Exclusive interview - Red Bulls Helmut Marko 21 Jun 2007
A battle for new driving talent is raging in the pit lane. With some of the older drivers nearing retirement and some of the younger ones struggling to deliver, there are fears teams could soon face a shortage of capable racers, and finding a diamond in the rough - as Renault did with Fernando Alonso, and McLaren with Lewis Hamilton - is becoming an ever more costly process. We caught up with Dr Helmut Marko, Red Bulls motorsport consultant and the man behind the teams young driver programme, to discuss what the future might hold
Q: Formula One racing is preparing for the future in terms of technology - but what about in terms of drivers? Is there enough talent out there?
Helmut Marko: Not at the moment. But this has a variety of causes: in general I think that the road to Formula One via Formula Three and GP2 is the right one, but the costs in GP2 are so inflationary that only youngsters who have a solid financial backing race there. I would not go so far as to say that money spoils the character, but it does cushion the hunger for success. The second reason - and the biggest problem I see - is that young drivers dont get enough test mileage. The result of the test restrictions is that Friday practice sessions - until now the domain of the reserve drivers - are carried out by official race drivers. Unless a youngster is exceptionally talented like Lewis Hamilton, this new situation creates a problem for every upcoming Formula One driver.
Q: At the moment we are seeing an older generation of drivers making way for a new generation. What effects do you think this will have over the next couple of years?
HM: That the chances for young drivers are as big as ever. On the other hand, I dont see anybody who is a must-sign. And those who have been carefully nurtured in GP2, like for example Heikki Kovalainen, arent delivering as expected. As to the reason behind this failure, I dont know.
Q: Lewis Hamiltons success has focused attention on rookie drivers. However, do you think his success has obscured the fact that there is perhaps something of a void in terms of driver talent in the lower series?
HM: There are some names in GP2, but many of those are already long-timers, like Timo Glock, who have already tasted Formula One and had to retreat. But high achievers like Nico Rosberg or Lewis Hamilton - and since Indianapolis Sebastian Vettel - are nowhere in sight. This brings us straight back to the question of costs in GP2. At the moment we talk about costs of 1.2 million Euros and with the step towards an Asian (GP2) series - which I think is a good thing to do - these costs could climb to 2 million Euros and this is a real stumbling block if you are looking for pure talent.
Q: Red Bull runs its own young driver programme. Are you satisfied with its output to date?
HM: From the quantity side our young driver program is definitely extensive. At the moment we have 16 drivers under our tutelage. They are successful. They lead the Euro Championship, the Italian championship, Renault 2.0 etc. We start very early. We pick them from karting when they are 15 or 16 years-old and shepherd them through the lower series. And one day comes the moment of truth: either the talent is not sufficient for the next series up - which is rarely is the case - or their attitude is wrong, which is more often is the case!
Q: Being a Formula One driver is a highly complex, 24/7 job. Are the demands simply too multifaceted for most newcomers?
HM: The technical qualification profile is very high. It is not like in the old days when you changed the inclination of the wings and your job as driver was done. Today you have to understand an electronically very complex car to find the perfect set-up for qualifying and race. The other side is the physical and mental strength in a sport where pressure is part of the business. Then there is the glamour factor - many get carried away and fall for the idea that just being there is enough. But to get there is one thing, to stay there and be successful quite another. It is a head thing and that is where most fail.
Q: What would you say were the basic prerequisites for an up and coming driver?
HM: Aside from the driving skills, the mental strength and the willingness to work hard - it is a question of commitment, it is racing or nothing. Another indispensable attribute is ruthlessness - only when you are equipped with this trait will you go anywhere.
Q: GP2 was designed as a stepping stone to Formula One racing. Is it delivering?
HM: Generally speaking, yes. The cars are very demanding so its a good preparation for F1. It is happening on a Grand Prix weekend, so the youngsters see what it is all about, and with the reversion of the grid, the overtaking is enhanced. It is a perfect school for future Formula One drivers. The only downside is the cost.
Q: Which youngsters - aside from Hamilton - do you think will become the pacemakers over the next few years?
HM: I can only speak for our youngsters. We have Sebastian Boemi, who seems to have what it takes and who drove in Monaco into the points at his first attempt. Then we have Michael Ammermuller, who unfortunately is injured at the moment, but other than those two I dont see anyone else over the next few years.
Q: So it seems the Formula One teams may face some recruitment problems in the coming years. Is there a way out of this situation?
HM: I would suggest that drivers from lower series - like Formula Three or Renault 2.0 - are promoted to GP2 more quickly. Most of the big teams - like Toyota, Renault, Honda, McLaren and ourselves - all have junior programmes, so what happens is that if a youngster has won one or two races, all those teams line up to catch the promising fish. In fact, such a hot talent can almost choose the team of his liking. That situation spoils many young talents almost at the very beginning. In this war over talent, if it is fought as fiercely as it seems to be now, in the end everyone might lose out.
Q: What will the driver line-up at the two Red Bull teams look like next season?
HM: At Red Bull Racing we are saturated. David (Coulthard) is obviously in his third spring - he has delivered great races in Bahrain and Barcelona. And with Mark (Webber), we have one of the best qualifiers on the grid. I would say that our drivers are far better than the reliability of our cars and if both would match up, we would be in a far better position in the championship. With our junior team we will see. Scott (Speed) and Tonio (Liuzzi) have shown glimpses of their talent on occasions. With a shortage of talent looming in the paddock, we might as well stick with what we have got in 2008.