We are now well over 100 days into the FIA presidency of Mohammed bin Sulayem, the first non-European FIA president. Normally, this is where newly elected political leaders start to face the first real heat from the media. Given the fact that a FIA president has less topics to deal with than a proper state government, movement in the FIA and the effect of those developments on motorsports are much slower. Therefore, this Gravel Trap will not so much focus on criticising our new FIA president but instead look to help Mohammed bin Sulayem achieve one of his goals.
Bin Sulayem has stated even before the presidential election that his goal is to create more opportunities for drivers from diverse backgrounds. His goal is ambitious: he believes that the right programs can “double” participation in motorsport. As a motorsport fan, the author obviously wants to believe him. No matter how you feel about the execution, more chances in motorsport for more people are always welcome. It is imperative to solve the dissonance caused by Formula 1 leaving its European core markets while the path to Formula 1 is more Eurocentric than ever. Currently, drivers who either cannot or will not leave their home continents might as well abandon any hopes of making it to F1.
To understand how to ensure diversity in motorsport, one needs to understand what enables drivers to make it to Formula 1. There are two key factors: funding and opportunity. Today, the Gravel Trap will mainly focus on the second part. Funding is of course an elemental topic, particularly in the poorer regions of this world, but with every Formula 1 team more or less having their own junior squads, money can be supplied should the talent shine. There are things that can be done to further fund gifted drivers with no sponsors, but those can be a topic for a different day.
In terms of opportunities, the idealised view of the FIA on their own pathway system begins at Formula 4. In the Formula 1 off-season, the UAE Formula 4 showcased its young talent with livestreams on Youtube. Turn on a video and you will see the reason for this column existing: despite being the Formula 4 series of the United Arab Emirates, the majority of the entries are neither from the Emirates nor even Asian.
Stretching the definition of Arab to its breaking point by using the entire Arabian world, exactly four Arab drivers competed in the 2022 season of UAE Formula 4. One of those drivers was a one-off not eligible for championship points. So we have three championship entries. 40 drivers were classified in the final championship standings. Less than 10 percent of the entry-level feeder series were from that region. This is already maddening, but it is not even remotely an exclusive feature to a Formula 4 series from a country with a relatively young, underdeveloped motorsport culture. In the 2021 German Formula 4 season, 22 drivers were classified in the championship. Two of those were German, with one being a part-time driver. You do not even need to be German like the author to understand why that can only be described as insane.
Of course, the obvious question now is: who are those other competitors? Answering that question reveals the issue with those numbers mentioned above. Looking at the German Formula 4, the top five in the standings consist of a German driver and four foreigners: champion Oliver Bearman, who won the Italian Formula 4 series the very same season; Luke Browning, who came to German Formula 4 after winning British Formula 4; Victor Bernier, who was not able to take the next step after finishing fourth in French Formula 4; and Nikita Bedrin, a name also found on the UAE Formula 4 entry list for 2022. UAE Formula 4’s top five consists of the aforementioned Bedrin, Charlie Wurz (son of Alexander, yes) and Aiden Neate (son of Andy, yes) who all had their first (and, as the cynical author expects, only) relevant motorsport success far away from home, and James Wharton who is serving double duty in German and Italian Formula 4 this year.
The problem, should those short CVs have not revealed it, is such: well-funded children of questionable talent occupy Formula 4 seats in multiple series across multiple countries. This not only blocks local talent by taking away seats, but by making said local talent look unappealing to talent scouts and potential sponsors by beating them. Said victories being a product of possessing more experience with F4 chassis and the teams in question, not actual skill.
However, what is the solution? The first thought was to suggest a ban for drivers that are not from the respective region, therefore only allowing drivers from said country or region to compete in the respective Formula 4 series. That idea, however, proved to have a few issues that made it untenable. The first issue is obviously the question about drivers from regions where there are no Formula 4s. Given that the purpose of this entire exercise is to allow drivers who do not normally have access to the great world of motorsport a chance, forcing them into awkward solutions based on their nationality misses the point. Furthermore, it is unlikely that this solution would be even legal in Europe at the very least. The freedom of movement within the EU established by the Bosman ruling for most pro sports only inherently applies for professional sports. However, given the existence of personal sponsorship and young driver’s programmes, the case for it to not apply to low-tier motorsport would be perceived as rather flimsy. Plus, multinational drivers could gain illegitimate advantages by still competing in multiple series or, if the ruling is adjusted to account for that, motorsport could face assumption of xenophobia or cultural insensitivity.
Instead, to the author, the answer is allowing drivers to only compete in one Formula 4 series in a calendar year. Once a driver has entered a series, they may not compete in any other Formula 4 series, unless they have a good reason for not continuing in their chosen series (such as being terminated from their Formula 4 team or being injured for a long time). This will force seats open in series, ideally for drivers from the native region, and generally create more chances in the lowest tier of the FIA Global Pathway.
Of course, this is not a perfect solution. It may punish older rookies by preventing them from catching up to their younger competition by gaining experience quicker. It may, in fact, kill off a couple of Formula 4 series where there simply would not be enough interest from young drivers to use their sole series. Some of the series which would have drivers depart would be seen as weaker or less worthy, so the new talent that would take their place would not be perceived as worth investing in by the leaders of teams in the higher-tier series.
Yet, these risks are worth the benefits: as has been said, it would force drivers to focus on one series, requiring a tactical selection. Local drivers do not necessarily need to compete with rich Europeans for seats, sponsorship and success. This would also encourage a wider viewpoint for Formula 1 teams to look for potential talent and therefore create new emphasis on the ladder. Additionally, it would permit the Formula 4 series to be more interesting to teams and audiences, as each regional contest demonstrates different breathtaking talent. Given that non-pathway series such as GB4 would still be open to drivers, some of the earlier negative points, such as the disadvantage to older debutants, could be mitigated. Given the generally slower pace of advancement to the Formula 3 series, that might not even prove necessary as younger rookies might need additional years to get up to a competitive level.
With these points, the author feels a case for the “One Formula 4 a Year” rule is made. It may ruffle a few feathers, but would be very helpful in allowing Mohammed bin Sulayem to live up to his promises and earn himself glory by reforming motorsport. Jean Todt has left him with a lot of work to do, but when many areas need improvement, there is a chance to create a new and better way of doing things.
Sources: Driver Database, pitpass.com, Youtube
Image source: ADAC Motorsport, Morio (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)