F1's silly season offers a timely reminder that this can be the most brutal job market in the world.
With F1's annual summer break in full swing, so starts another yearly tradition: the silly season, where driver moves are touted for pretty much everyone on the grid. With all the movement, it's easy to think that breaking into F1 is a piece of cake. However, if you're a young driver who isn't already in a development programme with an F1 team, you're going to have a tough time cracking what is the most cut-throat job market in the world.
Take current GP2 leader Jolyon Palmer, the son of former F1 driver Jonathan. At the moment the 23-year-old Brit has a healthy lead at the top of the table, and isn't strongly affiliated with a grand prix team. If he goes on to win the title, the rules state that he cannot race in GP2 again. One would think, then, that winning F1's main feeder series should land him a spot on the grid. He could probably even bring in a bit of sponsorship to sweeten the deal, what with his family connections and all. On paper he's a perfect candidate.
Well, no, not at all. If only it were that easy…
There are 22 seats on the F1 grid. If you're in Palmer's position, then 10 are immediately off limits. The big boys of Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull wouldn't even look at you, while Toro Rosso seats go exclusively to drivers who've come up through the Red Bull development programme. Elsewhere, McLaren are both nurturing their own young talent and shopping for big names.
One can immediately discount one of the seats at Sauber and Lotus, as the money coming in from Esteban Gutierrez and Pastor Maldonado respectively to those teams will guarantee their places. That's 10 seats.
Elsewhere, it's highly unlikely that Force India or Williams will want to shake up their successful 2014 driver line ups, and so unless there is a move up at the front of the grid and Valtteri Bottas or Nico Hulkenberg get snapped up, it's safe to assume there's no room at the inn there.
That leaves a driver trying to break into F1 with, realistically, six seats to compete for – one at Sauber, one at Lotus, and the two a piece at Caterham and Marussia. Lets be generous, though, and say that one seat across the four at Williams and Force India is magically somehow open, so it's really seven seats.
Well, the Sauber berth will see you going up against known-quantity Adrian Sutil and the money of Sergey Sirotkin, while snatching the second Lotus seat would require both Romain Grosjean leaving and whoever he'd replace not going the other way. The same can be said about the seat at Williams/Force India; you'll be up against known quantities with F1 experience, along with any junior drivers that are already associated with the teams. Breaking through will be almost impossible.
Marussia look likely to retain Max Chilton, and even if he does leave the Brit will take up a spot elsewhere on the grid. Assuming he’s not promoted to the senior Ferrari team Jules Bianchi is set to remain too. Chances are there will be no free seats here either.
Leaving us with Caterham. Getting into bed with them at this point is a huge gamble considering the uncertainty over their ownership and future direction. Often a single season at a bad team can absolutely trash a career, and a year at Caterham could end your F1 dreams before they start.
Look at current Audi LMP1 driver Lucas di Grassi, for example. He beat Robert Kubica, Sebastian Vettel, Grosjean, and a host of other big name drivers to win the 2005 Macau Grand Prix. After competing in just over half a season of GP2 in 2008, he managed to beat long-term F1 drivers Grosjean, Maldonado, Sebastien Buemi, and Kamui Kobayashi in the standings. You couldn't really look for more in terms of potential.
But he had one bad F1 year driving for Marussia (then Virgin Racing) in their debut season in 2010, and it took him almost three years to find another full time, top-level job.
Meanwhile, for any seats which do open up you'll competing against drivers new and old who have serious financial backing. You might be able to attract a few million dollars worth of sponsorship, but if a team's primary need is to pad the bottom line and somebody bids more than you, then they'll get the drive without so much as a blink.
That is the reality which young drivers looking to step up into F1 will be facing as their agents make phone calls and wander the paddock. There are just a handful of open seats, and the competition to fill them is far more fierce than anything you'd find on the track.