Are junior talent programmes a dump?

Are junior talent programmes a dump?

Directly after the surprise announcement of Daniil Kvyat landing a Toro Rosso seat for 2014, my Twitter feed was filled with remarks about the young Russian; good, bad and others just stating the facts. Will Buxton GP2 and GP3 commentator, tweeted;
‘First reaction? Yet another Red Bull decision that defies any kind of logic and leaves another huge talent on the waste dump.’

He was one of many who have doubts, but is the Red Bull young driver programme a waste dump? And how does it fare against other programmes by other teams?

Red Bull Junior Team
Some argue that Sebastian Vettel alone made the programme worthwhile with three world championships and a fourth on its way. But of the 29 drivers who have been through the programme since 2001, only Vettel has been on the podium and just 9 have scored championship points. 14 drivers (Kvyat included) have made it into Formula 1, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s easier to do so when you own a second team (Toro Rosso), and have money to put them into other teams. Ricciardo and Chandhok debuted at HRT, Bernoldi at Arrows, Doornbos and Friesacher at Minardi and Klien at Jaguar; only Liuzzi debuted in a Red Bull car. They do spot talent very early (Vettel was only 11), so it does make their results look less successful, whereas for instance, Elf’s program picked only the rising stars.

Volant Elf
French oil company Elf’s program started in the early 70’s: The first two from the Elf programme were Patrick Tambay and Didier Pironi, who both went on to win several Grand Prix. Pironi would have been France’s first World Champion in Formula 1, had he not injured both his legs in the 1982 German Grand Prix. But that honour would go to Alain Prost, another Pilotes Elf, who would win in 1985, 1986, 1989 and 1993. Other Pilotes Elf include Pascal Fabre, Olivier Grouillard, Paul Belmondo, Éric Bernard, Érik Comas and Olivier Panis, who all made it into F1, yet from those, only Panis would luck his way into a Grand Prix victory.

Ferrari Driver Academy
Ferrari’s programme is much smaller than Red Bull’s and there have only eight drivers, since its start in 2009. Two made it into Formula 1 Perez and Bianchi. Perez did score several podium finishes, unlike 28 of the 29 Red Bull Junior Team drivers and Bianchi could be well on his way too once he lands a drive at a better team.

Lotus F1 Junior Team
This programme, formerly known as Renault Driver Development, started back in 2002. 37 drivers were taken in, of which 9 made it into F1; Kubica, Monteiro, Kovalainen, van der Garde, Maldonado, di Grassi, Grosjean, Pic and d’Ambrosio. Three race winners in there and five who didn’t score a point.

Mercedes-Benz junior racing programme
There’s not a lot to be found about this programme, but the car maker did help three young Germans into Formula 1 namely Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Karl Wendlinger and Michael Schumacher. Frentzen would go on to win three Grand Prix, but Wendlinger’s career was cut short after an accident in the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix. Schumacher would turn out to be F1’s most successful driver ever, with 7 championships and 91 victories.

Which programme is the most successful? Judging by their most successful drivers, it’s hard to look beyond Mercedes-Benz or Red Bull. With Mercedes-Benz’s help, Schumacher got a seat in the World Sportscar Championship and they did pay for Schumacher’s seat at Jordan. However Schumacher didn’t win a race in Formula 1 in a Mercedes-Benz. Red Bull did nurture Vettel since 1998 and it only took 10 years before he’d win his first F1 victory, making him the youngest race winner of all time.

But, like comparing drivers, it’s very hard to say which programme is the best. I do think talent programmes are good for the sport, even though the careers of many were abruptly ended when dropped by the programmes. Would they have got so far without the help of them in the first place?