FFSA Academy and the French F4 success story: “Results speak for themselves”

The French federal system to form young drivers has proven to be one of the bests in the whole world. In the last decade, the FFSA Academy and the French F4 championship have revealed several world-class drivers (Gasly, Vandoorne and Hubert, to name a few) and future champions (Pourchaire, Iwasa, A. Leclerc, Collet, Martins and Hadjar). How has the FFSA Academy managed to become one of the most eminent motorsport institutions? F1 Feeder Series went behind the scenes of the FFSA Academy headquarters in Le Mans.

By Perceval Wolff

“These headquarters were inaugurated in 1995, two years after the start of the championship in 1993. We were in the city center of Le Mans before that, and now we’re closer to the 24 Hours track”. It’s Amaury Richard, the Sporting Director of the French F4 championship, who welcomes us in front of Anthoine Hubert’s winning car. “We’re entering in our thirteeth season this year, without any discontinuation. We started in ‘93 with the Formula Renault Campus Elf. Then, the FFSA (Fédération Française du Sport Automobile) took over. We have always followed the same type of championship, the same mentality”.

Anthoine Hubert’s championship winning French F4 car | Credit: Perceval Wolff

A single-team championship to detect the best talents

“When drivers come, we [the FFSA Academy] are the only contact. We give the drivers everything they need to participate to the championship, we give them all the tools to be able to perform and to win. There are no teams, we are the sole organizers, there is no external intervention whatsoever, it is only the FFSA and the drivers”.

“It gives us a lot of advantages compared to some other championships. We are able to control the costs and to be one of the cheapest categories. The FFSA Academy is a non-profit corporation, our goal is not to make money”.

“The main advantage of not having any teams is that we have a material equity between the drivers. When a driver comes in French F4, he knows that if he has the level for it, he will be champion. It’s really different from some other championships where there are on one hand, some top teams who are always at the front, and on the other hand, some smaller structures that are more than one second behind, whatever the level of the driver. There can be a full second between them and it’s impossible for the driver to catch up. This cannot happen in French F4”.

New cars, equal engines, setups, student mechanics

After this short presentation of the category, we join the big hangar where the 24 brand new Mygale M21-F4 are parked, with several mechanics working around. “The Gen2 will be much more competitive than the Gen1. The turbo is more powerful and the car is about 40 or 50kg lighter. The Gen2 is much faster in the straights. We will also get much closer to the times of the Tatuus car, which used to be more performant with the former generation. The M14 was really heavy and despite all the new safety devices, the halo, etc. Mygale has managed to create a lighter car. We will lose weight, while the Tatuus will gain some so the performances should be quite balanced now.”

In the garage, we see the differences between the white Gen1 car and the two blue Gen2 cars | Credit: Perceval Wolff

“As you know, F4 is a “monotype” championship. None of the chassis is numbered, and they are allocated at random to the drivers. The chassis cannot change during the year, the only part that can be modified is the powertrain. If a driver gets three wins with the same engine, he will have to exchange his powertrain with another driver, in case there is a difference of performance. Usually we don’t see any difference, and the guy in front stays in front whatever his engine anyway. But that’s the rule just in case, in order to remove any suspicion” explains Amaury Richard.

We leave this big hangar to get closer to where the mechanics work. “Each year, we form 40 student mechanics, as each car has two mechanics. It’s a win-win situation, they have a very complete formation, they get to try out every domain as there are several different workshops. 99,9% of our students find a job in motorsport just after the season. To have been through the FFSA Academy is a big certification for a mechanic, because the team that hires them knows they have worked on everything and they can manage well everywhere”.

If a driver get’s three wins with the same engine, he’ll have to exchange his powertrain with another driver.

Amaury Richard

“From a driver point of view, there are very few changes that are possible on the car. Front wing, rear wing, anti-roll bar… that’s all. All the remaining components (like tyre pressures) is some baseline setup from Mygale. After each session, all the data are shared between all the drivers. It helps them to compare themselves to the fastest lap”.

Twenty-four Mygale M21-F4 cars ready to go | Credit: Perceval Wolff

“We have five engineers with us. The engineer will take care of maximum five drivers, to analyse the data with each driver. All the data is collective but the onboard videos are personal. The advantage of having free data for every driver is that everybody knows how to progress”.

An underrated championship?

As we are now walking through a corridor with some pictures from the early years of French F4 and and see the faces of Franck Montagny, Loic Duval and Jean-Eric Vergne, one question goes through my mind. Despite delivering several top drivers each season for several decades, French F4 often looks underrated compared to other national F4 championships. Is it a problem for the FFSA Academy?

“Not at all! You know, the best proof for us that our championship is going well is that Red Bull and Helmut Marko are sending us two of their drivers. There are a lot of critics about the supposed level of the championship from some established teams and people. It’s their only way to sell some seats that are at least twice more expensive than what we offer. You know, we could fight, do some communication et cetera, but what’s the point?”

“Every year, all the seats are taken and the top drivers step up to higher categories and keep on impressing. People can say whatever they want but we are the only championship that exists since 1993 without any discontinuation and that reveals (at least) one top-class driver every year”.

Sébastien Philippe, nowadays manager at ART Grand Prix, took the Formula Campus by Renault and Elf title, back in 1993, in this car | Credit: Perceval Wolff

“There is no need to do any communication, the results speak for themselves. And F1 teams often agree with us. Red Bull has Iwasa, Sato, Hadjar [the top 3 of the 2020 season, e.n.] in their Junior Team, Alpine has Martins, Collet and David. Then there is Pourchaire with Sauber and Arthur Leclerc with Ferrari”.

“You know, if we were a team, if we sold seasons twice their price, we would get a press officer for all the communication. But that’s not our target. Our target is to form drivers. Communication is of course useful and interesting, but we prefer/choose to invest our budget on other stuff, to improve the quality of our championship. It’s not the same ambitions, the same issues as a private team”.

Formula 4 is there “to learn how to drive”

“Some people say that French F4 is not useful, because we don’t work with engineers to get the best setup. My answer is that types like Iwasa and Hadjar, as soon as they joined professional teams like Hitech or R-ace, they have performed very quickly. Before wanting to work with an engineer about the setup, you need to learn how to drive, it’s the basis of everything. In French F4, we teach our drivers how to race. Once they are good enough, they can go wherever they want, and they will perform”.

“Formula 4 is the most interesting level for F1 teams. F4 is there to judge the global level of the driver, his potential. And with French F4, there is a possibility to judge the driver at a very low cost. F4 is an evaluation, a test. It allows F1 teams to see if it is interesting or not to pay millions and millions for the career of a driver. That’s what Helmut Marko is doing by sending us Souta Arao and Yuto Nomura”.

Once they are good enough, they can go wherever they want, and they’ll perform

Amaury Richard

The Pôle France

As we are finishing our visit, we walk through several classrooms and we notice some drivers studying. In the same building, some drivers sleep, train and study: this is the Pôle France.

“The Pôle France is managed by the FFSA but it has no real links with the French F4 championship. The Pôle France allows the drivers that are following the French school system, to have all their studies adapted to their sporting program. They must compete in the single-seaters pyramid (or in junior karting) to enter the Pôle France. All the teenagers from the Pôle France are not in F4, and all F4 drivers are not in the Pôle France”.

“For example, Isack Hadjar has never been in the Pôle France, he used to follow classes in another high school. It depends on each individual. Some high schools are really strict and don’t tolerate any absence, even if it is for racing. So we have twenty students from eighth grade to twelfth grade [from Quatrième to Terminale]”.

The headquarters of the FFSA Academy regroup cars, workshops, classrooms, simulator, kartings and many more other features | Credit: Perceval Wolff

National Center of Expertise and last-generation simulator

The final place of our journey is the National Center of Expertise. “It’s mainly for the youngsters of the Pôle France as they live here, they are always here. Drivers can train their cardio, their muscles, especially for the neck. We can easily know if there is a lack of neck strength. In F4, it’s not that much of a problem, but when a driver goes to Formula Regional or higher, it’s starting to get complicated”.

“We also have a reflex wall, a climbing wall and a brand-new simulator. We have all the tracks of the French F4 season in this simulator and it’s very useful as “real” practice is very limited [only 30 minutes of free practice before qualifying]”.

“When we have 4-5 new drivers coming from our FFSA Junior Karting championship who use our simulator, we already see a hierarchy between them. Each driver will have different difficulties. What is really interesting with the simulator is that from the virtual to real world, it’s really copy-paste, the hierarchy is the same and we have the same mistakes. This simulator is really excellent, it’s really useful for the drivers to prepare during the winter and before every meeting”.

Header photo credit: Perceval Wolff

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