, appears as though it may become reluctant to accept misjudgement if a driver doesn’t quite deliver and will stoically press ahead, soon putting that driver on the F1 grid while junior champions look on through green eyes. Still, it must also be said that the scheme remains highly admirable, guiding some truly special talents through the murky waters of junior formulas.

With only 20 seats currently available in Formula One for thousands of aspiring drivers the world over, it is fair to say that success should pay and only the best of the best need apply, let alone get an interview. So, while Buemi fights his corner let us consider the plight of another young racer, Germany’s Nico Hülkenberg. Currently the third driver for Williams, Nico took his first championship win in Formula BMW ADAC in 2005. A couple of years later he carried his country to the A1 Grand Prix title with nine wins from 20 starts, before dominating the Formula 3 Euro Series in 2008. In January of this year he joined the GP2 Asia Series at the third round in Bahrain, taking pole position. At the following race in Qatar he repeated the feat and then drove into the distance to win the race by over 13 seconds, scoring the fastest lap along the way.

Given such achievements one would assume that Nico has already boarded the train bound for F1 in 2010. Not so, unfortunately. The driver market for next year currently depends on myriad factors but if we assume that Lewis Hamilton doesn’t jump ship, McLaren don’t commit a major error by dropping Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli is retained by Toyota, Nico Rosberg is likely to continue at Williams. So, could Hülkenberg replace Kazuki Nakajima? It is unlikely, for while Kazuki is undoubtedly a talented driver who is fully deserving of a career in international motorsport, the truth is that he is not at Williams entirely on merit; he is at Williams because of the Toyota engine that sits behind him. Before making his Grand Prix debut, since when he has put in some decent showings for which he must be given credit, he had won only six of the 113 races that he contested after winning the low-rung Formula Toyota championship in 2003.

The fact is that while Hülkenberg is clearly in possession of more than enough ‘right stuff’ it is possible that he could find his entry into F1 blocked by the nationality of another driver, unless the potential new outfits that Bernie Ecclestone has spoken of come to fruition or heightening tensions cause shifts elsewhere. There is, however, a culprit in this quandary: the FIA Super Licence. While much time and energy were spent in the run up to the new season on the issue of the licence’s cost, more should have been spent on its sporting side.

Appendix L, Chapter I, Article 5 of the International Sporting Code deals with the criteria by which a driver qualifies for an FIA Super Licence. Parts c) to e) apply to a driver’s first licence application and, in basic terms, stipulate that a driver is eligible should he be a reigning Formula 3 champion or should he have, in the last two years, finished in the top three in the GP2, F2, Formula Nippon, IRL or Champ Car series. Therefore, a driver who fails ever to take an F3 championship but who manages to scrape third overall in the GP2 Asia Series – perhaps with no race wins – will be deemed worthy of taking a place in Formula One and being referred to as one of the finest drivers the world has to offer.

Even this, though, is not the minimum requirement. Bizarrely, having read through the aforementioned criteria in parts c) to e) of Article 5 we come to part f), which states that a driver who cannot meet these arguably tame targets will be considered for a licence anyway if he “has driven at least 300km in a current Formula One car consistently at racing speeds, over a maximum period of 2 days, completed not more than 90 days prior to the application”. In essence, this means that a half-decent racer with hefty financial backing can have a realistic chance of competing in the series that proudly proclaims itself to be the absolute pinnacle of world motorsport, a possibility that has seen several drivers come and go in recent years by way of a ‘pay-and-drive’ phenomenon that should have no place at so high a level of competition.

If the criteria were narrowed so that, for example, a driver must have won a Formula 3 championship and finished in the top three in GP2, F2 or the IRL with at least one race victory, Formula One would certainly edge closer towards its top-flight ideal. That said, Buemi’s early performance could be used to argue that a tightening of the licence requirements could actually close the door to some drivers of serious potential, particularly given the fact that his teammate, Bourdais, has all the right credentials. Of course, results in motor racing can be skewed by swings in luck and reliability but a process of special request could navigate this issue, so long as it were stringent rather than a replacement for the ridiculous part f) of Article 5.

So, as is usually the case in Formula One, there are two sides to the coin. The relaxed superlicence rules allowed a promising young Swiss to make an impressive, points-scoring Grand Prix debut but, by the same measure, they may yet be the reason that the potentially supersonic Nico Hülkenberg finds himself on the outside looking in next season. Should the screw be tightened? Perhaps the debate should start here.

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