Formula 2, formerly known as GP2, is now five years’ strong, following its rebranding in 2017. Since then, three of its five champions have successfully graduated to open-wheel racing’s premier class, Formula 1: Charles Leclerc in 2017, George Russell (2018) and Mick Schumacher (2020).
You would think that three out of F2’s five champions making the projected leap to the promised land is impressive, which in a way it is. The exceptions are Nyck de Vries (2019) and the most recent champion, Oscar Piastri (2021), who have both struggled to land a Formula 1 seat.
They have faced a number of obstacles which hamper today’s young drivers.
A lack of vulnerable seats
Formula 2 is fast becoming a growing spectacle. Race weekends are held at the same venue as F1 races and the races themselves are unpredictable, filled with overtaking and battles. On the one hand, winning the F2 title puts a driver squarely in view of the F1 bosses looking for rising talents but, on the other, F2 rules stipulate that their champions are not allowed to return to the series. Until an F1 vacancy arises (from an underperforming driver losing their place, for example), an F2 champion has to make do with a season or two in less-prestigious competitions or may even have to sit on racing’s sidelines.
A young driver’s life is a game of taking chances as they arise – you can imagine the fight and stress they are under when looking for a race seat.
De Vries and Piastri currently find themselves in test driver roles for Mercedes and Alpine, but it is by no means a given that they will be handed an F1 seat at the seasons’ end. Nyck de Vries is currently also competing – extremely successfully – in Formula E.
2018 F2 driver Alexander Albon spent 2021 as a Red Bull test driver after being replaced following the conclusion of Formula 1’s 2020 season by Sergio Perez. He said that even attending every race with the team killed him on the inside because he wasn’t driving. DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) took up the rest of his year.
Driver sponsorships, pay drivers and funding
The term pay driver has floated around the F1 circus for well over a decade. Defined in the motorsport world as a driver who has brought their way into a seat without worthy accolades, pay drivers draw plenty of backlash from fans. Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll has been in Formula 1 since 2017 but regardless of his five years’ experience or his podiums and pole positions, some fans are unwavering in their hatred of Stroll and his father Lawrence due to the amount it’s thought that the latter paid for Lance to get into Formula 1.
Funding is a critical part of Formula 1. Teams vie to bring engine and downforce upgrades to races to increase their speed and overtake their rivals in the pecking order. Sponsorship money means a bigger budget for teams to work with, especially as cost-capping’s introduction in 2021 now limits the spending of F1’s fastest teams to bring the field closer in terms of performance. As well as Stroll, fellow Canadian Nicholas Latifi is also considered a ‘pay-driver’ by F1 fans due to not impressing right away in his Formula 1 career. His early 2022 season struggles is only giving fans more reasons to dislike the former 2019 F2 runner-up.
The over-crowded 2022 pool
If you watch Formula 2 in 2022, you will notice a lot of Red Bull cars. Jehan Daruvala, Liam Lawson, Juri Vips and reigning Formula 3 champion Dennis Hauger are all part of the Red Bull driver academy. By contrast, Jack Doohan, Oli Caldwell, Frederik Vesti and Logan Sargent belong to the Alpine, Mercedes and Williams academies respectively. However friendly they might be off the track, they are each other’s biggest rivals on it. Every driver stands in the way of another’s childhood dream.
Being part of a Formula 1 academy exponentially increases a driver’s chance of landing a seat. Charles Leclerc was part of the Ferrari driver academy and ran in practice sessions for Sauber in 2017 before his F1 debut the following season. He now drives for Scuderia Ferrari and is currently leading the 2022 world championship.
If you can impress in F2, you will turn heads in F1. And those heads will see you as a genuine prospect.
Formula 1 remains the pinnacle of motorsport. If young drivers don’t get there, that doesn’t mean their careers are over. Formula E, IndyCar and LMP Racing are a few of many standout series in their own right.
Nyck de Vries is the reigning Formula E champion after a stellar 2021 season. His victory has got racing fans wondering why he never got the chance to race in F1. He may still yet do so, if the rumours emanating from the Williams camp are anything to go by.
It remains to be seen whether Formula 1 can ever become more accessible to young hopefuls, but the quality of young drivers will only grow and grow.