We are currently witnessing a disarming counter-trend concerning F1 junior programmes. Are they still needed or has their utility run out as we cruise towards a new era?
Formula 1 has been regarded as The Pinnacle of Motorsport, implying that its drivers shall represent the peak of racing in terms of talent and characters. At the beginning of the early 2000s Red Bull kickstarted the tradition by founding its Junior Team, whose mastermind was none other than Helmut Marko, a pioneer in the racing talent scout craft.
The rush for the star of the 2010s intensified, as F1 top teams started competing even outside of the track by scouring feeder categories and hiring young talents to breed for a potential F1 landing in the future. Ferrari founded its notorious driver academy in 2009, with its first signee being Jules Bianchi. McLaren, Mercedes and Renault created their own orbits in the following years to keep up with the ultimate trend, as driving new talents into F1 on a rush soon became priority business. As Mercedes made its F1 comeback, the creation of its own orbit was all down on Toto Wolff to this date. His close links with Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Ocon established sort of a Mercedes blockhouse, which extends to Formula E as the German manufacturer entered the electric series. Both Stoffel Vandoorne and Nyck De Vries were in McLaren’s orbit (and the Belgian driver actually managed to get a seat in F1) and now share the same destiny in Formula E with Mercedes.
Trying to keep the junior programme tradition alive would be a desperate attempt of biting off more than F1 can chew. De Vries is a fitting example when it comes to describing F1 as self-sufficient now. The F2 driver was previously a promising McLaren driver-to-be, but then their partnership ceased and the Dutchman’s future was crowded in uncertainty, as F1 did not seem a plausible option. With Charles Leclerc’s vehement affirmation within the top drivers in his first season at Ferrari and Max Verstappen’s mighty ascension, F1 can already count on two bright stars for the future. Moreover, the drivers’ market with the silly season approaching is currently facing a problem. The shortage of seats available may leave someone as the ‘odd man out’, meaning that there is no room for newcomers on the short term. Only twenty drivers (or even less, considering their contractual situations) will be the sole protagonists of the driver’s market for the next year at least. The unofficial end of Red Bull’s junior programme is a clear symptom of such a counter-trend. In fact, Ferrari is investing on F2’s Mick Schumacher and F3 drivers through Prema, but it is far from breeding talents on its own or acting as an active talent scout agency.
Therefore, not only are junior programmes drawing to a close in Formula 1, but also they are becoming useless as for the current dynamics among the drivers.