Scholarship solution for broken feeder series ladder? Prema and Trident bosses answer

One of the most contentious factors in motorsport, which also plagues feeder series racing, is driver funding. Some drivers are supported by their family, some by companies or sponsors and some not at all. However, in the USA, one concept for supporting drivers through the ranks is to directly fund drivers that win. F1 Feeder Series had the opportunity to ask the team bosses of Prema and Trident about their thoughts on this system and whether it could work in Europe.

By Tyler Foster

The Road to Indy is a driver development program that gives those who come up from karting a clear path all the way to IndyCar. There are four stages (in order from bottom to top): USF Juniors, USF2000, Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights, with the end goal the IndyCar Series itself.

Every step along the Road to Indy provides the series champion with a scholarship that funds a full season on the next step of the ladder. Then at the final step, once you win Indy Lights and can step up to IndyCar, you get a scholarship worth around 1.5 million dollars that guarantees you at least the Indy 500 and three more races. 

So while winning Indy Lights doesn’t fund a full IndyCar campaign straight up, at the very least it allows drivers to get specific race try-outs in IndyCar, which hopefully will allow further conversations with prospective sponsors and teams. This ultimately is done with the goal of easing the path to IndyCar, by funding part of the budget needed to compete as a full-time IndyCar driver.

“Honestly, it’s quite a difficult question,” said René Rosin, Prema Racing F2/F3 Team Principal, when asked by F1 Feeder Series about his thoughts on the Road to Indy and the possibilities of a similar model being used in Europe.

“Starting from saying that I’m not much informed how the American system works and what is going into the scholarship and so on,” Rosin noted. “For sure it will be something positive as well, but at the other end I don’t know if it will be possible to fund all the steps to Formula 1 because the budget is needed.”

In Europe, the current feeder series system is solely based on the driver finding the funds to make ground through the initial stages. Once near the top of the ladder, talent often does the business talk for drivers and will subsequently result in them being sponsored or signed up to an F1 driver academy. 

Linus Lundqvist in Indy Lights this year | Credit: Mattias Persson / Motorsport Publication

Different levels

An important point made by Rosin is the distinction between the budget needed for IndyCar and for F1. One of the reasons that the program works in the USA is because below the IndyCar scene, the cost to fund a campaign is not as extortionate as in Europe. A Formula 2 season costs much more than an Indy Lights season. That’s one of the reasons that the FIA can’t fund scholarship programs all the way to F1, argues Rosin.

“If you want to make a good program, you need to have a budget. Even if you win Indy Lights, to step up in IndyCar you need a tremendous amount of money if you want to compete a full championship. Otherwise you are just competing in selected rounds. Instead, here you just have a full programme in the way that it is organised and I think it’s quite a different way of thinking of motorsport as well, between Europe and America. There’s quite a different level of sponsorship involvement.”

Perhaps the two different models illustrate two separate ways of thinking when it comes to sustainable motorsport. In Europe, it’s clearly about survival of the wealthiest, whereas the US is providing an option to many drivers around the globe that simply can’t fund their F1 dream.  

Giacomo Ricci, F2/F3 Trident Team Manager, agreed with René Rosin in that there was no simple solution to the problem.

“Unfortunately, in this sport, the budget is absolutely needed and the funds from someone always to come in,” said Ricci. “It’s also difficult to put a prize money or something to allow the driver to step up in a nice way, because in the USA maybe there is more prize money but at the end for example to run in IndyCar, yes you can win the Indy Lights and get a big prize money, but you still have to find the funds to complete the budget.”

Kyle Kirkwood in Indy Lights last year | Credit: Gavin Baker Photography

A consistent budget

Ricci focuses upon the final stage of the process. For him, it’s clear that even on the Road to Indy, drivers still need to find funds at some point in order to be a full-time IndyCar driver. This is also the case in European series towards the top. 

“For me, it’s very difficult unfortunately in the modern era that it’s like that. The budget is absolutely needed on the driver’s side,” he added.

To be successful, a consistent budget is needed all the way throughout the career of a feeder series driver. There’s a degree of avoidance by Europe’s top feeder series team bosses towards any driver that does not possess a clear sustainable budget, regardless of their talent. This is different in the US, where sponsors are more abundant in cash and the opportunity to win prize money levels the playing field significantly.

In defence of the Road to Indy programme, it’s clearly working in the US. There’s a plethora of young drivers in IndyCar that have passed through each step, with 2022 IndyCar Rookie Kyle Kirkwood the first driver to win the championship at every stage.

Most importantly however, in Europe we see time and time again that drivers can’t move up. Even Jamie Chadwick, despite winning $500,000 worth of prize money for winning the W Series title last year, couldn’t move up to the next stage. The higher cost of European motorsport is most likely what makes the Road to Indy model impossible to achieve between F3, F2 and F1.

Header photo credit: Formula Motorsport Ltd

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