It's not unusual for a team or manufacturer to have a programme of young driver development, bringing on new names and fresh talent in the hope of finding the next big thing. BMW, however, has expanded its idea to an international operation where Formula BMW is not just a racing series but an educational and development programme all in one.
Formula BMW debuted in Germany in 2002 then started up in America, Asia and Great Britain in following years. Supporting well-know series such as German, British and World touring cars, Formula One and Champ Car, Formula BMW culminates in a World Final, this year to be held at Valencia in Spain.
The concept of Formula BMW is the same in each of its international branches: to provide young drivers, from the age of 15 to 21, with everything they need for a motor racing career. The Educational and Coaching Programme covers aspects such as car set up, driving techniques, fitness and nutrition and also dealing with the media and sponsors.
"The basic idea is we have our motorsport programme which consists of three pillars; Formula One, touring car racing and young drivers' education," BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen told Motorsport.com. "With Formula One and touring cars BMW benefits from motorsport, technology wise and marketing wise. So we see Formula BMW as an area where we can give something back to the sport and groom the next generation of racing drivers."
"In 2004 we started in America as number two of the now four series -- we added Asia and Great Britain and the structure of Formula BMW is identical all over the world. So it's not just a race car, it's not just a racing series, it's like a programme of education to become a racing driver with everything it takes."
The FB02 race car has a carbon fibre chassis and is driven by a 140bhp BMW engine with a top speed of 230kmph. The calendar consists of 18 to 20 races (less in America), two per weekend, and prize money is awarded for individual races and championship positions at the end of the season. Drivers from all four branches compete in the World Final and the prize this year is a test with the BMW Sauber F1 team.
BMW Sauber is, naturally, involved in the training programme and provides further schooling and support for the young drivers. Some familiar names have come through the ranks of Formula BMW; Ralf Schumacher (Toyota), Nico Rosberg (Williams) and Christian Klien (Red Bull) all now race in F1.
In early June some of the drivers from Formula BMW USA visited the BMW Sauber team base at Hinwil in Switzerland and as Motorsport.com was also there, I took the opportunity to find out how the leading youngsters are progressing. There have been four races so far in the USA branch of the series, Mid-Ohio and Lime Rock Park, and 17 year-old Canadian Robert Wickens is currently top of the standings with Team Apex Racing USA.
"It's definitely going okay," he said. "Well, I'm leading the championship so I suppose it's pretty good! But it's only four races; I think the real turning point of the championship is going to be Montreal and Indianapolis (the next rounds, supporting F1) because it's very limited track time. Everyone goes crazy in Montreal! Everyone wants to do their best for Formula One."
So how has the programme helped him? "BMW is making me the best driver I can be -- with physical fitness up to knowing how to change the car and make it better, they help you with the media, how to get sponsors, everything they do is so beneficial to the drivers. They train you to make you the best. If I wasn't a Formula BMW Junior I would be in a situation where it would be very difficult."
Racing for AIM Autosport, Daniel Morad, also Canadian, is second in the standings and just turned 16 towards the end of April. "This is my first year," he explained. "Coming into the series I wasn't really expecting much but at the first race I ended up winning the second round! Next year I seriously have no clue what I'm going to do, it's too early to say. I'm going to see how I do this year; hopefully I can do well."
At 21, American Reed Stevens, third in the standings for HBR Motorsport Team USA, is at the older end of the age-range and is planning his racing future in American series. "The idea is to come back and win the (Formula BMW) championship this year then move to Formula Atlantic and then the ChampCar series," he said with a notable amount of determination.
"For me in particular, because all the other top guys are Canadians, because I'm an American, it's very difficult for me to go to Europe and race Formula 3 or something like that. Not just to command respect but to get into a good team that has good equipment. So the Formula Atlantic is much more appealing; because I'm American there's a lot more support there."
Wickens, on the other hand, looks set to move to Europe when his time with Formula BMW ends. "I would be doing the typical North American route to try and make it to Formula One but at the World Finals in Bahrain last year I got spotted by Red Bull," he explained. "So now I'm a Red Bull Junior driver and they want me to race in Europe."
Morad is still getting to grips with his first year in Formula BMW and has not yet given much thought to where his future may lie. "We'll see who notices me!" He grinned. He came straight from karting to the programme. "Moving up to cars now is a lot more professional, especially the BMW series because it's so organised," he said.
"Go-karts, they have no suspension on them -- basically tyre pressures in go-karts act as suspension. The main difference I notice, from a driver's standpoint, you're a lot more relaxed inside a car because it's a lot smoother because of the suspension. It's much easier to drive and much easier to get feedback from the car. It's such a smooth ride, coming from a go-kart, it's amazing!"
It's hard to imagine that Morad is only just 16, or Wickens 17 -- they handle themselves well, are articulate, enthusiastic and fun to talk to. Stevens has a few extra years over them and it shows; he is slightly more serious and is already focused on implementing his long-term career plans. But the younger drivers have time yet and it would be a shame to cut short their teenage enthusiasm too soon.
However, it may not be too long before we see some of these guys rising through the ranks if they're good enough. Fernando Alonso was 19 when he entered F1 and worked his way from back-of-the-grid Minardi to become the youngest ever world champion with Renault in 2005. It's no fairy-tale -- it's a lot of hard work and determination, not to mention talent and a good car.
Finding new talent and encouraging it is a worthy case. So many hopeful and skilled young drivers discover their careers stalling early on because they don't have the right support and guidance. Formula BMW is giving them what they need in one comprehensive package. Here's hoping these budding young stars learn all they can from it and go on to shine brightly.