When joining the Formula 1 feeder systems, usually a young driver academy picks a prospect up or a driver is able to bring enough backing to find a place. Sometimes they get lucky and join the Red Bull, Mercedes or Ferrari academy, other times they’re unlucky and get stuck with Williams or Alfa Romeo.
While a handful of years ago being with Sauber or Williams would have been awesome, now not so much. However, usually, an academy driver has a good chance of making it up to F1 with their team or a satellite team. Look at all the Red Bull academy drivers currently in F1 – almost half the current F1 field has had some kind of ties to Red Bull (Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez, Carlos Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo, Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda).
There is one academy that seems pointless to join, that since 2009 hasn’t promoted a single of their own to the parent team and generally doesn’t seem to have their young drivers see success; that being the Alpine Academy.
Currently, in their midst, they have three notable F2 drivers (Guanyu Zhou, Christian Lundgaard and Oscar Piastri), yet it is clear that none of them will be coming to Alpine for at least another two years. Over the French Grand Prix weekend, Alpine re-signed Esteban Ocon to a long-term deal to hold his seat at the team. Eliminating one potential seat, the young drivers now have to hope Fernando Alonso decides to call off his second stint in F1 early and retire.
The Alonso deal was extra insulting to a driver like Zhou, who seems primed to enter F1 as the team’s top rookie. Alpine chose to bring back an aging Alonso instead of elevating one of their own.
Lundgaard, Piastri and Zhou are among the most talented drivers Alpine has ever seen and it looks like there is only going to be one possible seat with the team after next season. F1 isn’t cheap, so I have to assume Alpine is aware their drivers will look elsewhere for opportunities.
In the past Alpine has had drivers like Jack Aitken, Jerome D’Ambrosio, Lucas Di Grassi, Max Fewtrell, Ben Hanley, Alex Albon and even Robert Kubica. Most of these drivers never even made it to F1, and of those who did, none were promoted to the senior team as a member of the academy. Kubica did race with Renault later in his career, but that was after his debut came with BMW Sauber.
With this track record of hiring already existing drivers, it seems pointless to be in the academy when your chance to race for Alpine is pretty much dead. Unlike Ferrari and Red Bull, who have junior teams in F1, Alpine is the only Renault team on the grid, so it’s essentially Alpine or elsewhere for these drivers.
Despite the wealth of talent, not everyone makes it to F1; just ask Callum Ilott. But for guys like Piastri, Lundgaard and Zhou, the signings of Ocon and Alonso just show the team really couldn’t care less about giving their young drivers a shot. There have been 19 drivers since Grosjean’s promotion in 2009 and only two of them, Jack Aitken and Charles Pic, have made an F1 start in a Grand Prix. As you can guess, none of those starts came for Alpine.
While being in a driver academy can really help with funding and giving drivers a chance to test, being with Alpine is kind of the worst deal. At least the other teams can give you a better shot at a backmarker ride: Mercedes academy driver George Russell was able to get into Williams, Ferrari academy driver Mick Schumacher got into Haas, and Red Bull junior Tsunoda got into AlphaTauri, all these teams are affiliates of the main team. Alpine doesn’t have that anymore, and quite frankly doesn’t seem to be close to getting a junior team in the future.
It just seems like Alpine couldn’t care less about their young drivers, and it shows. The fact that only two drivers have made it to F1 since 2009 is a disgrace on an academy, meanwhile Red Bull has given seven of the 2021 field’s drivers a chance to race. While some have their critiques of the Red Bull academy, at least drivers have a better chance at getting a ride for at least a season. Alpine can’t even promise them that.
Over at Sauber, Theo Pourchaire seems poised to take over for Kimi Raikkonen in the Sauber seat at Alfa-Romeo, and while Pourchaire’s academy doesn’t seem that great, just ask Lance Stroll, Nicholas Latifi and Roy Nissany about how great being a Williams Academy member is.
The three F1 Alpine drivers now face a hard choice as they have two F3 drivers hot on their heels, stay and pray for a chance, or go elsewhere and come back to Alpine in the future.