[caption id="attachment_286" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Will Stevens"][/caption] You’ve probably never heard of him, but Will Steven...
You’ve probably never heard of him, but Will Stevens is the next Lewis Hamilton. At least that is the way his backers see it and they are supporting their decision with heavy investment. The 17 year old from Essex has a contract in his pocket with Honda, which lays out in intricate detail his path from karts to Formula 1. It has been put together for him by his management team of ex F1 drivers Mark Blundell and Martin Brundle, who took him on when he was just 14 years old.
It’s only been done once before, but with spectacular success. McLaren boss Ron Dennis discovered Lewis Hamilton, backing him from the age of 13 and steering him through the ranks to Formula 1. The crucial advantage a deal like this gives to a driver is that it virtually guarantees that he will be driving competitive machinery at every level. There are only one or two top teams in each category and the seats fill up quickly each season as the cream rises to the top. The experience and judgement of Brundle and Blundell in selecting teams allied to the clout of Honda should assure Stevens a winning car at every level, as Hamilton had. The rest is down to him.
“There is a lot of expectation because I’ve got a contract with an F1 team so everyone expects me to win everything, “ says Stevens. “But it won’t be as easy as that. You have to progress at the right rate through the formalae to get to F1. I like having that pressure on me because now I know that I have the opportunity to get the job done.
“Lewis has done a fantastic job in how he started in F1. He didn’t just turn up and drive, he worked very hard to get there and McLaren worked very hard with him. It’s important to put all the hard work in now so I can arrive and do as good a job as him. The goal is to do an even better job.”
Given Hamilton’s staggering early success you would think it an obvious thing for a manufacturer to copy Dennis’ Pygmalion initiative, to seek to lock down young talent for the future. But the sums of money required to bring a driver through the junior formulae are significant. Depending on how many years he spends in each category, the bill could easily reach £3 million. Even for a wealthy team like Honda, backing a loser could be costly. The Stevens deal is unique in the way it links driver, management and manufacturer and it represents a huge vote of confidence by an automotive giant in an adolescent boy.
Honda has done its research; Stevens has already won every major championship in karts and his record to date is comparable with Hamilton’s (see table). On 21st September he will take part in the KF1 world championship event in Italy and that will be his launch-pad into single seaters. He is likely to start in Formula Renault, then progress to Formula 3 and finally on to GP2 the feeder series for F1. The route to F1 is often described as a ‘greasy pole’ and far more drivers fail than succeed. But by hitching his star to Honda, Stevens has given himself the best possible chance to hit the big time. All he has to do now is deliver.
“He’s been given a great opportunity, “ says Hamilton of the driver five years his junior. “And it’s about whether he grabs it with both hands and takes advantage of it or thinks that he is living the life and that it’s all going to be Heaven from now on. Even though you’ve got that opportunity you’ve got to work even harder than you did to get it in the first place. So I’ll be interested in how he deals with the pressure of having such a big team behind him. And I wish him all the best, he should be able to pull through. The number one pitfall is underperforming, taking your eye off the ball and underperforming.”
Stevens is well aware that many of his rivals will be highly motivated to beat him, jealous of the silver spoon Honda has placed in his mouth, but feels the real pressure will come from within,
“ I have to get results, “ he says. “There can be no excuses for not getting them. So there is pressure on me now and it will get more and more over the years. I like a bit of pressure on me, I feel I perform better in those high pressure moments, you do have to get that ultimate lap time on the one lap and I relish those opportunities.”
The man in charge of Honda young driver programme is the team’s sporting director Ron Meadows, who also has huge experience of the karting world.
“He stands out,” says Meadow of his young protege. “Every class he’s been in he’s won, That’s the sort of pedigree you need. If you look at Lewis Hamilton, he’s the same. It’s up to us to help him achieve his potential, whatever that may be. He needs to perform, he’s got to be right at the sharp end at every level. But it’s new to us, we haven’t supported a young driver in this way before and we are not trying to imitate Lewis because he’s a one off. Maybe he’ll be similar, but it’s hard to say.”
Beyond the backing of Honda, Stevens hopes that the experience of Brundle and Blundell will help him avoid the many pitfalls young drivers often fall into. Choosing the right team, doing and saying the right things out of the car and most important of all, building the relationships, are often as important as the driving,
“The driving is the easy bit, “ says Blundell, emphatically. “If you’ve got the ability, you can drive. It’s the other bits around it and having the right people to help you. I had family, but not the right people to sound out about whether something was the right decision or the wrong one. “
In 1991 Blundell quit a three year test contract with Williams-Renault, then the dominant team in F1, to race for the back of the grid Brabham team. His test role was taken by Damon Hill who went on to win 21 Grands Prix and a world championship with Williams. Now 42, Blundell sees the bigger picture and set up his 2MB management company with Brundle to help young British drivers avoid the pitfalls they encountered.
“It’s vital from an early age to have someone help you and manage your career so you don’t make the wrong decisions and take the wrong paths, which is very easy to do,” says Stevens. “If you make one mistake in a decision that could be it all over.”
This is certainly the experience of many drivers, perhaps the most extreme of which is Tommy Byrne, (see sidebar) whose hugely promising career was destroyed by one wrong move.
Nowadays F1 teams evaluate drivers on computer simulators in their factories more than out on the race track. They also use them to train the drivers in how to set the cars up and to learn the circuits. It is a highly technological sport and it is fitting then that Blundell sees the process he is putting Stevens through from a technological angle,
“The investment from Honda is real in time and effort, “ he says. “They feel that they could produce someone who is completely in tune with them and understands what is required. I see it like a piece of software; Lewis Hamilton came out of the McLaren system and was like Windows Vista, we are about to produce the next level of Vista.“
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