Are driver development programmes actually hindering young drivers?

Esteban Ocon driving his Force India (original photo by emperornie)

The annual game of musical chairs in Formula 1 is coming to its conclusion. This year’s silly season has been particularly turbulent. It has even involved the Force India team going into administration before being bought by Lance Stroll’s exceedingly rich father.

At the end of it all, two highly talented drivers — Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Ocon — are in danger of finding themselves without a seat for 2019.

In the case of Stoffel Vandoorne, it is fair to say that he has struggled to shine in the poor McLaren car. It has been difficult to gauge how bad or good he has been.

Great drivers can shine in a bad car. Fernando Alonso demonstrated it at Minardi in 2001. He is demonstrating it now in the same McLaren that Vandoorne is lumbered with.

It is true that Vandoorne is constantly outperformed by his team mate. Then again, not everyone’s team mate happens to be possibly the most talented driver in the world. But it’s true to say that Vandoorne appears to have lost the spark that was evident in his junior career, and even his first handful of F1 races.

The case of Esteban Ocon is far more egrigious. This is a man who who beat the mega-hyped Max Verstappen to the FIA European Formula 3 Championship in 2014. He is performing well against a known quantity, his talented team mate, Sergio Pérez.

Last month his Force India team was bought by Lawrence Stroll, after being put into administration by Perez. In a coversation with Sebastian Vettel picked up by TV cameras, Ocon appeared to confirm what it seemed to mean — that he would be out of a drive at Force India.

That very weekend, at Spa-Francorchamps, he qualified a superb 3rd. But he didn’t need to do that for everyone to know that he really ought to be racing in F1 next year.

Initial rumours had him linked to a move to Renault. Then they snapped up Daniel Ricciardo. Ocon was then supposedly headed to McLaren — until they signed up Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris.

Meanwhile, Toro Rosso are struggling to fill their seats because Red Bull don’t have enough sufficiently talented drivers in their driver development scheme.

Christian Horner explained that Ocon wouldn’t race for Toro Rosso because he has connections with Mercedes. McLaren and Renault have given similar reasons for declining the opportunity to sign one of the most promising young talents on the grid.

This is an absurd state of affairs.

In that interview, Christian Horner tried to talk up the ‘successes’ of Red Bull’s junior programme:

We’ve had a very successful junior programme, and Red Bull has a junior team, and has invested in that. It’s paid dividends with Seb, Daniel and Max, and we’ll see with Pierre Gasly.

As I have noted before however, it is spurious for Red Bull to take much credit for the development of Sebastian Vettel. He also benefited from support from BMW. It was BMW who ultimately gave Vettel his first opportunities in F1, not Red Bull or Toro Rosso.

As for Max Verstappen, it is quite simply laughable for Red Bull to claim any credit for his development. Verstappen was signed onto their junior programme just six days before he was confirmed as a Toro Rosso race driver. That’s not developing a driver. That’s just parachuting him in.

Meanwhile, you don’t need me to tell you the number of promising young drivers whose careers have taken a knock due to being promoted too quickly or otherwise mistreated by the Red Bull sausage factory. There are far more broken dreams than dream careers in the Red Bull system.

Such is the lack of success in the junior programme, they are now reliant on drivers they have previously spat out of their own system — Brendan Hartley and Daniil Kvyat (who may make yet another comeback) — to fill their Toro Rosso seats.

But back to Esteban Ocon. He has been part of the Mercedes driver development programme for a few years now. This may have stood him in good stead when it came to landing his seat at Force India. But with that opportunity closed off, and with Mercedes sticking with Valtteri Bottas (whatever) and Lewis Hamilton (fair enough), Ocon is now left with nowhere meaningful to go.

This gets me wondering what the point would be of joining a driver development programme. If it wasn’t for Ocon’s Mercedes links, he would be bound to be snapped up by a decent midfield team — or at least McLaren.

As it is, Ocon is likely to be left twiddling his thumbs for 2019. That situation is not good for either Ocon or Mercedes. So much for development.

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