By Steve Slater
Getting a place on the Formula One starting grid has never been easy, but there probably hasn't ever been a tougher time for young drivers to find a seat. The current ban on in-season testing is certainly one of the main reasons for the gridlock.
Drivers such as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg combined racing (and winning their respective titles) in the GP2 series with hundreds of laps of in-season testing with the McLaren and Williams Formula One teams. In 2006 and 2007 Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel both made mid-season debuts for the BMW Sauber team after stepping up from test to race driver.
Fernando Alonso, after making his F1 debut with Minardi in 2001 became Renault's test driver in 2002. In 2003 he replaced Jenson Button as Jarno Trulli's team-mate and in Hungary, won his first Grand Prix.
These days, the test driver's role, is if they are lucky, confined to an occasional Friday morning practice outing, as one of the team's race drivers sits thinly disguising their frustration, in the pit garage. The incumbent race driver probably rightly feels that he needs the extra practice and that he can better deliver feedback to the team.
Some ‘third' drivers, as far as I remember, haven't even got to drive a race car on a race weekend at all, so it's not surprising we rarely hear of them. Gary Paffett (who?) is McLaren's third driver, yet almost all his recent seat time has been in their simulator back in Woking.
Meanwhile, when Robert Kubica was sidelined at the start of the season, Renault deemed their lengthy line-up of test drivers insufficiently experienced to replace him. They left reserve drivers Bruno Senna, Romain Grosjean, Jan Charouz, Ho-Pin Tung and Faruz Fauzy on the sidelines, bringing in the Nick Heidfeld instead.
Even when a young driver gets into a race seat, there is still a tough challenge to keep it. While Team Lotus gave Karun Chandhok a chance to race in the German GP, it is clear that neither of the current incumbents, Trulli or Kovalainen are keen to give up their places in the long-term just yet.
Of course it does work to a team's advantage. The constant pressure means that every driver has to perform, both on the track and in many cases bringing additional funding to the team.
Force India is one of the teams where "three into two" is working in their favour. In addition to Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta, they also field as their number three, Nico Hulkenberg, who claimed a pole position for Williams last season.
Force India is now in the enviable position of being able to pick two drivers from the trio for next year. Sutil brings money from German telecoms sponsor Medion and Mercedes Benz-backed di Resta no doubt helps cover the cost of Mercedes engines, while all three have proven talent. It is going to be an intriguing battle over the coming months to see which two of the three land the seats for the 2012 season.
Sebastian Vettel is proof the Red Bull driver development programme clearly works, but it also piles on the pressure. Toro Rosso principal Franz Tost says he and Red Bull driver development director Helmut Marko give each driver in Toro Rosso three years to prove themselves, or make way for younger talent.
That could be bad news for Sebastian Buemi, who made his F1 debut at the start of 2009, although Jaime Alguersuari made his debut just a few months later. Both drivers are now under the microscope as one is almost certain to make way for Red Bull's latest protégé, Daniel Ricciardo.
Tost expects the Australian rookie to start beating HRT team-mate Liuzzi after not more than three or four races. If he can handle the pressure, who can bet against him joining Toro Rosso in 2012 and maybe replacing Webber at Red Bull in 2013?