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Formula 1 teams dedicate time and money to planning for the future, including recruiting potential future stars. With only 20 seats available at any one time, is it fair to tempt so many young racers with a potential drive?
What are junior driver programmes?
As teams hunt for the next world champion, they develop programmes to nurture young racers. If everything falls into place, they may one day reap the reward. Once a team recruits a driver, they receive financial backing, training and simulator time. In addition, they get an insight into what life is like in the Formula 1 paddock, shadowing the sport’s legends.
For over two decades now, driver academies have been around, with Red Bull first setting theirs up in 2001. The Milton Keynes outfit arguably has the most successful programme. Their past roster includes Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz Jr.
The idea is that having an association with an F1 team will eventually make it easier for drivers to find a seat in the series. In reality, it is rarely this simple.
The number of individuals involved in these programmes continues to increase. This season, Red Bull has 12 junior drivers in championships from F2 all the way down to karting.
Those in the lower series are not the main problem, however. Red Bull’s Arvid Lindblad, a 14-year-old karter, has a while before he’ll be looking for an F1 seat.
Unfortunately, you cannot say the same for those currently racing in Formula 2. As the closest feeder series to F1, drivers have three options once they reach the end of the championship. They can race there for another season (as long as they don’t win), move to another series such as DTM or IndyCar, or find an F1 seat.
Is progress really promised?
Following the news of Sergio Perez’s contract extension, speculation has begun about what Red Bull will do with all of their drivers. With the team’s lineup decided until 2024, promotion is impossible for their five F2 juniors. The other option is a move to Alpha Tauri, which means Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda are on thin ice.
The team’s F2 list features Juri Vips, Liam Lawson, Jehan Daruvala, Dennis Hauger and Ayumu Iwasa. However, unless something goes catastrophically wrong for championship leader Felipe Drugovich, who has a comfortable 113 points, it’s unlikely that any of these juniors will win the title.
Vips said of the programme: “If you don’t do well, then you might get kicked out. But if you do well, then you get to F1. They want only the best talent and I think that’s the right approach. They keep the best and they give them the chance.”
Nonetheless, there are simply not enough seats or opportunities for all drivers to reach the upper tier of motorsport.
It would be unfair to say that this problem is only prevalent at Red Bull. Mercedes, Ferrari, Alpine, Williams and Sauber (linked to Alfa Romeo) all have their own academies.
This season, junior driver programmes recruited half of the 22 drivers on the current Formula 2 grid. Apart from them, three are ex-junior drivers and one (Jake Hughes) is a paid reserve and simulator driver for Mercedes.
F2 and F3 CEO Bruno Michel recently said: “You have some academies with too many drivers sometimes. And they are in a situation where they don’t know how to arbitrate between one driver or another one because they have two, three drivers that are very strong in F2, or in F3, and then who do you continue to support?”
Another complication with academy drivers is this: what does it suggest when competitors outside of development programmes outperform those within them?
Finding success the hard way
There has been a multitude of cases of drivers thriving under the mentorship of a Formula 1 team. Lewis Hamilton was first linked to McLaren while he was still karting, and teammate George Russell joined Mercedes in 2017.
However, this does not mean that junior programmes are the only pool of talent. This season’s F2 championship leader, Brazilian driver Felipe Drugovich, seemed to appear from nowhere. His dominant drives are an honour to witness. They mean that he’s already started to pull away from rival and Sauber academy member Theo Pourchaire.
Both Drugovich and his MP Motorsport teammate Clement Novalak are not linked to any Formula 1 team. In fact, Novalak spoke out about his decision to stay away from junior programmes.
“To be honest, it was a bit of a choice because F1 is ever-evolving,” he explained. “Drivers in F1 can change teams. That can sometimes put you in a bit of a risk if you sign too early and set yourself on a path.
“I don’t want to say anything bad about Oscar [Piastri, F2 2020 champion and Alpine reserve driver], but in that position where you essentially have done the job and have the ability to, and the results, to be able to join an F1 team. And to have to sit on the sidelines because unfortunately the two drivers that are there are already signed for quite a few years.
“So, it was a bit more of a calculated thing in terms of the strategy of when I would want to sign for a team when I have a clear picture of where the opportunities are.”
Have junior programmes done their job?
It’s unclear whether racers like Drugovich and Novalak will ever get an opportunity to be in F1. The advantage of bringing in a junior driver is that they already understand the team dynamic, among other factors. But is that enough to warrant the exclusion of other young talents?
The junior programme system certainly worked in the 2000s for teams like Red Bull. Now, their disadvantages seem to outweigh their benefits. There is the pressure members are put under, managers cutting contracts, and drivers sitting on the sidelines waiting for an opening.
If an F2 driver like Novalak can recognise the downsides and elect to compete independently, maybe it’s time that teams reevaluate their use of these schemes.
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