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Road to Formula One – What Does It Take to Be a Racing Driver?

Written by Maria Fashchevskaya, Edited by Meghana Sree

Image Credits: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

It is no secret that Formula One features the 20 best drivers in the world. Success stories like those of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher, or – most recently – of the dominance from Max Verstappen have left ardent fans worldwide eager to enter the racing world and write their own success story in the sport too. However, the reality of becoming an F1 driver is not as simple as it may seem to those who watch the sport. So, the question is, what does it take and need to become a Formula One driver?


Karting as a Possible Starting Point

Many drivers started out in the motorsport world through karting. Current Formula One champion Verstappen drove his first kart at the age of eight, whereas F1 Rookie Oscar Piastri started at the age of ten in Australia. His teammate Lando Norris started his career in motorsports when he was eight in the UK. Almost all drivers on the grid in recent years have started out through karting at a young age, and it is a definitive way to get acquainted with the world of motorsports.

Max Verstappen in a go-kart. Image Credits: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Nowadays, karting grounds are built indoors and outdoors for people to enjoy and compete on. It is the perfect place to try out the sport, gain confidence, and consider a career in the industry. Most importantly a rookie in racing can learn the fundamentals through karting, be it the practical racing skills or theoretical knowledge and basics of the cars.


Money and the Art of ‘Talent’

Motorsports is not an industry to save money on. The sport is expensive, especially with the costs rising through the roofs when it comes to higher categories. For example, in karting a go-kart can cost up to $5000 while teams in Formula One are spending millions of dollars on their management, cars, and drivers.


Due to the rising costs in F1, the FIA even put out a cost-cap for teams, being around $135 million for the ongoing 2023 season.


Of course, it is a privilege to be part of the premier class of international racing. However, the money alone in F1 cannot buy someone's talent. Most drivers spend years fine-tuning their racing skills, having the motivation to move further and further. Thus, it takes a fair amount of patience and skills to compete in F1, apart from the funds that are required.


Speed and Patience

There is likely less success without commitment and dedication to a career path. F1 is one of the most competitive and difficult sports to join. Although it has been a topic of fierce discussion, the Netflix show ‘Formula 1: Drive to Survive’, displaying the behind-the-scenes racing action, effectively brings out the struggles of drivers and teams on the screen.


The series has attracted a new fanbase in F1, and it can help recent fans understand the inner workings of the F1 community, as well as the struggles and reality behind the shiny status of a racing driver.

Image Credits: Giuseppe Cacace/Getty Images

With talent and motivation, hard training goes hand-in-hand. When drivers are not on the track practicing their driving skills lap after lap, they are building up and strengthening their physique to keep themselves in the optimal physical state. Often, this means having to miss out on other opportunities or indulgences. There is a crucial need for the sacrifice of certain personal liberties to sustain the dream of racing in Formula One, as well as patience to truly get where one wants to be– on the circuit, pushing the limits of speed.


The Junior Single Seater Classes

As it has been a reality many times in the past, Formula One teams tend to recruit new drivers from one of the junior series, be it Formula 2 or Formula 3. There are also drivers in IndyCar or Super Formula that have opportunities to make it into the big league, such as Liam Lawson from the Super Formula series who is currently the reserve driver for Red Bull.


Driving for a team in a feeder series of Formula One gives the opportunity of moving into the driver’s academy of a Formula One team, like the Ferrari Driver Academy which currently includes F2 drivers Oliver Bearman, Arthur Leclerc, and other talented drivers from across various series. Naturally, it implies having a higher chance of getting into F1, as drivers are trained with the goal of graduating to the respective F1 teams. Teams tend to look into their own development programs for new rookies, as has been the case many times in the past.



The Licence For The ‘Premier Class’

Most importantly, a Grand Prix driver in Formula One is required to possess the FIA Super Licence. It gives its licensee the allowance to compete in the World Championship. The following criteria need to be fulfilled:

  • Must be over 18 years of age

  • Must be an international class competition license holder

  • Candidate must possess a valid driving license in their home-country

  • FIA theory test on Formula One sporting regulations must be passed

  • Must complete 80% of two seasons in qualifying single-seater championships

  • Need to have accumulated 40 Super Licence Points over three seasons in any qualifying championship

  • Must possess a license score.


However, in the past there have been cases and criticism about the last few points in the criteria. Talented drivers fell short of reaching some requirements of the FIA to hold its Super Licence for F1. Even though it might seem indisputable at first, curiously, a Formula One World Champion reached the premier class of racing despite not fulfilling all requirements. Kimi Räikkönen competed in Formula Renault in 1999 to 2000. He did not possess enough points to hold a Super Licence, however, he was granted consent by the FIA when Sauber announced him as their new driver.

Kimi Räikkönen (front right) and his first F1 boss, Peter Sauber (front centre). Image Credits: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Finnish journalist Heikki Kulta who reported on the career of the Finn for about 20 years wrote a book about the career of Räikkönen where he describes the process of the “Iceman” gaining his license to Formula One– fast but not without hard work. The FIA gave the license out to Räikkönen on probation and he proved them of his capability in Sauber afterwards.


There are many ways to get into Formula One. But all of them require patience, skills, dedication, and just enough money if one really wants to make it to the history books.


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