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F1 Driver Development Programmes: McLaren Young Driver Programme

Written by: Daniel Yi Edited by: Harshi Vashee

Today we talk about McLaren, one of the most storied teams with a long and rich history. Many great F1 drivers in history have driven for this iconic team. But today, instead of looking at the team, let us look at its driver development programme, its history and the talents it has produced in the past years.

For the past 30 years, until 2019, McLaren has funded and run the McLaren Autosport British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) Young Driver Award. This scheme has helped develop the careers of young drivers since 1989.

From the young driver award, an idea was formed to support up and coming racing talents and thus, the McLaren Young Driver Program was born. In 1998, the McLaren Young Driver Programme started supporting and developing promising young drivers. The programme has gone on to churn out a total of 17 drivers, of which 10 have made it into F1 (including test/reserve) and 4 of these drivers have raced for McLaren.

Previous drivers

Although McLaren has much fewer protégés compared to Red Bull (85), the McLaren young drivers are no pushovers, with comparable talent coming from the programme. Here are some of the notable drivers who have been a part of this historic team’s driver programme.

Lewis Hamilton (1998-2006)

F1: McLaren (2007-12), Mercedes (2013-present)

It would be a crime if we didn’t begin this list with one of the greatest drivers ever and probably the first person that pops into mind when McLaren young driver is mentioned. Sir Lewis Hamilton undoubtedly has been a prodigy ever since he’s stepped into a kart. His great performances eventually attracted the attention of Ron Dennis after he approached Dennis for an autograph at the Autosport Awards. A few years later, Dennis called Hamilton for the opportunity to join the driver development programme and the rest is history. In his McLaren days, he showed immediate results as a rookie and even won a title as a second-year driver. Now with Mercedes, he has broken multiple longstanding records and equalled Michael Schumacher’s record of seven F1 titles and is battling his way to record an eighth title. The McLaren Young Driver Programme can be considered a success even if Hamilton were to be it’s only graduate. It uncovered and developed one of the greatest F1 drivers in history.

Giedo van der Garde (2006-10)

F1: Spyker/Force India test/reserve (2007-08), Caterham test/reserve (2012), Caterham (2013), Sauber test/reserve (2014)

Currently driving for Racing Team Nederland in WEC LMP2 class

Giedo van der Garde was signed to the McLaren Young Driver Programme in 2006 and became a test driver for Spyker/Force India during 2007-08. Despite winning the Formula Renault 3.5 Series in 2008, McLaren were contenders and ran experienced drivers like Hamilton, Kovalainen and Button. There was no space in the team for van der Garde and he was eventually let go in 2010. He still went on to be a test/reserve driver for Caterham in 2012 and raced for them in 2013. He then joined Sauber as a test/reserve driver in 2014 and was apparently supposed to race for them in 2015 before Sauber messed up by somehow signing 6 drivers for 2 race seats. van der Garde reached a settlement with Sauber and never raced in F1 again. These days, he races in WEC in LMP2 cars.

Alexander Albon (2010)

F1: Toro Rosso (2019), Red Bull (2019-2020), Red Bull test/reserve (2021-present)

Currently racing in DTM

Surprisingly, before Red Bull, Alex Albon was actually part of Mclaren’s Young Driver Programme. McLaren signed Albon in 2010 while in his karting days. For reasons unbeknownst, McLaren did not continue with Albon and Red Bull picked him up for the junior team in 2012. Albon has gone on to be an F1 driver with Toro Rosso and Red Bull, achieving 2 podiums along the way. However, his performance in 2020 was insufficient to earn him a race seat with Red Bull in 2021. He now races in DTM and serves as the test and reserve driver for Red Bull. Albon is looking to get back into F1 next season and rumours have linked him to IndyCar as well.

Oliver Turvey (2010-11)

F1: McLaren test/reserve (2009-present)

Currently racing in Formula E with NIO 333

Oliver Turvey is a rather strange example. Based on records, he is the longest tenured test driver with McLaren but has never seen a part in a race weekend. Turvey won 2 national karting titles and came in 2nd in British F3 in 2008. Turvey then became the test driver for McLaren and was then signed to the Young Driver Programme in 2010. He has remained a test driver for McLaren to this day. Despite this, he has raced in other series and even won 24H of Le Mans for the LMP2 category in 2014. Since 2014, he has been racing in Formula E. Turvey also has a Master’s degree in engineering and is a huge boost when it comes to car development and testing.

Kevin Magnussen (2010-13)

F1: McLaren (2014), McLaren test/reserve (2015), Renault (2016), Haas (2017-20)

Currently racing in IMSA SportsCar with Chip Ganassi Racing

Similar to Lewis Hamilton, Kevin Magnussen actually gave a call to Ron Dennis after winning the Danish Formula Ford Championship as his racing funds were running low. McLaren decided to sign him to the programme and it paid off with good results in feeder series, earning him a drive with McLaren in F1. Magnussen definitely caused a stir when he made the podium on his F1 debut and it looked like McLaren had developed a potential winning driver. However, in a surprising turn of events, McLaren relegated him to a test/reserve role the next season to make way for Fernando Alonso. The subsequent few seasons, he was stuck in uncompetitive machinery with mediocre results. Despite leaving F1 in 2020, he still demonstrates his quality in the IMSA SportsCar Championship where he races currently with a win and 2 podiums as of now.

Nyck de Vries (2010-19)

F1: Mercedes test/reserve (2021-present)

Currently racing in Formula E with Mercedes-EQ

The longest tenured driver in the programme, Nyck de Vries has been a McLaren Young Driver since his karting days and has had a very successful junior career. He won the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup and Alps championships in 2014 and despite winning F2 in 2019, did not manage to get a race seat for F1 in 2020. Nonetheless, de Vries has made a solid and convincing statement for himself to get an F1 seat. He has been racing in Formula E with Mercedes EQ and served as their test driver for their F1 team. This past weekend, he clinched yet another title by winning the 2021 Formula E Championship. Definitely someone deserving of an F1 seat. He has been linked to a race seat at Williams for next season as George Russell is rumored to move to Mercedes.

Stoffel Vandoorne (2013-16)

F1: McLaren test/reserve (2014), McLaren (2016-2018), Mercedes reserve (2019-present)

Currently racing in Formula E with Mercedes-EQ

During his junior career, former F1 driver, Alex Wurz introduced Stoffel Vandoorne to Matt Bishop who was the Head of Public Relations and Communications for McLaren then. Vandoorne sent Bishop his impressive results in the 2011 Formula Renault Eurocup which led to McLaren taking an interest in him. Vandoorne went on to win the next season and was then signed to the programme in 2013. He continued his excellent run of results in the feeder series, dominating and winning GP2 before graduating to F1 in 2017. Unfortunately for him, McLaren were using GP2 Honda engines and were terribly uncompetitive. Furthermore, he was paired up with a beast of a driver in Fernando Alonso. In Vandoorne’s two seasons with McLaren, Alonso completely trounced him in qualifying and races, dealing a huge blow to his confidence and performance. After F1, he became the Mercedes reserve driver and their Formula E driver. Don’t let his results against Alonso mislead you. Vandoorne is still a quick driver and seems to be rediscovering his GP2 form after finishing second in Formula E last year.

Lando Norris (2017-18)

F1: McLaren test/reserve (2018), McLaren (2019-present)

McLaren’s latest driver to have come through the ranks of the programme. Norris basically stormed through the feeder series, finishing third in the championship for his racecar debut and winning 4 titles from 2014-16 which attracted McLaren’s attention. Norris was signed to the programme and eventually made his way to Formula 1 in 2019 after performing well in F3 and F2. Unlike Hamilton and Magnussen, Norris comes from a wealthy background and this led some to believe that he bought his way into the programme. But unlike other pay drivers, Norris is a talent who made it into the programme and F1 based on his merit. His on-track achievements reflect that. Currently, Norris is in his third year with McLaren and has amassed 4 podiums so far. This season, prior to his retirement in the Hungarian Grand Prix, he set a record for the most consecutive points finishes in a McLaren with a 15-race scoring streak dating back to Imola last season.

Sérgio Sette Câmara (2019)

F1: Toro Rosso test/reserve (2016), McLaren test/reserve (2019), Red Bull/AlphaTauri test/reserve (2020)

Currently racing in Formula E with Dragon/Penske Autosport

Sérgio Sette Câmara was actually a Red Bull Junior in 2016 before coming to the McLaren Young Driver Programme. Sette Câmara showed promise in the 2015 F3 season before being signed by Red Bull. After Red Bull dropped him after 1 year, he went on to F2 where he showed some decent results. McLaren signed him to the programme and made him a test driver in 2019. In 2020, he was dropped and returned to the Red Bull Junior Team, serving as a test driver for Red Bull/AlphaTauri.

Some honourable mentions include current Formula E drivers Oliver Rowland, Tom Blomqvist, Super Formula driver Nobuharu Matsushita, and McLaren factory driver Ben Barnicoat (story for another day).

Current drivers

From late 2019 to 2021, the programme did not sign any drivers. McLaren CEO, Zak Brown, explained McLaren’s targeted approach (as opposed to Red Bull’s cast a wide net approach) and that due the stable lineup of Norris and Ricciardo would mean limited to no opportunities for any junior drivers to get into F1. However, recently, McLaren signed a young American driver by the name of Ugo Ugochukwu.

Ugochukwu is 13 years old and currently competes in karting series across Europe and America. Not much is known about the deal but hopefully he can do well and who knows, become the next generation’s Lewis Hamilton.

The McLaren Young Driver Programme has helped scout and uncover many talents. With racing being such an expensive sport, not many can afford it. Lewis Hamilton’s father had to work 4 jobs to support him and Kevin Magnussen almost couldn’t continue his feeder series. Without the programme, we may have been unable to see some of these drivers make it to the big stage. The programme has provided them support in their junior racing careers, allowing them to showcase their talent and make their mark in racing.

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