Formula 1 teams not only contract the best open-wheel drivers in the world, but also created development programmes to help identify, develop and nurture young talents with the hope of promoting them to a full-time drive.
Arguably the most successful of these programs has been the Red Bull junior team, run by Helmut Marko, delivering drivers such as Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Pierre Gasly and Max Verstappen.
Most F1 teams have driver development programs supporting young talent through the established feeder series including but not limited to F2, F3, Super Formula and importantly, karting.
In 2021 the Ferrari development program has two drivers in F2 and two in F3, Alpine has three in F2 and two in F3, Red Bull has three in F2 and three in F3, Williams has three in F2, Mercedes has one in F3 and Sauber has one in both F2 and F3 respectively. It is interesting to note that Sauber’s driver development program also supports seven young drivers in their karting endeavours.
Driver development programs often identify and induct young talent at very young ages, and it is not unusual for them to be picked up in their early teens, or earlier, while still in karting.
A young driver that progresses from karting through the accepted mainstream pathways to F1, including F3 and F2 can cumulatively have millions of dollars invested in them, even if they do not reach the goal of that coveted F1 drive.
With a seat in the senior F1 team always the target, opportunities are extremely limited given the current F1 grid has a limited capacity of 20 entries only. However, not only are the number of front-line race positions restricted, modern F1 is regulated in such a way in comparison to days gone by that even the traditional apprenticeship served as a test driver is no longer possible.
F1 is a unique and elite sport in the sense that the world drivers’ and constructors’ championships are the absolute apex and there is no second tier. For a young up and coming driver with aspirations to make it to F1, the pathway can ultimately be a road to nowhere.
The brutal reality of such an elite and expensive sport is the truth that talent alone is not the sole determinate in achieving the goal of racing in F1. Finance, branding and circumstance are just as important in obtaining that contract providing the privilege to drive one of the world’s fastest machines in anger every two weeks.
In contemporary F1 there is always a glut of valid talent on the fringes of the F1 industry and it is sad that many are lost to the sport simply because, as mentioned above, the stars did not align.
Does it need to be the case that opportunities at the elite level of open wheel racing are so limited?
While F1 is the premier category and the apex of motor racing, does it need to be a dead end for those who do not make it or those who did make it but not quite succeed?
Other elite level open wheel series exist, but they serve specific purposes that are irrelevant to a driver who still aspires to making it to F1, or one who is trying to make it back. For example, F2 is a feeder series and IndyCar and Super Formula are by definition purely domestic championships.
One solution could be changing the F1 sporting regulations so that an entry is three cars, with the exception that the third car is for rookies only. Understandably, there are issues with this because of the operational cost capping that has been written into the regulations by the FIA, and the championship points structure would need to be re-evaluated. One of the positives of this would be that it would make it necessary for all teams to equally buy in to the idea of nurturing young talent and providing opportunity.
Another idea worth considering is the creation of a second tier world level elite open-wheel competition. The caveat is that it is not F1. A spec series only for elite level drivers who have achieved a minimum super license point score in a spec monocoque with a spec drive train on spec tyres with comparatively higher F1 level down force and power levels with operating costs that are significantly lower than F1.
The strategic intent of the series would be to provide an elite level open wheel competition to those who aspire to compete in F1, or to return to F1, and have already trodden the accepted pathways. The series could support Grands Prix to maximise exposure to the teams.
By pure definition F1 is exclusive. The amount of money required and the opportunities available to drivers in making it to F1 are always going to be limited.
However, does F1 need to be a dead end for those on the fringe. Quite possibly F1 does not need to give one chance, and no more. There are many more options worthy of discussion.