Phillip Horton  |    |   3  |  5 September 2018

Toto Wolff questions value of Mercedes' young driver F1 programme

Toto Wolff has questioned the value of Mercedes’ young driver programme long-term, if it is unable to secure sufficient berths for its protégés.

Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, Renault, McLaren and Honda all have young driver schemes in order to track and support up-and-coming drivers, with a view to bringing them into Formula 1.

Red Bull have been the biggest proponents of backing young talent, aided by its junior team Toro Rosso, while McLaren protégé Lando Norris will step up to a 2019 race seat with the Woking-based team.

Mercedes has Pascal Wehrlein, Esteban Ocon and George Russell on its books but their futures remain unclear.

Wehrlein raced for Manor (2016) and Sauber (2017) in Formula 1 and currently competes for Mercedes in DTM, though the manufacturer will withdraw at the end of the year.

Ocon was close to a move to Renault for 2019 but Daniel Ricciardo’s surprise switch ended that chance, and his Force India future is in doubt amid the Lawrence Stroll-led takeover.

Russell, meanwhile, is on course to emulate Charles Leclerc by taking back-to-back GP3 and Formula 2 titles, but his Formula 1 options for 2019 appear limited.

Wolff believes Mercedes will have to re-evaluate its young driver scheme if it cannot find suitable solutions for the trio.

“There’s quite some interest behind George, but as it stands [we have] three really talented kids with the lack of opportunity,” said Wolff.

“This has come to a point now where we need to decide what we want to do in the future.

“Funding a junior [Formula 1] team is not an option because putting 80-90-100 million every year in a junior [Formula 1] team just to keep your young drivers in place is not what I would want to do.

“And on the other side if the drivers are stigmatised as Mercedes drivers it seems to be not the best selling proposition.

“Being a racer at heart I still feel that the best talent needs to be supported and developed and I hope we find solution for these guys.

“If we can’t find a solution for these guys I would question the junior programme in the future, and then we go back to a pay driver model.

“Today [we have] Red Bull, who have invented the programme and have been successful in the past, and being the main ones at the moment pushing forward, Ferrari have a junior programme and we have a junior programme and Renault have a junior programme, but if you can’t find a place for them in Formula 1 it doesn’t make a lot of sense and that would be a shame in terms of the driver level in F1.

“And I will discuss that with the board and with the management at the end of the year depending what the outcome is for George, Pascal and Esteban.”

Wolff stressed that he is “very optimistic” Ocon will find a way into a leading team in the long run, and has given his backing to ex-F1 racer Wehrlein.

“Obviously with Esteban, it looked like we had a deal with Renault, and within 48 hours, things changed,” said Wolff. “Agreements suddenly were not agreements any more.

“But I can understand the rationale of Renault getting Ricciardo on board. It’s just the way that things panned out was not ideal for Esteban.

“My long-term perspective on him is still very optimistic. He can drive, and he has a great personality, and eventually he’s going to be in a car that wins races and maybe a championship.

“Obviously [with Pascal] we had two years, one with Manor and one with Sauber, that didn’t go as Pascal expected or as I expected or anybody else. But I still have no doubt in Pascal’s ability.

“He’s a great driver. We have him in DTM for that reason, and I would be very happy in providing solutions for him in the future. He's part of the Mercedes family.”

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