Last week Nico Hülkenberg announced that he’s taking a more senior role at Aston Martin as their test and development driver, in what many see as a shrewd move from the Silverstone outfit.
Test driving is a strange role – so important to improving a team’s competitiveness but mostly unseen. And as Luca Badoer discovered, years of hard work behind the scenes can count for nothing in the minds of most fans if you don’t perform on the main stage.
With that in mind, we thought we’d take a look at the current drivers working in the background of F1’s ten teams and rate how they’d fare if they were called upon to race this season.
These aren’t all necessarily designated ‘reserve’ drivers, but they all hold a reserve, testing or development role at one of the ten F1 teams. We’ve also listed their most significant F1 experience.
13. McLaren – Will Stevens
F1 experience: 18 races, 2014-15
And it’s a strong start. Yes, Will ‘the lad’ Stevens is now in his third year at Woking as test and development driver.
After an unassuming junior career he made his F1 debut for cash-strapped Caterham in the 2014 Abu Dhabi, paying £500,000 for the privilege, and then ran a full season with Marussia in 2015 without scoring a point.
Since then he’s been in endurance racing – the high point being a win in the 2017 Le Mans LMGTE-Am class – and was fifth in last season’s LMP2 Endurance Trophy. That put him behind Paul di Resta, António Félix da Costa and Anthony Davidson but ahead of fellow Caterham alumnus Giedo van der Garde.
He’s now lost that seat and is competing for Panis Racing in the European Le Mans Series – though his website’s calendar doesn’t help much to suggest this:
He’s last on this list mainly because there’s a complete dearth of his current status – he wasn’t the worst to grace the F1 backmarkers in the 2010s but he didn’t grab the limelight either and it’s hard to judge his career since then.
Having said all of that, the McLaren website clearly holds him in high regard: “Will plays a pivotal role in the team’s pursuit of performance – his speed and technical understanding proving invaluable when it comes to car development and set-up for our race drivers.”
12. Williams – Roy Nissany
F1 experience: three free-practice sessions, 2020
It’s a tough one to weigh up with Nissany. On the one hand, he’s had several appearances with Williams and has generally shown well, in practice sessions he’s never been vastly off the pace.
He featured in three last season with his best being at Monza, where he was ahead of both Sebastian Vettel and Nicholas Latifi in FP1. He also stood in for George Russell at Barcelona and Bahrain, both times being around three-tenths behind Latifi.
On the other, his junior career has shown none of the hallmarks of being a champion in the making. He’s had three points-scoring finishes in Formula 2 in two seasons so far, and is with DAMS this season so has no excuses not to deliver.
His European F3 record was similarly unfruitful, and his only top-five championship finishes have been in the relatively uncompetitive Asian F3 Winter Series, and World Series Formula V8 3.5.
Ultimately there’s only so much we can tell from free practice, so until we see him in a competitive F1 situation we’re relying largely on his junior career, which puts him in the doldrums on this list.
11. Alfa Romeo – Robert Kubica
F1 experience: 97 races, 12 podiums, one win, 2006-10 & 2019
First off, I think Robert Kubica is a fantastic development driver. He’s been all around the sport and knows it as well as anyone in the paddock, plus he brings good backing from Orlen. In another universe, he could’ve gone to Ferrari and become a multiple race winner there, and maybe even more.
But we’re in this universe, and from what we last saw from him competing in an F1 car he’s just not quick enough to be higher up this list.
In some ways he’s similar to Nissany in that what we’ve seen recently of Kubica in competition isn’t superb, but Pole has a bit more credit in the bank hence his higher position.
10. McLaren – Oliver Turvey
F1 experience: McLaren test driver since 2012
An unfamiliar name to some, Turvey has been part of the McLaren setup for a long time now but has seen Sergio Pérez, Kevin Magnussen, Stoffel Vandoorne and Lando Norris make their F1 debuts with the team within that time.
He joined McLaren’s Young Driver Programme in 2010, the year of his best GP2 finish – sixth, and featured in a series of post-season tests for the team (finishing the 2011 Young Driver test less than two-tenths behind Jules Bianchi).
Since then he’s moved into the worlds of endurance racing and Formula E, where he’s enjoyed more success.
Speaking of which, our marvellous FE Editor Freddie Coates knows him a lot better than I do, so I asked for his thoughts on Turvey:
“Oliver Turvey is so often described as the most underrated driver in Formula E that by definition he is in fact now just rated. His consistent leadership and seemingly impossible performances for NIO have proved what a driver he is.
“Putting the worst car on the grid near the front row in qualifying and even scoring a heroic podium in the Gen1 era defies every single odd.
“Turvey has proved himself as an intelligent and integral driver and with an engineering degree and a lot of test running time for McLaren in the past ten years he would certainly get up to speed quickly and be a very good reserve driver.”
9. Alpine – Guanyu Zhou
F1 experience: 2020 post-season test
He was in the post-season test at Abu Dhabi last year for Renault, alongside fellow ‘young driver’ Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard’s best time was 1.5 seconds ahead of Zhou which isn’t a great look, but it’s a very difficult situation for Zhou to be in.
For context, Alonso was seven-tenths faster than Stoffel Vandoorne at the same circuit in their final race as teammates in 2018, and well over half a second quicker than Esteban Ocon after their first qualifying runs in Bahrain.
He’s had a solid junior career but has never been spectacular – he’s finished between sixth and eighth in his last four F2 and F3 campaigns – and it also looks like he’s a few points short of his super licence, so we’ll likely have to wait until 2022 before we get chance to see him in an F1 race.
But he has the tools to be a sound stand-in if he was allowed to race this year, and he’d be capable of matching the exploits of Fittipaldi and Aitken at Sakhir last year.
8. Haas – Pietro Fittipaldi
F1 experience: two races, 2020
If it weren’t for his two stand-in performances at the end of last season, Fittipaldi would be competing with Roy Nissany and Will Stevens at the bottom of this list.
But he performed admirably at Sakhir and Abu Dhabi, and had made progress towards Kevin Magnussen’s level by the end of the second weekend. He was certainly better than Nikita Mazepin, who had a nightmare weekend making his debut with the same team at the same track.
On the flip side, his junior career defies all logic – he beat very few drivers of note on his way to qualifying for a super licence by the easiest route imaginable.
More than anything else, seeing how well he stepped up from fifth place in F3 Asia to F1 makes you wonder how successful someone with a more glittering career like Nyck De Vries or Callum Ilott would be in F1.
But since competitive F1 experience holds such value on this list, we’ve ranked him here.
7. Ferrari – Callum Ilott
F1 experience: post-season test 2020
He’s ahead of Ilott largely based off a comparison of their performances in F2 – he was Mick Schumacher’s main challenger for the title last year and arguably showed more skills relevant to F1 than the German.
He was also (like Mick) robbed of a free-practice session thanks to poor weather at the Eifel Grand Prix, and finally got his chance in an F1 car at last season’s Young Driver Test.
There he completed a solid 93 laps and was eighth on the timesheets, just ahead of Guanyu Zhou.
In the other Alfa Romeo Robert Kubica was four-tenths ahead of Ilott which did make me think about their relative positioning on this list, but testing times are notoriously hard to read into.
Ilott’s ranked here based more on his competitive performances against drivers such as Schumacher, Jack Atiken and Yuki Tsunoda who we’ve seen in action at F1 level.
And that concludes part one of our rankings! But look out for part two, where we cover the last six spots to number one. And what do you think? You can let us know in the comments section below, or on Twitter at @LastLapmag or @AdamDickinson01.