The role of the GP2 Series is to groom young driving talents and eventually elevate them to the top tier of motorsport – Formula 1 – once they’re deemed ready.
There’s even a rule that once a driver wins the Championship, they are not allowed to race in the series. As a feeder series, the goal is to promote its champions to Formula 1.
Five to ten years ago, you would have had no problem believing this as the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Nico Hülkenberg, Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado all won the championship and were duly promoted straight into Formula 1.
However, in recent years it’s been a growing trend to overlook the champions of the series for the driver that brings along with him the best sponsorship budget.
This has left talented drivers like Davide Valsecchi, Fabio Leimer and last year’s champion Jolyon Palmer without full-time Formula 1 drives.
Palmer won the 2014 GP2 Series championship in Russia with a round to spare ahead of Stoffel Vandoorne and Felipe Nasr, the latter eventually signing with the Sauber F1 Team.
After the final GP2 Series race of the season, Palmer completed the Formula 1 post-season test in Abu Dhabi for Force India, but after struggling in the morning with technical gremlins, ended the day just 0.004 seconds behind Nico Rosberg.
His performance caught the eye of the Lotus F1 Team where he signed on to become their official reserve driver for the 2015 season.
We had a chat to Jolyon at the Singapore Grand Prix to talk about how he’s enjoyed his year in Formula 1, as well as his chances of snapping up a race seat for 2016.
How has this year gone for you as a reserve driver for Lotus? You’ve had around eight FP1 sessions now, have they been positive?
Yeah, really positive. It’s quite tough to step in for an FP1 [session] when you don’t really drive the car very much. So I’ve been happy with how it’s gone so far, especially at the start of the year. Now I’m more familiar with it and it’s more routine but I think the competitiveness from my point of view, I’m happy with. The team are happy with the feedback I’m giving. I’m learning a hell of a lot. And that’s kind of all of boxes ticked really, it’s been good.
Do you have to hold back when you’re driving because this isn’t your car?
Yeah, it’s not good to crash a car from the start but when it’s someone else’s [Romain Grosjean’s] car and I’m only doing FP1 then you can’t really do that. I’ve probably been holding back a little bit. And when I’m driving I’m focusing on driving and being quick. But it’s definitely a little bit on your mind, you don’t want to stick it into the wall as well. But at the same time you’ve only gotten 90 minutes which boils down to three timed runs. So you’ve not got a lot of time to impress so you need to get on with it and give your best in that time anyway.
So you’ve only gotten around three or four maybe timed runs?
Yeah it’s not much.
The rest of the time are you focusing on the setup of the car for the weekend or your own development?
No, that’s just how the sessions play out. You have a set of tyres for the first 30 minutes and that’s one run because you do an installation lap at the start. Then you go out for a second run on the new set of tyres. And then you go out for a third run because the nature of FP1 is you’re testing out parts or setups or something and you need time in the garage to change the car. And also you get two sets of tyres but you’re limited with time anyway, but even if you’re not then a lot of the time the tyres are falling away so there’s not many gains to be had.
So it’s a mix of time and tyres only lasting two or three laps?
Yeah, I mean probably the total with timed laps tends to be a maximum of eighteen laps. And you don’t really have a lot of tyres. Sometimes in the first half an hour you get tyres back that are pretty good and you can carry on with.
But apart from that at the end of the session you can’t be any quicker with the tyres anyway.
So is there a direct correlation between you and Romain for example because you’re in his car, do you give feedback on the circuit before he jumps in the car?
Yeah pretty much the feedback between the three drivers actually is the same, so it works quite well. And even when Romain is not driving what I say at the end of FP1 is pretty much the team can go with that direction and it will be sort of as if the driver is hasn’t even changed really. I mean there are certain characteristics in that I drive differently than Romain, but the feeling of the balance in the car is pretty much the same. So from a set-up point of view, it’s not bad and it also can be quite good to have an extra driver’s opinion on what’s going on as well.
As a competitor, do you compare yourself against Pastor [Maldonado] with your lap times? Aside from completing your schedule of course.
Yeah, I’m focusing on what I’ve got to do to be honest. Of course, it’s good to look competitive to everyone else because Formula 1 ultimately boils down performance and lap time but sometimes for the bulk of the season, we’ve been on pretty much a similar run plan so it’s good for myself just to see how competitive I could be. And driving on a Grand Prix weekend as well is different to a test day where you get tyres and you get a full day to get up to speed. But then the last few run plans are a bit different and you try different things so it’s harder to compare [against the sister car]. But it’s always nice to see. I’m out there with 19 other F1 drivers at the top of their game and it’s nice to see how I stack up.
The Lotus situation isn’t great at the moment – you’ve mentioned it before – where do you see yourself next year regardless of a buyout? If it continues to be Lotus will you be here? If they’re bought out by Renault where do you think you will be?
Either way I hope to be here basically. So I think there’s definitely opportunities with Lotus or with Renault I think to be here. The main decision to join Lotus at the start of the year was because there were going to be opportunities coming up at the end of the year, so it’s panned out, I’d say. It’s been a tougher year financially for the whole team than we expected it to be amid the whole ownership [speculation]. It’s not as if I could foresee that coming but there’s definitely opportunities and the team so far. I think they’re happy with what I’ve done and so whichever ownership [decision] happens I think, there’s opportunities to be racing here next year so that’s what I want to do.
You mentioned that there were opportunities within Lotus, so did they mention that you would be participating in FP1 sessions?
Yeah it’s something I was looking to do and it was the objective, really.
You would have seen what happened to Charles Pic, he was in your position but only got two FP1 drives.
It wasn’t good, was it?
No of course not and it’s unfortunate for him, but you’re coming off a championship-winning season, so did what happened to Charles play on your mind? That you might not get many FP1 outings?
Not really. I think [Davide] Valsecchi as well was a champion as well and he came here and he didn’t get an FP1 [session] at all. But the important thing for me is to do the best I can and the two things I was looking for was a chance to be racing and some time in the car. I got promised some time in the car which is why choosing Lotus was a good decision and they stuck to their word. So yeah it’s good for me and I don’t know really what happened with Pic and Valsecchi; so far I’m trying to do my best and the main thing is they’re not losing anything by putting me in the car. It doesn’t affect their whole performance of the team or anything. Then I could say it’s a good thing really.
Have you looked at other championships to complement your reserve role? I know being here every race weekend might be hard. But maybe, for instance, next year if there is nothing presenting itself will you find another series to race in?
Yeah, if I’m not racing in F1 next year then I think I want to be racing in some form. It’s been a long year of watching races when you’re a reserve driver. I’ve learned a lot and it’s been really good but I think the second year of this is not going to be very helpful for my career at this point as well. So if I’m not racing in Formula 1 I think I’ll have to look at something else.
What would interest you? If it comes to November/December and there aren’t opportunites in F1 but you have a reserve role here again, what do you choose?
Racing. And I’m open-minded. I mean LMP1 is very strong at the moment but I’m open-minded. I just miss wheel-to-wheel action so any good chance to race then I’m pretty open on the series and that’ll be a decision as of when I’m not racing here.
There’s no link between you and sports cars just yet?
No the focus is 100% to be racing here next year.
What do you think the chances are, percentage-wise, that you will be racing here next year?
I couldn’t possibly give you a percentage at the moment, I think things will unfold quite soon. But I feel at the moment that there’s a chance that I’m happy to push 100% for this and at the moment and not look for anything else.
And in the meantime how is commentating for the GP2 Series?
I enjoy it. It’s good, yeah. I don’t really miss racing in GP2, but watching it and talking about everyone else doing it is enjoyable as well.
Is it because you’ve mastered it now, you can critique everyone else?
Yeah exactly! I know what’s going on. The racing is always the best single-seater action in the world for pure racing entertainment so to be talking about it – I’m never short of anything to say – and I know pretty much know a lot of the people in it and what’s going on.
Yeah it flows well between you and Alex together. What are thoughts on DRS this year? You didn’t get to drive a car with DRS.
No, I’m glad I didn’t. I’m not a fan of that in GP2.
How about F1? Not a fan either?
No. I think it’s too artificial. I mean, there’s more overtaking with DRS of course, but I don’t think it ‘wows’ any fans to see a car just drive past another one in a straight line by pressing a button, it’s false. If the guy behind was a couple of tenths back and he lunged up on the inside and locked up, that’s an old school move and it’s so much better. It’s harder to achieve without crashing but it’s better for the fans, so maybe the overtakes happen a lot less, but when they do it’s actually a moment in the race.
Is it devaluing the product of the sport?
DRS isn’t a big deal, it’s just something that happens and there’s still some good moves, it’s not like all the moves are just easy because I can appreciate a good move in GP2 because there’s loads, and there’s good moves in F1 too. I personally would like to see no DRS but it’s not a big deal, the talent’s extremely high in GP2, the racing’s good. There’s not really a lot to complain about.
In the post-season F1 test in Abu Dhabi you were incredibly quick and ended the day a fraction slower than Nico Rosberg; did that help secure your role with Lotus?
Yeah it helped, it was quite a good performance I think in the test and I didn’t get a lot of laps and that was quite tough because I only got 30-something laps all day. But it showed was I could do in a Formula 1 car which was basically the aim of the test and it set me up nicely for this year and gave a lot of people confidence that I could do a solid job if I got the chance.
What’s your role on a race weekend when you’re not inside the car?
I’m still here as a driver in the meetings and having input and seeing what’s going on from the drivers point of view, but it’s mainly to be in the meetings and I’ve driven the car a lot this year to feel like I know what’s going on a lot of the time as well.
Do you feel like your racecraft diminishes while you have to sit on the sidelines?
I wouldn’t know until I’m back in a race again! But no I don’t think so, there’s a lot of times I watch the races now I think I’d love to be in the position and have a go and be out there racing wheel-to-wheel. I don’t think it’ll make a difference; I think racecraft is [something] you either have or you don’t. Maybe in the first race you might be a little rusty but I don’t think it’s something that you learn and forget, it’s either in you or it’s not.
Your brother [Will Palmer] just won the BRDC F4 championship, do you collaborate with him and give him pointers?
Yeah, when I’m not here or there’s not a clash I go to all of his races, and he’s had a really good year, he’s dominated this year and won the championship with a race left.
You also won your GP2 championship with one race left in Russia last year…
Yeah exactly, so it’s the same thing a year on! It’s nice because Will’s got one more round to race and there’s no pressure or anything. He’s had a really solid year, I help him out a bit with coaching and mentoring, but I used to do it a lot more than now. Now he’s doing so well he doesn’t need me to say too much really! But I’ve worked with him for a few years as a bit of a coach or a bit of guidance but he’s doing really well on his own and looking to move onto next year.
What do you think his next step would be?
He’ll have a GP3 Series test in Abu Dhabi as a prize for winning, but I’m not too sure at the moment, it’ll depend how he does in testing and we’ll see what happens from there, what offers come in. I think it’s going to be somewhere between GP3 and F3 really.
You have a few more FP1 sessions coming your way, are you targeting anything in particular in them since we’re approaching the end of the season?
Well for me, the target next year is a race seat so I’m pushing as hard as possible to achieve that, and if I’m doing a session before anything’s confirmed then I’ll give my best to show why I should be here. That’s basically the aim, to learn as much as possible as always because there’s tracks coming up that I’ve never been to, so that’ll be a new challenge, I’ll give it my all and see what happens.
Images via GP2 Series Media & Lotus F1 Team