Opinion: The real cost of junior single-seaters
Motorsport.com columnist David Addison watches plenty of teenagers spending hundreds of thousands of Euros on their racing every weekend - but are they getting their money's worth?
"You’ve never had it so good" – a well-worn phrase that gets trotted out by marketing departments all the time and one that might be used these days for junior racers, who have far more choice than ever before.
But is there anything inherently positive about that? Is the huge glut of options for the so-called stars of tomorrow actually a good thing?
Years ago, in the UK, as an example, if you wanted to go racing before you were 16, you had to look at karting or at Ministox, a junior contact racing category on stock car ovals.
Then along came T Cars, junior touring cars that produced some good drivers, but were not cheap to run. That has long since faded away…
Successful, and well-marketed, has been the Ginetta Junior Championship at BTCC race meetings, the Junior Saloon Car Championship for 1600cc Citroen Saxos.
Over in open-wheelers, there are 15-year-olds in the MSA Formula series (British F4 effectively) and the Formula 4 concept is allowing more teenagers the chance to race across Europe.
Take Lando Norris who has raced in the British, Italian and German F4 classes this year, or 15-year-old Russian Robert Shwartzman, who has done two different national series.
The F4 concept (admittedly with different cars and engines in different countries) has opened up more opportunities to drivers to gain mileage and experience, and that should be a good thing: they are learning and developing and should be able to deal with the challenges of the next category up, such as, for instance, Formula Renault 2.0.
But are we in danger here of actually losing these drivers rather than nurturing them? I fear that this is where the dreaded cost conversation comes into play.
High-end prices for young racers
The ADAC F4 Championship, the German series, has enjoyed a stellar year with spectacular racing and some very impressive drivers. Equally impressive is the paddock as Van Amersfoort, Prema Powerteam and Mucke Motorsport are among the teams operating.
At the other end of the paddock are a couple of family-run privateer outfits, but they are struggling to keep up with the might of the bigger teams, which, of course, have bigger budgets. One driver, who has done two F4 championships this year, is understood to have spent over 750,000 Euros.
To be truthful, it's his father who has spent the money, but at 15 years old, should we really be talking figures like these?
Spending what you can afford
I appreciate that in all this talk of cost-capping, be it F1 or the most humble amateur category, it is impossible to stop people spending what they have, but when teams with big overheads come into a series, costs inevitably go up accordingly.
That means that those that can afford to go racing will have to dig deeper for funds for longer if they have started in big-buck racing at 15. If they run out of money by the age of 17, they are lost from the sport for good, pretty much.
And right now, there are more and more options for junior drivers as F4 go after the young guns, so teams that need to run as a business attract customers - as is the way of the world.
There isn’t an easy solution to the problem of costs in junior categories, unless perhaps you ban teams and make it a man-and-van operation. But that wouldn’t wash any more: the sport, no – the business – has come too far.
What was once a simple route, karting into cars, has become ever more complex. There are more karting categories and more junior circuit racing championships all vying for the same drivers and their parents’ bank balances.
Rulemakers beware. Big teams may raise the professionalism and the overall look and feel of a championship but remember who the real customers are: they are junior drivers, not yet even at university age.
Treat them carefully: the sport needs them for years to come.
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