Many F1 teams these days have driver academies with the aim of getting the best talent into their Formula One cars. Whilst the biggest, such as the Red Bull Junior Team and the Ferrari Driver Academy, are able to sign as many talented drivers as possible, some have to choose which drivers very carefully. Like Williams Racing.
By Tom Evans
At the moment, the Williams Driver Academy is one of the smaller ones, with only five drivers in its line-up compared to the 11 in Red Bull’s junior team. But these five drivers all have something to offer to a programme that is far stronger than what it was just two years ago.
In 2020, the Williams family made the bold decision to sell the team to the American investment firm Dorilton Capital. Despite losing their independence, they were massively helped by the increase in funding. They appointed former McLaren F1 CEO Jost Capito as team principal, and he made it clear that he wanted to improve the academy by instituting a new structure, new staff and new drivers. All of these things are crucial to a complete and successful academy, and Williams have definitely turned theirs around.
Past driver problems
Excluding their current drivers, Williams have had five drivers previously in their academy: Nicholas Latifi, Jack Aitken, Oliver Rowland, Lance Stroll and Dan Ticktum. There are good and bad things we can pick out from this crop, but the majority definitely point to the negative side.
Let’s start with something good: three of these five have competed in a Formula 1 race for Williams, with Latifi and Stroll having done multiple full years in the sport and Aitken having filled in for the absent George Russell at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix. The academy’s previous track record of getting drivers to the top flight is strong, and the ones who didn’t make it have both had successful careers to date, with both Ticktum and Rowland achieving victories in feeder series and competing in the FIA Formula E Championship.
But this is where the positives end. Most obviously, at least one of these drivers wasn’t necessarily chosen for their talent. Nicholas Latifi has picked up the tag of being a ‘pay driver’ because his father, Michael Latifi, owns Sofina Foods, a multibillion-dollar meat manufacturing company.
Latifi did three full seasons in the GP2 Series and the FIA Formula 2 Championship before joining Williams in 2019. That year, he achieved second place in the F2 championship, off the back of which he earned an F1 seat for 2020. All of these factors suggest that Latifi was chosen for his financial benefits rather than solely because of his skill behind the wheel.
Trouble with Ticktum
There were yet more issues for Williams in the form of Ticktum, a member of the programme from December 2019 to August 2021. Despite being incredibly talented, Ticktum divided public opinion and earned a controversial reputation thanks to his curt and outspoken demeanour and aggressive on-track behaviour.
Early in his car racing career, Ticktum deliberately crashed into Ricky Collard under safety car conditions in the Silverstone round of the 2015 MSA Formula Championship, now known as British F4. This earned him significant notoriety and a two-year ban from all FIA–sanctioned racing series, the second year of which was suspended.
Ticktum’s racing results whilst part of the academy were rather impressive. He had multiple points finishes in the 2020 Formula 2 season, with one win and four podiums. In 2021 he continued his F2 venture, this time finishing fourth overall in the championship with seven podiums and two wins. During this span, he also worked directly with Williams as a development driver.
In August 2021, two days after mocking Nicholas Latifi whilst streaming live on Twitch, Ticktum was dropped by Williams. However, Ticktum later confirmed that he had already split with Williams prior to this incident.
New and successful drivers
Currently, the Williams Driver Academy has five drivers, all of whom bring something to the table. Jamie Chadwick, the longest-serving driver in the academy, has cemented herself as the fastest and most competitive W Series driver. She has two W Series championship titles to her name from 2019 and 2021, with a third looking increasingly likely this year. Having a fast, successful female driver in the Williams academy can only be a good thing as more teams, drivers and fans push for women to have the same opportunities as men in motorsport.
Next is Roy Nissany, whose results are the weakest of the current drivers. He has not taken a top-three championship finish over his 12-year car racing career, but the backing he receives from Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams definitely helps the academy. Nissany has had Free Practice outings with the team in Formula 1 in 2020 and 2021.
Logan Sargeant joined the academy in 2021 during his third Formula 3 season with Charouz Racing System. He finished third in the championship in 2020, but it was impossible for him to move up to F2 because of financial problems. But Williams have provided sufficient help, as this season, he’s competing with Carlin in Formula 2. And what a season it’s been so far: currently second in the overall standings and the highest-placed rookie, Sargeant more than deserves his spot and may very well be the next American Formula 1 driver.
Of the two most recent additions, there is reigning GB3 champion Zak O’Sullivan. The 17-year-old certainly has an impressive track record, having not finished lower than second in any car racing championship in which he’s competed. Though the standings don’t reflect it, he’s shown more of the same pace this year, dragging a struggling Carlin team up to seventh in the standings and sitting 10th himself in the drivers’ championship.
The latest addition is British youngster Ollie Gray, who joined the academy in March. With a successful karting career that included a runner-up placement in the junior class of the 2019 IAME X30 Euro Series, Gray is fighting for the title in his second year of British F4. He’s delivered some impressive and consistent drives, including a win and multiple podiums, despite being convincingly beaten (up until Round 5) by Alex Dunne, who is contesting in his first British F4 season. Gray has been a solid choice for the academy; we’ll have to see if he can clinch the title by season’s end.
With Williams’ current crop of promising and talented drivers, the hopes are higher than ever that at least one of them will make it to the top flight, whether with Williams or otherwise.
Header photo credit: Carlin
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