Will Gray

Gray Matter: Britain’s building talent bed

Will Gray

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Three home drivers could be in contention for victory at Silverstone this weekend — and with a building bed of talent behind them could the nation be set for another British boom?

The hopes of a Union Jack hanging over the top step of the podium this weekend rest on the shoulders on McLaren duo Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button and potentially Paul di Resta, if Force India's upgrades and a tendency for their car to run well on fast circuits can propel the Scot to the front.

The golden British trio represents one of the best home line-ups in years — but all too often a strong home showing has been followed by a void of talent in subsequent years.

The recent 'National Motorsport Week' demonstrates the efforts to maintain a constant stream of talent coming through the ranks — but with so many options, so many rivals, and such a big challenge in securing the funding needed to make your mark, it's no easy ride.

Single-seater routes in recent years have typically included Formula BMW, Formula Renault, F3, GP3, Formula Two, World Series by Renault (WSR) and GP2, all different levels on the ladder that gather different levels of respect amongst talent scouts. Meanwhile some drivers on the grid this weekend — including di Resta — have taken a different path, heading to 'tin top' or sportscar racing to make their mark.

Add to that the typical requirement for a spell as an F1 test driver, and it takes a lot of hard graft before a driver can finally secure one of the coveted race seats.

One of the biggest challenges of rising through the ranks is securing the budget to do so — and traditionally British drivers have struggled to secure funds from commercial sponsors to not only help them climb the ladder but also provide the pot of gold often required to open the F1 door when they get to it. Competing against the likes of Pastor Maldonado and his PDSVA money or Vitaly Petrov with his Russian backers is tough even if you have demonstrated true talent in the lower ranks.

There have been recent efforts to develop new series or evolve existing ones to lower budgets, but it is still a tough task to commit to as a driver gets closer to F1.

Several F1 teams, or F1 team sponsors, support squads in the lower formulae or run driver schemes that help young racers — and Lewis Hamilton is a classic demonstration of the benefits of driver support, with his rise up the ladder funded by McLaren from a young age. In contrast, his McLaren team-mate Jenson Button took a more independent route through the sport's lower levels.

But there is now a range of initiatives to help the next generation of British talent, with the most prestigious being the McLaren Autosport BRDC award, which now rewards its annual winner with £100,000 towards a racing budget and a test drive in a McLaren F1 car.

The BRDC itself runs a 'Superstars' programme which offers the UK's most promising youngsters the benefit of professional training — both physical and mental — to help them with a career in motorsport. And at a grass roots level, the Motor Sports Association encourages participation through its 'Go Motorsport' programme.

Meanwhile, a significant private effort is made by the Racing Steps Foundation (RSF), a philanthropic venture that aims to support those with inspiring talents but without the important funds and mentoring needed to continue their progress up the ladder.

But does that result in anyone lining up to fly the flag in the future? The simple answer is a resounding yes.

Gary Paffett is perhaps the most experienced British driver in F1 who hasn't ever completed a racing lap, having been the lead McLaren test driver since 2006. Age could limit his chances of a permanent seat but his fellow McLaren test driver Oliver Turvey just might step up.

Force India have been using Briton Sam Bird — currently racing in WSR — for aerodynamic tests and that position also puts him high on the list of British potentials.

As an F1 feeder series, however, GP2 is where it's at, and James Calado is showing his talents this year, looking set to end up as the season's top rookie. More experienced campaigners Jolyon Palmer — son of former F1 racer Jonathan — and Max Chilton are also Brits trying to shine.

The rival WSR series — which has bred the likes of Fernando Alonso, Heikki Kovalainen, Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel in the past — sees Bird joined by Lewis Williamson, Will Stevens and Nick Yelloly. And three more British hopefuls sit one step further back in GP3, with Alice Powell, William Buller and Alex Brundle — the son of ex-racer turned F1 commentator Martin — all showing promise.

So there's no shortage of British hopefuls standing in line behind Hamilton, Button and Di Resta — but only time will tell whether they have the talent and money to get right to the top.

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