Ferrari’s signing of 16-year-old double Formula 4 champion Ollie Bearman may feel like a faraway irrelevance to its Formula 1 ambitions, but it may have just secured its next F1 star.
While much more fanfare is made of the merits and pitfalls of Red Bull’s F1 driver academy, Ferrari’s recent efforts have often been overlooked.
The initiative began following the success of Felipe Massa, who was mentored through his Sauber years by Ferrari and then promoted to the senior team, helping it to back-to-back constructors’ titles across 2007-08, and almost adding a drivers’ crown in the latter.
It helped Sergio Perez, Jules Bianchi and Lance Stroll reach F1 and enjoy success with other teams, before it finally was able to reap the rewards for itself when Charles Leclerc stepped up to Ferrari in 2019.
Mick Schumacher became the latest Ferrari Driver Academy member to step up to F1 when he joined Haas for his maiden F1 season this year after claiming the 2020 Formula 2 title.
Behind Schumacher, there’s something of a ‘Ferrari’s next big thing’ void that Bearman will likely imminently fill.
Just over halfway through 2020, it looked like Schumacher’s F2 team-mate and FDA stablemate Robert Shwartzman was destined for F1 graduation, having won FIA F3 in 2019 and found an edge over the more F2 experienced Schumacher.
But Shwartzman’s starring rookie F2 season fell away and his 2021 title charge has never really got going. He’s 43 points off rookie championship leader Oscar Piastri and his name was scarcely mentioned in any F1 2022 silly season conversations.
It was a similar fate for Schumacher’s 2020 F2 title rival Callum Ilott, who has effectively ended his pursuit of F1 by signing a multi-year deal with Juncos Racing in IndyCar.
Kiwi Marcus Armstrong looked every bit as good as Shwartzman through Formula 4 and FIA F3 but has never looked F1-material during his two difficult years in F2.
Looking further back to FIA F3, Arthur Leclerc was no match for his Red Bull-backed title-winning Prema team-mate Dennis Hauger, finishing 10th in the drivers’ championship – the lowest of any Prema F3 driver since 2017 (ironically that was Schumacher, but in a much stronger field in the ‘traditional’ F3 championship rather than the one born out of GP3).
Of course, an improved second year in FIA F3 could land Leclerc the title and put his prospects of joining his brother Charles in F1 back on track.
But he’s going to face stiff competition from Ferrari’s newest junior Bearman, who has the potential to blow them all away.
Bearman made his car racing debut just after he turned 15, in the highly-competitive ADAC F4 series in Germany and dovetailed that campaign with a part-time Italian F4 stint.
It only took Bearman until the third ADAC F4 round to win a race at Hockenheim, and he followed this up with a win in Italian F4 at Vallelunga.
He placed seventh in the ADAC F4 drivers’ championship with a heap of bad luck that likely cost him a top five, but his potential was recognised by the Van Amersfoort Racing outfit that has helped the likes of Max Verstappen and Mick Schumacher on their way to F1.
VAR signed him for 2021 and allowed Bearman to obliterate the Italian F4 field, going on what would have been a nine-race winning streak had he not lost one of those wins to a disqualification for an engine irregularity.
There were weekends at Vallelunga and Imola when he was just completely untouchable and Bearman – a quietly confident character out of the car – looked a class above.
He won the Italian F4 title by over 100 points and followed that up by clinching the ADAC F4 title at the Nurburgring this past weekend ahead of Ferrari’s announcement that he’s earned a place in its junior ranks on Monday.
Bearman racked up 17 wins in 2021 across the two most competitive F4 championships in the world with the kind of flawless domination that only future stars enjoy.
He also won a race and earned two poles on his three-round cameo in the GB3 (formerly BRDC British F3) series, proving he’s more than ready for the next step.
That next step is likely to be FIA F3 with Prema, which he tested with in the championship’s post-season session at Valencia’s Ricardo Tormo circuit. He set the seventh quickest time in a field that featured many of the top 2021 drivers.
Success as a 16-year-old in FIA F3 will be difficult for Bearman, but Sauber junior Theo Pourchaire almost won the title at that age in his rookie season in 2020, and like Bearman, he’d come off the back of a second title-winning year in F4.
However, unlike Pourchaire – and every other F4 champion before him – Bearman is the first driver to win both the Italian and ADAC F4 championships in the same year.
It’s an impressive feat that, along with his quick adaption to FIA F3 in the post-season test, points to a very bright future for Bearman and Ferrari’s continuing conveyor belt of future F1 talents.