LONG READ: What it’s really like to be in an F1 team’s driver academy

Driver academies are like a motor racing shoehorn designed to help a young driver squeeze into the cockpit of Formula 1 machines. By providing financial support, training and simulation time, the benefits are countless. But what happens behind the scenes?

Junior driver programs have been around for nearly two decades, with Red Bull and Alpine’s dating back to the early 1990s, but they have become increasingly prominent in the world of F1, with the vast majority of the grid now being graduates from various academies – from Lewis Hamilton via McLaren, to Charles Leclerc at Ferrari.

READ MORE: ‘Great talent’ Oscar Piastri to work closely with Alpine in 2022, team says

Cleverly constructed conveyor belts of talent, the most promising drivers are now being picked and picked at an ever younger age as F1 teams try to get their hands on future race winners and world champions.

The recruitment process

Driver training has evolved tremendously over the past 20 years and is now well-oiled machinery, with an eye on the best karting categories across Europe. The best prospects are earmarked in karting and then judged as they make the move to single-seater racing, before being signed.

2021 Formula 3 driver Frederik Vesti has said it took him three years of constant communication to get into Mercedes, while 2021 F2 vice-champion Robert Shwartzman was signed by Ferrari in his fourth season of motor racing. Then there’s the case of Marcus Armstrong, who boldly introduced himself to Massimo Rivola, then head of Ferrari’s academy, during a test in Italy shortly after moving from New Zealand to Europe.

It was a slightly different story for Alpine’s Christian Lundgaard, who went straight from karting to their academy at the age of 15. The Dane was so highly regarded that the academy arranged for him to take part in a one-seat test with MP Motorsport at F4. Lundgaard impressed, signing on the dotted line at Renault and then being placed with MP in Spanish F4. He went on to reward them with the title.


Lundgaard (l) and Vips have both benefited from academy support from Alpine and Red Bull respectively

The contract is often signed at the base of the team, kicking in the ‘wow factor’ of stepping into an F1 factory as the young racers witness the scale of the organization and the extraordinary work that goes on .

The top dogs will often be involved in these discussions as well, such as Cyril Abiteboul (former Renault Team Principal) and Dr. Helmut Marko (Red Bull Motorsports Consultant) involved in the deals to bring Lundgaard and Juri Vips to Alpine and Red. Taurus respectively. That is perhaps the best illustration of how seriously teams take their academies.

Choose a disc

Once the racer has signed, the responsibility lies with the team and the academy to find the right championship and squad for their prospects. Joining a top team in a top championship too early can create unnecessary pressure; at the same time, joining an easier category could slow their progress.

READ MORE: Ferrari Driver Academy Announces 2022 Squad and Lineup Changes

The driver and his management will always have a say in this, but the decision is ultimately taken out of their hands. They are expected to trust the judgment of the team and focus on performing on track.

“We can only come up with advice and offers to drive, but in the end it is Alpine who makes the decision,” explains Lundgaard. “Mia Sharizman” [Alpine Academy Director] has always asked me what I would like to do – for example he asked me for 2019 if I wanted to do F3, but in the end it was Cyril who made that decision.”


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The academies will try to place their drivers in the right category and with the right team

Another important aspect is the financial support that comes with an academy. Teams often cover part of the driver costs for the season, and in some cases they even pay for their entire ride.

Vips sums it up simply: “I couldn’t have continued racing without Red Bull. They gave me this chance.”

READ MORE: Red Bull Announces F2 and F3 Seats for Junior Drivers

The pressure to perform

The ultimate goal for both the team and the driver is a place in F1, and to achieve this continuous progression is essential.

The team’s input grows enormously once the driver enters F3 and has the opportunity to race on the same tracks and weekends as F1. Their visibility is greatly increased as the teams can view each of their sessions and provide immediate feedback and advice.


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Racing in F1 weekends for the team bosses is an invaluable opportunity for junior drivers

The contact differs from team to team and from race to race. At Alpine, for example, the juniors can often be found in the F1 garage talking to engineers and staff, and watching the F1 sessions.

“Outside of Covid-19, we would always stay in the same hotels during races,” explains Lundgaard. “They get our reports from our races and they’ll go through them because at some point when we get into F1, they want to know what kind of driver we are, and I think that’s a good way to do it.

“Sometimes they’ll ask us – if we’re on the track in the morning and their FP1 is later than ours – what the track conditions are like and involve us a little bit in the process that way. That’s a nice feeling, because it makes you feel more involved.”

READ MORE: F1 Esports graduate Cem Bolukbasi secures Formula 2 drive for 2022


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Dr Marko is easy to please, says Vips – you just have to win!

At Red Bull, Dr. Marko regularly contacts the juniors and speaks to them before, during and after the weekend, as Vips explains: “He is simpler than people think; he’s going to pressure you, but if you do it right, he’s very nice and very straightforward. Perform, and all is well.

“That’s the thing with the Red Bull Junior Team: if you don’t do it right you might get kicked out, but if you do it right you get into F1. They throw people out, yes. But why bother drivers “Want to keep and pay who are not worthy of F1? They only want the best talent and I think that’s the right approach. They keep the best and give them the opportunity.”

It’s a similar situation at Ferrari, with an engineer on hand for the likes of Shwartzman and Charles Leclerc’s F3 competing brother Arthur at events.

WATCH: F2 champion Oscar Piastri aims for Formula 1 ride for 2023


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“They’re kicking people out, yes,” says Vips of Red Bull’s Junior Team – “but why would you want to keep and pay drivers who aren’t worthy of F1?”

The wider benefits

There are a whole host of other perks that come from participating in an illustrious junior program, the least of which is the luxury of strolling through the paddock in official team clothing and merchandise, with the famous team badge on their chest, though, most probably would. admit that that was pretty cool at first.

Time in the factories and on the simulators plays a big part in a young driver’s role in a team. The benefit of this is seen by both sides, with Vips saying the simulators are now on “another level”. The data the drivers provide is extremely helpful to the team in developing the cars, while allowing juniors to gain more experience on the track and solicit feedback.

READ MORE: Vasseur explains why Zhou is the ‘right choice’ for Alfa Romeo

Their time off the track extends beyond simulator duties and factory meetings, with many junior teams participating in grueling training together. Lundgaard explains: “I think we have better teamwork than people might think. We do incredibly hard training camps – they are terrible!”


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Zhou Guanyu was treated to a track walk with his childhood hero Fernando Alonso in Austria last year

There is also the unparalleled opportunity to access some of the best drivers in the world, a benefit that newly minted Alfa Romeo driver Zhou Guanyu experienced firsthand when he made his FP1 debut for Alpine at the Austrian Grand Prix. Prize in 2021.

“Fernando [Alonso] helped me a lot. In the last three or four years, that’s the most I’ve ever been helped by another driver. We walked the track together and he gave me details along the way, told me about the surface and the bumps, and we went through the on-boards in the engineer’s briefing and he explained everything to me. ”

GALLERY: Bottas, Russell and Zhou take to the track in their new colors in Abu Dhabi test

Family

However, what you understand most is the family environment. The junior programs are run in tandem with the teams, rather than being completely separate entities. There is a clear trajectory of succession for the drivers if they are successful, and any transition to an F1 seat is made smoother as they are already well versed in how the team works.

Shwartzman, member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, sums it up best by saying: “Being part of the FDA is very special because it feels like being part of a family – and not just the FDA, also Ferrari. We are all together as one and all help each other.

“If you do well, they are always there to congratulate you – and if you need support, they do their best to help you become a better driver.”

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