Being a Formula 1 driver sounds like a dream job, doesn’t it? Traveling the world, racing the most incredible cars in front of millions of fans watching both trackside and around the globe, I’d hazard a guess that the majority of you wouldn’t mind trading places with one of the lucky 20 drivers on the grid.
But calling them lucky probably isn’t fair, given the effort and skill required to make it to the very top. And it all starts at a much younger age than you might expect.
Motor racing is an extremely expensive sport, which can be a roadblock to many young talents. Red Bull has one of the most successful young driver programmes in Formula 1, and Dr Helmut Marko’s job is to identify potential future world champions and give them the opportunity to show what they can do.
“We used to look only at drivers when they were in open-wheel cars, but because there are not so many drivers around and there is a lot of competition - Mercedes is doing it, Ferrari is doing it, Renault is doing it - we have now started looking at drivers when they are still in go-karts,” Marko admits. “The youngest guy is in OK-Junior (11-15), so we changed the whole approach.
“Speed is the main thing we look for, of course. Once we believe the speed is there, then I have a personal conversation to get an impression. Is this guy tough enough? Is he committed enough? But you still have a risk. At 14 years or 15 years, they fall in love for the first time… And a lot of other things happen, everything changes!
“But throughout our support, the main thing is competitiveness and performance. As long as they perform it’s fine. If they’re not performing, and there's no sign of recovering or improvement, then of course we stop it.
“At the beginning we supported a lot of drivers. You know motor racing is very, very expensive. But then we got one and pretty soon the second Formula 1 team. So we were clear that's not enough, it has to be from the approach of finding a driver who can win a grand prix.”
With Red Bull Racing entering F1 in 2005 and Toro Rosso joining it a year later, the young driver programme had two teams with which young talent could race. The most successful graduate is Sebastian Vettel, who has four world titles to his name, but Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen have also come through the system to win races.
Verstappen will be partnered by current Toro Rosso Honda driver Pierre Gasly next year, and the Frenchman remembers what changed when he was signed to the young driver programme in 2014.
“At that point you’re representing the brand,” Gasly says. “Of course you’ve got to deliver, but that’s always been the case. I knew even before I got into the programme that I had to be the best if I wanted to continue.
“So in terms of approach it was the same, it’s just that you have more responsibilities by the fact that you’re a Red Bull driver, you have extra pressure because they are always looking at everything you’re doing, and basically they put you in a better environment. I had access to the simulator in Milton Keynes, I had access to the factory, I could speak to the engineers, so in a way you come into a much bigger team.
“Even if you don’t have access to everything you start to realise how professional this world is. I started to work with professional coaches and attending training camps. I had this already with the French motor sport federation but not to that level. So they really try to develop you a lot as a driver and as an athlete.
“Then the pressure in terms of results is the same, you just need to deliver if you want to continue and keep the support, but it’s not like I need to deliver for them, I need to deliver for myself like it was at the beginning. But Helmut is pretty good at adding extra pressure to see how you handle it.”
The physical and psychological side is looked after at a diagnostic institute in Thalgau near Salzburg, Austria, where many of Red Bull’s 650-plus athletes are analysed. That allows young drivers to work on the improvements their body specifically requires, but Marko is still looking for certain key ingredients on track.
“He has to be quick immediately when he comes into a new category,” Marko reveals. “We don’t believe in just mileage, mileage, mileage. There has to be some intuitive speed. Some natural ‘killer instinct’ I would say. So when we see the positive signs, we encourage them to go in this direction. It’s very individual because they are all human beings and they are different. And we want them to be different.”
Gasly has experienced Marko’s approach first-hand, and understands how certain aspects of his development as a younger driver have come back to benefit him now he has made it to the F1 grid.
“Basically with Helmut he doesn’t need to say it to make you understand you’ve got to be the best,” Gasly explains. “He doesn’t say it to you, but they always ask more and more of you and push you. They tell you that even if you do great, it’s not great you need, you need to do amazing. So this aspect keeps pushing you beyond your limits to see how you handle it.
“Helmut really wants to see how you react out of your comfort zone, so he puts you in situations where you are like ‘What the f**k is going on?!’ and things are quite difficult to control. Especially when you’re at such a young age, but he just wants to see how you behave and react to these situations.
“I think it’s also the way they build your mental strength, because mentally I can feel now that I am so much better and see all the improvements and developments just being with them. They try to make it tough for you, so sometimes it’s really difficult because it’s not always fair, but if you manage to make it through it makes you a much stronger person and athlete as well.”
Marko has overseen the development that led to Pierre gaining a promotion from Toro Rosso to Red Bull next year when Ricciardo moves on, but the Australian and Verstappen both also benefited from what Marko describes as a “brave” approach to bring drivers through based solely on talent, regardless of age.
“I think I have a good working relationship with drivers. With some, it's a little bit more, but it's never that I have a favourite or something, it’s always with the necessary respect. And they know they have to deliver.
“I don't go to their birthday party - OK if it’s at the track I will - but not what they’re doing privately, I don't think it's necessary. But if they're in a crisis or let's say some symptoms of a crisis are coming around, then I work with them more on an individual basis.
“With Pierre, it was not clear at the beginning of the season that Ricciardo would leave, but there have been some signs around Montreal that he could, so I had a very close eye on Pierre, what he was doing at Toro Rosso.
“I didn’t tell him there was a chance, but listen, if you want to move forward in Formula 1 you have to improve. You always have to be better than your teammate. You can't make mistakes. He made one mistake in qualifying in Australia, but after that he steadily moved up.
“His races were good because he looked after the tyres. And we always did take drivers from our programme. I think they know if they are performing they have a chance. We have a leading Formula 1 team, the lead driver is 21 years old, and Pierre is 22.”
At Honda our own young driver programme has brought the likes of Tadasuke Makino and Nirei Fukuzumi to Formula 2, although super license regulations don’t permit them to race in F1 just yet. Marko is not only encouraged by the strengthening of the Red Bull-Honda partnership from next year’s power unit perspective, but also from a driver point of view.
“It will help Red Bull having two teams supplied by Honda, and we are having a much closer technical relationship next year. Whatever is allowed from the regulations Toro Rosso will get from the RB14. And it helps Red Bull Racing and it helps Honda of course because will have four cars running and get far more information.
“So far it's working very well and we are impressed by the performance of what they are achieving. On Friday in Russia the new engine was really impressive, and so far, whatever they’ve planned and promised has happened."