Features - News Feature

AUGUST 1, 1998

Formula 1 Junior Teams


All the Formula 1 teams seem to have a Junior Team of some kind of other these days. But why? What are they trying to achieve and what do they gain from supporting drivers in the junior formulae?

All the Formula 1 teams seem to have a Junior Team of some kind of other these days. But why? What are they trying to achieve and what do they gain from supporting drivers in the junior formulae?

It should perhaps be pointed out that the concept of the Junior Team is not new. The most famous of the schemes to promote young drivers dates back to the start of the 1970s when Francois Guiter of the Elf petroleum company established what was known as the "Volant Elf". The fastest drivers on each course at the Winfield Racing Schools at Magny-Cours and Paul Ricard were asked to return to the school in the autumn to establish who had been the fastest driver of the year. The two winners were each given a full budget to race the following year in Formula Renault. If they were fast enough they would be retained by Elf in Formula 3 and then Formula 2 (or later Formula 3000) and eventually they would get a drive in Formula 1. The first two Pilotes Elf were Patrick Tambay and Didier Pironi and both went on to win Grands Prix. They were followed over the years by Alain Prost, Pascal Fabre, Olivier Grouillard, Paul Belmondo, Eric Bernard, Erik Comas and Olivier Panis all of whom became F1 drivers. In addition Elf often picked up other good drivers and sponsored them, creating a generation of top French drivers in the 1980s and early 1990s.

When Guiter retired Elf decided to change the policy and a revised programme was begun. This aimed to create a scheme for drivers, mechanics and engineers. It was called "La Filiere" and it now funds as many as eight drivers each year in Formula Renault Elf Campus and four in Formula 3. Unfortunately budgets have been cut and so there is no financial help beyond that and Frenchmen are no longer arriving in F1 as once they were able to do.

The La Filiere scheme continues, however, and this summer 427 candidates were given the chance to be one of 30 finalists who gathered at Le Mans at the end of July. They were all judged by a panel of experts and eight of them were chosen to represent La Filiere next year in Formula Renault Elf Campus. The winner of the competition was David Dussoliet. Perhaps we will hear that name again in the future...

In the late 1970s BMW instigated a famous Junior Team, under the control of Competition Department boss Jochen Neerpasch. This helped Marc Surer, Manfred Winkelhock and Eddie Cheever in Formula 2 - where BMW supplied many of the engines - and all three drivers went on to F1. The company later decided to instigate a new Junior Team and chose Eric Van de Poele to be its driver.

Mercedes-Benz used Neerpasch to set up another Junior Team in 1990 with the drivers chosen being Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Karl Wendlinger and Fritz Kreutzpointner. They raced for Mercedes in sportscar racing and the first three all ended up in F1. Kreutzpointner was not successful although in recent years he has enjoyed a successful career in truck racing - still with Mercedes-Benz.

Today - using Neerpasch again - BMW is in the process of setting up a new Junior Team, to encourage new young drivers.

"We want to help young German drivers to develop their talent," explains Thomas Giuliani, Marketing Manager of BMW Motorsport. "A driver's development is a dynamic process which will not allow itself to be forced to follow a set path. One has to be able to react".

Under the watchful eye of Neerpasch and former racer Pierre Dieudonne Dominik Schwager and Alex Muller are competing this year in Formula 3000 with the BMW RTL Team ORECA Formula 3000 team. In addition to their F3000 programme Schwager and Muller actually work for BMW in various different departments of the company in Munich, starting this year with the race engine development department.

The Formula 3000 scheme is backed up by the BMW Formula ADAC series in which drivers as young as 16 year are given the chance to develop their potential in small single-seaters, powered by BMW motorcycle engines.

Mercedes-Benz and McLaren have an even more advanced scheme which they call the "McLaren Mercedes Driver Support Programme".

This links Formula 1 with kart racing and the aim is to nurture drivers from as young as 13 all the way into F1. The scheme currently includes 13-year olds Lewis Hamilton and Wesley Graves who race in the Champions of the Future karting series in Britain. The McLaren Mercedes livery also appears in German Formula 3 where the scheme is supporting Norman Simon. In Formula 3000 McLaren and Mercedes have established a team called West Competition and this is running McLaren test driver Nick Heidfeld and Nicolas Minassian. In addition Mercedes is supporting two young drivers in its AMG Mercedes GT team: Ricardo Zonta and Australian Mark Webber.

"To be part of the initiative," explains Mercedes-Benz Motorsport boss Norbert Haug, "each driver has to be exceptionally talented and show the potential of winning races

and progressing towards F1."

Independently McLaren is also involved in a scheme, run in association with the British magazine Autosport, called the McLaren Autosport Young Driver of the Year Award. Past winners of this have included David Coulthard, Dario Franchitti, Gareth Rees and Oliver Gavin.

Ron Dennis is very clear about the schemes.

"They are for developing drivers," he says. "That is the only thing. It is not about branding. It is about giving them experience."

Tom Walkinshaw of the Arrows F1 team is in the process of putting together a similar team, in association with British Formula 3 team owner Piers Portman. But their intention is to produce not only new racing drivers but also young engineers, mechanics and team organizers.

"Formula 1 is endlessly preoccupied with finding the future champion drivers," says Walkinshaw, "but what about the future championship winning team managers? They must be found and nurtured too."

Portman and Walkinshaw aim to establish "an academy" to produce tomorrow's F1 people.

"The academy will seek and train drivers, engineers and mechanics and give them the opportunity to learn about motor racing and to graduate to F1," explains Portman.

Walkinshaw says that there is a little bit of value in junior teams in terms of giving sponsors extra value for their money but essentially it is away to find cheap drivers.

"It is designed to start young drivers early and guide them how to work in a genuine F1 environment. When they fall off the track in Formula 1 cars it is expensive so it is better that they learn in cheaper cars. If they destroy a $100,000 Lola Formula 3000 car it is not the end of the world but if they wreck a F1 car these days a team has to pay out $300,000 to replace the chassis."

Arrows marketing manager Richard West reckons that the scheme should be expanded.

"We should really be picking up drivers in karting and locking them into long-term contracts."

It is an idea which has also occurred to Benetton's new boss David Richards. When he took over the F1 team he inherited a junior team structure which had been set up in German Formula 3 by Flavio Briatore. This year the KMS team is running Thomas Mutsch, Dutchman Jeffrey van Hooydonk and former top kart racer Johnny Mislijevic from Sweden.

Richards says that the Benetton scheme needs to be revised.

"I think we are going to stop at the end of this season and rethink the strategy," he says. "The aim is to develop new talent and keep down costs, in effect it means that we are finding new talent before someone else does. If you can see a top driver early in his career you can save yourself a lot of money. A season in Formula 3000 might cost you $500,000 but it might cost you five times that much money later on to get the same driver off another F1 team.

"There is a the added benefit of increasing sponsor value, which is a good initial selling point when you are talking about the idea to a sponsor."

Of the current Grand Prix teams Prost is involved in the Apomatox Formula 3000 which runs Stephane Sarrazin and Marcelo Battistuzzi from Brazil; Jordan helps out Aguri Suzuki who is running a scheme called Autobacs Racing Team Aguri for young Japanese drivers the first of which is Juichi Wakisaki, who has been testing this year with the Silverstone-based team; Williams enjoys a close - but not official - relationship with David Sears's Supernova Formula 3000 and this my develop into a scheme in the years ahead; and Stewart Grand Prix has what it likes to call "The Escalator of Talent" with teams in Formula 3 and Formula Vauxhall in Britain. These existed before the F1 team was established and several drivers went through Stewart's hierarchy, notably David Coulthard and Gil de Ferran.

Formula 1 teams are not the only ones running junior teams. In Germany former World Champion Keke Rosberg - who manages Mika Hakkinen and JJ Lehto - is now running his own Junior Team in Formula ADAC for 17-year-old Lebanese driver Giorgio Mecattaf.