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Climbing the greasy pole to F1: A British case study
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Posted By: James Allen  |  14 Sep 2012   |  10:43 am GMT  |  35 comments

The end of the European season is traditionally a time to take a look down the motorsport pyramid to see which drivers are beginning to knock on the door of F1 as the junior categories’ seasons come to a close.

For the first time next week GP2 will travel to Singapore alongside F1 to stage its finale and the lead British driver in the category this year has been James Calado, who goes into the final two races in third place in the standings after a strong debut year at that level.

The 23-year-old from Worcestershire is already guaranteed rookie of the year honours having claimed two sprint race wins, at the season-opener in Malaysia and then Germany, along with five other podium appearances driving for Lewis Hamilton’s former, now Lotus-branded, ART team. Indeed he only dropped out of title contention last weekend at Monza.

Calado arrived in GP2 this year on the back of consecutive runner-up finishes in British F3 and GP3 yet has reached the most complex juncture of them all – working out how to take the next step and break through to F1.

Speaking in an interview for the latest edition of the JA on F1 podcast, Calado said: “Now I’m kind of getting the impression how hard it is.

“For me I think it’s just quite important to concentrate on GP2 and the last rounds I’ve got coming up. Formula 1 is quite political and it’s a big business and for a young driver to do that step from GP2 into Formula 1 normally involves quite a lot of money – no matter how good, or bad, you are.”

The path from GP2 to F1 is certainly tried and trusted – exactly half the grid are graduates from the junior series – yet a glance at the names who have made the step up to F1 over the past two seasons shows that significant backing is a necessity, be it from a large company in the driver’s homeland, a manufacturer or well established driver development scheme like Red Bull’s.

Since 2008, when he drove a single-seater for the first time, Calado’s career has been financed by the Racing Steps Foundation, a trust set up and backed by motorsport enthusiast Graham Sharp and managed by Derek Walters which provides financial support and personal development to young talented British drivers who are without significant funding.

“The philosophy is fairly simple: there was a lot of young talented drivers in the UK with no money and that talent would go to waste if it wasn’t supported,” explained Walters.

“So we’ve been pretty careful basically with the young drivers that we’ve picked and we’ve seemed to pick pretty well.

“James is following on from Oliver Turvey, who’s now working with McLaren doing a splendid job there on simulation work and so on, also finding it difficult to make that final leap into Formula 1.

“But on the other hand James is there, being noticed up and down the pit lane at the moment and is doing an extremely good job.”

Calado is one of 10 young drivers currently on the trust’s books, a roster which includes Oliver Rowland and Jack Harvey who are front-runners in the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup and British F3 respectively.

Having made his way into GP2, Calado’s own support from the foundation ends at the end of this season and he admits that finding the funding to continue the forward momentum in his career will be tricky.

“I know now that I’m very fit and suppose I’m probably ready for Formula 1,” he said. “But it’s very, very difficult. This is my actual last year with Racing Steps Foundation so to be able to find the funding for Formula 1 will prove to be quite difficult I suppose.

“But I haven’t really been given any information [about 2013] – quite right I suppose, because like I said I need to just finish this year and discuss everything like that at the end of the year.”

Calado admits that the chance to run in the Abu Dhabi young driver test in November would be a great opportunity for him, but is waiting to see whether he gets an invitation from one of the teams. Nonetheless he says he will continue to back his talent.

“I do believe that if you perform well and your talent shows you will get there one day and progress even in Formula 1. So that’s my ambition.”


You can hear more from James and Racing Steps chief Derek Walters, along with exclusive interviews with leading figures from the F1 world, in episode seven of the James Allen on F1 podcast. Download it here or via iTunes.

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35 Comments
  1. Merlinghnd says:

    It is a tough world in many professions with a combination of qualifications/ability mixed with a lucky break somewhere along the line needed to be successful in your chosen profession.

    James, with top athletes currently getting about £27k from UK Sports plus coaching support etc, how does this compare to what the Racing Steps Foundation does?

    1. James Allen says:

      Well a season of GP2 is about €2 million.

      1. Matthew says:

        I’d be interested in reading about what sorts of costs create a figure such as €2 million. How much of that is the purchase of the car itself?

      2. Kay says:

        So these young drivers don’t get paid until they reach F1, is that right?

      3. Wayne says:

        James, sorry this is off topic but do you and your tech guys have a better way of controlling what happens to email addresses when you do not like a comment?

        Every so often I say something that you do not feel is appropriate for the site (which, of course is utterly fine) but then that email address is banned for ever which is a bit much.

        I now have to invent nonsensical email addresses to post here, which rules me out of ever entering a competition because I would never get a reply etc etc….

        It’s really tiresome, I only bother posting again because the site is such high quality – you must loose many posters this way who just blew their top once and who are not necessarily rude or ignorant people.

        Perhaps you could call an amnesty and clear the ‘banned’ logs?

      4. James Allen says:

        Moderated comments go in Trash

        But we see the same email addresses come back again after a comment has been trashed, so it doesn’t happen every time

        Don’t you think it would be easier and better for the site of you just self- regulated on comments and made sure that they comply?

      5. Dave Denton says:

        Blimey! Thanks, Wayne… I didn’t even know I’d been blackballed.. Just got fed up with all my comments simply not appearing, so gave up contributing.

  2. CNSZU says:

    Let’s get some perspective. A young driver complains that in order to make it to F1 he needs lots of money. That’s true if he is an AVERAGE good driver. A GENIUS however, a la Kimi Raikkonen can make it without the cash because with such talent, he will be sought after by the teams regardless. So quit complaining. If you truly are a super talent, you don’t need to worry.

    1. timW says:

      And then we will end up with 2 or 3 superstar, drivers and the rest will be well funded pay drivers. The overall talent level of the field will drop.

    2. John says:

      what you forget is that it still costs an enormous amount to have the chance for a talented driver to put that talent on display in a half decent car…

    3. Jordan S says:

      While that’s true, how often does a genius driver come around? Once every 5 years?

      I think the point is that the very, very rare “genius” drivers are the only ones that don’t have to worry, while all kinds of other drivers who probably deserve to be competing in F1 do have to worry.

      I don’t like seeing certain drivers, because of superior funding, “leapfrogging” other more deserving drivers in to F1 cockpits.

      While we can be confident that F1 boasts the best half-dozen or so drivers in the world, the quality gets diluted once you look further down the order. I think that is the issue here, and it still is a detriment to the sport.

    4. jonnyd says:

      well if you look at Kimi’s background thats not entirely true.

      Yes his parents weren’t rich…….they weren’t average poor either. His parents put everything into his racing – how many other parents are willing to do that?

      Also…the fact that his parents put any spare money they had to his racing shows that they at least had money for the basics – a house, food, utilities.

      Most people just get by on that alone.

      A lot of people dont realise that to be even be recognised by something like the Racing school foundation, you need to be pretty well off already.

      You would have already invested at Least 40-50k in Karting alone.

      Ordinary people dont have anywhere like that kind of money to spend on go karting.

      Its a shame really, because the talent pool is so concentrated – there could be tens of thousands of genius drivers out there, and you’ll never know, and neither will they, because no one has a spare 50k lieing around to do national championship level karting.

    5. Rich B says:

      kimi’s seat in formula renault wasn’t free

    6. Matthew says:

      This view is outdated.

      The top 8 or so drivers in GP2 are all super talented. What separates them is a lucky break or major funding.

      Look at how many current F1 drivers are there because of funding:

      Perez, Maldonado, Senna, Petrov, Karthikeyen etc.

      All these guys a good drivers, some better than others (Karth perhaps not in same bracket) but the view that talent alone is enough is wrong.

      Perhaps THE driver of a generation would make it on merit e.g. a Senna or a Schumacher but for the rest a chance in F1 is rooted in sponsorship.

      That’s the reality.

      And if you read and watch all the insight available to fans these days then i cannot understand why you would reach a different conclusion.

  3. Irish con says:

    I have watched the gp2 series this year and I have to say I don’t really see the next big superstar coming through in that series. It’s been very very average this year. No hamilton or rosbergs for sure.

    But for sure these gp2 and gp3 guys need calmed down. The driving standards at spa was shocking. I can’t remember who but a guy pushed someone into the wall in the run down to eau rouge and calado on the first lap of the Sunday race put razia on the grass at 160mph. I thought that was shocking and worse than what I’ve seen in f1 this year.

    1. roadie says:

      Agreed. GP2 is a development formula and the drivers should be schooled into not developing these habits. Quite the reverse seems to happen from what I’ve seen.

    2. Kevin says:

      But that’s the point. If mum and dad hadn’t re-mortgaged the house for the 12th time they wouldn’t be doing it! These drivers are putting themselves at extra risk because the preasure is too much. And it’s we the fans who suffer; the next Senna or Villenerve could be a 17 yo in GP2/GP3 this year stifing under the preasure. Do F1 drivers need to be able to operate at the highest level and need high levels of stress? The answer is yes, but they also need room to grow.
      Every F1 teams should be made to have a GP2/3 teams to develop drivers. Just my opinion

  4. Sebee says:

    May I just say, lovely word play for the article title.

    But I must admit, for a second I thought it was Interlagos weekend, and some British fans won tickets from JAonF1 and were reporting on their Friday night in Sao Paolo.

  5. Rich B says:

    i hope james gets another year in GP2, the drivers above him in the championship have 3 years of GP2 experience, he’s ahead of his team-mate Esteban who’s in his second year too.

  6. Dino says:

    Formula 1 is a billionaire bussiness that gives huge profits to all parts involved, o.ne of them being FOM

    I would like that part of this profit would be spent by FOM in a HRT-like F1 team, whose two drivers each season were the winner and the runner-up drivers of the previous GP2 season for free.

    Just dreaming anyway…

    1. Bobby says:

      And that financial reasoning, it seems, is behind many drivers even in the UK looking at the INDYCAR ladder because of the organisation’s policy of awarding financing for winning each step of the ladder.

      Formula Ford F2000 (League Two type) champion Matthew Brabham wins $375,000 (£231,000) for a Star Mazda ride (League One or F3 type).

      Star Mazda champion Jack Hawksworth of Bradford won the title and the League awarded him $600,000 (£370,000) for a ride in Indy Lights (the equivalent of GP2 or The Championship).

      The winner of this evening’s Indy Lights race will win $1,000,000 (£616,000) to fund an IndyCar Series ride. Drivers J. R. Hildebrand and Josef Neugarden both earned their IndyCar rides by claiming the bonus.

      The idea of “win and the series pays your first season’s ride” concept is something some series can contemplate. Could FF and GP3 series or even the Renault or AutoGP series look at such “win a ride in GP2″ concepts for the series winner?

      1. Dino says:

        It is really good this is happenning in the US, Bobby. Hopefully we in the EU could learn a little bit and give further oportunities to the youngsters.

        Kind regards,

        Dino

  7. Davexxx says:

    James this may be a silly question but there doesn’t seem to be so much talk about what sponsorship Lewis Hamilton can bring to a team. If he was to jump ship to another team – and these days you need to bring a lot of money with you – but given the ‘trouble’ and ‘baggage’ Lewis does seem to bring with him (despite his claims to have jettisoned it!), is he a very financially valuable asset?
    I guess he would to any company who don’t care so much about the controversies so long as the name is in the public eye. Guess I answered my own question!

  8. Mathias Anderson says:

    What potential do you see in McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen?

  9. lethalnz says:

    i like this young guy in GP3, Mitch Evans.
    i can see him in F1 very soon.
    he is sponsored at the moment by Weber.
    be awesome to see a Kiwi back in F1 and driving for Mclaren would be icing on the cake.

  10. Elie says:

    If you were to ask the parents of a “genius” driver like Raikkonen if they had it any easier I doubt they would agree coming up with money for carts, formula Renault euro etc couldn’t be easy. Also for the kid driver it must be tougher because you know you have to make the most of every single opportunity because if you fail – your not getting a second chance- I guess this is what drives the genius drivers !. If you have all the backing in the world or lucky enough to find terrific sponsors early on-are you gunna fight as hard as those dont ?
    Either way talent always shines through. What’s really challenging for motor sports is Identifying guys who aren’t even aware of their own talent. I’ve seen young guys go to carting for a bit of fun and continually set the fastest laps – not even considered motor racing as an option. Sure you gotta want it but what do you know at 13. Not all are born with it.

  11. Bobby says:

    I like this chap, I hope in a few years time he’ll be winning races in F1.

  12. Iestyn Davies says:

    Pirelli will give Mitch Evans £\€200,000 if he progresses to GP2 as the GP3 champion. Part of the budget required it seems

  13. Steve says:

    The problem is that, as James pointed out, it is hugely expensive doing any form of motorsport. I have worked in karting at british/european and know a lot of drivers who have gone into cars. Even for National level karting, it can cost easily £50,000 – £100,000 and for a season in Europe €300,000+. Even for Formlula ford your looking at £200k with front running teams.

    Seat time is essential for drivers to learn and to show there talents, the problem is that it is becoming ever more expensive.

    As for Calado, i know a driver that went for a shootout for the racing steps drive, was faster than Calado on the day, but his dad gave them money to make sure he got the seat. Its all politics

    1. Ed H says:

      I hate you to disagree with you there Steve, but even if your story at the end about bribery and corruption in Racing Steps is true, just because this other driver you know was faster on the day, doesn’t mean he was better than Calado in, say, Technical feedback to the engineers. Besides, it’s not ALL politics; Personally I think Calado is a decent bloke, and our next best shot at a British champ. I watched him in his final F3 race in 2010 in wet conditions at Brands Hatch and he drove superbly, handling pressure from guys like Will Buller (Who he was side-by-side with exiting the pits) and Jean Eric Vergne. (Who binned it in the gravel trap, as I recall) I personally think (In mixed conditions at least) he now is more than a match for Vergne and is getting better. In GP3 last year he was unlucky not to beat Bottas, and was driving a lot better than him when the team was struggling with the car. (Which doesn’t happen often as ART is a top team) You can make an argument that politics helped him get to where he is, but he has made full use of the oportunities given to him. I don’t think it’s fair of you to imply that he doesn’t deserve to be there just because his Dad “made a deal” with RSF which snubbed another alledgedly faster driver. And infact, I don’t blame him for it; what loving father wouldn’t do whatever it took to make sure their son could fufill his dreams? As he had the means to do it, why not? Besides, even if you don’t agree with Calado Senior’s actions I hardly see how James is at fault.

  14. Señor Sjon says:

    I can see the next best thing coming from WSR. There is more talent there and for example rookie Frijns is doing very well in his first season there.

    WSR has Bird, Bianchi and other F1-test drivers. The GP2 is a bit of a poor driving standard crash fest this year with a lot of long running names in it. It almost seems if GP2 is the next buy-in class instead of a racing class.

  15. Suky says:

    Hi my son is 7 years old he loves watching F1 with me. He says he wants to be an F1 driver, I would love to help him persue his dream but I do not have anywhere near the money required, is it best to quash his dream and say look at something so we do not persue something knowingly it’s just not going to happen without money?

    1. James Allen says:

      He’ll never know until he tries it. Stick him in a kart and see how he goes

      There’s every chance that he won’t like it or will clearly not have any special ability, so you can work on that basis

      However if he turns out to have a natural talent then you have problems…

  16. Tom says:

    James deserves a seat in F1, as do several of the front running GP2 guys. It’s a pity the teams will always pander to sponsors on driver choice rather than give a promising talent a shot just for being… a promising talent!

    RSF need to see a driver through to F1 – Turvey was close but by all accounts appears to be slipping into test driver obscurity, albeit paid employment I understand.

  17. Chris says:

    I know James and his father as i grew up with calado senior. Trust me they have never been in
    a position to throw money at anything. They are ordinary working people who have put everything besides money in nurturing their sons talent and have now come to the crossroads
    of politics and finance in F1. It would be great to think that talent is the only neccessity for progress in this sport but sadly that is not the case All the best James

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