The F1 Young Driver Issue
For aspiring racing drivers, getting to Formula 1 is an expensive ordeal.
But if you are able to show off your talents early in your career, you may be able to catch the eye of an established team keen to garner upcoming drivers.
These, of course, are the F1 academies, a place for Formula 1 teams to attract promising drivers, to help develop and nurture their talents. All with the hope of making back on their investments, when said drivers put their full potential into driving for the team and getting results.
Many of the drivers on the grid have come through such systems:
Most notable are Red Bull’s collection of drivers (including Daniel Ricciardo, Pierre Gasly, Carlos Sainz Jnr, and Max Verstappen), as well as McLaren’s output (with the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Kevin Magnussen, and Stoffel Vandoorne)
Its pretty lucrative. Not only is a team able to assess a driver more closely, as they develop their craft over the course of time. But it also allows teams to, essentially, claim a driver before their competitors have a chance to.
And that last part is starting to bite upcoming drivers hard.
With top [established] teams snapping up drivers, it also means the top teams are inclined to focus on their feed of young drivers when it comes to race seats.
But isn’t that a good thing? Top teams wanting to give their young drivers opportunities means its worthwhile for young drivers to sign up, right?
Well, yes and no.
I do get the point of the academies. It allows teams to invest in young talent, using their resources to help young drivers to develop in preparation for a possible chance in Formula 1.
And while I give some credit to teams for actually acknowledging their young drivers. It also seems very narrow-sighted of teams, who won't look across the rest of the grid. Since most teams are solely focus on their development feeds, drivers are suffering from being channelled down a single road.
It means kids are forced to choose their loyalties so early in their career, and thus limiting their options further down the line, especially with top teams.
Want to be a Ferrari driver? Be part of the Ferrari academy.
Want to be a Mercedes driver? Be part of the Mercedes academy.
Want to be a Red Bull driver? Be part of the Red Bull academy.
Want to be a McLaren driver? Be part of the McLaren academy.
Want to be a Renault driver? Be part of the Renault academy.
Without an affiliation to these groups, drivers look set to be stuck with mid-field teams (or lower). Maybe with enough years under their belt, they’ll be in good enough standing if a new factory team joins Formula 1 (although you’ll have to pray they have the money, resources, and knowhow to get to the top).
There are exceptions:
Be it a team with a gap in its feeder program, or a lack of experience. A team not in Formula 1 long enough to fully establish their driver program. Or if an especially valued driver (such as a champion) is available.
But when it comes to the opportunities that are available to drivers once they get to Formula 1, they may not be all they were hyped up to be:
The team is less than competitive once you make it? Sorry Vandoorne.
The team you’re put in doesn’t allow you to show your skill? Sorry Wehrlein.
The team drops F1 by the time you reach it? Sorry Kobayashi.
The team takes so long to change their team, that you lose out to the next set of young drivers? [insert past potential Red Bull driver here]
This does highlight an underlying issue with Formula 1.
Top teams (like Mercedes saying they'll only consider Mercedes-linked drivers) are so narrow focused on their own programs, that they don't consider other talent available in F1, no matter how talented the driver might be, because they need to legitimise having their driver academy (both to give their investments the chance to give back, and to bring value to the programme so other potential drivers will be attracted to it).
And now Mercedes are finding out, the hard way, that this stance works both ways.
Ocon has seemingly lost his current seat, and other teams are too focused on their own businesses to consider taking him on (well, that and the number of asterisks on Ocon’s availability, given Bottas’ one-year contract). As a free-agent, Ocon would likely have no problems finding a team interested in his availability. But as Mercedes’ apparent “heir” to a race seat, teams are more hesitant in the worth of picking up a driver who wouldn’t necessarily be theirs.
And It would be a shame if Esteban Ocon was to miss out on a possible drive next year. But he won’t be the first, or the last, to suffer from the cut-throat nature of Formula 1.
Surely there must be a way to give more opportunities to upcoming drivers once they are ready for Formula 1. They are the future of Formula 1 after all.
Toto Wolff has already thrown in his suggestion of three-car teams, to bolster numbers and available seats. A solution that’s less than perfect.
Ideally, Formula 1 should be trying to attract more teams into the series.
But with no clear plan ahead, in terms of new rules or changes to costs and prize structures; I don’t see any new teams expressing strong indications of joining in the near-future.
So, this problem is looking to stay for some time…