MEDLAND: Could this fix F1's young driver problem?

Image by Bloxham/LAT

MEDLAND: Could this fix F1's young driver problem?

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: Could this fix F1's young driver problem?


Apparently, there just isn’t enough space on the Formula 1 grid to go round.

Does Esteban Ocon deserve a seat next season? Yes. Should Stoffel Vandoorne get a second chance given his stunning junior career? I’d say so.

But then, as popular as Kimi Raikkonen’s move to Sauber proved to be last week, that’s one seat that could have been earmarked for a young prospect that instead has been taken by a 38-year-old former world champion. And, let’s be honest, the excitement about two more years of Kimi has very little to do with his on-track performances (as solid as they’ve been this year), and far more with his trademark ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude to every part of the race weekend that doesn’t involve actually being in the car.

As a cult hero who can still deliver strong results and has plenty of experience to call upon though, you can certainly argue that he is a good fit for a Ferrari-powered Sauber team looking to build on impressive progress this season.

Kimi has been moved on because Charles Leclerc was knocking on Ferrari’s door. Similarly, Pierre Gasly made himself hard to ignore for Red Bull this season, meaning Carlos Sainz will move to McLaren to reboot a promising career that was in danger of plateauing. Unlike Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso felt like he’d had enough of F1, opening the door for a tremendously promising talent in Lando Norris to step up.

But Norris is looking less likely to enter F1 as the Formula 2 champion thanks to the extremely impressive Mercedes youngster George Russell, who is also more than worthy of a place at the top table. As is their nearest challenger Alexander Albon, who today signed a Formula E contract after starting the year without the means for a full-season deal in F2.

There are more drivers that you could argue deserve to be in F1 than there are seats in the sport.

One way of looking at it is that this is the self-proclaimed pinnacle of motor racing, and therefore only the best 20 drivers in the world should be on the grid. You’re 21st? Tough.

But that’s not a realistic approach, in any walk of life. Even if you could accurately rank drivers from 1-20 (and beyond) in order to make sure the best get a seat, there is so much more than raw talent that is important in the real world. Not to mention the fact that it would make things really boring if there were no arguments over who is the greatest.

Kimi’s imminent return to Sauber is popular, but potentially closes a door for a young talent. Image by Tee/LAT

Let’s take the Lance Stroll example. One of the top 20 most naturally-talented drivers in the world? Probably not. But then ‘natural’ talent doesn’t always convert into a career, and drivers develop courtesy of the opportunities presented to them. If you haven’t honed skills in junior categories, you won’t just step into an F1 car and compete.

Aside from the fact that Stroll dominated F3 – doing the job regardless of how good the tools were – and has an F1 podium and a front row start to his credit before the age of 20, his presence in F1 has provided a massive financial boost to a struggling Williams team, and now played a part in Force India being rescued from administration. If those teams had disappeared, opportunities for drivers would have become even fewer.

The money being put behind Stroll is driven by has father, Lawrence, much like Sergio Perez had financing from Telmex, Sebastian Vettel from Red Bull or Lewis Hamilton from McLaren. In the most basic terms, drivers are investments. They are backed because the entities behind them believe they are good enough to make it to F1. But it is the long-term motives that differ.

In some cases – usually when a company is involved – it is because the driver will help provide global exposure to their brand or business. If they go on to be a champion, even better. On the other hand, a team investment starts with a belief in the potential that the driver just might win a title in future.

Ocon falls into the latter category, which led Toto Wolff to get very angry at the lack of an opportunity for the Frenchman next season. The Mercedes boss even suggested the bigger teams should be allowed to run third cars in order to bring through young talents.

Wolff’s wrong.

Not for believing that Ocon should get a seat next year. But in feeling that he is entitled to one just because he is good.

Last week when it was suggested Wolff could release Ocon to allow him to further his career, he replied: “Not in a million years, because one day he is going to be in a Mercedes and win races and championships, and show all the others out there that they made a mistake.”

A rethink on third cars might help Williams to get Kubica out of a team shirt and into a racesuit. Image by Bloxham/LAT

But therein lies the problem. Ocon is a Mercedes young driver, and therefore an investment in future Mercedes success. So why should another team do the development work for Wolff if he doesn’t deem Ocon good enough to drive a Mercedes yet?

There has to be a return for any other team to put someone like Ocon in the car, above and beyond good results. Will he move the team forward long-term? No, he will be taken away when Mercedes wants him. Will he bring with him the additional finances that other drivers will, which in turn helps the team improve? It appears not.

Renault and McLaren’s respective U-turns over Ocon are understandable, because they now both have a pair of drivers that are their own and can build around them. For seats further down the grid, Wolff needs to back his horse just as much as sponsors do theirs.

Or rethink his third car suggestion.

Adding a third Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull would just make life so much harder for the smaller teams to score points. In turn, that makes it less attractive to try and fund a driver’s career through sponsorship, because the exposure is going to be even more limited when the top nine positions could be locked out by the biggest three teams.

Flipping the situation on its head though, the bigger teams could invest in their young talent by paying the bottom teams from the previous year to run an extra car and give young drivers more opportunities.

Take the example of Williams, currently en route to bottom of the constructors’ championship this year. A third car would provide added data to the team as it tries to recover, and allow it to run youngsters that bring a financial incentive as well as a more experienced driver such as Robert Kubica to help that recovery.

To avoid customer team arguments, using the example of the top three the rule could stipulate the constructors’ champion’s driver drove for the eighth-placed team, second in the constructors’ went to ninth and third went to 10th. Of course, a team could decide not to place one of its youngsters in a seat, but that would open up the opportunity for the team that should have received a driver to use the position as it sees fit.

Expensive for the big teams? No more than running a third car themselves. And on top of that, it redistributes money in a far more palatable way than at present. Add in more opportunities for drivers in F1, more cars providing more action and a structure that helps the smaller teams improve – therefore making the whole field more competitive – and there are plenty of beneficiaries.

The biggest downside could be trying to find the extra garage space.

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