The Formula 1 superlicence has been around so long it was introduced when motorsport was not under the direct management of the FIA, but instead the Commission Sportive Internationale. The CSI later became the Federation Internationale du Sport Automobile, which was eventually brought until the FIA’s aegis.2023 F1 season.
Driving standards were under intense scrutiny at the front and the back of the F1 grid at the start of the nineties. Charging drivers for the privilege of being able to race in the pinnacle of motorsport seemed like a sensible way of filtering out those who did not have the pace to race against the best. But it attracted criticism, such as when Japanese Formula 300 race-winner Akihiko Nagaya was refused a licence in 1992.
The superlicence idea had its supporters and detractors, and the debate around it evolved with each decade as F1 became ever more professional. In the 2000s, drivers asked for the price of the annual renewal of their superlicence to be cut – despite most of them earning six figures or more per season – and the argument persisted for several years.
In 2015 a points-based system was introduced. It was not to stop slow drivers, but to make sure drivers were adequately prepared for the step up to F1 by requiring they compete in car racing for a certain amount of time before that. It’s popularly described as the FIA’s response to Red Bull putting Max Verstappen in F1 after a single year in single-seater racing.
The threshold number of points needed to enter F1 has always been 40 points. The original points system valued winning the GP2 championship (now F2) at 50 and set a higher tier for a a ‘future FIA F2 championship’ which would award up to 60 points. These were later reduced so the maximum available became 40.
At the top of the superlicence points table is F2, F1’s primary feeder and support series, and subsequently the series has been the undisputed final stepping stone. Of the 22 drivers to have made their F1 race debut since 2016, 15 have come straight from F2 and its predecessor GP2. Five of the remaining seven made it to F1 as a mid-season signing or a one-off stand-in, so only two times in seven years have teams started a season fielding a rookie driver with no F2 experience.
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Drivers now know that making it to F2 is the only realistic route to F1, and they also know that there are few teams in the spec series capable of putting them in a title-fighting position that would then make them attractive to an F1 team. While F2 is the most competitive it has been between teams in years, unreliability has emerged as another factor preventing drivers from getting results to match their abilities.
The experience of driving an F2 car and how useful it as preparation for F1 is almost the same for the driver who wins the title as the one who comes 15th in the standings, but the current superlicence system enforces a different idea. While it recognises the top three in the F2 points are all likely to be of F1 standard, and thus rewards each of them the full 40 points needed to qualify for the superlicence, fourth and fifth are worth only 30 and 20 points respectively.
F2’s 2022 season is a record 28 races long, so not only is it providing more track time to prepare drivers for F1 than ever before, it also means a single weekend ruined by unreliability is less likely to have a swing on the title battle. At the same time, however, performance inequalities between teams will be felt more greatly. So is finishing fifth in F2 worth more or less than it was a few seasons before?
The current argument about the superlicence centres around IndyCar’s given points value, with its champion also getting 40 points but then second and third place in the standings getting the same as fourth and fifth in F2.
Racing at the front in IndyCar is undeniably an experience that would prepare a driver for F1, and vice versa given both are professional open-wheel series. IndyCar had five drivers going into the final race of a 17-race season in title contention this year, and there was a reward of only eight superlicence points for the driver that finished fifth in the standings.
To come fifth in IndyCar’s own spec feeder series Indy Lights, North America’s equivalent of F2, would earn five points. But every driver in that series is aiming to impress the IndyCar paddock, not F1.
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So there is no threat to F2’s position on the road to F1, and critical analysis of the superlicence points system could strengthen F2 by spreading its own points distribution in a way that is as not as top-centred as it currently is. It’s already the only series in motorsport where coming runner-up delivers the same amount of superlicence points as being champion).
But there appears to be little interest in this from those running the championship. In a recent press session F2 CEO Bruno Michel objected to the idea an exception could be made to allow IndyCar star Colton Herta into F1. “There is already some points attributed to the American championships in the overall table of the FIA, to get a superlicence,” he responded. “So I think this has already been taken into consideration.”
Despite having consistently shown impressive pace, Herta and his Andretti Autosport team underperformed this year and he slumped to 10th in the points. But he is among an illustrious list of 21 drivers since Indy car racing’s creation in 1905 to have claimed seven wins within his first four seasons in the championship.
If Red Bull had laid eyes on Herta earlier, maybe one or two years ago, would it have put him in F2 to strengthen the chance of him securing a superlicence? That’s extremely unlikely – you would have to look hard to find a driver who would put a successful professional career on pause, let alone leave one of the top teams in open-wheel racing to do so, to race in a junior series. If a proven IndyCar driver wants to go to F1, they do not expect an intermediary step should be necessary.
However Michel supports the current system. “For me, it’s a quite simple answer that’s been said by almost everybody. There is a rule, there are tables and we apply the tables. And that’s exactly the same if you ask me if Formula 3 drivers who has been finishing fifth or sixth in the championship can have a superlicence. In the table they cannot. And I think that’s the way it has to be.”
He insisted there is no agenda against American drivers. “We have a lot of American drivers in F3 at the moment, we have Logan [Sargeant] in F2, and we all hope that there will be American drivers coming into F1,” said Michel. “Whether they come from our championships or whether they come from Indy for me is not an issue at all, as long as they have enough points to get their superlicence.”
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Herta did not have enough points for a 2023 superlicence, despite being one of only five drivers to have been in the top 10 of the IndyCar standings every year under the current superlicence points-earning period, and the FIA has already rejected the idea of a workaround to allow him into F1. When Red Bull were appealing for such a move, it prompted 2019 F2 champion Nyck de Vries to say that a snowball effect of a dispensation would be to “almost kill and jeopardise the ladder” of series on F1’s support bill.
But De Vries’ experience arguably shows the shortcomings of the current system. He had to win a world championship in Formula E (a series which took several years to be fully integrated into the superlicence points table) before he was even considered for an F1 seat. He went through F3 predecessor GP3 and F2 after he already raced in the F2-rivalling Formula Renault 3.5 series.
Although it was widely respected as a series and the final step before F1 for many drivers, notably Red Bull’s many juniors due to Helmut Marko’s misgivings over F2 predecessor GP2, Formula Renault 3.5 ended following the 2017 season, Renault having removed its backing at the end of 2015. The superlicence system questionably ranked it below the FIA European F3 championship and level with GP3, the champion only earning half of the superlicence points of the yet-to-exist F2 championship and 60% of that year’s GP2 champion.
After some criticism, including from F1 drivers, its points tally was increased to 70% of GP2’s, but the writing was already on the wall for the series.
That’s not the only example of outside scrutiny of the superlicence points system leading to change, as a few years later the FIA had to backtrack on plans to diminish the Formula Renault Eurocup’s points in order to favour its own Formula Regional European Championship. The latter series began its 2019 season with 10 cars, while the Eurocup – which used identical Tatuus T-318 chassis – had a grid of 22 from the off.
Red Bull, the team usually most eager to put inexperienced drivers into F1, has already had two high profile misses for drivers it planned to place at Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri) but was unable to due to them missing the magic 40-point mark needed for a superlicence. Retrospectively it’s hard to tell if the system stopped two F1-worthy talents then, as both Dan Ticktum and Juri Vips have improved as drivers in the years since and would now have had stronger claims further down the line to be in F1 had both not been dropped by Red Bull due to problems of their own making.
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But they were undoubtedly against strong opposition at the time their reputations were at their peaks. Herta has had to go against an IndyCar field with greater strength and depth en route to 10th in the standings this year than he did when he finished third just two years ago.
The question of how much value a position in any series holds is an argument that will be had and has to be had every year, because that’s how drivers convince sponsors and future employers of their abilities. There’s more to a driver’s career than their superlicence points tally, but the way the FIA has worked since 2015 has set up not only a reliance on being in F2 before F1, but to be in any series that has a healthy superlicence quota.
Among junior single-seater series, namely the ones that could claim to feel hard done by the FIA on this topic (and there’s more series than drivers that can say that), it’s been remarked that if you support the FIA superlicence, then it will support you. Criticising your allocation, or any other aspect of the system, is a no-gain move no matter how strong your case is unless you get some significant support from across motorsport.
IndyCar drivers have been vocal in their criticism of the FIA for failing to budge on Herta, but the reaction in other series has been more akin to de Vries’. But the leadership of F1 and more importantly the FIA has changed since the current system was put in place. Backing down over Herta would have risked undermining the entire superlicence points system, but the reigniting of intense public scrutiny on the superlicence may change the way FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem, his drivers’ commission, and even F2 promoter Michel, think about this issue in the future.
Current superlicence points allocations
|FIA Formula 3||30||25||20||15||12||9||7||5||3||2|
|Formula Regional European championship||25||20||15||10||7||5||3||2||1||0|
|Formula Regional Asian Championship||18||14||12||10||6||4||3||2||1||0|
|Formula Regional Americas Championship||18||14||12||10||6||4||3||2||1||0|
|Formula Regional Japanese Championship||18||14||12||10||6||4||3||2||1||0|
|WTCC / WTCR||15||12||10||7||5||3||2||1||0||0|
|International Superstars Championship||15||12||10||7||5||3||2||1||0||0|
|NASCAR Cup Series||15||12||10||7||5||3||2||1||0||0|
|Japanese Super Formula Lights||15||12||10||7||5||3||2||1||0||0|
|FIA National F4 championships||12||10||7||5||3||2||1||0||0||0|
|WEC GT Pro||12||10||7||5||3||2||1||0||0||0|
|Asian / European Le Mans Series Prototypes||10||8||6||4||2||0||0||0||0||0|
|National F3 Championships (GB3)||10||7||5||3||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Indy Pro 2000||10||7||5||3||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|NASCAR National (Xfinity Series)||10||7||5||3||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Toyota Racing Series New Zealand||10||7||5||3||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|International GT3 Series||6||4||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|FIA Karting World Championship (senior)||4||3||2||1||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|FIA Karting Continental Championship (senior)||3||2||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|FIA Karting World Championship (junior)||3||2||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|FIA Karting Continental Championship (junior)||2||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
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