Written by Georgia Jenkins, Edited by Sasha Macmillen
Supposedly fantastic platforms to showcase the talents of up and coming motorsport stars, young driver programmes were created with the intended purpose of nurturing the most promising junior drivers and guiding them through their careers. This comes with the hope of eventually granting them the opportunity to earn a place in Formula 1. Whilst there are plenty of benefits to these academies, the truthful reality is that success is not guaranteed for all and disappointment is inevitable for many. In such a competitive (and sometimes brutal) industry, only the best of the best progress to Formula 1!
The majority of front-running F1 teams have strong rooted driver academies, providing those currently competing in karting or feeder series with the often essential financial backing that can aid them as they work their way towards the top. The likes of Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull and Alpine grant their academy pupils access to the teams’ state of the art simulators and factories. These programmes have resulted in the success of many World Champions such as Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel and have supported many, perhaps, champions in waiting…
Mercedes, simultaneous to the launch of the W13, released their 2022 Young Driver Academy lineup, exhibiting some ‘familiar faces’ alongside ‘several new members’. Gwen Lagrue, Mercedes’ Driver Development Advisor, describes this new generation of drivers as ‘special’, in particular due to the fact that they have ‘recruited [their] first female driver to the programme’ - Luna Fluxa. Frederik Vesti is arguably the most renowned of the group, having begun his rookie F2 season with ART Grand Prix this year.
Besides Mercedes-backed drivers, Logan Sargeant, Ollie Bearman and Jack Doohan are prime examples of driver academy beneficiaries that you should also look out for as their careers progress!
Oscar Piastri, an alumnus of the Alpine Academy, is reaping the rewards of winning the 2021 F2 Championship with Prema Racing, having been promoted to the role of Formula 1 reserve driver. His proven track record of championship wins granted him this position after becoming a part of their young driver academy in 2020, as well as recently attracting the attention of McLaren’s F1 team - he joined their pool of reserve drivers last month. However, the Australian is still left without a seat at the pinnacle of motorsport, denying him his dream following an impressive few seasons advancing through the feeder series'. Alpine have undoubtedly given Piastri valuable experience in a Formula One team, yet they have only been able to take him so far. As their current F1 drivers - Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon - are set to remain on the grid for a while longer, Oscar has been left to observe on the sidelines (a.k.a. the Alpine garage) for the 2022 season at least, which prompts the question: are these programmes really that effective?
There is an overwhelming amount of interest from junior drivers aspiring to enter the world of Formula One, but one simple problem denies the majority this chance: there are too many young drivers and not enough seats vacant for them. With many of the 20 drivers tied to their teams for the foreseeable future, the odds are slim that many of the rising stars will even get a chance to show what they can do. Unfortunately, in most cases nowadays, luck and money are the deciding factors when opportunities become available!
Being part of a Driver Academy can be restricting as many feel inclined to stay loyal to their teams and not explore other options, which results in them being let down due to more youthful talent taking priority. Take Jean-Eric Vergne, for example, who was deemed ‘too old’ to join the Red Bull F1 team aged 25 following three seasons with their sister team, Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri). He was left without a seat for 2015, and was pushed out of the sport due to the introduction of fresher talent in Max Verstappen and Daniil Kvyat. His biggest regret, as detailed in the podcast F1: Beyond the Grid, was not branching out and making contact with other teams earlier on in his career. Although he exited F1 with no plans for the future, that did not mean that all hope was lost - Vergne began racing for DS Techeetah in the FIA Formula E World Championship’s inaugural season, and was crowned champion in 2018.
Therefore, while numerous talents are cast aside from F1, various other series welcome these worthy competitors with open arms and give them the chance to be victorious again. A lack of F1 success does not mean a failed career.
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