How to save F1’s next generation
Quick quiz: can you name the current top three drivers in Formula Two?
Once you’ve completed the requisite Google search and returned the correct answer — Charles Leclerc, Oliver Rowland and Artem Markelov, for the record — can you identify those drivers’ best races of the season to date? Or perhaps their single-seater career highlights?
We’re now well outside the realm of Wikipedia assistance, but no matter — the correct answer isn’t the point; it’s the fact that so few would be able to respond confidently that is of interest.
The discourse regarding Formula One’s next generation of drivers has long been a bit of a mess. It’s largely dictated by the various investments some of the sport’s larger teams have in young drivers, with the likes of Max Verstappen, Esteban Ocon, and Lance Stroll all good examples of the big teams buying in early and giving favoured young drivers a leg up into the F1 world.
All three warranted high-level interest, to be clear, but their shortcutting of the bulk of the junior ladder rather than their impressive junior performances is what has made them noteworthy, and this underlines a key issue for the state of motorsport’s F1 hopefuls.
The FIA is now tantalisingly close to realising its restructure of the motorsport ladder to create an effective path from Formula Four, Formula Three and Formula Two into Formula One.
Thanks to F1’s new owners — also the owners of GP3 and the former GP2 — GP2 became F2 this year, and the remodelling of GP3 into an international F3 with a regional ‘lights’ series will be completed in due course.
But the junior series remain detached from Formula One. These categories are still seen as somehow lesser — in 2017 Formula Two gets only 11 rounds on the Formula One calendar while GP3 makes do with just eight appearances.
The result is that the drivers can become only minimally relevant in the broader world of top-tier motor racing — something to watch after Formula One qualifying if you don’t have anything else to do, but not much more.
It is little wonder, then, that second-placed F2 driver Oliver Rowland says he feels overlooked in the F1 driver market.
“I don’t see any reason [for it] … I think I can be as quick as anybody, and I’ve showed that I’m consistent, so I don’t see any reason why I can’t be in the frame,” he told Motorsport.com.
In an ideal world — a world in which Formula Two and Formula Three comprise the F1 undercard at every round — Oliver Rowland would naturally have a place in driver market speculation as the junior championship’s second-placed driver. Likewise we’d be free to debate which Formula Three drivers have what it takes to make it to the next level and perhaps go all the way to Formula One.
The same accusation of disjointedness certainly could not be made of the motorcycle world, where Moto2 and Moto3 bask in limelight almost equal to that illuminating MotoGP.
A MotoGP weekend is a neatly packaged affair at the track and on television, with no obvious delineation between the categories in terms of weight — unlike in Formula One, where junior series are lucky to get television time in the first place.
The sport reaps a double benefit of having Moto2 and Moto3 rides making names for themselves in their own right and also of having the likes of double-Moto2 champion Johann Zarco and teammate Jonas Folger, along with Sam Lowes and Alex Rins, blossom into fully-fledged senior drivers, adding new chapters to long-running narratives established in the lower series.
Formula One drivers don’t get that full benefit, as Oliver Rowland can attest. Even the likes of Verstappen, Ocon and Stroll were denied their origin stories. Would Verstappen still have courted such controversial headlines if his impressive rookie Formula Three season had been part of the F1 show? Would Ocon’s 2015 GP2 championship or Stroll’s utterly dominant 2016 F3 campaign have changed the way they were received in F1?
All three entered Formula One with hype rather than narrative, and while Verstappen’s place at a front-running team has delivered on that promise, midfield berths for Stroll and Ocon — not to mention Stoffel Vandoorne — risk having their names lost because their previous achievements are left unrecognised.
For this reason Formula One and its new commercial owners must prioritise — admittedly amongst a burgeoning list of priorities — the integration of the junior ladder into Formula One as a comprehensive event rather than tag-along support categories. Not only would an F1 weekend benefit from the effective tripling of racing, but the sport’s key assets — the drivers — would have the right to make names for themselves as they try to knock on Formula One’s door.