13 November 2019

A big chance for a youngster

Jacques Villeneuve is a funny guy, with strong opinions, but he is passionate about what he does and endlessly enthusiastic. For some years he and his childhood friend Patrick Lemarié (they have known one another since they were eight) have been trying to find a way to help youngsters get a start in motor racing, without requiring vast sums of money. Most of the young driver schemes that exist require those taking part to pay for the privilege and are not always based on talent.

The result was a new scheme called Feed Racing, which was launched earlier this year. It is an annual competition to find new stars, with guidance from professional coaches and the prize of a fully-paid season in British Formula 4 with Carlin, which has won the title for four of the last five seasons, notably with Lando Norris back in 2015. That is worth around €400,000, but is an excellent springboard for a professional career in the sport.

The competition is important in that France’s celebrated Volant system, which aided a string of youngsters to climb the ladder to Formula 1 from 1971 onwards, disappeared in 1994 when Elf reduced its involvement and everything was merged into an operation called La Filiere. It exists today as the Auto Sport Academy, but is more of an educational establishment and the prize of €100,000 doesn’t buy much these days.

Lemarié, who was a finalist in the Volant Elf 88 competition (losing out to Olivier Panis and Yvan Muller), has believed for a long time that the system should be revived and this year he and Villeneuve acquired seven Mygale Formula 4 cars and ran a series of courses at Magny-Cours, attended by around 40 youngsters for 10 different countries. This produced a selection of the best candidates and it boiled down to six, who took part in the final competition on Tuesday morning at Magny-Cours.  The finalists included four young Frenchmen plus a Dutchman and a driver from Ukraine. The format adopted was a knockout system to ensure that even if conditions changed, it would be the same for the two contestants at every level. They were not racing one another but rather competing against the clock at the same time, half a lap apart. The seven-lap final (the best three laps being averaged to get the result) was between the 21-year-old Dutchman Marijn Kremers, this year’s KZ Karting World Champion and 18-year-old Etienne Cheli, a French kart racer and son of former Formula 3000 driver Eric Cheli. It began in dramatic fashion as Kremers spun at the final corner just before beginning his first flying lap. The car came to rest just inches from the pit wall, bringing out a red flag. This would have destabilized a lot of drivers but Marijn showed admirable control by remaining calm and setting a series of quick laps to defeat Cheli.

Kremers grew up racing karts in the Netherlands against his contemporary Max Verstappen, but he never had the funding to progress in the sport. He moved up through karting to become a Birel factory driver - but his age counted against him.

“The age isn’t important,” said Villeneuve. “He is the fastest guy. I am sure he will be able to win races in Formula 4 in Britain next year.”

Villeneuve said that he was particularly impressed by the third-placed finalist Alexis Giroux, a 20-year-old butcher from Marseilles with no experience in karting competition before he signed up for the contest.

The competition was based solely on speed except for the choice of the fourth semi-finalist, who was picked by a jury consisting of former F1 driver Olivier Panis, ski champion and Dakar winner Luc Alphand, Serge Saulnier, président of the Magny-Cours circuit and former team owner and Carlin team manager Martin Knapman. Villeneuve and Lemarié were not involved in the process. They hope that next year the number of people signing up for the courses will double with the goal being to expand to more than 100 in the future.

 

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