Mercedes’ F1 team may have endured a bumpy 2022, but it was a year of success for its junior team. Gwen Lagrue, Mercedes-AMG’s driver development advisor, explains the values underpinning its philosophy
When George Russell took victory for Mercedes in the 2022 Brazilian Grand Prix [below], having graduated to the team at the start of the season, he was quick to name-check Gwen Lagrue for his support in guiding him to this career milestone.
For Lagrue, who leads Mercedes’ F1 junior programme, Russell’s promotion from backmarker team Williams to Mercedes and his subsequent performances in 2022 were testament to the way that the team had nurtured its young drivers. Seeing Russell on top of the podium in Brazil was a proud moment.
“Especially considering the time [taken] to achieve that, because we started from scratch [with our resources] in 2016, of course with obvious experience, but in just a few years’ time we managed to bring him to F1 and show that the way we’re operating and working is pretty efficient,” Lagrue tells Formula Scout.
“George is an example also for all the other young drivers we have and also it helps us to understand what they are facing in F1 and to make them even more ready to go through the pyramid of the junior series from go-karts to F1.”
Lagrue was personally recruited by Mercedes F1 team principal Toto Wolff in 2016 from rival Renault (now known as Alpine), where he had been managing the team’s F1 junior programme since 2009, latterly under the Lotus name.
“The roots of the programme were with Michael Schumacher and so on,” recalls Lagrue, referring to the Sauber Mercedes Junior Team in 1990 and ’91 which recruited Schumacher, Karl Wendlinger and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, stars of F3 at the time. It made Mercedes one of the first manufacturers to recognise the benefit of a structured driver development programme.
“For them as young drivers, I think it was something fantastic and I think it was a good preparation for them before F1 at that time.”
With F1 and Le Mans 24 Hours winner Jochen Mass as mentor, the three were given outings in Mercedes’ Group C sportscar squad, run by Peter Sauber, with a view to graduating in the future to F1 with the German marque.
“And because Toto and Mercedes have such a history with young drivers, we wanted to revive this [more structured] programme,” explains Lagrue.
“I was managing another F1 programme at that time and we started [at Mercedes] with Esteban Ocon and then with George, and then with all the other young [drivers] we have right now.”
The idea of a Mercedes Junior Team was officially revived in 2012 as a way of bringing young drivers into the marque’s line-up in the DTM touring car series. F3 Euro Series champion Roberto Merhi, Christian Vietoris and Formula Renault 3.5 champion Robert Wickens were the three chosen drivers, and their mentor was Schumacher – who was driving for Mercedes in F1 at the time.
All three were retained for 2013, with reigning European F3 champion Dani Juncadella joining them and Nico Rosberg taking over mentoring duties. The DTM junior team was dissolved for 2014, but Mercedes then handed F1 reserve and junior driver status to Pascal Wehrlein after the 19-year-old became the youngest ever DTM race-winner. Mercedes also tried to sign Max Verstappen that year, but Red Bull won the fight for the car racing rookie’s signature with the carrot of F1 mileage.
Esteban Ocon had won the European F3 title ahead of Verstappen using Mercedes power and, with Lotus struggling to finance his next step, Mercedes helped his move into GP3 with ART Grand Prix for 2015 and signed an option on his future. He was given a reserve driver role in the DTM with the brand alongside a similar position with Renault in F1, and Mercedes took up its option before he clinched the GP3 title at the end of the year. By the middle of 2016, it had got both Wehrlein and Ocon into F1 with Manor.
Through 2015, Ocon had remained contracted to the Gravity Sports Management company that was led by Lagrue and operating the Lotus junior team, but Lagrue followed his protege to Mercedes for the following year.
By 2022, Mercedes’ F1 junior team had grown to seven drivers racing in everything from Formula 2 down to karting.
“One thing we are very proud of is [that] we’re present in almost every category, but with a few drivers. We don’t have a lot of drivers, but we are trying to first have the best ones and help them and support them as much as we can to perform,” says Lagrue of the Mercedes philosophy.
Unlike some other F1 junior programmes, Mercedes aims to focus on quality rather than accumulating multiple drivers and letting the strongest survive while those who do not deliver are cast aside. Lagrue clearly takes the role and the team’s responsibilities towards its young drivers extremely seriously.
“When we sign a young driver, we also take the responsibility of supporting and helping him to go through and we are at the service of his sport project but in 99% of the case it’s a live project and when you are signing a kid of 12, 14, 15 years old, I personally take this responsibility and I care a lot about that.”
Of course, not all can make it to the top and not all will be able or willing to meet Mercedes’ exacting requirements. Lagrue acknowledges that “it’s always very difficult when you have to announce to a driver that it’s the end of the partnership, it’s something very difficult to do and that’s why we are very selective in terms of the drivers we are signing”.
In the aftermath of last year’s contractual dispute between Alpine and McLaren over the services of Oscar Piastri, much was made of the F2 champion’s perceived lack of loyalty in spurning Alpine, who had provided him with an F1 test programme.
Lagrue is understandably unwilling to get involved in other teams’ problems, particularly when it concerns his former employer, as “I was not involved or not aware of all the details and it’s not to me to comment”, but agrees that “there is also a question of loyalty to the programme who is helping you to reach F1”.
“I don’t know how other young driver programmes are organised, contractually talking, [but] I know what we have with our drivers and to me there is a legal part of it, which is clear to us, but what is clear as well is when you have a chance to be linked to a big organisation, could be us or any other F1 programme, there is a certain loyalty you need to have,” he stresses.
In recent years, all the junior programmes have run into the difficulty of either having an F1-ready driver but no free seat, as with Piastri at Alpine, or seats to be filled but no suitable candidates, as with AlphaTauri at the end of 2022.
“We are focused on what we have to do with our young drivers,” says Lagrue, “but there are only 20 seats, so sometimes we all face the difficulty of placing one of our young drivers in Formula 1. It’s not an easy task, not for us nor for any of them.
“Of course, there is one programme [Red Bull] which has four cars in F1 but even then if you look at it properly, they have the cars but they don’t have necessarily have the drivers [to promote] so they have also to take drivers from other programmes,” he adds, citing AlphaTauri’s taking on Mercedes reserve Nyck de Vries and Red Bull hiring Sergio Perez as examples.
But Mercedes has not been able to avoid the same situation.
“We also have to place like we did with Esteban. He is under management with Mercedes but we had an agreement with Alpine [who he joined in 2020] so we need to help each other at some point.
“And to me as long as the drivers are champions and good enough then some time we need to accept that maybe at the beginning he will not race for us but the target is to prepare and to make him ready and to offer them a career.”
Lagrue aims to bring the youngsters into the Mercedes family as early as possible, even before debuting in single-seater racing.
“I like to sign them when they are in go-karts,” he says. “We scouted most of them in go karts, apart from Paul Aron, who was in Formula 4, but I knew him from go-karts, and Frederik Vesti I knew from F4. We scouted Kimi Antonelli in 2017, when he was in Mini [karts].
“What I have noticed over the years is the earlier you are working with them the better it is, because you are building the confidence and you are just optimising what are already their skills.”
So what attributes is he particularly looking out for in a potential new recruit?
“The speed on track is something everyone can notice. It’s not that difficult. Obviously, if you come tomorrow to any go-kart race you will notice who is fast or not.
“What for me is more important in the go-kart is the consistency – the way they are racing, the way they are preparing an overtake and the way they are reading the race.”
But a driver’s on-track performance is only part of what Lagrue and his team are looking out for. “Most important for us is the way they’re behaving, their attitude, the approach to racing but also to school as well. I’m taking a lot into consideration.”
At the circuit, Lagrue and his team remain very much in the background, leaving the running of the cars to the top teams that they entrust with their charges.
“We are choosing and selecting to work with the best teams and they know what they have to do as a team in their respective series,” he says. “We’re focusing on improving the driver, as a person, as a driver and as a professional, and as an athlete.
“Of course, it’s a physical part among other parts, but also the way they are approaching every season, every event, every race, putting realistic targets, etc., etc. So, it’s a combination of a lot of things.”
Mercedes’ F1 juniors
|Pascal Wehrlein||2014-’18||DTM, F1|
|Esteban Ocon||2015-’19||GP3, DTM, F1|
|George Russell||2017-’21||GP3, F2, F1|
|Andrea Kimi Antonelli||2018-||Mini, junior & senior karting, F4|
|Paul Aron||2019-||F4, FRegional|
|Alex Powell||2019-||Mini, junior & senior karting|
|Frederik Vesti||2021-||FIA F3, F2|
|Yuanpu Cui||2021-||Junior and senior karting|
|Daniel Guinchard||2022||British F4|
|Luna Fluxa||2022-||Junior karting|
Like its rivals, Mercedes invests heavily in both the physical and mental preparation of its drivers. Lagrue emphasises the importance of not underestimating physical training “which can be seen as a very easy thing but it’s not when you’re signing a driver, 11 years old, in go-kart it’s a totally different physical preparation and approach than a kid who is in F2 like Fred”.
“You have to deal with very, very young kids. They’re still growing and that has a big impact on the physical preparation because we are not thinking only about being ready for the series they are racing in but we are thinking about their lives.”
That means ensuring a core physical condition, to avoid “any injury or any problem in the future, which is also very, very important”.
The Mercedes programme aims to optimise the way its drivers race on track “by helping them to develop the mental aspects; it’s something we are increasing and improving year after year”.
“In this environment you’re growing up under a heavy level of pressure and sometimes we’re not noticing that it could affect more than what we can think.
“So, first we need to prevent any kind of mental problem, and this can be done only by a professional. We have experts and everyone requires a different, dedicated programme, [and] it’s something we have developed over the years.
“What works or what worked with George is not working with Paul or Fred or Kimi,” as each driver is unique and requires a very different approach.
“They’re all different. They’re coming from a different country, different family background. They have a different education, they have a different character. So they are operating differently and you have to adapt your methods to each of them because you cannot replicate a method for everybody.”
One of the new faces in the squad for 2022 was Luna Fluxa [pictured above], younger sister of Formula Regional European Championship racer Lorenzo. While it has been a long-standing ambition of Lagrue to develop a woman capable of racing for Mercedes in F1, he is at pains to avoid token gestures. Like all the team’s drivers, she is there on merit.
“With Luna, we decided after more than a year of detection to sign her and we’ll try to bring her to the top,” he says, adding that “she’s still very young, she’s only just turned 12, and it’s still a long way to go but we believe that she has absolutely all the skills to make it and now it’s because the pressure is on us to help her to go through”.
Importantly, Lagrue underlines the fact that the pressure is on Mercedes and not the young driver. The team’s young driver philosophy is very much oriented towards nurturing, protecting, supporting and cultivating, rather like tending grapes in the finest vineyards.
At the same time, Lagrue’s management style is relaxed and hands-off. Mercedes does not try to micromanage every aspect of a driver’s weekend but aims to provide them with the training to handle situations themselves. Double F4 champion and Motorsport Games gold medallist Andrea Kimi Antonelli is a prime example – despite his youth, his polished performances in front of camera are the equal of his impressive results on track.
“With Kimi I think we have anticipated his move to F4 from go-karts. It’s never an easy task and we worked with Prema pretty well to make him ready for this season and obviously he answered positively on every aspect we were asking him and he is performing at a very, very good level.
“It’s also still early days with Kimi even if he’s doing well in F4, he still has a long way to go. But he has talent, he has speed, and he is, like all of them, to me on the human side, very, very top kids which is important to us and I am always proud that they are representing the Mercedes F1 team in their respective series.”
The Mercedes way may at times appear rather conservative, certainly compared to some of their peers. Antonelli is moving up to FRegional this year, despite 2021’s double F4 champion Ollie Bearman (a Ferrari junior) going straight up to FIA F3 and starring in his rookie season, while Aron spent a three years in FRegional before earning his graduation to FIA F3 for 2023.
Antonelli admitted to Formula Scout that he had initially been disappointed not to move up to FIA F3 for 2023: “I have to be honest, I wanted to go to F3 but speaking to Mercedes at the end we decided together to do FRegional, not because of the speed but because of experience.”
This reluctance to rush a driver’s progression, and potentially harm their careers, is visible also with how Mercedes has allowed Aron to mature further in FREC.
“With Paul, we have made not an easy decision last year to stay in FREC instead of moving up to F3, but [although] the speed was already there last year, it was more, let’s say, putting it all together during a race meeting and the question of maturity,” says Lagrue.
“We shouldn’t forget that Paul is still very young [at 18] and I wanted to see him more strong and repeating performances, which I think he has done [in 2022] by being the most successful driver in terms of [poles] and wins. And I’m very happy and pleased with the way he has developed this year. I think he is now way more ready than he was a year ago to move up to F3 and I wish him the best in F3 and I wish we would fight for the title straight away in F3 which is a common target we have with Paul.”
Following Russell’s graduation from the young driver programme last year, having continued to be a Mercedes junior through his first two seasons in F1 with Williams, Vesti is now its most senior member. He will be heading into a second year in F2, switching from ART GP to Prema.
“With Fred, we have to remember how strong he was in F3 but we were just starting the collaboration in his second year of F3 and we moved up to F2 knowing he was not completely ready, to be very honest,” Lagrue explains.
“We struggled in the first three or four meetings in F2. It took a bit of time to find the pace and Fred having the right approach and also the right target, and he had a very strong team-mate with Theo Pourchaire next to him, which was a reference.
“If you look at his season from Barcelona he clearly [developed] in terms of pure performance, he really improved mega and so we have decided to do another F2 season and he must be a title contender next year and that’s the clear target.
“Vesti is already involved in the F1 team,” Lagrue confirms. “He’s already doing a lot of simulator work for us and he’ll continue that next year. And if he’s performing the way we all hope normally there is no reason he will not have his chance to sit in an F1 car.”
Vesti got his first F1 experience with Mercedes in the post-season young drivers’ test at Yas Marina Circuit, but Lagrue is non-committal on whether this could lead to an FP1 outing in 2023.
“This is not decided yet. FP1 is obviously an experience you have to be ready for and we need to prepare that because it’s so important for the team that when you give up time on a grand prix weekend you have to be absolutely ready and do the perfect job.
“And we need to count on the driver same as we saw George. I think it’s still a little bit early right now but if he’s keep going the way he’s doing now it should be no problem.”