Losing a place on an F1 junior programme can mean the end of the dream for many, especially those short on funding, but Victor Martins has been welcomed back to the new-look Alpine Academy after just a year away
It doesn’t have the reputation of the Red Bull Junior Team, but Renault’s young driver programme – now operating under the Alpine brand together with its Formula 1 team – has still made some fairly ruthless decisions over recent years.
Any expenditure has to be justified, and with places on the scheme having been on offer to the winners of certain championships, tough targets have had to be set. Sacha Fenestraz was one notable victim of that: signed after beating Robert Shwartzman to the Formula Renault Eurocup title but dropped again after a single difficult season in Formula 3 in 2018. He’s quickly reinvented himself in Japan, but any F1 aspirations had to be effectively parked.
One year later, another top prospect – who like Fenestraz happens to also be French – found himself on the outside. Victor Martins could have considered himself particularly hard done by, having effectively lost his place on the academy to Oscar Piastri after finishing just 7.5 points shy in their 2019 Eurocup title duel. Now though, having clinched the Eurocup crown in his third season in the series, he’s back in the Enstone fold and preparing to follow Piastri’s move into the FIA F3 Championship.
Academy director Mia Sharizman is somewhat coy on the circumstances of Martins’ absence from the programme in 2020, but is happy to see him back.
“I wouldn’t say we went our separate ways,” the Malaysian says.
“He was still in Eurocup and we had a plan for him obviously after two years in Eurocup to move up into Formula 3. Having said that, he and his management decided to do another year [in Eurocup] and we respect that.
“But when we brought him up from French Formula 4 we always believed that he is in the Formula Regional champion level of drivers. Victor is, I have to say at the moment, the best driver at that level.
“To have him back with us, it was never an automatic thing, but to find a way to progress into F3, I think it’s a positive for the academy and I’m sure for Victor it’s where he should be.”
It’s clear that Martins staying in Eurocup for another season was more the product of circumstance than design. He doesn’t have wealthy family backing, but he has had Sebastien Philippe – team boss of ART Grand Prix – looking after his career. And once he lost out to Piastri, and the ideal move to FIA F3 became even more difficult, he was instead tasked with leading ART’s return to the Eurocup.
Meanwhile, Piastri went on to win the FIA F3 crown at the first attempt in a plum Prema seat, and for 2021 joins Guanyu Zhou and Christian Lundgaard (who stepped up from F4 to FR2.0 with Martins three years ago) as Alpine juniors in Formula 2.
“I think to be honest it was tough to accept because I never knew that I was going to do a third year in Formula Renault,” Martins says. “That was obviously not the first plan. Actually as a driver you always want to step up, so it was a tough decision to take with my personal management.
“I think during the season in 2020 I just learned how important it was to focus only on myself and not on the others. Because I can be frustrated if I see Christian or Oscar in Formula 2 and me still in Formula Renault but I think the most important for me is to just focus on myself, keep growing my skills and just have a good development as a human being and as a driver also.
“I just also tried to tell to myself it’s an opportunity to go through situations that I didn’t go through in the past years, like to lead a championship and not to be P2 and chasing another driver.
“So that was a really great year for me and also to just create a good environment around me with a new team, a team which is doing its return after 15 years. Now I’m just so proud of what we achieved because I definitely can’t be more ready than I am today, so I just need to keep focused on myself and with the people I work with.”
The way Martins coped mentally with the blow of losing his academy status and having to stay in the Eurocup is particularly impressive. So is the progression he’s shown in the three years since he was first unveiled as a Renault junior as a 16-year-old: snapped up after finishing runner-up in French F4 off the back of a brief but successful karting career, culminating in the world junior title in only his third full season of competition.
“To go for a third year [in Eurocup] I knew I had to win the title and nothing else, because it was a great opportunity for me to keep growing as a driver,” he says.
“I took it maybe not positively at the beginning but after that I just moved on and said ‘how can I handle that situation with what I have and with the people I work with?’ and I just managed to build a really good environment around me. Maybe it was the toughest year I have been through, because there are all the critics around you, so I try to manage that as well as possible and I think I did pretty well, so I am really proud of 2020.”
While Sharizman says that Martins rejoining the academy was not ‘automatic’ if he won the title, he also says it was not dependent on winning the title either. And while expectation may have been that Martins would stay with ART to move up to FIA F3, it was the opportunity for Alpine to place both he and his Eurocup title rival Caio Collet at MP Motorsport that really made both a graduation to the series and the academy return possible.
“He lost to Oscar by 7.5 points and I think at that time we had to make a decision, and we wanted to move him up,” Sharizman adds.
“Having said that, sometimes the world goes around, and we got back together, and he knew before the start of the  season what is required of him. Yes, you win the title, we come in. It’s not a given thing as well, we need to get you a competitive seat to challenge for honours.
“I think it all came together and we knew already when he was with Caio all the way back-and-forth for the five rounds in the middle of the year. At that time we knew we were going to take both of them, basically. It wasn’t about who was the winner and who was second.”
MP Motorsport placed sixth in the FIA F3 teams’ standings in 2020, with Richard Verschoor its best-placed driver in ninth. The previous year had ended with a shock Macau Grand Prix win and with a bolstered technical department, the team had been expected to build on that success.
Piastri was champion for Prema by three points ahead of ART’s Theo Pourchaire, and Collet – managed by Nicolas Todt – was unsurprisingly linked to both of those teams, testing with them as well as MP last October.
Sharizman frequently refers to the placing of his drivers with MP as a ‘project’ and there is an expectation upon the two Alpine juniors to work together to help drive Sander Dorsman’s team forward.
“It’s easy to have one with ART and suddenly going for the championship and you go to MP, and that’s the first thing that everybody’s going to say: why not go to Prema, why not go to ART?
“I think it’s testament to Victor and also Caio as well that they understood and they believe in the project that we put together with MP. It has been a long time coming, Sander can attest to it, but it is something we hope everybody will have the right package and we will see the end result at the end of the year.”
Joining MP is not uncharted territory for Martins, and he left a strong impression on the Dutch squad when he ran Piastri close two years ago.
“Obviously Victor drove for our team in Eurocup in 2019 so we know him really well,” says Dorsman.
“And since we heard a bit of a rumour that the aim was [for him] to move into FIA F3 we were fully on it; it was our objective to have him back with us and we are really happy that he is coming home I would say.
“I think his real strong point has always been in my opinion his qualifying. I think he is really a qualifying animal basically. The year he did Formula Renault with us, he destroyed the record in qualifying with the number of pole positions he had.”
In addition to 21 poles across three seasons, Martins also holds the Eurocup’s record for most wins (15) and points (846.5).
“So I think that’s a real strong point and I think he’s a real mature racer,” Dorsman continues.
“If I look at Victor when he arrived to us at the start of 2019 and if you see where he is now, I think he grew a lot mentally and he is a really professional guy, how he looks to each and every situation, so I think that combination makes him a really great and talented driver basically.”
In 2020, Prema fielded the two most exciting graduates from Regional F3 by pairing Piastri with his title-winning counterpart Frederik Vesti from Formula Regional European Championship. MP will arguably be in the same position this year by taking on Martins and Collet, with reigning FREC champion Gianluca Petecof having jumped to F2, and Dorsman hopes that will help the team take the challenge to Prema, reckoning the right combination of team and drivers can be “unbeatable”.
“For us as a team it’s a really good opportunity to have two really strong drivers. Especially with, for example, limited free practice time, it’s always good if you have two team-mates that can push each other and also generate some good data and that always pushes the team as a whole forward.
“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for us as a team to make another step forward in FIA F3 and I expect we can do a bit the same like we did last year in F2, which is to make a good step forward and that is naturally our objective here.”
MP’s improvement in F2 last season – when unfancied rookie Felipe Drugovich won three times – was helped by the recruitment of two former Prema engineers in Paolo Angilella and Daniele Rossi. The new calendars for F2 and F3 this year – where the championships will no longer race on the same weekends – creates opportunities for teams that field cars in both championships to deploy staff across both programmes.
Dorsman expects this to be especially the case with engineers more so than mechanics (who he says are kept busy enough turning one set of cars around between races), and there are hints from both him and Sharizman that MP’s F2 engineers will now also work with Martins and Collet in F3.
“Everything is about timing. For everybody here [in the academy] it’s about going to F1 and it’s about timing. But sometimes in F3 is also about timing because this year is the first year that F2 and F3 are not on the same race weekend,” Sharizman says.
“Therefore it’s the first time that you could do things that you could never have done before. And that was what we looked at together with MP, and to be honest with you it’s something that would only work if Victor had a strong team-mate as well.
“So, I think in this case, if you look at the expected grid of the championship, the timing is right. We are silently confident. We looked at the timing was right for us to try something and I think the boys accepted it and can see what it is going forward. “And fair play to them, because we need them at the end of the day to sometimes be proud of it and own it, because if they are willing to accept it, this can see where we want to go with it and the results will come. I’m 100% sure of it.”
When two drivers battle closely all season for a title, it would be natural for there to be some animosity, and Martins and Collet are now once again rivals in terms of career prospects as part of the same junior team. But it’s clear that they do get along well.
“I think me and Victor, we have a really good relationship out of the track,” Collet says.
“Last year we had respect for both of us above everything. Of course the first one I want to beat is him, the first one you want to beat is your team-mate, but I think for us to work together and build the team up, we need to really build a relationship.
“I mean it’s hard in a way but we need to be kind of friends to work together to make the team grow. I think it’s quite clear.”
Sharizman adds: “We’ve never looked at it as a head-to-head. Yes, they were fighting head-to-head in Eurocup and they were in the Academy together in the year before, but coming into F3 the project that we’ve put together, together with MP, Caio and Victor, we needed two drivers of equal level to work together as a package together with MP, to bring up everybody whether it’s the drivers as well as the team, and that can only work if the two of them work together.
“Yes they are competing with each other, yes the tendency if they are at the front is that they will fight each other, and to me at the end of the day there will be two drivers in a F1 team where they will have to be team-mates anyway in the future.
“So to me it’s more that at this current moment it’s for them to work together, to develop the team, to develop themselves. If they push each other, they beat each other, they will be higher up the grid.”
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