Do Ferrari now have the strongest junior driver programme?

For years, Red Bull have long been known as having the strongest junior driver programme in Formula 1, but are they now losing that title to Ferrari?

When Toro Rosso joined the Formula 1 grid with the sole purpose of assessing driver’s potential for a seat with Red Bull, it completely overhauled the way teams signed drivers.

For the majority, long gone are the days of the majority of teams signing seasoned veterans, who the team can depend on to get the required results.

Red Bull proved to the grid that young drivers are capable of winning if nurtured and developed in the right way. They may not have been successful every time, but the sole blame can’t be placed at Red Bull’s door, although the management at times didn’t always help.

It’s also true that Red Bull had the monopoly. Nobody was doing this and so drivers wanted the Milton Keynes-based team to sign them up as it was seen as their best chance of making it to F1.

And, although there have been a few flops, there have been plenty of drivers who have flourished and succeeded, including Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz.

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It’s also worth noting that these drivers also made their debuts at an incredibly young age. Again, it was rare that drivers were promoted to F1 at such a young age, but Red Bull put belief in them to perform, despite their inexperience.

It worked and other teams took notice, but it also meant Red Bull had the monopoly.

Things have changed so much, that Red Bull appears to be losing it’s place at the top of the junior driver programme market, and losing its spot to none other than Ferrari.

20 years ago, there is no way you would have heard of Ferrari running a young driver programme.

They have always signed older, experienced drivers who were known quantities and almost guaranteed to provide the Italian team with race wins and championships when on offer.

But, things have changed and Ferrari is now fully embracing youth and making good use of it too.

Ferrari setup their driver academy in 2009, with Jules Bianchi their first recruit, swiftly followed by the Italian trio of Mirko Bortolotti, Daniel Zampieri and Rafelle Marciello.

It was a slow start, but Ferrari put the right foundations in place and in 2011 they got their first academy driver into Formula 1 – a young Mexican called Sergio Perez.

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Perez’ association with Ferrari ended when he joined McLaren in 2013, but that year Ferrari also promoted Jules Bianchi to the grid, getting him a seat at Marussia.

And, Bianchi was on course to make history until his crash at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, that sadly ended his life.

Bianchi was showing plenty of potential as a future world champion, and was heavily rumoured to replace Fernando Alonso at Ferrari for the 2015 season.

But, while it is extremely sad that never happened, it is also fitting that his godson, Charles Leclerc was the first Ferrari Academy driver to be promoted to the main factory team in 2019.

It was a risk for Ferrari, with Leclerc only having had one season in Formula 1 prior to joining the team, but he was phenomenal, finishing ahead of his more experienced teammate, Sebastian Vettel in the driver’s standings.

It was a huge success story for Ferrari’s academy and if you look at their current line-up, it is full of plenty of talent.

Next weekend, two of Ferrari’s academy drivers will take part in Friday free practice for Alfa Romeo and Haas.

Mick Schumacher and Callum Ilot have been fighting each other for this year’s Formula 2 title and are separated by 22 points with four races to still to go.

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Both drivers have a genuine chance of making it to F1 next year, with seats still available at Alfa Romeo and Haas.

It is almost certain that a seat at Alfa Romeo will go to one of these two, but there is an outside chance that the other could get a seat at Haas, if the American team are unable to find any other suitable candidates.

If both were to get seats, it would be huge for the Ferrari driver programme and just enhances what a strong job they are doing with their young drivers.

But, also in with a chance for next year is Robert Schwartzman, who sits fifth in the F1 standings, and who was in the title fight until falling back in recent races.

The talent pool available to Ferrari is the widest it has ever been for them. They have five drivers currently in Formula 2, with Enzo Fittipaldi in Formula 3.

Red Bull currently has three drivers in Formula 2, but only one of these – Yuki Tsunoda – is fighting right at the front end, with the other two both outside of the top ten in the standings.

But, it is not just Ferrari and Red Bull who have junior driver programmes. Renault has six drivers on its books, two of which are in F2 and Christian Lundgaard is the highest placed, currently occupying fourth in the standings.

Renault does have strong drivers on their books, but they don’t have the same depth as Ferrari, who has nine.

Mercedes also has it’s own junior driver programme, with four drivers signed up. Two of these are still in karting, while Paul Aron is ninth in Formula Renault Eurocup, but their biggest success is George Russell who is in his second season in F1 racing with Williams.

But again, like Renault they do not have the depth of talent that Ferrari currently possesses and it is unlikely any of the programmes will be able to catch up anytime soon.

It takes time to build up a junior driver programme and a few, such as Mercedes, have been late to the party.

And while Red Bull’s talent pool seems to be in decline, Ferrari are now pushing through to the front and finding themselves getting considerable success.

It would be an incredible achievement to have two additional academy drivers on the F1 grid next year and the signs are that it could be a real possibility.

If it does happen, it would be a welcome success for a team that is having a difficult time on track and is the greatest proof of all that they have the strongest academy at this moment in time.