Defending Mercedes F1 driver programme

Mercedes F1 junior driver programme came in for significant criticism when Valtteri Bottas was given the nod to partner Lewis Hamilton. Despite Pascal Werhlein’s lack of F1 experience many expected the young German to replace his compatriot Nico Rosberg.

When he did not, the Mercedes junior driver programme – particularly in contrast to the Red Bull equivalent – was labeled as a pointless exercise.

Werhlein Manor Mercedes F1
Werhlein in his debut F1 season with Manor

Those who had expected Werhlein to partner Hamilton in 2017 however exhibited a fundamental misunderstanding of a junior driver programme. Creating a conveyor belt of potential race-winning drivers does not live or die by automatic promotion for all.

Red Bull junior driver programme – the gold standard?

By contrast the Red Bull programme – having quickly elevated Max Verstappen to the full Red Bull F1 team – was held up as the gold standard. Ironically the history of Red Bull’s driver programme is what proves beyond doubt that the Mercedes set up is working just fine.

Red Bull F1 Max Verstappen
Max Verstappen – the latest star from the Red Bull driver conveyor belt

Red Bull have most recently fast-tracked Max Verstappen to the big time via a brief apprenticeship in European F3 and a season and a half with Toro Rosso. Sebastien Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Danill Kvyat have all progressed through the junior ranks with mostly successful outcomes. But for the success of Vettel and Verstappen there are plenty who did not make it.

Anyone remember Scott Speed?

Before Vettel arrived on the scene Scott Speed and Vitantonio Luizzi  were first in line to graduate. Both failed to make the grade. Vettel then overtook both to become David Coulthard’s replacement.

Following Vettel’s promotion a log-jam ensued which saw Sebastien Bourdais, Jaime Alguersuari, Jean-Eric Vergne and Sebastien Buemi come and go. Each one deemed good enough to be in F1 but not good enough to unseat Vettel or Mark Webber in the senior team.

Not everyone will make the grade

By not automatically promoting junior drivers Red Bull did not invalidated their programme. In fact it demonstrated its effectiveness by finding only the very best talent to run for the lead Red Bull squad.

Werhlein Nasr Sauber Manor F1
For 2017 Werhlein replaces the outgoing Nasr at Sauber

Mercedes approach to Werhlein and the vacancy left by Rosberg was logical. The value of their driver development programme remains intact and Werhlein’s chance to step up remains an option.

Furthermore Mercedes appear to have learned from Red Bull’s mistakes. In not promoting a junior driver too quickly Mercedes have arguably protected Werhlein from a career-destroying second season against Hamilton. Ironically Red Bull protege Danill Kvyat knows only to well what an early promotion can mean for a burgeoning F1 career.

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