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F1 teams are showing big faith in young drivers, by blocking others out

by Formula Scout

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

The announcement of Max Verstappen’s extraordinary contract extension until the end of 2028 is the most extreme of F1’s recent long-term deals. What does this shift mean for young drivers now and then?

Half of Formula 1’s 2022 grid is set to stay firmly put on the grid for next year with their current teams. Plenty of deals have been signed for 2023 already, and five drivers already have their plans in place for 2024 and, in two cases, even longer.

Reigning world champion Max Verstappen is the most extreme example, committing to Red Bull Racing for the next seven seasons. It will take him into his thirties, and probably with plenty more wins and possibly more titles to go with it. He claimed he wanted to be at Red Bull forever, and that means that seat, in particular, is locked down for an extraordinarily long time.

While contracts in F1 can sometimes be worth less than the paper they’re written on in the correct circumstances (see Haas for a very recent example), for the purposes of this we’ll assume that the contracts will run until their respective expiry dates. It seems unthinkable right now, but you never know when the Verstappen/Red Bull relationship could deteriorate and he ends up at another outfit.

While Verstappen’s stint in its junior programme lasted a very short time before his F1 deal for 2015 was announced, Red Bull’s faith in its 24-year-old megastar is on full show here. It comes really in response to other paddock juggernauts putting faith in their young stars for several years to come. Plenty of the big hitters have already written out contracts and got their drivers to sign them, and the four main manufacturer teams each have one young driver staying firmly put for the foreseeable future.

Mercedes-AMG has George Russell locked down until ‘only’ 2023, but the years of preparation he has undergone for this role means he likely will be Lewis Hamilton’s natural successor. Ferrari signed Charles Leclerc until 2024 way back in 2020, in what felt like a huge deal at the time. Red Bull is understood to have signed Pierre Gasly to the end of 2023, a contract that could be seen out either in his current AlphaTauri seat or as Verstappen’s Red Bull Racing team-mate once again. Finally, McLaren has put its faith in Lando Norris until 2025. And rightly so, as he’s been getting better and better by the month.

F1 contracts going beyond 2022

Team Driver Contracted until (end of) Signed by team since
Red Bull Max Verstappen 2028 2015*
McLaren Lando Norris 2025** 2019
Alfa Romeo Valtteri Bottas 2024 2022
Alpine Esteban Ocon 2024 2020
Ferrari Charles Leclerc 2024 2019
Mercedes-AMG Lewis Hamilton 2023 2013
Mercedes-AMG George Russell 2023 2022
McLaren Daniel Ricciardo 2023 2021
AlphaTauri Pierre Gasly 2023 2017***
Aston Martin Lance Stroll unknown 2019

*Drove for Toro Rosso through 2015 and the first four races of 2016. Toro Rosso drivers signed with Red Bull, which held four seats via two teams
**Has an option to extend
***Red Bull moved Gasly into its ‘main team’ line-up at the start of 2019, but after 12 races he returned to Toro Rosso

Alpine signed a three-year extension with Esteban Ocon, now 25, in 2021. That means a young driver either has to wait for Fernando Alonso to finally choose retirement (maybe in 2024) or to somehow justify the double champion being ousted.

Verstappen staying at Red Bull until at least 2028 will be a big eye-opener to those in the Red Bull Junior Team, especially given Verstappen is probably the most difficult team-mate on the current grid to go up against. It risks being a complete career-killer where the only route into his team is against him rather than a different face, and a career staller at best.

If a driver is in the Red Bull Junior Team and targeting a Red Bull seat in three to five years, that will inevitably mean going up against Verstappen (who is almost certainly going to continue improving) in the same car and without vast amounts of experience to draw off. Naturally, any driver doing so will want to believe they can get the upper hand, but is it entirely realistic they will? Perhaps not.

The same can be said of the situations at McLaren and Ferrari against Norris and Leclerc respectively. Both are young, firmly established in their teams and will be hugely difficult team-mates for anybody to go up against. How well Alpine’s faith in Ocon and Mercedes’ in Russell is paying off will only become a clearer picture during this season.

These are all outrageous talents who proved their worth in the junior ranks, whether you look at the results or understand the additional context to their early careers, and it is up to the next crop of drivers rising through junior single-seaters to prove to the world that, in fact, this group can be toppled as the post-Hamilton/Vettel/Alonso/Raikkonen era edges closer.

F1 2022’s young drivers

Driver Team Starts Best result
Max Verstappen Red Bull 141 20 wins
Charles Leclerc Ferrari 80 2 wins
George Russell Williams 60 1x 2nd
Lando Norris McLaren 60 1x 2nd
Lance Stroll Aston Martin 100 3x 3rd
Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 21 1x 4th
Mick Schumacher Haas 22 1x 12th
Guanyu Zhou Alfa Romeo 0 N/A

So, which junior driver is best-placed at the moment with all that in mind? Arguably, it’s Sauber starlet Theo Pourchaire. While Valtteri Bottas is locked in at Alfa Romeo Racing until 2024, 18-year-old Formula 2 racer Pourchaire will surely make F1 before long and it is clear that he is the one the Swiss company running the Italian brand’s efforts is courting for the future as its response to the likes of Norris and Verstappen and in its own hope that it will be rising up the grid.

In the immediate future, however, all talk over which junior team or academy is the ‘best’ is pretty trivial. The way a good chunk of the grid is going to be set for years to come vindicates the different approaches to the same task, for all of the programmes’ respective shortcomings. That’s at least in the short-term. The junior drivers themselves will be looking up to the young stars firmly established at their teams, and they’ll need to find a way to somehow topple them before even debuting.

Written by Craig Woollard

Thinking ahead to 2028

If Red Bull nails the incoming set of F1 technical regulations, and does the same for the one after that if there is another overhaul of the engineering prior to 2028, then we can expect Verstappen’s seat to be highly sought after for 2029 if he doesn’t sign another extension before then.

So who would be aiming to put their signature on a Red Bull Racing contract in 2400 days?

Let’s start with drivers who are single-seater rookies this year, and already under Red Bull’s umbrella. Honda protege and Suzuka Racing School-Formula scholar Yuto Nomura is going into French Formula 4 as a Red Bull junior, and it’s definitely the aim for the Japanese Karting Championship graduate to follow Yuki Tsunoda’s path up the European ladder to reach F1.

Fellow Honda junior, SRS-F and JKC graduate Souta Arao will go into French F4 with Red Bull support, while Oliver Rowland’s protege Arvid Lindblad is also going to have Red Bull branding when he steps into F4 after his 15th birthday later this year. The WSK Euro Series karting champion is currently injured after a recent violent crash, but that shouldn’t disrupt his long-term career progression and it would not be a surprise to see him starring in an AlphaTauri by 2027.

Photo: The RaceBox/CotF

Red Bull’s other juniors are too high up the single-seater ladder already to be timing their demands for a Red Bull seat when Verstappen’s potentially becomes vacant, but at least they could have a shot at being his team-mate rather than convincing Dr Helmut Marko they’re worth keeping in an AlphaTauri for up to four seasons. But then is any driver really worth putting in the ‘main’ team after so many seasons at the sister outfit? All the data Red Bull would need on them would already be available.

How about drivers outside of its ranks? Mercedes junior Andrea Kimi Antonelli is currently in his first full year in cars and is without a doubt going to be one of the drivers who will be talked about more and more in the coming years, and his Brazilian rival Rafael Camara was snapped up by Ferrari last year and joins him in F4 as his Prema team-mate. If the F1 opportunities don’t come quick enough with their current backers, then why wouldn’t Red Bull try snapping them up in some capacity? It was, of course, from under Mercedes’ noses that Verstappen became an F1 junior when Red Bull called in 2014.

Perhaps the biggest hypothetical to consider though is that Verstappen will ‘only’ be 14 years into his F1 career by the end of 2028, and last year’s debutants Mick Schumacher and Yuki Tsunoda (if they’re not dropped) will have raced for eight seasons but potentially never got into race-winning machinery and lost all the stock they arrived in F1 with. The reigning champion could still well be the man in town.

Hamilton and Vettel are both currently going into their 16th campaigns at the top level and still look hungry to win, so expect a 31-year-old Verstappen to be the same at the end of his current contract and maybe set eyes on the all-time record for race starts, that should be taken by Alonso this year, in addition to the success metrics he wants to usurp Hamilton in.

Written by Ida Wood

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