Every week at Asia Motorsport Development we are approached by parents and young drivers looking for help with sponsorship or designing proposals to find money to get into Formula One. We don’t push them away. We have simply adopted a conversation advising them that Formula One isn’t the be-all and end-all for a successful racing career, and with good reason.
The reason- which most of you will already know- is that Formula One is in dire straits, and no longer at this moment in time the pinnacle of motorsport that once encapsulated everything that we all love about pure, dangerous, passionate racing- that made us desire to one-day reach. And that there is another form of racing that is quickly overtaking F1 in every aspect; from the racing spectacle on track, to the connection with it’s audience, and that is GT racing.
Articles and conversations about this shouldn’t really be happening if F1 hadn’t been cut from it’s umbilical cord that gave it such an exciting and powerful life, and instead sent plummeting to the darkest depths of despair by the greed and politics of the few people who have already wringed the sport for every dollar and political advantage they can.
“The sooner a young driver can drop the ego and look at things with an open mind, they will quickly realize that all forms of racing at the top level is great racing.”
But before I go into the story of Formula One that was once an entertaining soap drama both on and off the track- which sadly has now become a crippled, sometimes laughable joke- we must address the dreams of todays young drivers who seem to keep this category in high esteem.
Why do young drivers still have the burning ambition to get to Formula One?
Although it is debatable whether Formula One is still the pinnacle of motorsport, it is unquestionable that that argument has become so much narrower in recent years.
We’ve all had dreams to get into Formula One when we were younger, and it was without a doubt the absolute pinnacle of all motorsport. The cars were raw pieces of machinery without a microchip heart. Drivers had to have hero-like skill to not lose a second due to a missed gear-shift, and feel the car through their bodies to counteract the g-forces and aerodynamic effects. Jaw-dropping four-wheel speed monsters were designed, built and run by teams with only 20-50 people. And the racing was gladiatorial without fear of a safety car, tyre strategy, corporate embarrassment or political consequences. And if you had a car, team and could afford the entry fee, then you could attempt to challenge the world’s best without fear of bankruptcy.
Drivers weren’t international sports heroes. They were untouchable Gods, who gave us spine-tingling rollercoaster rides in our lounge rooms every two weeks, and the teams were happy to pay them a few million dollars to risk their lives fighting for world domination.
This is how F1 was up until the late 1990’s, and it was during this time every petrol head wanted to be a part of it. But this has quickly faded into history, for Formula One at least.
There is still this kind of racing happening nearly every single week throughout the world. Where the competition is truly between man and machine, not computers and politics. True racing where drivers and their cars are not afraid to muscle their way through to position. And the camaraderie between teams and their gladiators is strong and communal without fear of technical espionage or corporate litigation.
This is GT racing. This is no bullshit, pure racing that produces some of the most exciting edge-of-the-seat battles you ever see in motorsport every year. And the best thing about this is that It’s against cars that are attainable by the people who watch it- Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, to name a few. Hard cars that can take a hit and battle long into the night, run by teams made up of enthusiasts without the need for $400 million budgets. Racing that even non-motorsport fans can relate to.
Porsche Junior China Program winner and Toyota Racing Series champion Andrew Tang has experienced the fight of climbing the ladder in European karting and single-seat cars, only to find his place in one of Asia’s premier one-make series. “I would love to race and win in the highest level of motorsports,” says the Singaporean. “(But) I think that the 24 Hours of Le Mans is as competitive as Formula One. Mark Webber and Nico Hulkenberg both raced last year for Porsche after racing in Formula 1, and that is just a testament to the level of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.”
So why do young drivers still want to race in Formula One?
As we say to young drivers and their parents: there’s more racing and opportunities to build a strong and successful career in GT racing than F1.
Let’s take a look at Formula One. There are only 22 seats available on the grid during the year, and there are tens of thousands of kids vying for the same 22 seats. On top of that is the discouraging practice of having to pay millions of dollars to get your bum in one of these seats as opposed to a team hiring you based on your natural talent. And keep in mind that you may never earn a salary during your whole career in F1.
One of the most well-known drivers in Asia to carve a successful career in GT racing after moving from formula series, and who is reigning GT Asia champion- Darryl O’Young- has been at the cross-roads of chasing his Formula One dream before.
“I’ve always encouraged drivers to chase their dreams and I truly believe that, but it needs to be done realistically,” says O’Young. “That might sound strange, because our dreams are supposed to be something we think is unachievable. However, dreams need to constantly be re-adjusted in order to get there. When I was a kid F1 was the only place I wanted to be; but was finishing 2nd in class at Le Mans a dream come true? Yes, it was.”
For drivers based in Asia, there is the added hurdle of not living in Europe. This means you don’t get used to European lifestyle and mentality, and you’re not constantly competing at the same level against the same talent you need to in order to attract interest from F1. The sad thing is that F1 scouts hardly- if ever- travel to Asia. All the talent they’re interested in is at their doorstep in Europe.
Andrew Tang lived in Europe for over three years racing karts and cars. “I spent 3.5 years staying and racing in Europe (2 years racing karts from 2011 – 2012, 1.5 years racing cars from 2013 – mid 2014). I believe it really shaped me as a driver when I raced there as compared to in Asia. The Europeans have a lot more invested in Motorsports because racing is part of their culture- it’s in their blood. The sheer numbers of racing drivers also elevates the level of competition.”
“When you are racing against over 100 drivers, all hungry for the World Championship, it really teaches you,” continues Andrew. “Every mistake is punished and hard work the norm. It can be difficult because the stress from the team, your family, and yourself to want to succeed can sometimes get to you if you’re not strong enough mentally. Everyone in the final 34 can win. Because of that, the level is so high because everyone is pushing each other to win and it’s not just solely based off your skills as a driver. Drivers are also held responsible to ensure their equipment is perfect (building their own karts, cleaning it after use, etc.). There is also a lot psychological warfare involved. You need to be the complete package to win. Winning is in no way a given.”
In Formula One there is only three competitions you can win on track during a season: a single race and the drivers and constructors world championships. You could also win the DHL fastest lap of the year award.
A driver in Formula One is also very restricted in how he lives his life during the year. These restrictions are put on him by the team, Formula One Management, and corporate sponsors.
The team will most likely not allow their driver to race anything else during the year. Mainly for contractual reasons and fear of injuring themselves. FOM have certain responsibilities that drivers need to adhere to that could cause conflicts of interest with other series and race events.
An example of FOM’s control over drivers is evident in that after Formula One driver Nico Hulkenberg’s success in the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours which brought to light the opportunities for other F1 drivers in future Le Mans events; FOM since placed the European Grand Prix on the same weekend this year, thus stopping any F1 drivers from competing in the legendary race.
Besides controlling the drivers and trying to protect their brand, maybe this is evidence also of F1 getting scared of the increased popularity and competition of the Le Mans Series and endurance racing in general? An F1 driver racing in another series or make of car may also be a conflict of interest for a corporate sponsor.
“F1 has a more direct path, because you only have a few short years to get there,” says Darryl O’Young. “These days becoming an F1 driver is make or break, so there isn’t much time to stray from the path. GT racing has many amazing races all around the world, so yes there is definitely more freedom and flexibility if you are able to raise the sponsors or create a position for yourself in the driver market. If you are lucky enough to land a factory contract it becomes a bit more restrictive again because there is less opportunity to choose where you want to race.”
The advantages of getting into F1 are mainly non-tangible if you don’t win anything and start earning prize money, salary and from endorsements. These include fame or notoriety. Both can be achieved in any F1 team no matter if you’re at the front or back of the grid. But no matter how long your career in F1 is, the fact that you’ve actually competed at that level gives you a lot of value in developing a career outside of the famed “Piranha Club”.
Let’s not forget that even though most new drivers in F1 are paying to be there, they are still extremely good race drivers and have driving skills, fitness and mental strength that is still quite rare, and extremely valuable in other categories of racing. Including coaching and driver management. So even one year of competing in F1 can set you up for a relatively successful career in motorsport or broadcasting.
Although drivers still need great racing talent to be successful in what ever series they compete in; asked whether it is easier for young Asian drivers to be successful in GT racing rather than Formula One, Darryl has an interesting response: “The answer is yes, only because there are more jobs than the available 22 seats in F1. However, having a successful career in junior formulas also creates many opportunities that GT drivers can’t easily achieve, such as DTM, LMP1, or other high downforce championships. There are some benefits of chasing the F1 dream that might help you land a seat in another top tier championship.”
GT Racing is a whole different world with so much more opportunities for young drivers.
For starters there are dozens of GT and sportscar racing series around the world. From one make series that run in a number of countries such as Porsche Carrera Cup, Audi R8 Cup, Ferrari Challenges and Lamborghini series to name a few; there are also very well known GT championships run by promoters Creventic and SRO Motorsports. Of course there’s also the great GT Asia Series and Asian Le Mans Series.
And most famously there are the legendary annual events such as the Le Mans 24 Hours, Spa 24 Hours, 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring, and more recently the 24 Hours of Dubai, and Sepang 12 Hours.
The increase in endurance events and GT championships run by professional organisations as the ones mentioned above have really helped to increase the popularity of GT racing; not only amongst teams, but also motorsport fans. This gives young Asian based drivers a lot more opportunities to race and build a successful career than Formula One does.
“The sooner a young driver can drop the ego and look at things with an open mind, they will quickly realize that all forms of racing at the top level is great racing,” says Darryl. “I had that feeling too when I switched from Formula Renault to Porsche Carrera Cup Asia at the age of 23. But it was the best decision of my life as chasing the formula dream wouldn’t have got me very far. With the amount of manufacturers involved with GT racing these days, the opportunities are much more plentiful than even 5 or 10 years ago.”
One of the most important things GT racing around the world does differently to F1, is that it’s more accessible and relative to the fans. Formula One has become too exclusive and too untouchable to the point that it’s arrogance is to it’s own detriment.
GT racing is more relatable to the general public as well, in that the cars racing are actually attainable. People can strive to own a Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini or Audi. But no one can own a modern day Formula One car, keep it in their garage and drive to the supermarket in it.
I’m not trying to discourage any young drivers from chasing their dreams of getting into Formula One. But to expand on what the reigning GT Asia champion Darryl O’Young said earlier- there needs to be some serious reality checks as to your true potential, and the feasibility of spending a large portion of your youthful driving career stuck chasing a dream. Instead of capitalising early on your talents and establishing a successful and financially satisfying career in GT racing.
But I think it’s best summed up in Darryl’s final piece of advice: “Go where you have the best opportunities in front of you. Both paths will take extremely hard work and determination, but at the end we can’t rely purely on parent’s money to survive in this sport. The earlier a young driver realises that they must learn to find sponsors and drives, and stop relying on parents, the better chance they will have at establishing a career for themselves. There aren’t any shortcuts, and each step takes time to develop. It will take 100 media interviews for someone to actually recognise your name, and it will take many races before you get that break through result. “Work hard at it but most importantly- always stay humble and maintain a good attitude.”