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When winning isn’t enough: upcoming Formula One stars on a rocky way to success

Never before have children been under so much pressure to perform. The world seems to be turning faster than ever and our children are rolling with it. Young footballers, for example, make debuts at the age of 16. Formula One is heading towards a similar direction. Ena Bilobrk spoke to Jack Aitken and Pascal Wehrlein, two upcoming drivers, about the struggles of breaking through in the highest class of motorsport. 

“Drivers are starting at three or four and then they start competing quite competitively and seriously from eight years old, which to me is crazy, but you see that over time it’s getting younger. There are more academies and young driver programmes now than there were a few years ago”, London-born Aitken explained.

Red Bull wonder-kid Max Verstappen became the youngest driver in the history of Formula One when debuted at the age of 17. The following season, he became Formula One’s youngest winner ever when won the Spanish Grand Prix. But Verstappen is an exception in today’s world, as many other youngsters are trying to get their hands on the most wanted steering wheels in motorsport.

Wehrlein is currently Mercedes’ reserve driver, the stepping stone to an actual seat in F1. He sighed: “To get there in a position where you can earn money is very difficult because the seats are limited. We are talking about F1, DTM, probably IndyCar, NASCAR, WEC, Formula E. If you count that all together it is maybe a 100 seats where you can realistically earn money from.”

He joined the German manufacturer’s junior programme in 2012 and made his Formula One debut with Manor Racing at the age of 21. The following year he signed with Sauber. But for 2018, he has taken a step back: Charles Leclerc replaced him at Sauber and Wehrlein returned to Mercedes, whom he joined in 2014.

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The 23-year-old explained: “You can never be prepared for situations like this but that’s what happened. Two years have been good from what I could do with the car I had and I couldn’t find a seat for 2018.”

In Formula One, the competition for seats is higher than in any other sport, and a place on the grid is often related to the size of your bank account.

Just like Wehrlein, Jack kickstarted his career in 2016. He joined Renault F1’s young driver programme. Aitken was also appointed as reserve driver for Renault and similar to his German colleague, he had to climb the ladder without deep pockets.

“People like Renault are putting in a lot of investment, which is really good, because it means drivers like me wouldn’t be able to come through otherwise. But it also means that the competition for those seats in the academy is very hot. So you have to always perform to be able to get them”, said the Londoner.

Both youngsters are lucky, being backed by two of the biggest manufacturers. Many teams have opened academies, much like football clubs, to find new talent regardless of their budget, educate them and eventually get them on the F1 grid.

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Wehrlein agreed: “I was in the Mercedes junior programme since I joined Formula 3. If you don’t have that or if you don’t have the rich Daddy, you will never make it to a professional race driver. It is a bit different than what I have expected when I was a kid, but as you get older you realise how it is.”

Neither driver is resting on his reserve position. You have to keep going and keep winning to get noticed, regardless of categories.With Renault, Aitken finished as runner-up in Formula 3 behind fellow countryman George Russell last year and is aiming to push harder this season:

“I have a chance to replay last year, in a way. There were things that were definitely not right and I’m staying with the same team, so it’s good because there’s some continuation and I can tell them really what I want and what needs to be changed.”

Wehrlein will be making a comeback to DTM, where he was the series’ youngest-ever champion three seasons ago, but will continue closely monitoring any changes in F1:

“If something happens I am ready to drive. Of course you never wish that someone gets injured.  Probably sick for a weekend would be just fine”, he laughs.

Both drivers are so similar, yet so different. Aitken fell in love with racing at a mate’s karting-themed birthday party, whereas Wehrlein started out with the fixed target of becoming F1 Champion. To get into the much desired academies the Mercedes reserve said it is important “that you win in the junior categories”.

Winning remains the ultimate goal. Yet, the question on how future racing drivers are being prepared for losing remains open.

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Ena Bilobrk
Ena was born in Munich to a Croatian family and currently freelances for BBC Radio London while doing an MA in sports journalism at St Mary's University Twickenham. The 23-year-old holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Westminster and has written for Dalmatinski Portal, a Croatian news website, worked for Sky Sport Bundesliga and Bayern Munich Basketball in Germany. During work placement with Sky Sports News in England, she translated Jürgen Klopp’s first interview as Liverpool manager - initially in German - making Sky the quickest media outlet to have his managerial words in English. Ena covered a ranged of sports events from ATP finals, Race of Champions to Formula One pre-season testing in Barcelona.
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