“A future in red: Luca Baldisserri and the Ferrari Driver Academy”
Following Felipe Massa’s life-threatening accident at the Hungaroring in 2009, Ferrari found itself with a problem.
Not only had one of its star performers being critically injured, but it also found itself lacking a serious, up-to-speed replacement to slot in. In this predicament lay the foundations of the Ferrari Driver Academy.
For Luca Baldisserri, life at Ferrari has not always been the smoothest. Now 50-years-old, the Italian engineer heads the Ferrari Driver Academy – a programme designed to nurture young talent and – hopefully – deliver Ferrari’s future.
A longtime member of the Maranello collective, the curly haired, lightly greying Baldisserri temporarily took over the strategist role from Ross Brawn, when the Englishman took a sabbatical at the end of 2006.
What is well known now is that Brawn’s sabbatical became a break from which he never returned, with Brawn eventually joining what was then the Honda Formula One team.
Baldisserri, meanwhile, maintained the role until the after the Chinese Grand Prix in 2009, when he was moved back to factory duties. When Massa was struck on the head at speed by a loose spring from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn GP machine during qualifying in Hungary, Ferrari went into a sudden shock.
After Massa’s accident, the Scuderia discovered the only competitor on hand to drive the second seat alongside Kimi Raikkonen was the lacklustre and rusty Luca Badoer. The sluggish Badoer only lasted two Grand Prix, before he too was replaced by the retiring Giancarlo Fisichella, who deftly maintained his hand behind the wheel of a difficult F60 chassis.
With this incident fresh and noting the success that Red Bull and McLaren enjoyed with Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton respectively – both graduates of those young driver programmes – the famed Italian squad drew up plans to form their own programme, the Ferrari Driver Academy [FDA].
Although many have noted that Sergio Perez was once part of the academy, the Mexican joined the programme at a very late stage in his career and as such, Ferrari’s influence was minimal.
If anyone, it can be argued that Jules Bianchi is the first product of the FDA and this year, the Frenchman was promoted to Formula One via the Marussia team, where Bianchi has been quietly proving his worth behind the wheel of a very tricky machine.
Yet the relationship with Marussia has been tricky at times. While the Anglo-Russian squad will be powered by Ferrari engines in 2014, Baldisserri admitted during a recent FIA European Formula 3 weekend at a windy Zandvoort that having a young driver with a rival Formula One team can be – tricky at the best of times, as noted by the experienced strategist: “The relationship with Marussia was not very strong,” he says ruefully. “We could not stay inside the team as deeply as we do [in F3] with Prema. Hopefully for the future things can change and we can work with Jules in a more straightforward way.”
It is believed by some in Formula One that a year near the back or in the midfield can do much to ground a driver in Formula One, creating a level headedness upon which experience can be built. While this is not true for every driver, Baldisserri feels that it may be the right step for the likes of Bianchi, commenting that, “This year has just been an entry into the Formula One world for Jules, so it is important for him to be there and to get used to the procedures of a Formula One weekend. It is something that he needs to capitalise on and hopefully Marussia can give him a more competitive package [in 2014].”
Unlike Red Bull’s junior driver programme or Lotus’ Gravity Motorsport connection, Baldisserri believes that it is important to maintain a manageable cluster of drivers – the importance of which he is keen to emphasise: “The four drivers are in four different categories; we are a relatively small team. We want to stay with small driver numbers, because it is the way to do a good job.
“On one side, it is expensive and on another it is time consuming working with many drivers and following them in championships, so it is a good project. It is a good group of drivers and at the moment we are happy with that,” explains the academy head.
Beyond Bianchi, there are currently three drivers in the FDA – Raffaele Marciello, Antonio Fuoco and Lance Stroll; the latter of which is still competing in karting championships.
Both Marciello and Fuoco have enjoyed relatively successful seasons in 2013 – Marciello currently leads the FIA European F3 championship by 45.5points, while Fuoco claimed the Formula Renault Alps series just last week.
Yet despite these impressive showings, Baldisserri is adamant that there is more to the FDA than just results alone: “The main objective for us is for our drivers to learn how to drive and how to handle the different aspects of motorsport, so pressures and stress. These kind of elements are very important and for us, it is not true that we are looking for just successes – success is part of this game, but in the smaller category, it is really important that the drivers are able to learn as much as possible, to drive as much as possible and do as much as possible.”
For the likes of Marciello, pressure has occasionally bitten the 18-year-old hard in European F3. “Learning is the first objective and then to handle pressure – for ‘Lello’ [Marciello], this is his second year in Formula Three and he now has to learn how to handle the pressure of being up front in the classifications and so he needs to win.”
While he could be forgiven for mistakes made in his rookie season last year, Marciello has made a few unforced errors during his 2013 campaign, especially at the Red Bull Ring in July and at Zandvoort two weeks ago – it has given title rival Felix Rosenqvist a glimmer of hope going into the final round.
Following the Zandvoort disaster (a stall, crash and 5th place) Baldisserri was not the most impressed. “If you look in his career, at the end [of seasons] he has been unable to bring the final results – he never wins the full thing, so he needs to handle this kind of pressure and we saw in Zandvoort that he wasn’t quite good. He had a bad qualifying, missed a start, so it’s these little points – there are some jobs still to do with him.”
Despite these criticisms, the FDA remains fully behind Marciello and are considering his options for next season and Baldisserri admits there is potential to go beyond single-seaters if required. “Next year we will probably look to World Series 3.5 or GP2 and they are the main options,” he says at first, before adding, “There is also the possibility to have him in DTM. The way the teams in DTM are organised is very close to Formula One. The way they work with the drivers and how they work with engineers is similar, so I think it would be important to have an experience over there.”
There is a strange logic to placing Marciello in DTM should that come to pass. Some drivers who have jumped to the touring car category have commented that the pointedness of the car lends itself to a slight single-seater feel, despite the excess weight and tintop shape.
But that is then. For Baldisserri, it is important for Marciello to complete the task ahead of him. “First of all, [Marciello] needs to finish in the top, so he needs to win the [European F3] championship, because he has all of the potential and he needs to do the results.”
Lower down the priority are Fuoco and Stroll and while Fuoco’s plans are coming together, Stroll’s youth (he is still only 14-years old) limits what he can race next season.
Recently Fuoco tested for Prema Powerteam’s F3 effort at Hockenheim, with a view to replacing Marciello when the latter moves on. Those at Prema were very impressed with Fuoco’s efforts and it is believed that if a deal has not already been done for 2014, it is close, as revealed by a confident Baldisserri: “He showed that he had a great year with the Formula Renault and I look forward to bring him to Formula Three as well.”
Stroll’s plans are a touch more complicated and depend somewhat on what the FIA do next when it comes to their new Formula 4 project. With Formula Abarth running severely weakened and possibly not returning in 2014, Baldisserri believes F4 may step into the breach; however competing on the continent is out of the question. “For Lance, he needs to end this year in karting and then we need to see what happens for next year, because he still young – he will turn 15 at the end of October, so he will not have an international licence. We are looking forward to the new Formula 4, so we will see if Italy can organise this championship, otherwise he will stay in go karts for one more year.”
And with that, Baldisserri departs. Whatever happens now, Ferrari are expecting Baldisserri to produce the goods and develop FDA into a suitable channel for the Scuderia. Whether Marciello, Fuoco or Stroll will eventually join Bianchi on the Formula One grid is – at this point – entirely up to them.