Our latest Ask a Pro is Helmut Marko, Red Bull Racing’s driver development guru and winner of the 1971 Le Mans 24 Hours.
Red Bull Racing's driver development guru and winner of the 1971 Le Mans 24 Hours
Helmut Marko is the head of Red Bull’s driver development programme and an advisor to the Red Bull Racing F1 team.
As a driver he enjoyed his first major success in 1971, winning that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours alongside Dutchman Gijs van Lennep in a Porsche 917. A year later during the 1972 Targa Florio, an endurance race held on the mountain roads of Sicily, he set the fastest laps of the race at the wheel of an Alpha Romeo 33.
His successes led to a chance to race in Formula 1, but eight races into a promising Grand Prix career a stone was thrown up by a car ahead, smashing through his visor and into his left eye. Marko lost vision in the eye and never raced again.
He subsequently turned his attentions to driver management and development, running a team in the junior formulas before selling it to Red Bull boss, Dietrich Mateschitz. Marko would go on to head up the hugely successful Red Bull Junior Team, an initiative that has under his leadership produced 11 Formula 1 Drivers and a four-time world champion.
Helmut Marko answers your questions!
As a young kart driver, I’m interested in what racing teams are looking for; raw speed or consistency and race craft? In a recent SAFEisFAST tutorial, Mario Andretti said he’d rather try to calm down a fast but wild young driver than try to teach someone to be fast. Do you agree?
Yes I agree. He is completely right. It’s better to have a fast but wild driver and to then bring this unpolished diamond to shine. He should always go into the strongest category available and also where the biggest competition is.
How do you go about telling drivers that they have not succeeded in the programme? For example what did you say to Alguersuari, Buemi, Vergne etc. and how do you feel personally after getting close to them during the years you spent together?
I explain the reasons why we can’t continue working together. We then still try to keep the connection with them, which worked well for example with Buemi, Da Costa, Brendon Hartley and many more. But in this sport only the best survive and most of the time the higher they get up the ladder they sometimes can’t cope with the increased responsibility after the junior programmes or haven’t progressed enough.
How can I get into the Red Bull Young Driver Programme?
Through extraordinary performance in junior categories.
I race single seaters and I am having a bad season. I have won races before, but I am driving really badly this year. How can I change this? What would you recommend doing?
You should analyse where the reasons for that come from. Is it because of your environment, are you fully committed, do you understand the technical side? You have to make a strategic analysis and have to turn to someone within the sport if you are not that self-critical. But in most cases it’s in your head and has nothing to do with the techniques.
Other than speed which one quality do you most look for in a young driver?
Determination, enthusiasm and the technical know-how to understand and get the maximum out of the car.
Hello Dr. Marko. It seems to me that there are so many redundant developmental series in Europe and the USA that reward the driver’s ability to pay, rather than showcasing their true driving skill. Great drivers seem to arrive on the scene, rather than working their way up the ladder. Isn’t there a better way to develop future champions? I’d be interested in hearing your take on this.
You are right, there are too many series, which cost too much money. But Gerhard Berger made a very important step when he created the Formula 4 and then Formula 3 championships to progress to after a karting career. These are series which are relatively cheap to drive in and also have a huge power density. If you are successful in these series (see Verstappen), you will automatically shift into the focus of teams and sponsors.
Did you have contact with Gijs van Lennep to check up on Max Verstappen before you signed him?
What are the qualities that make Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr better than all of the other drivers of their age? Are these qualities that can be taught or learnt?
Verstappen and Sainz are very different characters. Verstappen came straight from karting, to Formula 3 and then into Formula One. Sainz had a bad patch in GP3. That was their career direction. They both have the willpower to reach the highest level in their sport and they subordinate their whole lives to reach this goal. You have to have talent but also be willing to work hard. You need the mental strength, like Sainz, to get up after an unsuccessful year, recognize your errors and keep on working on them. And as you can see it worked!
How do you train a driver mentally, to be able to cope with a bad race result?
We have a group of very good people who work mentally and physically with the drivers. And in special cases we sit and analyse how it came to the race result. Was it the attitude, a technical or mental problem which made the performance worse than expected. But we treat every single case separately and then tailor the actions to fit each driver.
How many young drivers do you do an evaluation on each year?
That’s always different as we don’t have the same amount of young talents each year. But the basic tendency for us is that no matter in which new category he drives in, he has to be in the front immediately.
Helmut. Your ‘talent spotting’ is hugely admirable and has brought some truly great drivers into F1. What is the secret to finding such talent?
Thank you, but luck also plays an important role as well as consistent work and a system which creates the necessary base, thanks to Red Bull, to give the drivers the right education from the start.
Dr Marko, away from the track what qualities make a driver ‘marketable’ and therefore more likely to get sponsorship?
All our drivers are not being influenced in their personal development. Everyone should have their own character and features. The most important thing is success on the track. How someone then implements this, that’s a different story, which we don’t really influence. They don’t need any more sponsorship if they are with us and therefore we can solely focus on their competitiveness.
What prevailing qualities have you seen in young drivers that indicate that they might one day become F1 World Champions?
Speed and determination.
Would you like to drive in the current era and would you enjoy it if you had the chance?
If I could talk to drivers and friends I would prefer races from the past due to the atmosphere and also from a driving point of view – there was more engagement those days. As a driver you could balance out technical disadvantages. You can’t do this anymore these days. What I don’t want to have again is the immensely high risk we had when driving in the old days.
Hi Helmut, are today’s F1 cars too easy to drive?
Yes they are too easy to drive. Just look at pictures from the 80’s and 90’s. When drivers left the cars after a race they were physically exhausted and you could still see the tension in their eyes. Nowadays drivers leave the car and look as if they just come back from a long stroll.
With the rookies entering F1 becoming younger every year, do you think there is a ‘cut off’ age when it becomes too late to be in F1 nowadays, granted that you have results from the open-wheel ladder to prove the talent is there?
Generally I think that it’s possible and an example is that we gave Dean Stoneman a chance. We never had such an old junior driver before.
Have the new Super License rules for 2016 and beyond affected or will affect how choose drivers for the programme?
We choose drivers simply due to their speed. I think that the new super license system is not right, because the criteria simply don’t reflect a fair standard in the points allocation.
What did you see in Vettel and how does he compare to others in the Red Bull program?
I’ll give you an example. When driving in Formula BMW, Vettel won 18 out of 20 races and was unhappy about that. This shows that he only strives for the absolute maximum and everything else is less important for him.
I am competing in a local karting championship, I have had some success but don’t have the money to do more practices. What can I do to get better outside the kart?
What driver in your programme will be the next Vettel or Ricciardo? Why?
You can only be sure, when the drivers sit in an F1 car. We might have a few focusing a seat, but I don’t want to mention any names at this point to avoid giving someone preference.