F1’s young driver conundrum

We find ourselves in a privileged position where there is so much talent around F1. We have rising stars like Charles Leclerc, George Russell and Esteban Ocon to name a few, but many of these struggle to find themselves a drive. What makes this even more astonishing is most of the rising stars have major backing from either a manufacturer or F1 team, but perhaps this is part of the problem. In this article we take a look at drivers who have benefited from the young driver programme, those who haven’t, and those who are currently in limbo.

Red Bull

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Red Bull has proven that young driver programmes can be rewarding when done right. Copyright: Red Bull

Perhaps the pioneers of the young driver programmes we see today. When Red Bull entered into Formula One it had a problem, too many drivers for too few seats. Red Bull would go on to purchase Minardi so it could field it’s rookie drivers, which at the time would be Scott Speed and Vintantonio Liuzzi. Over 10 years later the Red Bull driver programme has brought in such names as Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, but many others haven’t had success when part of the junior programme; just ask Daniil Kvyat and Sebastien Buemi, with the latter still part of the Red Bull family. Having a team with the purpose of fielding it’s young drivers means that it has the capacity to promote young drivers into F1 without any major risk. This has seen many get their chance who otherwise wouldn’t, although as we’ve seen with Verstappen, Kvyat and now Gasly they aren’t afraid to promote drivers to their senior team.

Red Bull now find themselves in an unusual position, they have no drivers ready to make the jump into Formula One. Dan Ticktum is the most senior driver in their roster, but he won’t have enough super licence points to get a seat even if he wins the Formula 3 championship. It’s public knowledge that Red Bull tried to poach Lando Norris from McLaren until the Woking based team decided to give Norris a shot themselves. Red Bull don’t have many options but they don’t want to take another programme’s driver on loan which shuts the door for Esteban Ocon, George Russell and Antonio Giovinazzi who are a part of the Mercedes and Ferrari driver programs respectively. Perhaps Helmut Marko has been too quick to drop drivers from the Red Bull programme as we have seen be the case with Alex Albon who is performing well in his second season in F2. They may resort to re-signing some of their ex-juniors. Daniil Kvyat is rumoured to return to Toro Rosso in a marriage of convenience, he has been dropped twice already but has plenty of potential still and knows the team well. Only time will tell if Red Bull are willing to take the Russian back for a 3rd time.

Mercedes

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George Russell is currently leading the F2 championship. Copyright: Formula 2

Mercedes appear to be struggling with it’s young drivers. They have Pascal Wehrlein, Esteban Ocon and George Russell on their books, but may struggle to field 1 of them on the grid next year. Wehrlein looks set to make the switch to Formula E with Mercedes partnered HWA from next season but Ocon and Russell are in no mans land. There is a big concern that neither will land a drive for next season, if George wins the F2 title he won’t be able to participate again so his options outside of a full-time F1 drive appear to be either a reserve driver role or Super Formula, but slowing down his career momentum won’t help his chances in the future. Ocon is in his 2nd full-time F1 season and has proven to be a future star but risks losing out in silly season, astonishing considering how well he has performed. The issue is Mercedes are reluctant to take a risk on Ocon and place him in their factory team, partly because Bottas is doing a good job there. Ocon’s options for 2019 are limited, both Renault and McLaren have stated that they did not sign the Frenchman due to his Mercedes ties and with seats filling, Ocon and Mercedes need to assess if their partnership is what’s best for Ocon’s career.

Ferrari

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Charles Leclerc has earned a promotion to Ferrari after just 1 year in F1. Copyright: Sauber

Ferrari have not promoted many drivers to their top team in F1 compared to Red Bull, but they have brought many talented drivers into the sport. Jules Bianchi, Felipe Massa, Charles Leclerc and Sergio Perez are the obvious examples. Ferrari are able to do this because they have built strong relationships with it’s customer teams, most notably Sauber who have fielded 3 of the named drivers. The Ferrari of old however were afraid of taking the risk of promoting drivers to the factory Ferrari team, when Sergio Perez was scoring podiums in 2012 Ferrari did not consider him for a drive as he was still deemed too inexperienced. Instead it was McLaren who took the risk on him. We have seen a change in philosophy this year however with Ferrari confirming that Charles Leclerc will partner Sebastian Vettel with just 1 season under his belt.

The problem Ferrari have is that Sauber is currently the only team that they can place it’s young drivers with Haas reluctant to field a rookie, but with Raikkonen signing with the Swiss outfit and Ericsson looking set to stay put, there is no space for either Antonio Giovinazzi or Daniil Kvyat (if he can’t secure the Toro Rosso drive).

McLaren

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Copyright: McLaren

From 2019 McLaren would have promoted 3 of their young drivers in just 5 seasons, they certainly aren’t afraid to take a gamble on youth, it has paid off in the past. You just need to take a look at Lewis Hamilton to see how it can pay off, but the team hasn’t proven to be the right environment recently for young drivers. McLaren took the gamble on Ferrari junior Sergio Perez for 2013 but swiftly dropped him in favour of their junior Kevin Magnussen in 2014, but a season of inconsistency ย meant that he would be dropped in favour of Fernando Alonso. Magnussen would remain with the team in a reserve driver role but dropped from McLaren completely later in 2015. McLaren would then give Stoffel Vandoorne his chance replacing Button in 2017 but has now been confirmed to be replaced by another junior Lando Norris.

McLaren needs to give it’s juniors time to develop, both Perez and Magnussen have turned a corner in their new teams, proving that if you give your drivers time to develop and the right environment they will deliver.

Conclusion

When done right young driver programmes work. Look at Red Bull whose drivers have won many Grand Prix and championships, but teams need to be patient with them and not axe them too early. On the other side they need to be braver when deciding to promote them or allow them to operate as a free agent, many have proven themselves but not given the opportunity to drive for the senior team.

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