Home Featured The philosophy of McLaren’s relaunched driver development programme

The philosophy of McLaren’s relaunched driver development programme

by Roger Gascoigne

Photos: McLaren Racing

Recently appointed to lead McLaren’s new Driver Development programme, Emanuele Pirro’s still driven by a curiosity to learn, a desire to pass on his extensive experience and a passion to give to the sport he loves

The former Formula 1 driver and five-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner sat down with Formula Scout to discuss his vision for the programme and his wider philosophy of the need for continuous learning and psychological development.

Pirro’s unquenchable passion for motorsport is obvious from his first words, joking that “I was hoping for it to decrease a little bit with age, but it doesn’t”.

After calling time on a glittering racing career which saw him progress through the traditional junior single-seater ranks to F1, before switching to a highly-successful second career covering touring cars, winning both the Italian and German titles, and endurance racing triumphs on both sides of the Atlantic, Pirro has maintained his active involvement in motorsport across a multitude of roles.

Driven by a natural curiosity – “I’m a curious person” – to try new things and a desire to give something back to motorsport, he has served in the FIA’s Circuits, Drivers’ and Historic Motor Sport commissions and the Italian ONS Circuit and Safety Commission, he’s been vice-president of the “Grand Prix Drivers Club” and been involved in modern F1 as an FIA driver steward and a television pundit on top of an ambassadorial role for Audi.

Since the start of 2023, Pirro has taken on a new role a director of McLaren’s relaunched Driver Development programme. It currently comprises Indycar champion and McLaren F1 reserve driver Alex Palou, IndyCar race-winner Pato O’Ward and American teenager Ugo Ugochukwu, racing this season in Italian Formula 4.

“I like challenges, and I take this challenge very, very seriously,” Pirro tells Formula Scout.

Photos: IndyCar & Formula E

He is quick to stress that the programme is focused on driver development rather than being an academy for junior drivers.

“We don’t like to use the word ‘junior’ because also with Indy[car] and Formula E and those guys, you would offend them if you called them juniors.”

The scope of the programme reflects Pirro’s belief that everyone, no matter who, can always improve themselves.

“If a driver at one stage of his professional and personal life would say I have nothing more to learn or I can’t develop any further, first of all, I think he’s wrong and secondly, I think he’s not a successful person,” he says.

“I don’t consider myself a successful racing driver. However, my career was based on self-criticism and always I asked myself what I could have done to do better even in the best races.

“If you look at the champions, I can think of Lewis Hamilton but I’m sure all the champions, every race, they look at areas where they can improve, even if they win the race.

“So yes, they are IndyCar drivers – they don’t need me to tell them how to improve but they need and would benefit from a proper structure.”

And designing and implementing the right structure to support the development of McLaren’s multi-category roster of drivers is the first task on Pirro’s to-do list.

“My first role is to create a programme, because there is one driver, Ugo, who is signed long term, [plus] the established drivers in FE and IndyCar but there is no structure. So, this is an extra challenge from what it would have been to step into an established structure and then find your drivers [to join] those who are already on board.”

Jake Hughes

Interestingly, Pirro twice refers to McLaren’s FE drivers although neither Jake Hughes nor Rene Rast was included in the initial announcement of the programme’s members.

The aim is to sign up additional junior drivers “because Ugo is the only one and one is not enough” he says, although he is reluctant to compare McLaren’s programme with the F1 academies of Red Bull, Ferrari, Alpine or Mercedes.

“What I can say is, we want to have quality over quantity,” Pirro pledges.

“We really don’t know [how many] and sometimes circumstances drive decisions in a certain direction, which is maybe not what you really plan because at the end the driver is an opportunity for a driver development programme as much as a driver development programme is an opportunity for a driver. So you might have more or less opportunities than you think.”

Pirro’s work with Audi in the past has included the DTM, and a part of that really enjoyed involved driver evaluation.

“We used to do a test at the end of the year to evaluate some drivers. My biggest challenge and concentration was [assessing] how a given driver can develop. Those drivers were already quite senior, on a lower stage it’s even more difficult.”

Pirro underlines how complex the task is to spot the next talented youngster who can make it to the top in motorsport.

The difference between drivers at the top is miniscule, making it “quite difficult to determine in the long term who would be the horse to put your money on because the capability of developing yourself can sometimes compensate a little bit of a lack of performance at the very early stage”.

Interestingly, Pirro makes the comment that the early career performances of even someone like 1992 F1 world champion Nigel Mansell, “could have [meant] maybe in some academies of today he would have been dropped”.

Alex Palou: driver development programme member but McLaren’s IndyCar rival

Pirro himself draws motivation from “keeping myself updated in following the evolution of motorsport” today.

“Motorsport is now more in the spotlight than before, because of communication tools around and there are some critics around motorsport. I really don’t like critics, but I would like to be as current as possible to respond to these critics because for me motorsport is like a son of mine.”

He is keen to stress that the learning is reciprocal: “I don’t want to use the words ‘coach them’ or ‘teach them’ because often you are learning from them, but by sharing experience [we can] help them to grow as a better driver, I believe.”

“For me, the psychological side is really important,” he emphasizes. “A driver now has to use his brain very much, not only in racecraft but also in driving technique.”

Advanced tools can help a driver to hone their driving skills, even at the very highest level, but he is concerned that the amount of tools available can overwhelm the very young drivers.

“A driver is bombarded by sources and pieces of advices, so I think to be sure that this advice is in the correct quantity, not too many, not too few is probably one of the challenges of today’s motorsport in terms of coaching drivers.

“The ability of a driver to make good use of all the help and support they have is a very important quality.”

Beyond the understanding of the car itself, driving a modern racing car pushes the mental capacity of the drivers to its limits. “The drivers can benefit from very deep analysis and then they have to think a lot when they drive. I think driving is less instinctive now than it was before.”

And that’s just inside the cockpit. Being a good driver “outside the car is also important; it doesn’t produce laptime, but it can often make a difference,” he notes.

Current McLaren junior Ugo Ugochukwu

“Nowadays motorsport has got so many incredibly advanced tools to help an athlete grow in the best possible way, which was really not the case in the old days,” he says.

Forty years ago, when Pirro was ascending the junior ladder, and even beyond that in F1, the understanding of the importance of mental training and the support given to drivers was almost completely lacking – “that side of the business was for me very undeveloped”.

“In my time, this psychology was really at the very low level compared to the technology,” he continues, and “maybe it’s arrogant to say but I had to find myself what I needed”.

“A driver was seen as an entity. You hired a driver, you paid him whatever you felt was appropriate and he had to deliver.”

The McLaren opportunity itself arose once Andrea Stella assumed the team principal role from Andreas Seidl just before Christmas last year.

“I really don’t believe in luck but I believe in sliding doors and I believe in personal relationships, not in terms of receiving a special treatment or special favours but in terms of being evaluated properly if an opportunity arises,” explains Pirro.

“I really like Andrea very much as a person and I also like Andrea’s path, because I personally like people who don’t talk much, who don’t shout but they act,” he goes on.

“And when an Italian can make his way abroad, the way Andrea did, for me it’s very valuable,” he says, likening it to his own experience of moving to England.

“So I just dropped him a congratulation email and [we had] a quick chat. I told him that I would like to use my experience to do something in motorsport that goes beyond the marketing thing that I’ve always done.

Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

“One of the reasons why I have done so many roles in the FIA – steward, belong to different commissions in Italy and abroad. Somehow inside myself I did it to become ready to do some sort of management and then Andrea said, ‘maybe we need you’.”

For Pirro, joining McLaren is very much a homecoming, having joined the team in its Senna-Prost heyday to help develop the successful Honda-powered cars of the late 1980s.

“I was at McLaren in fact for four years because during my three F1 seasons [with Benetton and Scuderia Italia], I was still doing testing for McLaren, which is quite strange. McLaren gave me the opportunity to earn an F1 drive because if I wasn’t doing the testing for McLaren, I was already a touring car driver,” he says.

“My memories of that McLaren are really good. McLaren in those days was really excellent in all ways: from a technical standpoint, from a feeling standpoint, so I always have a sweet spot for McLaren, although I hate to say too many good things because it’s sort of obvious!”

“This is why it hurts me a little bit to see it occupying a place on the grid which doesn’t belong to the McLaren I remember; [although] I don’t want to say it doesn’t belong, because I believe in meritocracy, so I think everybody is where he deserves to be on the grid.”

From what Pirro has already seen since his return, a longstanding “healthy culture” reverberates through the team “even if so many things are different.” It’s a culture which he shares – “being serious, having strong ethics and planning everything”.

The only downside for Pirro is that he has reluctantly felt obliged to give up his F1 driver steward role, something he has been involved in “since day one, 2010, the first year,” to avoid any potential accusations of bias towards McLaren’s drivers.

“I’m sad that I have to stop it because it has been really good, but everything has a beginning and an end,” he says ruefully.

Pirro with current McLaren driver Lando Norris in 2017

“People that know me have no doubt I will be impartial. I have a son [Cristoforo Pirro] who works in F1 as the performance engineer of Zhou Guangyu at Alfa Romeo.

“When there is an issue with that team, and I am the driver steward, the chairman asks, ‘you know his son is working for the team; he can step out,’ and every time there was this question, they all say ‘we trust Emanuele 100%, we have no issue’.”

For a gentleman like Pirro, honour, fairness and ethics are paramount. But nevertheless, he is aware that his presence in the paddock in McLaren-branded apparel “just doesn’t look good unfortunately.

“So, from one end I’m sad, but I will not miss the bad days of stewarding.”

It is a sad fact of modern sport, not only motorsport, that those making decisions under the gaze of millions of “experts” in front of their TV screens, can come in for some harsh criticism.

“Unfortunately, especially in Italy, I get a lot of troubles because I am associated very strongly with one of the most controversial penalties.”

This was when Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel got a five-second penalty (“the minimum penalty available”) for squeezing Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton into the wall in Montreal in 2019, ultimately costing Vettel victory and leaving him visibliy displeased.

He has thought about the incident many times but “I have not found one reason not to give this penalty”. However, the memories of the “horrible” abuse he was subjected to remain painful.

“Forget about the rules,” he says, “I believe a lot in meritocracy and that means the ability of driving a race without mistakes. You make a mistake. You go straight. You’re lucky that you don’t crash. You rejoin 73kph slower than the guy who did everything correctly. He tries to pass you and you squeeze him against the wall and he has to back off.

Junior racers supported by McLaren Racing
Year Driver Series
1998 Nick Heidfeld Int. F3000
1998 Wesley Graves Karting
1998-’06 Lewis Hamilton Karting, FR2.0 UK, F3 Euro Series, GP2
2003-’05 Cheng Congfu FR2.0 UK
2006-’09 Giedo van der Garde F3 Euro Series, FR3.5, GP2 Asia, GP2
2007-’10 Oliver Rowland Karting, FR2.0 UK Winter Series
2010 Alex Albon Karting
2010 Jack Harvey FBMW Europe
2010 Petri Suvanto FBMW Europe
2010-’11 Oliver Turvey GP2 Asia, GP2
2010-’13 Kevin Magnussen British, German & Euro Series F3, FR3.5
2010-’18 Nyck de Vries Karting, FR2.0 Eurocup, NEC & Alps, FR3.5, GP3, F2
2010-’15 Ben Barnicoat Karting, FR2.0 Eurocup, NEC, Alps, BARC, BARC Autumn Cup
2012 Tom Blomqvist European & German F3
2013-’16 Stoffel Vandoorne FR3.5, GP2
2017-’18 Lando Norris European F3, F2
2021- Ugo Ugochukwu Karting, ADAC British, Italian & UAE F4

“I am a Sebastian Vettel fan, and at the time even more because I also tend to support the underdogs and Sebastian was going through a difficult period,” he stresses. “So, he needed to win very badly but you can’t [let that influence your judgement]. The heart has to stay outside the room.”

Pirro believes that motorsport is still not ready to embrace the role of the referee, unlike sports “where the referee is part of the tradition, like football,” although anybody who has attended a football match recently may not recognise this charitable view of football fans’ attitude to referees.

“Some people said ‘how can it be that somebody who crosses the line first is not first?’,” which Pirro compares to disallowing an offside goal in football. “When a team wins 1-0 but the other team scores two or three offside goals, people will question the offside, but nobody will ever ask you why the team who put the ball in the net three times didn’t win. So, we need to improve the culture.”

Despite moments such as these, he acknowledges that “from a personal standpoint [stewarding] has been a far more enriching career, if that is the right word, than I [originally] thought”.

“I started out of curiosity. I always want to learn so when there is an opportunity, before thinking too much, I go and most of the times I put something in the pocket, which is not material but in terms of experience, because to be a good steward requires 360° personality.

“I really learned a lot and also to develop the ability of evaluating in depth different contexts,” he says, adding that he took particular pleasure from being able to “contribute quite a lot to improving the rules”.

“I’ve been quite active because I really believe that there was room and there is still a lot of room to develop sometimes.”