Home Featured The Alpine Academy has a winning vision, but lost its drivers

The Alpine Academy has a winning vision, but lost its drivers

by Ida Wood

Photos: Alpine

Last week it finally looked like the Alpine Academy would have a driver graduate to its own F1 team, but now that doesn’t seem certain at all. Are 2022’s changes encouraging for that ambition in the future?

Since Renault’s rebranding of its Formula 1 team to Alpine ahead of the 2021 season, there has been some big changes behind the scenes. Key appointments, and departures, as well as reshuffling of positions within the company has brought along a new vision for the brand in single-seaters in addition to new colours (from yellow and white to blue and pink).

Those changes impacted its young driver development programme, or at least at the launch last year that was what was pitched to the press by Alpine’s chief executive officer Laurent Rossi. Formula Scout understands his marketing-led vision at all levels clashed with the sport-focused plan that then-Academy director Mia Sharizman had been implementing since he came to the helm there in 2016 when Renault bought the Lotus F1 team.

While Sharizman had failed in the Academy’s previous fundamental objective in taking a driver to an F1 seat, and that was not helped by big money drivers signings at Enstone that have filled one of the team’s two seats over the past four seasons, the programme was selective enough in its support of drivers after its first year (when many of its drivers had been signed based on pre-existing agreements on 2015 results) that it mostly avoided ‘bad’ signings.

But Renault then let go of drivers just when it really needed to support them, and following the rather regrettable dropping of Sacha Fenestraz (who now stars for Toyota in Japan and is set to be announced this week as a Nissan Formula E driver) it avoided double embarassment with French drivers by re-signing Victor Martins in 2021 after a season out of the academy and made Hadrien David an affiliate of the programme (although he describes his position as F1 junior in all but name) this year having also released him for 12 months. The other success story it let slip was Yifei Ye, now of Porsche Asia Pacific.

Ye [pictured below] was one of several Chinese drivers to pass through the Academy, and all of them were underutilised in marketing potential, particularly Zhou Guanyu last year given Rossi’s desires.

Yifei Ye

Photo: Malcolm Griffiths / FIA F3 Championship

But at the end of the day it was not Rossi in charge of the Alpine Academy, nor the marketing team (who were steeped in rally lore with their 2021 target of reminding people Alpine cars actually exist and that the brand had motorsport pedigree) either.

So another change had to take place to execute Rossi’s strategy, although it came too late to hold on to Zhou as he found an F1 berth with Alfa Romeo Racing for 2022 rather than spend a fourth season in Formula 2 or on the sidelines with title rival and Alpine stablemate Oscar Piastri for a year.

Former Arden and Fortec Motorsports team manager Julian Rouse joined in March, then a few weeks later Sharizman left and it was only in May that Alpine publicly confirmed that he had been replaced as manager by Rouse.

The new leadership structure also included Pierre Sancinena, already a company man not only in engineering roles but also through race-winning exploits in Alpine sportscars as a driver, who was promoted from coach to development manager.

Completing the set is W Series racer Alice Powell, who races against her own protege Abbi Pulling and also works with her in an Alpine capacity as she is the academy’s talent identification and development mentor and Pulling is an affiliate (with Alpine refusing to hand full junior status to anyone racing below FIA Formula 3).

Powell won the Formula Renault BARC title in 2010 and the Asian title four years later, with a GP3 season, a year in the F3 Cup and a Renault-sponsored MRF Challenge campaign inbetween, and after her time in single-seaters ended she went into driver coaching. In 2019 her open-wheel career was revived with the creation of W Series, which put a spotlight on her coaching work as well as her own driving in the F1 support paddock (for the past two seasons), and combined with being a decade-long user of Alpine’s team gymn led her down the path of now working for the team.

“I’m still doing coaching [outside of Alpine],” Powell told Formula Scout in the British Formula 4 paddock where she was ‘off-shift’ but saying hello to everyone and keeping an eye on some drivers regardless.

Piastri and Pulling

“It’s [just] fitting in time to do it! So I help Abbi, a karter in karting, and [long-time protege] Ella Stevens from time to time as well. So not as much in the F4 side anymore, but just fitting it in really.

“Alpine has always had a good space in my heart. I’ve been close to that facility since about 2010, ’11, so for me to sort of be part of the team, and my main role mainly is to help mentor the female drivers and then be like a talent scout really. It’s great to have an involvement with the team, but also probably one of the most successful sort of academies in F1.”

Because she is working for an F1 team, but with Alpine Academy affiliates who race away from the F1 support bill, factory time is as important as finding the time to catch them in their paddocks.

“Still going to do stuff at the factory,” she confirmed. “I’ve trained at their facilities, probably actually since 2010, so still go there and train at their facilities [with the drivers]. But also in the factory, in the Academy office. And whenever I’m in, I’ll always pop in [to Rouse’s office].”

Being a modern day F1 scout doesn’t quite involve standing on a grass bank, writing down a lot of notes and submitting a big written report to her bosses, and Powell’s description makes it sound like her role in 2022 very much is about finding out what Alpine – and Rossi – wants while building the equivalent of a database on drivers who are impressing in karting and entry-level single-seaters. It’s certainly not driven by the need to find ‘X’ amount of drivers to become juniors for next year.

“It’s really just to keep an eye out,” Powell explained. “And especially the young female talent coming through. Obviously the only female in the Academy at the moment is Abbi [as an affiliate], so for next year just keep an eye on different females racing. Whether it’s in karting or cars, and also any other standout talent that there might be on the grid I can then obviously put that forward. And if they, especially mainly the females, join the Academy then I can help mentor them.

“Who knows [if Alpine signs anyone]. F1 academies, it’s a very privileged thing to be part of, so it’s going to be up to them if we feel that’s someone suited to the Academy and deserves a chance to be part of one of the most successful academies in F1.”

Pulling, Renault CEO Luca de Meo & Powell

Powell’s hiring is great news for women in motorsport, as it shows a team is actively searching for more female driving talent to support at a lower level and then guide up the racing ladder to one day be ready for F1. That’s also a clear marketing goal ticked off in Alpine’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) to utilise more female talent and actively plan on increasing the number of women involved in F1 teams. On top of that, if the development of female drivers within F1 young driver programmes is aided better by having a Powell-like figure than having an approach that is not specifically catered to different genders, then others in motorsport would do well to take notice.

On the flip side, Powell’s comments suggest that potentially Alpine signs nobody and this is another Rossi motion that has intent, is good PR but doesn’t then execute. Some would say just like the Academy itself…

Formula Scout spoke with FIA F3 driver and Alpine junior Martins about the 2022 change, with his position of having been a junior in the Renault days, the first year of Alpine branding and now under its revamped leadership.

“It has been really good,” Martins said. “I didn’t know Julian when he arrived with Alpine. He’s a really nice person with who I feel I created already a good relationship. We understand each other, he already saw my weaknesses, of course my strengths also, but we can already start to work on my weakness and then to be stronger and to learn more about myself.

“I think he can give me a lot of advice, so let’s see, but for the moment it has been good and I think he wants to change some stuff, some things in Alpine, where we could maybe gain more from the F1 team. More information, more support, more everything. Just to have [more integration]. So let’s see, but for the moment it’s been really good.”

There had been rumours of a change within Alpine following a year of Rossi and Sharizman’s differing outlooks, and after indecision caused by differing political views higher up in Alpine prevented Piastri and Zhou being loaned to rival F1 teams rather than lost entirely when 2022 and ’23 seats were still available, but did Martins and his fellow juniors get told there would be a change of leadership in the Academy prior to it happening?

Martins and Piastri

“Not really. I had heard rumours also, like everyone, but I was never [told] – I have been a bit surprised, to be honest, because the seasons had started already so I was kind of ‘and then championship has started, for sure he will stay’ [in my expectation].

“But then no, I got this information and this news, but I think no one was expecting this to happen now, I would say. Maybe at the end of the year, maybe, because, you know, rumours sometimes they are true, sometimes not. But when you hear them for a long time… I was surprised that it happened that early in the season.”

The new vision at Alpine did win, but it came at a cost. Not only of removing the old vision, but also potentially – as of this week – the loss of its three top Academy talents.

Last week, both Zhou and IndyCar driver Christian Lundgaard confirmed to press they have totally ended their affiliation to Alpine. Zhou is targeting a second season at Alfa Romeo and told F1 media he was glad to have avoided his old team’s current drama, while Lundgaard – who just came short of a second consecutive podium in his rookie season in the Music City Grand Prix last weekend – is closing in on a sophomore campaign with his team Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Lundgaard may have come a lowly 12th in F2 last year, but the youngest of the trio is a big loss too. It is said he was the best-performing driver in Renault’s private F1 tests and his transition to IndyCar would certainly support that idea.

Piastri beat both to the F2 title but pulled the short straw, or at least Alpine did for him, as he has spent 2022 as an F1 reserve driver and was busy pursuing a race seat with another team when Fernando Alonso’s departure freed up an Alpine berth. Alpine didn’t react immediately, but then announced it was promoting Piastri for 2023. It came too late, and it looks like Piastri’s manager Mark Webber may have orchestrated a deal for him to replace Daniel Ricciardo at McLaren after he was made available to the team as reserve driver earlier this year.

Piastri, Alpine racing director David Brivio and Sharizman in 2021

Whatever the situation is, as there has been no public confirmation that a McLaren deal has been signed, it has annoyed Alpine. The team thinks it has invested a lot in Piastri, although his private test programme in a 2018 F1 car was only actually possible thanks to Zhou’s backers, and although the Renault backing after winning the 2019 Formula Renault Eurocup definitely ensured Piastri’s career could actually continue into FIA F3, it’s been Webber who did the legwork to then secure a F2 seat with Prema and again in pursuing F1 opportunities.

And this year’s reserve driver role has been a job where car, not driver, development is the focus. What’s more, had it not given him the job it would have made Alpine the target of a lot of criticism having already overlooked Piastri for a race seat, and it still hasn’t given him an F1 free practice debut.

But Alpine did do a brilliant job in managing how it brought Piastri over from Australia to race in Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic, and there was a vote of confidence in its approach when Red Bull Junior Team-supported driver Jack Doohan swapped over to Alpine for 2022 and told Formula Scout that “I really liked my time at Red Bull, but the opportunities Alpine was offering to me were better for me” despite the programme’s list of F1 graduates running far shorter than Red Bull’s.

Having failed to bring Piastri into F1 quick enough, does the new commercial-driven approach to the Alpine Academy have enough time to turn F2 rookies Doohan and Olli Caldwell and F3 sophomores Martins and Caio Collet into F1 contenders?

Read more
The F1 driver academy programme that must deliver soon (January 2020)
Why Alpine’s new academy is more ‘restructure’ than ‘rebrand’ (February 2021)