A question I am asked frequently: ‘If I were to do it all again, how would I get to Formula 1’? To which I answer, ‘Well, I never got anywhere near Formula 1, so that is a good question.’ That is a quipped reply as I never fulfilled my potential because of injury and not bad decision making. However, you are never far away from a bad decision when it comes to negotiating the minefield up to Formula 1 and I think, in hindsight, many drivers past and present would agree with that statement.
The crusade from an everyday school kid with a dream to a fully-fledged Formula 1 superstar is not by any means a well trodden path. It could be likened to winning the lottery; in fact, I think you would probably get better odds for winning the lottery than you would for occupying a slot on the grid in Melbourne.
The cynics amongst you are probably already screaming ‘MONEY’ at your computer screens and I do not disagree with that opinion. I cannot hide the fact that money is very important nor can I pretend that talent will be enough. What I will say, though, is that you do not have to be a millionaire in order to realise this dream. With the current economy and the way the sport is structured at the moment, money will always precede talent but that does not mean that the drivers being promoted onto the big stage are lacking in talent, it just means that the numbers capable of realising a Formula 1 seat are greatly diluted.
Not many of you will argue that the likes of Vergne, Ricciardo, Grosjean, and Bianchi do not deserve their crack at the big time, but what most of you will argue is that there are individuals that are lost on every rung of the ladder that were capable of emulating these guys. This is something I cannot change, but what I can do is give you a brief insight into how I would approach realising my dream if I were to do it all again.
One of the things lacking in our sport for youngsters is the correct advice and guidance. However, there are plenty of individuals offering bad advice and guidance and worryingly earning money out of promising the world and delivering nothing. Chasing a dream can lead us or those around us to become blinkered and detached from reality. Staying grounded and realistic is very important when making career defining decisions. Determining what is good advice and what is bad advice when you have no experience within the sport is tough. Most drivers are inherently partnered by their Dads and it becomes a team effort: you versus the world. Do not be scared to recognise that you know very little about what you are trying to achieve. That does not mean jumping into bed with the first time waster that knocks on your door (and there will be a lot of these), but actually carefully researching who to speak to and why. Personally, I think, in this modern day and age, this should be a service provided by the MSA. Sadly, it is not and so you need to do it yourself.
Seek out individuals that have achieved the dream from similar circumstances. Approach individuals who do not have a hidden agenda and so will offer impartial advice. There are only a handful of individuals capable of picking up the phone to a Formula 1 team and nine times out of ten they will not be knocking on your door, you will be knocking on theirs. Generally, they will advise you that without a reasonable amount of personal backing or the ability to generate funds, they cannot do much to help your cause. However, what they can do is advise and guide you correctly and if you are lucky they will do this. Romancing these contacts and keeping them abreast of your progress is important. They will be of use later in your career, not at the beginning.
The gulf of affordability between karting and single seaters is growing year by year. The elimination of certain junior formulas and the pressure to spend as little time in each category as possible due to financial constraints means the pathway you choose initially has to be correct. The most important thing for a young driver graduating to cars is seat time. A young driver should be focused on their learning curve and potential and not results at this stage in their career. Success is born on failure. Making mistakes is part of it and while I realise results are important in shaping a profile for investment, it is actually seat time and what you learn at this level that will really shape your career. Long term development has to be in preference to short term development and sadly, that is not always the case dependant on your environment and Team YOU. As a driver climbs the ladder, seat time diminishes and so developing a comprehensive skill set at this level is vital. That might not mean racing; that might mean testing. Spend your money wisely and avoid chasing unrealistic goals.
While I believe that, in order to be the best, you have to beat the best, I am also aware that as a driver, you are also effectively a marketing project. Yes, competing in the highest profile championships is always attractive, but it is not a necessity at the beginning of your career. Creating confidence through a winning habit carries no negatives regardless of the profile of the championship. If you are committed to learning the right lessons and it means saving valuable money, then go for it. Too many drivers get sucked into competing on the big stage, learning nothing, shattering their confidence and spending all their money. For what? Winning means winning whoever the opposition. A winning brand gives you something to market. Yes, at some stage you will need to do it against the best but please do not rush your learning curve.
I cannot cater for every eventuality so it is impossible for me to specifically outline what is best for you and your circumstances. What I can do, however, is showcase what direction I would go in if I had my time again. With the demise of British Formula Ford and Formula BMW UK, (and Formula 4 UK being an unproven entity) I would look abroad for my first step. First stop France and the Autosport Academy. I cannot speak highly enough about the facility the FFSA provide here. Budget capped at 55,000 Euros, French F4 offers an affordable learning environment and importantly a stepping stone where success can potentially open up further opportunities. From here, I would stay in Europe and focus on Formula Renault and the ladder that precedes it. Renault has created a structure for young drivers second to none. Their championships promote learning and talent with the end piece being World Series by Renault. The Renault approach caters as best it can for underfunded drivers and personally, I like the ethos they’ve created.
Being a purist, historically, I would love to say Formula Ford, Formula 3 and GP2 is the way to go but the reality is for all but a handful it isn’t. Formula Ford has lost its USP, Formula 3 is in a state of disarray created by escalating costs and GP2 is bleeding to death with the same issues. Yes, the Renault ladder is still a distant dream for many but for the rest, it offers hope.
Finally, be yourself; do not be frightened to address weakness and surround yourself with the right people who share your goals. Follow your dream but never lose sight of reality.