Test drivers wait patiently for their one chance of stardom

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2006, 12:00am

Wasn't it great to see Jenson Button at last take his first race win? I, for one was, absolutely delighted to see the boy who grew up in my part of the world finally take the top step of the podium. Not as delighted as the boy Button of course, whose wide eyes almost popped out of their sockets as he jumped out of his Honda.

Another refreshing aspect of Jenson's win was his due respect for the anthems, including the second anthem for the winning constructor. Michael Schumacher may stand stock still for the German anthem, but he always plays the fool (and the crowds) during the Italian national anthem. The funniest thing on the podium in Turkey, though, was seeing Button knock Pedro de la Rosa's hat off as the anthems started. As it was Pedro's first F1 podium we can put it down to inexperience. The Spaniard is certainly a man who has taken his chance with both hands.

He was promoted from testing duties to the race drive after Juan Pablo Montoya abruptly quit McLaren. As De la Rosa was told he was being promoted for the rest of the season, over at Williams Alex Wurz was unveiled as part of the line-up for next year. Wurz's story is a triumph for perseverance in a sport not known for its patience. With Robert Kubica shining at BMW it would seem the subs are finally getting to star.

The story of the test driver highlights the precarious nature of Formula One. It's not just being fast that secures you promotion to the coveted race seat.

You have to be in the right place at the right time. Your face has to fit with both the sponsor and the team, which calls for astute political skills. You also need a large dollop of luck. The fortunes of De la Rosa and Wurz make for a good case study. The two are good friends and for two years shared the same employer, McLaren. Alex was the third driver, but, when Montoya injured himself last year, it was the junior De la Rosa who got the nod. This was mainly down to the bizarre fact that Wurz didn't fit into the car and it took a couple of races before that rather basic design issue was sorted out. He was suitably downcast and no doubt it put a strain on the friendship.

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, Wurz made his move to Williams this season and for both drivers it has paid off, although which situation is preferable is open to debate. De la Rosa has the faster car, but may well have to make way at the end of the season. Wurz has next year in the bag, but in a less competitive car. It's the old quality over quantity conundrum. Both deserve their chance. You are not employed as a third driver in a top team unless you are as fast as the main drivers (in more lowly teams it's how fast you produce a cheque-book that counts). The job has become the 'waiting room' for F1 stardom. With the exception of drivers like Nico Rosberg, who came up from the GP2 series, new talent is increasingly unlikely to come from outside. As the amount of testing is reduced year after year, the need for built-in knowledge of the car becomes even more crucial.

Of course, even this isn't enough to guarantee elevation. Look at poor old Anthony Davidson at Honda. He's more than capable of holding his own in F1, but has scant opportunity to show it, partly because he doesn't want to drive for a lesser team. When teammate Button took the chequered flag in Hungary, he was commentating on it for British television. As one driver said to me, you do your thing and hope.

There are compensations to being a test driver. You get paid a lot of money by big companies to drive some of the best cars in the world. There's a bit less pressure, and you get Sundays off. But, ambition being ambition, it's never quite enough.