With the likes of Lance Stroll, Esteban Ocon and Max Verstappen all graduating to Formula One via the FIA F3 Europe series, the sport is getting younger. And, with that, the path to the top is arguably more challenging than it ever has been before. Writing exclusively for Mobil 1 The Grid, Jennie Gow explores what it takes to become an F1 driver in 2017.
There are plenty of professions which are hard to get into. To be a heart surgeon, you have to spend years training and making sure you acquire all the right qualifications along the way. To be an astronaut, you have to have a degree in science and then go on to do a Masters’, and a further two or more years training with a space agency, such as NASA.
When I was young, I wanted to be a journalist. And not just any journalist – a war correspondent. I had been watching a news item about the famine in Ethiopia, and I realised how the power of broadcasting can have an impact on people’s lives. The road to becoming a correspondent isn’t an easy one – a first class degree in English, or maybe journalism, was a must. If you were educated at Oxbridge, it was a definite advantage. And it helped, too, if you were male. It just did back then…
I never became a war correspondent, I didn’t get a first class degree and the nearest I came to Oxford and Cambridge were a couple of messy nights out in my teens. I quickly realised that I maybe wasn’t cut out to be the next Kate Adie… but what I could do was make people smile and ‘feel’ something, by broadcasting and reporting on sport. So that’s what I did. And though journalism is still a difficult profession in which to succeed, nowadays, there are at least a lot of routes in.
The same cannot be said for wanting to become a Formula One driver. It’s harder to achieve than almost any other career path, arguably including any other sport. And there are several different reasons for this.
First of all, of course, you need talent. It’s great to be quick in a go-kart and to enjoy haring round your local track. But it’s another thing to show the promise that the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel showed from a very young age.
But even then, talent is not enough. With the numbers weighted against you, it’s not enough just to be good.
Take football as a comparison. If you were a skilled football player and managed to get into your local team, soon enough a scout might see you and invite you for a trial. At that point, you might be lucky enough to get into an academy of a pro team.
With roughly 4,000 professional footballers in the UK coming from approximately 41 Premier and Football League academies, each recruiting boys (and increasingly, girls) between 9-18 years old, the chance of success is slim.
With Formula One, however, there are just 20 drivers in the world. All of them bring more than just talent. They bring determination, focus and dedication. And they also bring money, in varying quantities.
Yes, that’s right. Take a look at two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso. Wherever he goes, the money follows. The commercial value he brings – through sponsorship deals with the likes of Santander and most recently Adidas – help to make him an appealing proposition to a team looking for a big name driver, with some big business to boot.
So, you need talent and you need money, and that’s just to get you started. Whenever I talk to young drivers coming through the ranks, one of the most common things I hear them say is that the cost of karting can get out of hand.
Naturally, it depends what sort of championship you enter, but these young men and women and their families end up spending a fortune on tyres and spares – not forgetting the truck you’ll have to hire to take you around the country. It all adds up! By the time these young hopefuls are in their mid to late teens, it’s possible they’ve spent close to a million pounds working through the different categories and making it to one of the feeder series.
And if you are lucky enough to still have the ‘drive’ to want to drive professionally after all this, you just have to hope that, as was the case with Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo, you get picked up by one of the big teams, who have the will and capacity to effectively take over the funding of your hobby to see if you can make it to the highest level of motorsport.
If you aren’t one of the lucky ones, then you have to self-fund all the way to the top. Most recently, Canada’s Lance Stroll has been the subject of criticism for what some would call a ‘cushy’ path through the ranks into F1. His father, Lawrence Stroll – a fashion entrepreneur and the man behind the success of Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors, whose worth is estimated at over $2.4bn – has reportedly paid millions to ensure the seat at Williams went to his son. It certainly takes the term ‘pay driver’ to a whole new level.
Nonetheless, Lance has since proved his doubters wrong, having scored his first points at his home race in Canada, and then scoring his first podium in the crazy race that was Baku. Speaking to him after the race, he was quick to label the criticism he’s so far endured as “just noise”. He’s no doubt had to deal with it all his life!
Another way into Formula One, of course, is winning the GP 2 (now F2) feeder series and getting a seat from there. But that mould increasingly seems to be broken. It worked for the likes of current World Champion Nico Rosberg (who won the series in 2006) and Lewis Hamilton (2007), but neither Jolyon Palmer (2014) nor Stoffel Vandoorne (2015) received a golden ticket to Formula One. Both had to spend a year on the sidelines with large F1 teams before getting their chance. The most recent winner of the GP2 series, Red Bull Rookie Pierre Gasly, may yet break through. Though, for now, he’s had to settle for watching on at race weekends whilst competing in Japan’s Super Formula championship.
The reality on the whole is that Formula One wannabes are getting younger, and are increasingly bypassing the more traditional routes into the sport. Both Max Verstappen and Lance Stroll came from the FIA European Formula 3 Championship; with Max finishing 3rd behind winner, Mercedes young driver and now Force India sensation, Esteban Ocon and 2nd placed Briton Tom Blomqvist.
This year, there are five Brits competing in the Championship – Callum Ilott, Lando Norris, Harrison Newey (son of Adrian), Jake Hughes and Jake Dennis. Mick Schumacher (son of Michael) is also competing and the championship is being led by his compatriot Maximillian Gunther. This generation of youngster is very much a new breed – they spend their days on track or on their computers. They are literally putting in hours of ‘sim’ work before even being picked up by the big teams. It is developing their skills far quicker than at any time since the ban on testing was introduced.
Norris is a case in point. At just 17 years old, he’s already won the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award and the 2016 Autosport British Club Driver of the Year. He is well known for his virtual racing and joined the Apex Racing Sim team at the beginning of 2016. The kids coming through now not only have racing experience by the time they sit in an F1 car, but they have the ability to feedback fine technical details, too.
There is no doubt that schemes like the Red Bull Rookies and the young driver programmes that most teams now have in place work. That is, if you are lucky enough to ‘win’ a seat on them. But there are now other routes in. Whether it’s a large pot of money, a sim seat that turns into a real race seat, or a karting career that flourishes – getting a seat is just the start of it. Keeping that seat is even harder, and all the money in the world won’t ensure that that’s even a possibility for more than a year or so.
It’s a competitive world we live in, but don’t stop dreaming. If someone asks you what you want to be when you grow up, be brave and believe in yourself! Becoming a Formula One driver might be a tough path, but it’s not impossible. Just ask Lewis Hamilton.