Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

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

Posted on 1 March 2018 by Ena Bilobrk

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, Pascal Wehrlein and Charles Leclerc, three 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.”

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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.

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.”

Leclerc is a product of the Ferrari drivers’ academy and is the hottest prospect to follow the footsteps of current Scuderia pilots Sebastian Vettel or Kimi Raikkonen. As the interest grows, Leclerc feels the need for programmes like Ferrari’s is growing, too:

“I think probably the most important part is that formula one years after years it is a pretty loved environment and more and more drivers want to enter it and to be linked with formula one team and that helps open some doors if you weren’t with a team. For me it has been a huge help.”

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.

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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 Leclerc and Wehrlein, 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.

The youngsters are lucky, being backed by three 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.

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.”

The academy system is similar to other sports academies. You receive the necessary physical and mental training to be able to perform at your highest level. Leclerc added:

“They have simulators and I had the chance to train on the simulator. They also train me mentally and physically and you get language lessons. In my case I already spoke Italian, English and French, but some drivers are learning Italian. So it really depends on the person. They analyse you, see what you need and arrange the things around it for things to be better. I, for example, had to improve my technical knowledge.”

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While the Monegasque clings on to his well-deserved seat at Sauber, the other two aren’t resting on their reserve positions, either. 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.

As winning remains the ultimate goal, the question on how future racing drivers are being prepared for losing remains open. Leclerc said he didn’t get any advice on what to do after racing and said:

“The academy is to bring a driver to F1, this is their main goal.”