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Formula 1

Does the Route to Formula 1 Need Reform?

(Photo: Mark_studio/Shutterstock)

As W Series is forced to conclude their season three races early due to financial issues and as Nyck de Vries finally gets a Formula One contract three years after his championship-winning Formula 2 season, the complex and unfair nature of F1’s feeder series and highly structured route to F1 has never been seen more starkly.

The road to F1 is notoriously difficult both financially and statistically, with only 20 spots available for all aspiring global talent. However, access to the junior series alone is an insurmountable barrier for many. In 2021, former Formula 3 driver Sophia Floersch revealed that a seat in F2 is priced at least 2 million euros, with testing days—of which former champions have had “more than 30”—priced around 25-30k a piece. This cost is something many drivers on the Formula 1 grid today would not have been able to afford, including seven-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton, who called the cost of karting, F3, and F2 “unnecessarily expensive.”

Hamilton also highlighted a major barrier seen during this summer’s silly season: the restructuring of junior categories, which has left the successful completion of F3 and F2 as almost the only way to rise to Formula 1. Other smaller series are mostly seen as stepping-stones to the two major junior European championships rather than opportunities to show their talent to Formula 1 teams and competitions in their own right.

This issue was seen this summer through American IndyCar driver Colton Herta and his failed move to Alpha Tauri due to the FIA super licence. The super licence was introduced in 1990 but made harder to obtain in 2015 following 2022 World Champion Max Verstappen’s debut for Toro Rosso at age 17, after completing only a single season racing in single-seaters in the F3 Championship, in which he placed third after winning six races consecutively and ten in total.

This, in combination with the restructuring of junior series, has left many smaller feeder series and international championships with little point-earning potential for those wanting to rise to F1. Therefore, for drivers who may have begun their careers overseas, outside the European circuit and F3 and F2 championships, success in alternative single-seater series is not enough to allow F1 opportunities. To qualify for an FIA super licence, a driver must have amassed 40 points in the previous three years of competition. Points are awarded according to the final standings in racing series. There are many other criteria: the driver must be aged 18 or above, hold a valid driving licence, hold a grade A competition licence, pass an FIA theory test, have completed at least 80% of two seasons in single-seaters, have completed 300 km in a Formula 1 car, and pay a fee.

FIA super licence points are heavily attributed to F2 and F3, with a top three championship finish in F2 earning 40 points alone, whereas 2nd and 3rd place finishes in IndyCar earn about the same as F3, despite being a senior racing series with its own feeder series and classed as harder than F2 by current drivers such as 2020 F2 runner-up Callum Ilott. Ilott described the series on Twitter as harder on various bases such as “average level of competition, races almost twice as long, no tire saving so full attack the whole time, physically draining, much more variety of tracks so adaptability is key.”

This central focus on F2 and F3 can result in international talent who haven’t gone through this pathway missing out on F1 opportunities, and by result, the sport missing out on drivers with immense talent. In addition, ESPN reported last week that Formula 1 is now looking at launching their own female-only feeder series, which again would centralise the feeder series system and devalue W Series and the key strides they have made for female inclusion in motorsport. W Series is also groundbreaking in its free-to-enter and large prize pot system, which could be lost in F1’s own series, decreasing much-needed accessibility.

A key reason behind F1’s reasoning for wanting to create their own female feeder series instead of using W Series is age. F1 wants younger drivers than those who are currently in W Series to aid promotion into F3, F2, and eventually F1. This displays a shift in the expectations of graduates to F1 that has been growing for many years now, starting with Verstappen’s record as the youngest driver to join F1 at age 17. As the junior graduates get younger, older talent is missed. Talent that may have not started karting until later than their peers, such as W Series champion Jamie Chadwick and 2022 F3 Champion Victor Martins, aged 24 and 21 respectively, who didn’t begin karting till their early teens, much later than most who began at around age 6. In addition to talent that went into other series and have been immensely successful such as IndyCar for Herta or Formula E for de Vries.

This shift in age expectation can be seen if one looks back across F1 history, with Damon Hill’s debut at 31 and how Michael Schumacher’s debut at age 21 was seen as extremely young. Of course, F1 has developed, and as such, the path and expectations have also, but as de Vries finally obtains a seat at age 27 after an impressive reserve driver stand-in and alternate championships, and as IndyCar talents get overlooked due to super licence point requirements, the question has to be asked: does a more holistic approach need to be taken by teams in choosing drivers?

I would say yes. If Formula 1 wants the diversity of their grid to improve, the individual careers of promising drivers need to be looked at more closely instead of only selecting drivers from F2, F3, or their own academies. As said by Ilott in the Herta to IndyCar discussion, “any driver who is naturally fast… won’t have a problem getting up to speed in an F1 car.”

This selection of drivers from outside academies can be seen as something some teams have already caught on to, in particular, Red Bull and sister team Alpha Tauri, who have hired both Sergio Perez and de Vries from outside their talent pools. However, the fault is not that of F1 and their teams alone but also that of the FIA, with points unfairly balanced towards certain series and against others.

But, as de Vries begins his F1 journey and IndyCar and female drivers become more spoken about as options for F1, the hope and intention is planted. The more holistic approach, financial support, and points distribution are what need to follow.

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