Lewis Hamilton’s father Anthony has warned that racing risks becoming a playground for drivers backed by billionaires unless the path to the top gets clearer and the cost of competing in junior series reverses.
Lewis is a three-time Formula One champion and is famous for having celebrity friends and a jet-set lifestyle but his career started very differently.
His father came from a working-class background and steered him from remote control car racing to competing in go karts followed by the junior single-seater series British Formula Renault, Formula Three and GP2 which is one step below Formula One.
A chance meeting with McLaren boss Ron Dennis in 1995 led to Lewis being funded and supported by his F1 team and Mercedes-Benz. Without this support it is unlikely Lewis would have made it through to F1. A dominant performance in GP2 in 2006 led to Lewis getting a drive with McLaren in 2007 and in 2008 he won his first F1 championship.
This was followed by back-to-back titles with Mercedes over the past two years. He goes into this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix at the top of the standings with team-mate Nico Rosberg just two points behind.
“There are so many junior series that young drivers don’t really know which is the best path to take,” says Hamilton.
“Junior motorsport is still fragmented and expensive and that alone doesn’t encourage those with a dream of F1 to enter the sport, or for the genuine cream to rise to the top. In our day we just worked hard with what we had and were blessed to have been spotted by Ron Dennis and Mercedes but that isn’t enough any more. If costs continue to escalate at the junior level, and junior series remain financially unregulated, then I think Lewis will be the last of his generation.”
Although children can get experience of motor racing at a kart track, competing in it seriously over a number of years can cost more than £1m. As they race through motorsport’s ranks they face a bewildering range of options with no single defined route to the top.Families have to pay for their children to train and develop their skills in most sports but motor racing is the most expensive with the price of getting from karting to GP2 estimated to be a staggering £10m.
Those who can afford it often have wealthy families or wealthy backers then go on to pay for a race seat in F1 which can cost anything up to £12m a year.
“Getting to the top shouldn’t be about those who can afford it, but about those who work hard and are the best,” says Hamilton.
“At junior level there are many drivers who win championships but don’t have the funds or backing to move up to F1. It is about time that a career path structure was put in place to make sure that drivers who are proven winners are rewarded with a guaranteed route into F1.”
Since McLaren began supporting Lewis at the age of 13 a number of F1 teams have offered a select group of young drivers the chance to learn under their guidance. The most well-known is the Red Bull junior development programme, which has produced its current F1 driver Daniel Ricciardo and former champion Sebastian Vettel.
It is about time that a career path structure was put in place to make sure that drivers who are proven winners are rewarded with a guaranteed route into F1.
However, the majority of drivers still don’t make it through. These schemes are also fiercely competitive to get into so can favour drivers who come from a racing or wealthy family.It has given those with wealthy relatives or racing heritage an advantage and increasingly they skip straight to the top. Last year, Max Verstappen, son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen, became the youngest driver in the history of the sport aged 17.
Verstappen joined Red Bull’s driver development scheme in 2014 just six days before it was announced that he had been signed by its Toro Rosso F1 team and only one year after graduating from karting. He isn’t the only one.Last year it was announced that 17 year-old Lance Stroll had been signed as test driver for the Williams F1 team.
His father Lawrence owns Canada’s Circuit Mont-Tremblant and has built up an estimated £1.7bn fortune from developing the Tommy Hilfiger clothing brand.Similarly, in February Force India took on as a development driver 16-year-old Russian Nikita Mazepin, whose billionaire father Dmitry owns mineral fertiliser producer Uralchem.
Although younger drivers are seen to be more fearless than their older counterparts, they have less experience. Having wealthy backers or the support of a global brand can also make them reluctant to speak their minds as they are encouraged to be a poster-boy for the companies that pay their bills.
It has led some to say that today’s drivers lack character and this can also manifest itself on track if they are concerned about making daring manoeuvres in case they are frowned upon should they not come off.
“F1 could end up with the majority of drivers paying for their drives, rather than earning them through being a junior champion,” says Hamilton. This could be prevented by introducing a driver draft and selection process that only allows the best through on merit alone. If a driver failed to meet performance targets after two years he could be replaced with another to ensure that the racing stays unpredictable.
“You could also limit the drivers’ contracts with a team to three years so that the leaders would have to trade with their rivals below them. It would give others an opportunity to get the best drivers and to win races and ultimately championships. The dominance of one team and driver for several years has had its day. Drivers managing tyres, engines, and not being allowed to race the pants off the race car is not real seat of the pants motor racing like it used to be. Mixing it up would be great for the sport and the public who want to see the best racing drivers, real competition and exciting racing.”