It was 2015 when Toto Wolff was eagerly talking about reinstating Mercedes’ junior driver programme. Esteban Ocon had just won the European Formula 3 championship, and Wolff had calculated an £8 million figure that drivers would have to find to ascend from karting to F1. Mercedes ended up bringing back the junior driver programme to help with this insane budgetary requirement, and it has to be said that Mercedes has nurtured and funded the careers of junior drivers. It hasn’t really gone south up until now. Toto Wolff emphasised to Autosport:
“Young drivers are very exciting. We all feel good about talent coming up and helping them and underdogs coming into Formula 1 and creating nice stories. We are all keen on finding the next superstar. But as Mercedes our core objective is to run our racing team and have the best possible driver in the car to win races and compete for championships.”
“If you’re lacking either a partner team like Red Bull has with Toro Rosso, or contractual relationships like Ferrari has with Sauber or Haas, then it’s very difficult to find the right place for young drivers. 99 per cent of our resource goes into running the team. The young drivers, beyond the emotional aspect, also needs to make commercial sense.
“We supported Pascal [Wehrlein] for two years, we did it with Esteban for two years, we helped George come to where he is now. But at a certain stage, if the business case doesn’t make any sense, then this is not for us.”
This is a huge shame, and also a case of strong drivers like Ocon and Russell missing out simply because there are no seats to go to. But again, why doesn’t Esteban Ocon look to have a seat in Formula 1? Can it honestly be framed as a failure on the part of Mercedes’ junior driver programme? A quote from Toto Wolff himself, from 2015, when talking about one of the reasons why a junior driver programme was important, draws an eerie parallel to Ocon’s plight.
“It’s not possible to bring that cost down because it has become a business so you need to have a sugar daddy or a rich daddy.”
Whilst Mercedes looks to have one hand on both 2018 titles, its chief rivals in Ferrari are blossoming with the Ferrari Driver Academy. Charles Leclerc is the realisation of its success, with him making the big step up to the parent team for 2019. There are also possible avenues on the table Antonio Giovinazzi with Sauber, and Daniil Kvyat’s time at the team has opened the door for a possible F1 return with Toro Rosso.
Ocon can’t even get a link to such teams on the premise that Mercedes won’t sever ties ‘just in case’ it needs him in the future. It’s as if Ocon isn’t being released purely to deny competitors from getting their hands on him.