By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Formula One world champions Mercedes may have to rethink their junior programme if young drivers like Frenchman Esteban Ocon are unable to find a race seat, according to team boss Toto Wolff.
The sport’s annual game of driver musical chairs is in full swing but Mercedes have a problem, with three of their highly-rated proteges still looking for a place and not enough available.
Ocon, a 21-year-old rising star at Force India, Britain’s Formula Two championship leader George Russell and Germany’s Pascal Wehrlein are all drivers Mercedes want to see in Formula One but who have nothing guaranteed.
“As it stands (we have) three really talented kids with the lack of opportunity,” Wolff told reporters in Italy at the weekend.
“And this has come to a point now where we need to decide what we want to do in the future.”
Mercedes’ problem is that most of the remaining vacancies are at teams who are either linked to rival manufacturers or, like Red Bull-owned Toro Rosso, have young driver programmes of their own and promote from within.
They have little interest in drivers that Mercedes want to place but keep on long-term contracts.
Of the three Mercedes-powered teams, former champions Williams will need a replacement for Lance Stroll who looks sure to take Ocon’s place at Force India — a team now controlled by the Canadian’s billionaire father.
Williams are last in the championship and facing a big hit on sponsorship and prize money, however, and that means commercial considerations are likely to come into play.
Mercedes could offer a discount on the engines to sweeten a deal but none of their juniors would bring the sort of funding that others might muster.
Wehrlein, 23, has raced for now-defunct Manor and then Ferrari-powered Sauber but lost his seat at the end of the 2017 season.
While Mercedes found him a seat in the DTM German Touring Car championship, they are pulling out of that series at the end of the year to focus on Formula E.
Ocon was set to join Renault, but Australian Daniel Ricciardo scuppered that move by deciding to leave Red Bull, and McLaren this week closed another door by taking 18-year-old Briton Lando Norris.
Russell, 20, will leave Formula Two if he wins the championship.
Wolff said funding a junior team was not an option for cost reasons and the current model of support was backfiring if young Mercedes drivers ended up being ‘stigmatised’ by other teams.
“If we can’t find a solution for these guys, I question the junior programme in the future,” said Wolff, whose factory team has four-times world champion Lewis Hamilton and Finland’s Valtteri Bottas confirmed for 2019.
The Austrian suggested a solution would be for teams to field a third car specifically for youngsters for a maximum two years per driver.
“The costs wouldn’t be huge, the grid would be packed and we would have fantastic shows of new kids on the block coming up and fighting hard with the Valtteris and Lewises of this world and maybe surprising us,” he said.
“But owning another team just to have a place for your young drivers doesn’t make sense.”
The idea of three-car teams is not new and has been resisted in the past by smaller and poorer constructors who fear being further disadvantaged and squeezed out of the points paying positions.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)