‘Mouthing Off’ (1) – The current state of junior single-seaters

F1 2016
There’s no disputing that Formula One is still the place to be in open-wheel racing – this is the start of the 2016 Australian Grand Prix – but what’s going on further down the system?

With their distinctive appearance and often incredible performance figures, it’s no surprise that open-wheel, single-seater racing has become one of the most recognisable and popular forms of motorsport on the planet, but, with most of the attention and coverage directed towards the very highest level of Formula One, it’s often easy to forget the vital role that the numerous feeder formulae play in providing aspiring young drivers with a platform to show their skills.
In the past, it used to be relatively straightforward to work out where a future F1 superstar might well emerge from, but now…well, the picture is more than a little muddled with the numerous different avenues on offer to the next generation, and so, for the first of my new ‘Mouthing Off’ series of posts, I’m going to take a look at the current situation from three separate angles – money, seats and career progression – before giving my opinion on what could potentially be the best way forward…

1) Money and the issue of ‘pay-drivers’
Let’s not beat around the bush here – as is the case with many other sports, going motor racing is a costly business even at the highest level, and so, as a result, the level of resources and funding a young driver can bring nowadays is almost as important as how good they are behind the wheel.
This is by no means a new problem for single-seaters – in fact, for the numerous privateer teams that took part in F1 during the ’80s and ’90s, it wasn’t unusual for their driver line-ups to change numerous times during a season depending on who could bring the biggest budget for a particular race – but, with lucrative sponsorship and TV deals in the pipeline (including Sky securing exclusive live F1 coverage in the UK from 2019) and a new set of technical regulations to deal with this coming season, it’s no surprise to see that the cost of an F1 campaign for drivers is increasing year on year.

Now, of course, there are two sides to every argument, and you could probably look at this from both sides of the coin – yes, the money has got to come from somewhere to fund a team’s place on the grid, whether through a deal they’ve negotiated themselves or by bringing on board a new driver with an existing backer of their own, and, to be honest, as long as it does come, it shouldn’t really matter where from. However, for me, if a driver can deliver the goods out on track by taking wins and (in the long term) championship titles, this should be enough to see them rewarded with some form of backing, rather than the other way round where the select few seem to be able to use their resources to buy their way to the top.
This brings into play the whole question of so-called ‘pay drivers’ – that is, those drivers whose seat in a particular championship is almost entirely dependent on the sponsorship they bring themselves – and the role they play, but, to be honest, this isn’t as much of an issue as it used to be, chiefly because of the fact that there are very few truly ‘works’ teams around anymore, meaning that almost every team has to employ a ‘pay driver’ in some capacity. Now, I’m not against well-funded drivers getting a shot in F1 – as long as they’re good enough, of course – but, when even some of the top junior racers are looking at having to secure between $10 and $15 million dollars of backing (a figure quoted by GP2 driver and former Ferrari F1 junior Rafaelle Marciello in a recent interview) just to earn a spot with a backmarker team in F1, while others are able to jump the queue purely because of having a significant amount of money already on the table…it just doesn’t seem fair to me, and, with a long-mooted ‘cost cap’ at the top level also still yet to materialise, I don’t expect this to change any time soon.

GP2 2016
The GP2 Series might still technically be the natural feeder series for F1 – this is the feature race from Spain from last season – but does it still have the same status as when it started?

2) The sheer number of championships on offer
As I mentioned at the start of this post – mainly because of the relatively linear structure of the single seater ladder in the recent past – figuring out who the next F1 star was going to be used to be a fairly simple process, but nowadays, with so many potential avenues now on offer to the next generation, the choice of which championship to progress into – and, crucially, who they would be racing against – is now perhaps more important than ever before.
However, this does come with something of a caveat, because, even though the names may be different, the most common path through to F1 has remained broadly the same – indeed, the direct feeder series was originally simply called Formula Two before being rebranded in the mid ’80s as Formula 3000 and then again in 2005 to what we now know as GP2, while the later introduction of the imaginatively-titled GP3 in 2010 essentially replicated the role of Formula Three, providing young drivers with a stepping stone from the numerous national and regional series onto the global stage.

So, then, you might be asking…where’s the problem? Well, for me, the problem isn’t so much with the number of championships – after all, more seats being available at this level means more opportunities for young drivers to prove their worth – but more the structure of the single seater ladder itself, with so many series (all running, in effect, to slightly different regulations) fighting for their place in the pecking order. In essence, I guess we’re back to the M word again – as important as it is for drivers, money is also a crucial part of being able to run a successful series, and it increasingly seems to be the case that, for one reason or another, certain junior formulae don’t now represent the value for money they once did.
In their defence, the FIA – the world governing body for motorsport – have at least tried to improve things in recent years, having introduced both a new ‘Global Pathway’ that provides a route from the new regional Formula Four championships right through to F1 and an updated points system for determining who should be awarded the mandatory Super Licence needed to race in F1, with success in junior categories being taken into account. However, personally, I don’t think that this has gone far enough yet, and so, as was stated by Jaime Alguersuari Sr. (the boss of the Formula V8 3.5 Series) in a recent interview, the FIA and the major formulae need to work together to reform the structure of junior single-seaters and make it more cost-effective, otherwise we could well see some championships being scrapped altogether just because of a lack of interest, which, to me, would be a real shame.

GP3 2016
Despite not having been around that long, the GP3 Series has already had plenty of notable F1 graduates – this is the 2016 feature race, again from Spain – but is it really doing the job it was set up for?

3) Career progression, the role of F1 and ‘academies’
When a young driver starts to progress through the ranks – usually picking up a fair amount of silverware on the way – it’s inevitable that, at some point, the F1 heavyweights are going to start sniffing around, but bizarrely, even this seemingly foolproof combination of junior level success and an affiliation to an F1 team isn’t always enough to guarantee  a seat at the top table.
To some extent, this follows the same kind of lines as my previous point in that it looks at the relationship between different levels of the ‘pyramid’ within the sport, but, this time, focusing instead on what those at the very top level could do to help the new generation of driving talent move forward with their career. In the past, this wasn’t such an issue – for instance, no less than five of the first six GP2 Series champions (including Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, both now with F1 world drivers’ titles to their name) went on to make their full-time debuts in the top tier the following season, but, with none of the last five champions having made the same step, it seems like this natural progression through the junior formulae doesn’t have the same degree of importance any more for F1 (although, in fairness, both 2014 champ Jolyon Palmer and Stoffel Vandoorne, who succeeded him in 2015, were eventually given their chance to shine having spent an additional season on the sidelines).

Now, from a team manager’s point of view, I can sort of see the logic in taking this kind of approach if they believe that their new star in the making isn’t necessarily ready just yet for the rigours of an F1 campaign, but, when you think about it…what more can they do to prove themselves? I mean, surely, taking the title in the most high-profile feeder series of the lot should be more than enough to convince someone to give them a shot, but the fact that some teams are prepared to overlook their young talent in favour of signing a more experienced name from elsewhere is, as far as I’m concerned, as clear a sign as any that they’re not prepared to take a risk on a young driver in case it backfires, and, even when they do, they’re not given much time at all to establish themselves, and so it’s no surprise to me that some F1 careers nowadays seem to be over before they’ve even begun.
Having said that, it’s not all bad at the top level, with the likes of Red Bull and – to a certain extent – Mercedes the most prominent in allowing young drivers to make the step up early in their careers (albeit with a lower team rather than the full-blown factory outfit), while others instead run ‘academies’ that cherry-pick the best young talent before trying to improve their skills both in and out of the car. This sounds great on paper – after all, I’m all for starting the F1 education for these youngsters early on if it means they’re a better driver when they get there – but, when you’ve got the same problem of teams expecting immediate results and, if it doesn’t happen, being prepared to replace them as ruthlessly as if they were actually racing in the F1 team…they’re not really doing the job they were set up for. Make no mistake, though – these academies will produce results in the long run, and all it’s going to take to extract them is a little more patience from those at the top, but whether that happens or not very much remains to be seen.

So, to sum up, here’s the three main changes I would make to improve the direction of junior single seaters going forward:
1) In terms of money and resources, agree on and impose a cost cap in F1 to prevent excessive development by the big teams, then set maximum amounts based on this for the junior formulae to make it a level playing field for all young drivers regardless of their personal resources, with maybe a financial incentive to the most successful to offset their costs and allow them to move up more easily.
2) In terms of the number of series on offer, consolidate the pyramid – which might involve rewriting the regulations of certain championships – to have no more than two series on each level, which would both provide an alternative path for drivers to take if it doesn’t work out first time round while maintaining the maximum amount of seats to allow them the chance to drive in the first place.
3) In terms of career progression, the F1 teams have to bite the bullet and give the next generation a chance – an interesting article from the Autosport Plus website suggests the idea of a draft system (similar to that seen in American sports leagues like the NFL or NBA) that forces them to give as much seat time as possible to their reserve and development drivers (this article is subscription only, but I’ll explain further for anyone who’s interested).

So, that’s how I see things, but now it’s over to you – what do you think the biggest problem area is in the world of single seaters at the moment, and what would you do to put it right? Comment with your thoughts either at the bottom of the post or on my Facebook page (search for Straight from the Motormouth and give it a like if you haven’t already) – I’ll be interested to see what you think…

European Formula 3 2016
The FIA European Formula 3 Championship has produced a few stand-out names in recent years – this is the class of 2016 at the Hungaroring in Budapest – but could it really become the main feeder series in the future?

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