JR Hildebrand was a surprising selection by Force India for F1's young driver test this week at the Jerez circuit in Spain. Still, he delivered a solid, competitive 131-lap performance. It was an impressive first time attempt in an F1 car, while running against 17 of the world's best young drivers -- several with experience as F1 test drivers.
Hildebrand was 10th out of 16 drivers on Thursday, the final day of a three-day test in which he split car time, by morning and afternoon, with Scotland's Paul di Resta, a former F3 Euroseries champion and Germain Touring Car Series driver. Hildebrand's best lap time of 1:19.873 was .6 of a second slower than German Nico Hulkenberg, this year's European GP2 champion, who has signed with Williams for the full 2010 F1 season.
Hildebrand's finish was all the more impressive because Force India was not a front-running team last season. Adrian Sutil finished 17th, with five points in the driver's championship and the team was ninth out of 10 in the manufacturer's championship.
"The second and third days were massively encouraging, but hindered by some unfortunate circumstances from an outright speed standpoint," Hildebrand said about his trial, via e-mail from Spain. "Going into the test, I figured that the hardest thing to get used to about driving a Formula One car coming from Indy Lights was the amount of grip that the car has through high speed corners. The cars are capable of sustaining over four lateral Gs at an extremely high rate of speed; it's mind-bending how quick they are.
"By the end of the second day I was feeling very comfortable in the car and was already pushing it pretty hard with serious speed through those sections of the circuit, and by the third day felt like I was really on the limit.
"We were going through a detailed test plan in which there were only certain runs in the day allocated to setting quick times. The unfortunate part of it all was just that each time I went out on a good set of rubber to set a time over those two days, I was accidentally in a low-revving engine conservation mode that didn't give me maximum power."
Hildebrand could drive to the car's potential in the corners, but wasn't able to use the exit speed on the straights.
"So, all the speed that I was gaining by really pushing the car's limits was lost," Hildebrand explained. "All that aside, however, I felt very comfortable driving the car and confident in my ability to continue to adapt and improve while also feeling very comfortable working with the team to develop the setup of the car as well. Although the timesheets never showed it, it was clear to me and to the team that the speed was there. So, for me personally, I'm more than happy with just that."
Hildebrand became the first American to test an F1 car, independent of any sponsor or manufacturer backing, since Michael Andretti was released with three races to go from McLaren in 1993. From that point, F1 didn't believe homegrown American talent had any chance of making it in F1.
Andretti was on top of his game then; he was the 1991 CART IndyCar champion, 30 years old and the son of former F1 World Champion Mario, but Andretti had never raced in Europe and that became the theory as to why he couldn't make it in F1. The reality was that F1 didn't given him a fair chance -- he was allowed only one partial season.
Americans did go to Europe, to go through the development series. They had success, but they didn't have the sponsor backing like the European and South American drivers. F1's top development series, GP2, costs $3 million per year, and American drivers couldn't afford to position themselves for an F1 opportunity. Jonathan Summerton and Charlie Kimball both won Formula 3 Euroseries races and Summerton also was the lone race winner for A1 Team USA in A1GP, but they both ran out of funding before reaching GP2.
Hildebrand may have debunked some of that myth. He's never raced regularly in Europe, and came up through the American single seater system. The 21-year-old won the Formula 2000 championship in 2006 with 12 wins in 14 races. He also won Firestone Indy Lights, IndyCar's primary development series, with four wins this year.
Force India has re-signed Sutil and Tonio Liuzzi to be its primary drivers for next year, but has the reserve-test driver slot open. With the test, it seems likely Force India will choose between Hildrebrand and di Resta.
"We will be looking at their performance on the track very closely and should they perform well, as we are confident they will, we will look at a permanent role for one within the team in 2010," Mallya said before the test.
Hildebrand would welcome the opportunity. "Formula One is something that I've aspired to as it's the definitive pinnacle of open wheel road course racing worldwide," he said.
Hildebrand isn't the only American with a realistic chance of making it to F1 in the next several years. Alexander Rossi of Nevada City, Calif., won races in International Formula Master, a F3-type series, and was the Formula BMW World Finals champion in 2007. He also tested at Jerez for one day with BMW Sauber, a reward for his Formula BMW victory. Summerton, who is also trying to drive in IndyCar in 2010, is a top prospect for Team US F1, the American-based team, for 2011.
But Hildebrand's test with Force India has put him on the F1 radar, a step or two in front of Rossi and Summerton.
"Having a chance at getting a drive in F1 ultimately depends on a lot of different things, but now that I've gotten the chance to drive the car, I'm confident that I have the tools to do it," Hildebrand said. "It wouldn't be easy and I would have to work hard to continue honing my skills and adapt to an entirely different environment, but the pieces of the puzzle are there."