2017’s F1 season featured no fewer than seven drivers that have come through the Red Bull Junior Team programme. While the programme has always been successful, this represents the high-water mark.
It's a slight misconception to think that the purpose of the Junior Team is to build bespoke Formula One drivers for Red Bull Racing. That's certainly part of it – but the Junior Team predates Red Bull Racing by quite some time. Like rival programmes currently in F1 and the great training schools from F1's past, the overriding aim of a junior team is to get talent to where it needs to be, in a sport that can otherwise favour deep pockets over deep talent. The Junior Team gives young drivers access to training, mentoring and sponsorship that helps them meet their potential.
At the end of another racing season, the fruits of the Junior Programme are clear to see all around the world, where former Junior Team members have been pulling up trees: Scott Speed recently won his third Global RallyCross Championship, Michael Ammermüller was crowned 2017 Porsche Supercup Champion. Sébastien Buemi narrowly missed out on both the WEC (won by Brendon Hartley) and Formula E titles but racked up an impressive number of victories in both disciplines. Alex Lynn was victorious at Spa in WEC's the LMP2 class, Robert Wickens had a DTM victory at the Nürburgring, while Jean-Eric Vergne closed the 2016/17 Formula E season with victory in Montreal.
But what of the next generation? 2017 was a busy year for the current juniors. This is what they achieved:
Dan Ticktum is the Junior Team driver all the others will envy. Dan contested Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 in 2017, and enjoyed victory at the Hungaroring back in July. He moved up to GP3 for the end of the campaign and immediately looked at home, finishing on the podium in the season finale at Yas Marina. It is, however, victory in the F3 Macao Grand Prix that puts the burnish on Dan's season. It's the race every driver wants to win.
Ticktum's podium in the Abu Dhabi sprint race came 24 hours after fellow Red Bull Junior Niko Kari stood on the top step. The Finn's victory in Saturday's prestigious feature race was his first in the GP3 championship, seeing him squeak into the top ten in the final standings.
At the more junior end of the Junior Team, Neil Verhagen and Richard Verschoor moved into the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 championship. Dutch driver Verschoor, a double F4 champion in 2016, winning both the North Eastern Zone and Spanish championships, finished the season in 9th position, making his first visit to the podium at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on the season's final weekend. He had a particularly good time in Barcelona, finishing fifth, third and fifth, to win the rookie race on all three occasions. From over the other side of the pond, Verhagen, the 2016 US F1600 Championship winner, finished 11th in the standings. Neil got on the podium earlier in the year at the Hungaroring, while also being crowned rookie winner at Monza and Spa.
Most prominent, of course, is Pierre Gasly. Pierre won the GP2 Championship in 2016 after an absolutely dazzling head-to-head battle with Prema Racing team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi. For 2017 Pierre married testing duties with Red Bull Racing – driving at both the Sakhir and Hungaroring in-season tests – with a season in Japan's Super Formula. After initially struggling in Team Mugen, Pierre found his feet and began to dominate proceedings, going into the final rounds at Suzuka as perhaps the favourite for the title after two victories and a second place in his previous three outings. Sadly for Pierre, with a typhoon lurking in the vicinity, the Suzuka rounds were cancelled and he missed out by half a point – but no doubt his F1 race debut and a Toro Rosso seat for 2018 helped soften the blow.
...and for the rest of the Junior Team, it's something to which they can aspire.