Daily Discussion: do driver academies work?

Juri Vips Hitech F3
© Red Bull Content Pool

The F1 silly season merry-go-round took off in earnest last week, as Ferrari decided to replace Sebastian Vettel with Carlos Sainz. McLaren also chose to replace Sainz with a proven driver, while Renault is apparently toying with the idea of resigning the near-geriatric Fernando Alonso. As a result, several people around the interwebs asked themselves: with all these experienced drivers shuffling seats, is the F1 driver academy model really working?

By Jeroen Demmendaal (editor-at-large)

At F1 Feeder Series, that question piqued our interest. The idea of a driver academy sounds deceptively easy: pick a few young talents, actively nurture them and after a few years you have at least one champion-in-waiting. But the number of drivers that turn out that way is very, very small. So either driver academies are not very good at what they do, or it simply isn’t that easy.

Some even wonder whether there is not a destructive element to driver academies, an accusation lobbed most often at a certain Austrian energy drink manufacturer. Because while some drivers thrive under pressure and amidst cut-throat competition, others require a more gradual path to bloom. Take Alex Albon: he simply needed a few detours to qualify for a Red Bull seat.

Now, we need to remember that this is motor racing, which is highly competitive. Not everyone gets a medal. The various driver academies run by F1 teams are looking for the next world champion and race winners, not for also-rans. And by pure logic, the majority of F1 drivers will NOT end up like Max Verstappen or Charles Leclerc. Indeed, they are more likely to turn out like Antonio Giovinazzi or Jaime Alguersuari.

And as the pondering continues, another question pops up: is there even one right model? The current F1 field displays a number of different approaches (we’re sure you can identify which approach fits which F1 team):

  • The ‘scattershot’ approach: Just hire and fire loads of young talents and see what sticks. If you’re lucky you hire Max Verstappen, if you’re unlucky you offload them and they end up driving in Formula E.
  • The ‘whiff of nepotism’ approach: Hire young talents primarily based on their last name and their genes, because of the obvious commercial benefits. If you’re lucky it works, if not you end up with Giuliano Alesi.
  • The ‘please just wait a little bit longer’ approach: Hire young talents, but never actually give them the chance to get to the mothership because you don’t really need to replace your six-time world champion.
  • The ‘we’re not even sure we’re still around in 2021 so don’t keep your hopes up’ approach: Hire young talents, but never actually give them the chance to get the mothership. Actually, don’t even help them into F1 in the first place.
  • The ‘quality over quantity’ approach: Pick only a handful of guys over a 15-year span, but give them your full and undivided attention and ensure that a chunky share of them actually play out pretty well. One might even become a six-time world champion.

Finally, there is one other thing to consider: all driver academies largely confine themselves to 50 per cent of the world population. There is currently not a single woman driver in any of the leading academies; if we’re being generous, we could include Jamie Chadwick’s role at Williams. And yes, a very young Marta Garcia was once ungraciously dumped by Renault after a single season.

Regardless of where you stand in the Great W Series Debate, one of the reasons the W Series ever came to life was the lack of credible avenues to the top for female drivers. Hiring decisions at academies are still too often taken by elderly executives who are used to thinking of women in the paddock as eye candy. Regardless of which model you prefer: that is an obvious flaw.

So those are some of the considerations floating around our desks here at F1 Feeder Series HQ – now we want to hear your thoughts! Share them in the comments below, or on our Twitter account!

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