The concept of a Form-ula One team taking a young driver from go-karting or the lower levels of car racing and nurturing his career, paying his racing costs and grooming him to reach the pinnacle is hardly new. It has been going on for decades, and careers have come and gone — including some of the greatest of them, as seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher was once part of the Mercedes junior team.
But this season has been a particularly sensitive one for Formula One’s driver-development programmes, as some controversial moves have shed the spotlight on, and raised questions surrounding, the idea of nurturing — but also controlling — a young driver’s career and then suddenly letting it drop.
Last month, the Toro Rosso team announced that next season it would drop its driver Jean-Eric Vergne, 24, and replace him with Max Verstappen, 16. Vergne had been raised in the Red Bull young-driver programme beginning in the lower formulas. But now, suddenly, he is being let go in favour of a teenager who is in his first season of car racing this year.
Helmut Marko, director of the Red Bull young-driver programme, explained the move: “Vergne has had three years at Toro Rosso, four years before that in the junior team and every opportunity — everything a young driver needs. Now he must find a way independently after 2014. We are not a pension fund.”
Those were harsh words for a driver who had performed brilliantly in the lower categories, winning several series before going on to race and perform well in F1. He outscored his teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, in his first year and is currently ahead of his new teammate, Daniil Kvyat, a 20-year-old Russian who was also nurtured by Red Bull.
But the Red Bull programme has rarely given drivers more time than it gave Vergne. And it is clear that the programme can work: its most illustrious laureate is Sebastian Vettel, who has won the last four F1 drivers’ titles. Vergne’s teammate last year, Ricciardo, another laureate, was chosen over the Frenchman to graduate to the Red Bull team this year. Ricciardo has so far done better than his new teammate, Vettel, winning three Grands Prix this season and sitting in third place in the series.
“You have to think that you’ve been given the chance, and you just try to use it as good as you can,” Kvyat said. “You cannot really be thinking too much about if there is some limited time about it. I’ve been given a chance and I’m just doing my best all of the time, trying to make the best out of it.”
The development program-mes have many critics. Whereas Red Bull only draws from its young driver stable, other programmes often overlook their talent.
Jules Bianchi, for instance, was part of the Ferrari programme for young drivers, but he was passed over for a drive at Ferrari this year when the team rehired its 2007 world champion, Kimi Raikkonen. Bianchi, a Frenchman, is now racing for the weak Marussia team. But Ferrari did support the career of Felipe Massa for years before signing him to the team in 2006 and kept him until last season.
Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 world champion who started his career with the financial backing of private sponsors, said the very idea behind the programmes is flawed.
“It’s not because you take a young driver that he will be a champion,” he said. “He’s not a man yet. You don’t know how he will evolve. Maybe he is fast, but you don’t know how he will be in his mind as he grows. And you are not going to make him strong in the head. To be strong in the head, you have to be alone, and be left to take care of yourself, and drag yourself through the difficulties.”
One Formula One team that is conspicuously without a young-driver programme is Mercedes. It has, nevertheless, profited by hiring Lewis Hamilton away from the McLaren team, where he had been nurtured since he was a child.
But Mercedes were among the pioneers of such programmes in the late 1980s, developing a trio of notable contemporaries that became great F1 drivers: Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger. Toto Wolff, the leader of the Mercedes racing team, said the team is now considering a new programme.
“But we are not yet ready, and the simple reason is that there is a championship in our way,” he added. “In the next 2 1/2 months we should be concentrating on getting that done — and probably over the winter we’re going to structure a junior programme. And I’m very much in favour of doing it. But, if you’re going to do it, you need to do it properly.”
An example of a driver benefiting a team other than the one that nurtured him is Robert Kubica of Poland. He joined the Renault driver-development program as a teenager and raced in several Renault series, winning the World Series by Renault in 2005 and earning a test drive at the Renault Formula One team.
But he was then overlooked by Renault for F1, and BMW took him on. He went on to a brilliant, but short-lived career, winning the Canadian Grand Prix in 2008. Renault finally hired him in Formula One in 2010, but he had a serious accident during the 2011 winter off-season and his F1 career ended.
But the full package of what a modern F1 driver needs to succeed has become very complex, said Esteban Gutierrez, a driver at the Sauber team, and developing the whole set is what most of the young-driver programmes aim for.
“You cannot only have the talent,” he said. “You have to develop your skills not only on the driving side, but on the technical side, on the public relations side, on the sponsorship side, everywhere. It includes the whole package and you have to be sure that when you reach the top level you have all of these complements pretty well settled.”
— New York Times