from FIA Karting
“THE AIM IS NOT TO LEAVE EXCEPTIONAL TALENT ON THE SIDELINES”
Gwen Lagrue (46) is responsible for the driver programme at Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team and keeps a constant eye on Karting and the major international championships. Known for having supported Esteban Ocon to Formula 1, the Frenchman has closely followed three young kart racers in 2021: Andrea Kimi Antonelli, Alex Powell and Yuanpu Cui.
HOW DID YOU COME TO MANAGE YOUNG DRIVERS IN KARTING AND MOTOR RACING?
I was able to seize the opportunities that came my way. I started out professionally about 20 years ago with the young French driver Guillaume Moreau, who had a great career in karting, then in Formula Renault and LMP1. After several seasons, I was lucky enough to be entrusted with the young drivers’ programme by the Renault F1 Team at a time when an exceptional generation of talent was emerging in the international Karting field: Max Verstappen, Alexander Albon, Charles Leclerc, Pierre Gasly, George Russell and Esteban Ocon, whom I took under my wing and accompanied all the way to Formula 1. Renault then became Lotus, and in 2016 Mercedes contacted me to join their team.
HOW DID YOUR WORK WITHIN THE RENOWNED TEAM MATERIALISE?
When I arrived, the Mercedes academy was not very well equipped. I obtained the approval of my management to select new hopefuls from Karting. I chose the Italian Andrea Kimi Antonelli, who had shown himself to be really impressive in the Mini class. He is now the 2019 European Junior Vice-Champion, a two-time OK European Champion in 2020-2021 and has just started in F4. I then spotted Jamaican Alex Powell and the Chinese driver Yuanpu Cui. They join a list that also includes Frederik Vesti from Denmark and Paul Aron from Estonia, who will compete in F3 and Formula Regional respectively in 2021. Our objective at the moment is to find a talented female driver, with the aim of taking her to F1!
HOW DO YOU MANAGE THE RISKS INVOLVED IN SELECTING YOUNG DRIVERS?
The importance of setting up a quality follow-up is essential, even if we know from experience that an excellent Karting driver can be disappointing in a single-seater, the opposite can be just as true. It is necessary to watch the way in which they grow as teenagers, then as young men. Their level of performance is obviously an important factor, but I am very sensitive to their ability to manage a meeting and a whole season. It’s good to win races, but I like to see a driver who is consistent, who regularly shows up at the front and on the podium. From Karting onwards, their approach to racing and their attitude on a circuit are aspects that I monitor, and they do not deceive.
IS THE TRANSITION FROM KARTING TO SINGLE-SEATERS A KEY EPISODE IN A DRIVER’S CAREER?
A kart driver often feels a certain frustration at this point in his career. He leaves the high level of this discipline and an environment that he has mastered perfectly, to start again almost from scratch. During this transition, he discovers a new environment and different working methods. He has to accept and manage this situation, overcome the difficult moments, while showing that he has the ability to learn quickly and well. His ability to question himself and his strength of character become assets in facing this new challenge.
CAN A YOUNG DRIVER STILL HOPE TO REACH FORMULA 1, WITHOUT NECESSARILY BENEFITING FROM ABOVE-AVERAGE FINANCIAL MEANS?
Nothing is impossible, as Esteban Ocon has proved. The important thing is to have the capacity to cross the initial financial barrier and to be able to compete in good conditions in the first few seasons in Mini. This means driving a lot from a very young age. There are also interesting federal initiatives.
At my level, I need to be able to identify a great talent, so I need to see him or her develop to a certain level or to have heard about him or her. I would hope that a young driver who shows exceptional ability would not remain on the sidelines.