Red Bull Contentpool


How Red Bull prepare young drivers like Verstappen and Vettel for F1

How Red Bull prepare young drivers like Verstappen and Vettel for F1

12 June - 16:00

Eight drivers on the 2022 Formula 1 grid have Red Bull history attached to them. Helmut Marko led the Red Bull Junior Team to become the market-leading training programme in F1. How did it all come about, why does it exist, and how does it work? GPblog talked about that in a 1-on-1 interview with the big boss himself.

Dietrich Mateschitz's idea

When it all started is no longer entirely clear to the team themselves. One thing is certain: Dietrich Mateschitz is essential in this whole story. The Red Bull owner wanted to enter F1 but to do so in his own way. Like the unique style of the F1 team itself, the drivers had to be special too. A few years before Red Bull bought Jaguar's F1 team, the brand was already looking for young and exciting talent.

Within Red Bull, there was one man with motorsport experience, and so he was designated by Mateschitz as the man to go find junior stars: Helmut Marko. "Mr Mateschitz was a big fan of motor racing. He also knew how expensive it is to get into the sport for a driver. So he came up with the idea to support young drivers, just so they can go into racing," Marko told GPblog.

One thing led to another. After supporting several drivers financially and athletically, Red Bull bought Jaguar's F1 team in 2005 and a year later also bought a second team under the name of Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri). Having those teams only made training drivers even easier. Before the beginning of F1 teams, they still had to make money. After that, it became a pure investment.

"At the start, it was okay to support young drivers. It's like a sponsorship. If you sponsor, you want something back. When we had the two Formula One teams, the approach changed completely. It was now just supporting to find a driver who should be in the position to at least win a Grand Prix. A championship is a different story," he added. 

What is an F1 junior talent?

Red Bull's plan was not to buy big names but to train their own stars. A difficult task because how do you find a junior star, and what exactly is one? As the sole motorsport expert within Red Bull, Marko was tasked with tracking down those talents, starting with the basics: speed.

"To have speed. That's the first and most important thing [when scouting]. After that, it's what you're doing with your talent. Are you really committed? Are you prepared to work hard?" All factors Marko looks at when finding juniors. Although, that is not everything, as not every junior talent rises to the top. For instance, Marko cites Oliver Oakes as an example. The Brit won everything in karting but did not perform well enough in formula cars. Now Oakes is the team boss of HitechGP and works with Red Bull again. Indeed, many juniors drive for the Brit's team.

It really is a pyramid in that respect. It starts with karting, and talents need to develop further and further up the motorsport ladder. At each step, a driver has to prove themselves all over again.

According to Marko, a great example of dedication is Sebastian Vettel. "Vettel won 18 races [out of 20] in Formula BMW at that time. He was unhappy because he didn't win 20 races. So if you have this sort of approach, then you know he's the right guy. And that is also the case for Verstappen, who is completely dedicated to F1. If he's not racing Formula 1, he's sim racing. They will go to the absolute limit. And you have to get yourself mentally prepared. That is something which not all drivers can do."

From Vettel and Verstappen, it was perhaps already apparent to many that they were great junior talents for the future, but sometimes it also takes a bit more time and attention. Marko, who watches every race of the step-up classes, has enough experience to spot gems others have overlooked.

Red Bull's Driver Academy

"We look at karting. In the older days, it was Formula 3. Now it's Formula 4. We look at the drivers, and of course, he has to have the speed, but he has to move in the category. Then I have a discussion, normally it's 20 minutes, and provide part of the budget. We choose the team, and we also now have a simulator in Milton Keynes, where Rocky (Guillaume Rocquelin) looks at the analytical and technical areas."

Rocky, Vettel's former race engineer, now works as the leader of the Driver Academy. At the factory, he supervises talents within the Red Bull training programme. A true school for drivers, which GPblog spoke at length to the French engineer about. This story will appear later as an exclusive on the website.

Marko and Red Bull are often accused of having a hard hand. The relegation of Daniil Kvyat and the sudden debut of Max Verstappen, in particular, came under a lot of fire from critics, but time has shown that Red Bull were right. Besides, it turns out that the hard hand was not entirely justified either. By far, Red Bull supports the most juniors on their way to the top, and those that do not end up in F1 can make a living in motorsport elsewhere. See, for example, Jean-Eric Vergne (Formula E), Antonio Felix da Costa (Formula E), Oliver Oakes, Tom Blomqvist (IndyCar) and Patricio O'Ward (IndyCar). The list is endless.

"People looked at drivers, which I didn't fire, we just didn't support anymore. Or we took them out of Formula 1 because they were not fast enough. They are paid drivers in various categories, DTM, GT, and Formula E. And they are earning money for a passion."

In that respect, the message from Red Bull is very clear: we need to win. Whether you speak to Marko, Rocquelin or current Red Bull talents Ayumu Iwasa and Liam Lawson, winning is central to Red Bull. A lofty goal, but only logical if you want to reach F1. There are only 20 seats in motorsport's top class, so there is only room for the very best. If you don't win in the step-up class, then you certainly won't win in F1.

"We just select the team for them. We tell them what we are expecting, which is winning. But of course, there is a variation in the performance of the team. We give them the possibility to be on the simulator." In the simulator, Rocquelin and his team can set up a programme for a driver, focusing on what a driver needs.

''We give them a check with a physical coach. We overlook their development. For example, Ayumu Iwasa. He doesn't have the strength, his arms are too weak. So where their weakness is, we have to send him to London. And on the simulator, it's Rocky who tells them where their weakness is, how to work more professionally."

Red Bull juniors talk about Marko

Speaking to junior talents within the Red Bull training programme, it also becomes clear how closely Marko remains involved in this whole project. "I think one of the biggest benefits of Red Bull is the fact that we have direct contact with Dr Marko. For me, it was basically Dr Marko who called me directly. He called my manager first, and we'd sign the contract and stuff like that. But I straight away had direct contact with Dr Marko and still do basically all through the years," Liam Lawson said.

"The target from Red Bull is always the same, and that's to win," the New Zealander spoke in line with Marko and Rocky's words. "We get that every season, and it's what's expected. As a racing driver as well, that's our target, going to any season, trying to win. So that's my goal for the year."

For Ayumu Iwasa, it is no different in the Formula 2 championship. "Not necessarily an objective, but what they expect from me is that I need to win the race in front of me. I need to focus on my job, and then I do my best on the track," Iwasa said. Lawson and Iwasa are each working hard to achieve that objective. Lawson is first in Japan's Super Formula championship, and Iwasa is third in the F2 championship.

With qualifying becoming increasingly important in all classes, the talents are also subjected to the so-called 'Helmut Lap'. Drivers are put into the simulator for one flying lap. The pressure is immense, and that pressure should ensure that the young talents improve and are eventually ready for the real thing in F1.

No matter how much data can be collected these days, what counts for Marko is still what he himself sees on track. "I'm watching all of the races, so we see it automatically," the Austrian concluded. It shows later in the Spanish GP weekend when Spaniard Pepe Marti took pole position and converted that pole into a win. The 17-year-old driver races for Campos and is not yet attached to an F1 team, but was sat at Marko's table later in the weekend. Whether that is a new addition to the Red Bull Junior Team or just a casual conversation remains to be seen.

Marko still appears essential to Red Bull in finding new and young talent. He watches every race, approaches young talents, talks to them about their development and dares to give them chances in F1. Rocquelin, in the background, has become increasingly important in the guidance and development of drivers. You will read what that looks like on the GPblog website later.