THE ROAD TO A FORMULA ONE DRIVE
To get to the pinnacle of any professional sport needs total commitment with no guarantee of success. Unlike most sports though, Formula 1 has an additional barrier to entry, its phenomenal cost. Unlike other sports like football where a player can practice their skills with nothing more than a ball and jumpers for goals posts, motors sports entry level requires funding. Its estimated that by the time a driver makes it to the F1 grid they have already had around £10m invested in their career.
So it’s a huge leap of faith for a driver and even more so for those sponsoring his career where in some cases a parent’s life savings will be committed with no guarantee of success, and where decisions are made for reasons unrelated to on track performance such your looks or image fit with a team’s public persona, or that the other driver competing for the same seat comes with a bigger sponsors package attached.
As it has been for many years, most future F1 drivers start in Kart racing as it’s the most accessible form of racing for youngsters as young as 5 years old to race competitively. However, don’t be fooled that this is any way a cheap sport to be competitive in.
Even if your offspring has a talent for the track, it’s going to cost you around £2,000 to get them a decent Kart to race, with all the associated clothing, transportation, and licences costs, and then an addition £3,000 per year for all the ancillaries just to go racing. As your driver progresses through the ranks from Kids Karts (age 5-7), Cadet (age 7-12), Junior (age 12-15) and Senior (age 15+), costs naturally escalate. If you are wanting to seriously compete, the truth is there is always something you can buy to give you that additional bit of an edge. So, if you are considering this path for your own Formula 1 hopeful, don’t be surprised if by the time you’re charge has reached Junior Karting, you’ve already replaced their Kart 3 or 4 times and are now regularly spending north of £10,000-£50,000 per year to keep them competitive. The truth is whatever your budget is you will spend it.
Even after all this investment, to progress further a driver already needs to be in that top 1% with a certain something which marks them out from all the other young hopefuls. If they have that spark, then the next step is a single seat junior formula.
Formula 4 is a FIA certified series designed as a low-cost entry point to car racing and aimed at young racing drivers (15 and over) moving up from karting. The racing is held regionally with many countries running their own championships. Car costs are capped at £36,000 but a season for a competitive driver is likely to cost around £400,000.
As the age of elite drivers gets lower it’s now possible that if a driver is good enough they will skip a feeder formula. So, whilst the next natural progression for a driver is Formula 3, if the driver is good enough and has the financial backing, then a direct route from F4 to F2 is possible.
However, this is unusual and F3 has traditionally been regarded as the first major steppingstone for drivers looking to make it to Formula 1. It’s where to be successful, drivers need to dedicate time to fitness and testing. As a result, these drivers have usually made a commitment to drive full time by turning professional. While it’s not cheap it’s also where many professional feeder teams such as ART and Prema ply their trade.
So, a driver with promise and funding can get a seat with a well-established team with a proven track record of championship success. Drivers such as Lewis Hamilton, George Russell, Lando Norris, and Charles Leclerc have all taken this route to Formula 1. F3 is not cheap, in addition to their own living expenses a driver will need a budget of around £1m for a competitive season in F3. It’s also likely that F3 will be the first season where even a very talented driver will come up against real competition. This usually results in the driver spending at least 2 seasons in F3 before transitioning to F2.
At this stage of a drivers career it’s not unusual for them to have attracted full or part sponsorship from a Formula 1 team, placing that driver on their academy programme. If this happens of course the pressure of finding funding reduces but the pressure of retaining it and furthering a driver’s career increases with the forensic eye of the Formula 1 team monitoring progress.
If a driver makes it as far as F2 then the number of competing drivers has reduced, but the quality will have risen exponentially. When perhaps only one or two Formula 1 seats as a test driver are up for grabs, being the best of the best is crucial. As the great Ayrton Senna said, “To come second is to be the first of those that lost!”
For a driver to compete in F2 they will need a budget of £2m per season and unless they are now in the top 0.5%, they’re likely to been driving in F2 for multiple seasons until a seat in an F1 team becomes available.
Of course, the rewards if you make it the F1 grid are huge with entry level salaries of £1m, established mid-tier driver salaries of £4m to £6m, and your world champions and contenders in the top teams earning tens or even hundreds of millions per year.
So, if you’re a parent of a precocious driving talent and are considering helping them pursuing a career in F1, then we wish you luck and many nights of good sleep as you create the masterplan for your future Formula 1 world champion. However, if your offspring is forging an equally successful career elsewhere or is simply happy with their lot, then perhaps it’s time for some self-pampering and enjoyment for yourself.