Potential Red Bull stars at Macau GP

Junior team have nurtured several F1 drivers including Vettel, and one is on pole today

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 3:27am

It gives you wings, claim the Red Bull energy-drink makers. "Caffeine-induced shakes" might be more accurate, but there's little doubt the Red Bull Junior Team have helped a lot of fledgling drivers take flight in Formula One.

Most F1 teams run youth-development programmes to some extent, but in terms of sheer numbers of successful graduates to the big stage, the RBJT are surely the most prolific. Since they started in 2001, 13 drivers have made F1, though only one has won a race.

Given that he's Sebastian Vettel and could win his third consecutive world championship today in Texas, we can make allowances. Indeed, such has been the number of graduates that the sponsors had to buy a second team, rebranding Minardi as Scuderia Toro Rosso in 2005.

The team have an extensive scouting network through the karting world, and only pick drivers they feel have a genuine chance of winning F1 races.

In 2004 Christian Klien became the first, and Vettel won their first F1 race in 2008 at Monza. Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne graduated to Toro Rosso this season.

It's an expensive business, with former F1 driver Mark Blundell, who now runs a sports-management company, telling the Financial Times recently: "To get from the entry level of motor racing to [junior series] GP2, on the threshold of F1, will cost something like €5 million."

Two of the programme's current four drivers have been looking to repay the investment at Macau this week, racing for the Carlin team. Antonio Felix da Costa, a 21-year-old Portuguese, took pole for today's race, while Spaniard Carlos Sainz Jnr, 18, starts from fourth.

Da Costa is competing in his third Macau GP, having finished sixth in 2010 and failing to finish last year. With more experience than most, probably all, of the other drivers here, he should do well this afternoon, but the drivers in Macau admit the race is something of a lottery.

Having joined the programme this year, da Costa has been competing in GP3 and Formula Renault 3.5 this season, a rung below F1, and finished third and fourth respectively. He has also tested for the senior team, putting in the fastest lap during a day at the F1 Young Drivers Test in Abu Dhabi this month.

"We had two good days, loads of mileage. We did about 800 kilometres in a Formula One car," da Costa told the Sunday Morning Post. "It was great, with a world-championship-winning team and car. It was a small dream coming true, and I hope there's more to come."

Victory today would help, but he still wouldn't immediately join the list of names to have won Macau then gone on to F1, as Red Bull's four seats are full for next season.

"The bosses were all happy," he said. "I spoke to Dr [Helmut] Marko [who oversees the development team and is an adviser to the senior team] and Christian Horner [the top team's principal], so I think I did my job properly, but now I have to focus on my job here. I don't know what Red Bull will decide for next season. I'll have to wait and see where they put me."

The junior programme supports drivers in all aspects of their development.

"When we started in 2001, the idea was to help young drivers on their way into F1, but now we only support a driver who has the potential to win there," Marko said last month.

The cars might not be as fast and the spotlight not as bright, but the pressure is just as high, as da Costa explained.

"There's more junior programmes around but I think our one is really simple - you go quick they take good care of you, you don't go quick you're out. So we have to keep performing, keep getting good results all the time.

"You have to be fit, you have to be well mentally, any problems in your life you need to keep away from the track, and when you're in the car you have to do the best you can."

With tens of young drivers fighting for the one or two F1 places that open up every year, competition is intense, said Sainz, in his third year with the programme.

"It's normal they put pressure on us because we're in the best place to be," he said. "If you're in the best place to be and there's no pressure, it's not fair.

"If you want to arrive in F1, of course you have to succeed and deliver in every category they put you. But when you think they have two teams in F1 and one is just for rookies, if you do well and win where you have to win, you know you have the opportunity to be in F1 - and that feeling is amazing.

"I know nearly every driver in each category wants to be part of the Red Bull Junior Team, that's why I'm so thankful to them and so glad to be here and I feel I need to repay the confidence they're putting in me.

"I'm just pushing like hell all the time."