China invites itself into the closed club of F1 drivers

To become an F1 driver is an unattainable dream for many. Behind the future champions, big promotion budgets and a real financial strategy.

With one year before the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, to the day, it is the F1 drivers who will start this weekend for the first time since Losail for the first Grand Prix of Qatar.

But between the two disciplines, a world of differences. Becoming a professional soccer player in a national team that qualifies for a World Cup is difficult. But this is perhaps not commensurate with the difficulty of getting « a wheel » in F1.

In F1, only 20 drivers are on the starting grid. Sixty places in single-seater are to be taken in all if we count the IndyCar and Formula E.

Chinese Premier

When the Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen team announced that its Italian driver Antonio Giovinazzi will be replaced by Guanyu Zhou, she explains that it is « a unique opportunity to fully exploit the potential offered by the F1 platform in a key market for the future of Alfa Romeo ».

There was already a Chinese Grand Prix since 2004 (except during these pandemic years), there will now be a Chinese driver in the discipline.

If the economic argument holds, it’s almost a shame that no one has done it before, when you know that China has become the world’s largest automobile market since 2009 already.

In fact obtaining a flywheel in F1 requires a certain alignment of the planets. Obviously, you have to know how to drive and not just a little to gain access to the discipline.

In 2017, Sodaphi Group acquires a 33% stake in So Race Management alongside Sébastien Philippe, CEO of Art Grand Prix (a stable founded by Frédéric Vasseur). The idea was to promote young and talented athletes in the world of motorsport. What Sodaphi was already doing before, but via more classic sponsorship, enough to allow the company to enter this very closed circle of F1.

Art Grand Prix is one of those rare structures which form future champions in this very closed world of F1. Its competitor is All Road Management by Nicolas Todt, son of the iconic Jean Todt, the former director of Scuderia Ferrari and the president of the International Automobile Federation.

These management companies use their networks in the paddocks to place their pilots, look for partner companies and advise pilots on legal, financial, strategic or sporting aspects.

Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Valtteri Bottas or Stoffel Vandoorne are just a few of the prestigious names in the discipline that have gone through Art Grand Prix. The 4 names mentioned have all been champions in the lower categories such as the GP2 Series or the GP3 Series.

4 to 5 million


So Race Management estimates that the cumulative costs of promoting a young driver reach between 4 and 5 million euros. As always in sport: without guarantee.

« If your driver ends up in F1, you have a collossal leverage effect, if he makes a career as a driver in other disciplines, you will find your marbles but more at the rate of a mortgage loan. »

Alexandre Dallemagne

CEO of the Sodaphi group

But that is for the successes. Around 20,000 drivers around the world are said to be F1 drivers. A classic course begins in karting, where young wonders are spotted; then, they must climb the ranks with the F4 (national championship), then the Renault formula (European championship) to then finish with the F3 and F2 (world championships).

At So Race, it is estimated that the course requires a cumulative cost of 4 to 5 million euros. Then, it is a question of finding its stake. « If your driver ends up in F1, you have a collossal leverage effect, if he makes a career as a driver in other disciplines, you will find your marbles but more at the rate of a mortgage loan », details Alexandre Dallemagne, CEO of Sodaphi.

Victor Martins.
© Alpine

Other drivers on the grid have « bought their wheels » as they say. Understand that they come from wealthy families (Stroll, Latifi or Mazepin) which bring the budget that goes with it. This does not prevent them from having to be good pilots. This does not mean that investments are at a loss either. The billionaires in question are indeed developing a strategy with Liberty, owner of F1. « The Americans have always been stronger than us in sports business, » says Dallemagne.

He has supported him for years Victor Martins, who races in F3 in the Alpine Academy of the Renault group. The youngest karting world champion has since climbed the ranks. So much so that for So Race, it is no longer a question of « capital risk » but of « capital development », in the sense that we already know that the young French prodigy will find his place behind a wheel. What if it’s in F1 at Alpine at the end of Fernando Alonso’s contract in 2023? Banco!

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