AS IF the return of Formula 1 racing last weekend wasn’t a remarkable enough story, the success of drivers from the antipodes in the lead-up to the Austrian Grand Prix was an incredible enough tale on its own.
In FIA Formula 3, 19-year-old Melburnian Oscar Piastri charged to his first ever win in the category during Saturday’s Feature race, an effort almost overshadowed by the remarkable return to racing for 20 year-old Tasmanian Alex Peroni, who finished third.
Peroni, of course, was injured in a frightening crash at Monza late last year and has spent much of the interim in recovery.
On Sunday, 18-year-old Kiwi Liam Lawson swept to his first win in Formula 3, having finished sixth the previous day.
Between the trio, it means young drivers from this part of the world are first, second and fourth in the F3 championship standings following the opening round.
Further back, Jack Doohan (main picture) finished 14th in race one and failed to finish the second, while West Aussie Calan Williams finished 21st and 17th, respectively.
Soon after the final Formula 3 race had finished, Jaxon Evans impressively led from lights to flag in the opening round of the Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup championship, jumping from pole to win a tense fight with teammate Dylan Perera – setting the fastest lap on the way.
On his Supercup debut, Jordan Love stormed from 18th to run as high as 11th following a challenging qualifying session, ultimately finishing 12th.
Each represents a huge achievement for these young stars and a vote of confidence that there’s still plenty of young talent from this part of the world making their mark on the world stage, potentially ready to fill the shoes of Daniel Ricciardo in Formula 1 at some point.
The interesting thing about these results is the background of the drivers in question and the path they have taken to get to their current levels.
Jaxon Evans and Jordan Love are both proven products of Porsche’s junior development ladder, rising through the ranks of Sprint Challenge to Carrera Cup and ultimately Supercup – both via the Porsche Junior Shootout competition held at the end of each year.
Both those drivers, and Matt Campbell before them, were able to learn their trade, achieve success and the skills required to succeed on the world stage locally (saving their backers and families plenty of cash along the way) before going overseas and being ready to go.
By contrast, to the best of my reckoning, neither Piastri nor Peroni have ever turned a competitive racing lap on Aussie soil.
Jack Doohan is the same, while Calan Williams spent a season in Australian Formula 3 before heading overseas.
For the most part, however, these kids left our shore either during or immediately following their Karting careers to work the open-wheel ladder in Europe.
For the most part they’ve never actually raced in Australia and is it just me, or is that not a brilliant look for our local scene?
Why did they not race here? Because there is nothing here that can do the same job as going and racing in Formula Renault Eurocup, regional / national Formula 3 or a similar series.
And why is it bad for the industry? Because its proof that after many attempts, our open-wheel ladder remains several rungs short.
So, while it is right that we celebrate and hail the success of these young drivers at a critical point of their junior careers, from an open-wheel point of view being a product of Australian motorsport has had very little to do with where they are currently at.
And that is a massive shame.
So, while Porsche has two series in Australia churning out ready-made talent primed for overseas success, there options on the local open-wheel landscape are sorely lacking.
Even regionally, only the excellent Castrol Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand achieves that goal: and that only works because it’s run in the European winter, drawing drivers across the world for a condensed and intense five or six-week campaign before going back home.
There are many reasons for desiring an Australian-based first step on the ladder for our kids to tackle before heading overseas, cost being the forefront.
I’d bet that if you worked on a pro-rata basis to equalise the budgets between the Porsche pathway and the overseas open-wheel route take by Piastri or Peroni to get to similar levels – Porsche Supercup and FIA Formula 3, respectively – the tin-top racers would have spent significantly less when compared to their open-wheel brethren.
Even in the same cars, it’s just cheaper to race here than it is in Europe.
Porsche Supercup costs basically double that of Carrera Cup here yet the cars are identical.
Sadly, the options for open-wheel racing here have fallen short of late.
God only knows Motorsport Australia and the FIA tried their hardest with Formula 4, spending cash to bring an internationally-relevant junior ‘wings and slicks’ category to Australia.
However, outside of a few exceptions (Liam Lawson, for one) there’s a whole range of reasons why the series failed to achieve lofty goals and instead of creating a unifying pathway for young talent here, it was crashed into the marketplace; creating bad blood with Formula Ford and Formula 3 and unfortunately dividing an already tiny talent pool before it quietly disappeared last year.
Only the remarkable Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand stands out as being consistently successful; however it is aided by running in the European winter and in a condensed, five-week period that makes it easy for the international drivers to come and visit.
So, what’s the solution?
Motorsport Australia’s programs like Ricciardo’s Racers are admirable and highly worthwhile, but the demise of Formula 4 and the pause on the rising star program that went with it means that the options for junior drivers here right now revert to the way it was a decade ago: Formula Ford.
With F4 gone it seems that there’s nothing else that would fill the open-wheel void in these parts, at least a series that young drivers and their backers will want to tackle as a relevant F1 pathway.
Although, there is one possible exception: while not aimed specifically as a ‘development’ category, S5000 carries some international relevance and could potentially fill some of the void.
The S5000 chassis is essentially the same as those racing in global Formula 3 (or similar) classes, the cars are safe and the performance levels will be suitably high enough to allow drivers to potentially make a transition directly to something like FIA F3 or Indy Lights easier.
The addition of the Gold Star means it will get some profile and publicity locally too, which can only help.
It means that it could be a very good place for kids to learn their craft before stepping directly into a higher level overseas.
Certainly, an AUD $300K season in S5000 seems much viable than spending the half a million or so you need to tackle a full season of British F3 or a similar equivalent.. or the more than AUD$1m you need to do FIA Formula 3..
Until that is proven, however, the bottom line is this: right now, if you’re a young driver in karts and want to be an Australian Formula 1 driver the best possible course of action right now is simple:
Don’t race in Australia.
And that seems wrong to me.