Published on May 17th, 2013 | by FZanier0
FDA: And if Ferrari Got it Right?
When, at the end of 2009, Maranello revealed the creation of their Ferrari Driver Academy programme, the skeptics’ corner was pretty crowded.
There were many reasons for that, history in the first place: Gilles Villeneuve being the last driver brought by Ferrari directly to F1 from junior racing in 1977 (and that would be arguable too, as he had a single outing with McLaren earlier that same year), the Italian make’s record in nurturing young talents wasn’t exactly brilliant.
Still, Ferrari had all the right to try and turn the tide: at that time Massa had started recovering from his horrific Hungaroring accident, and questions on his real chances for a return to full racing proficiency were on the agenda. Maybe that played a role in leading Ferrari to feel the urge for an organic young driver programme, even knowing that results would have come only in the mid-long term.
With 2013, we have entered the fourth year of FDA, so it’s worth to see what the programme has produced so far.
Jules Bianchi – Still FDA, F1 driver with Marussia: he was the first driver to be announced as part of FDA, not much of a surprise considering that the Frenchman had already tested for the team at Jerez weeks earlier. Sure it didn’t hurt that, exactly as Massa, Bianchi was managed by Nicolas Todt, son of former Ferrari supremo and then FIA president Jean Todt, but still Jules seemed a great pick. Newly-crowned F3 Euro Series champion at the time, he was probably the strongest prospect of his generation. He didn’t fully live up to the expectations as he never managed to win a major feeder championship, but he’s always been fighting at the top. Twice 3rd placed in GP2, in 2012 he finished runner-up to Robin Frijns in F.Renault 3.5 after a controversial contact in the final race that stripped him of his title chances. If he has a limit, sure it doesn’t reside in his right foot, but lack of focus has been an hindrance more than once.
He’s currently doing well in his debut F1 season with Marussia: he outqualified his team-mate in the four races contested so far, then crossing the line ahead of him every single time. He’s also keeping Marussia in contention with Catheram, which is the best he can do with such machinery.
Sergio Perez – Released, F1 driver with McLaren: Perez was FDA’s surprise move: he was involved in the programme on October 2010, when Ferrari-engined Sauber had already signed him to debut in F1 the following year. Entering a racer of his experience into an Academy seemed an odd choice, but Ferrari had at least two points to do that. It was a good move for Fiat’s commercial interests in South America and at the same time it gave them the opportunity to evaluate Perez, assessing his driving both in the real car and at the simulator and judging his feedback in the technical briefings. Some say that they weren’t that impressed, and hence did nothing to stop him when McLaren pulled their move.
Mirko Bortolotti and Daniel Zampieri – Sacked: They both showed hints of talent above average but Ferrari never appeared to be fully convinced of their potential. To many, their inclusion in the programme seemed to be just a quick answer to criticism from Italian fans and media for the lack of support to national drivers. Unsurprisingly, they were sacked after just one season. Now Zampieri is a successful GT racer, while Bortolotti is outpacing the (small) Eurocup Mégane Trophy field.
Lance Stroll – Still FDA, WSK and CIK with Chiesa Corse: Son of fashion entrepreneur and Ferrari collector Lawrence Stroll, the young Canadian was just 12 when Ferrari appointed him an FDA driver. Some impressive results in the national karting championships earned him Maranello’s attention, and he seems to be growing at a steady pace. At 15 it’s too early to know what he’ll become, but being followed by italian karting maestro Dino Chiesa he couldn’t be in better hands.
Raffaele Marciello – Still FDA, FIA European F3 with Prema: Ferrari selected him at the end of a promising karting career, and lined him up in F.Abarth and then Italian F.3. Raffaele, or Lello as he likes being called, was quick but not dominant in his early years. Despite that, FDA’s manager Luca Baldisserri was clever to understand that there was much more to come, and waited for him to bloom: Marciello made the most of the opportunity and raised the bar a first time in 2012 with a stunning start to his 2012 Fia European F3 campaign, with 5 wins in a row between Pau, Brands Hatch and Red Bull Ring. His championship bid lost momentum in the summer with three bad weekends in Spa, Nurburgring and Zandvoort, rounds spotted with racing incidents that taught him a lesson even if he wasn’t the only one to blame. He eventually lost out to team-mate Daniel Juncadella, but his first season at European level was nothing short of amazing.
Still, he managed to step up his game for 2013: again in the FIA European F3 with Prema, Marciello clinched 5 dominant wins in the first nine races, and was a podium finisher twice. He’s even quicker than last year and, if he will manage to keep his focus as he did so far, it’s hard to see who could challenge him for the title, considering that he already has a 71,5 points gap on 2nd placed Rosenqvist and that this weekend he could further stretch his lead in Brands Hatch, a track that last year saw him bag a double win. At 18, Lello really seems to have what it takes to be a star of tomorrow.
Brandon Maisano – Sacked: His start in FDA was even better than Marciello’s: they were rivals in F.Abarth and the Frenchman won the championship showing both speed and consistency. Anyway, things changed in F3, especially in 2012 when their paths diverged: while Marciello’s performances in his European debut were beyond expectations, Maisano wasn’t dominant as expected at his second season in the Italian championship. He still clinched wins and podium finishes, but that wasn’t deemed enough in a not so competitive series. Being roughly the same age there wasn’t room for both on Ferrari’s motorsport ladder, and Maisano was dropped.
Antonio Fuoco – FDA New Entry, F.Renault Alps with Prema: A 16 year-old, Fuoco is the latest new entry in the Ferrari Driver Academy. After shining in karting and winning the “Supercorso CSAI”, a driver selection process organized by the Italian National Sporting Authority together with FDA, this young gun took no time to make an impression: without any previous single-seater experience (apart from a couple of races on a F.Abarth car earlier in the year, of which he won one) he clinched 3 wins out of the 4 F.Renault Alps races he entered so far. It’s an outstanding achievement, especially considering that his rivals were the likes of Mathieu Vaxiviere, Pierre Gasly, William Vermont and McLaren junior Nyck De Vries, all front runners in the F.Renault Eurocup and drivers that already have at least one season of experience with the car. If you can remember a better career start please advise, because I can’t.
So, is FDA proving skeptics wrong? I would say so: like any other programme it required some adjustments, and fine tuning takes time. That doesn’t include reviewing and refining the working methodologies inside the FDA staff alone, but also selecting and strenghtening the right external partnerships. In that sense, Baldisserri made a clear choice tightening the bond to Prema and so far it’s paying off with positive effects on the whole operation. Likely the best italian team in the junior formulae, in the last 20 years Prema has been a key step in the careers of drivers that made it to F1. Jacques Villeneuve, Robert Kubica and Kamui Kobayashi didn’t just find competitive cars, but an ideal environment for their development, and Ferrari’s youngsters are benefiting from that too.
Will one between Bianchi, Marciello and Fuoco ever drive in F1 for the Prancing Horse? It’s impossible to say now, but Ferrari have three very good arrows in their quiver and that can’t be bad.