Prior to writing this column, I talked it through with AUTOSPORT.com editor Simon Strang. Having spent a few days in Melk, Austria with the 18 FIA institute Academy finalists, I was keen to spread the word.
Simon kept my feet firmly on the ground. "The Beatles didn't win The X Factor, did they?"
He was and is absolutely right.
FIA Institute classroom
The argument is that if a talent shines brightly enough, then it will get noticed. Or will it? For every John, Paul, George and Ringo there are a multitude of famous fours across the world who would do justice to 'A hard day's night.' But their talents remain restricted to the shower, potential undiscovered, talent untapped.
And that's what the FIA Institute Young Driver Excellence Academy (to give its full and rather over-blown title) is all about avoiding. The theory is simple: if a national governing body has a talent - or two - which it firmly believes in, then it has the opportunity to put them forward for initial consideration for the programme. More than 40 countries did just that late last year and that original 75 drivers were reduced to a shoot-out 18 in Austria earlier this month.
The theory is indeed simple enough, the confusing part about this whole thing is the addition of another Academy. We have the Pirelli Star Driver scheme - in Britain and in the WRC - we then have MSA Elite, now known as Team UK and the WRC Academy and now the Institute Academy. And that's just my understanding from a rallying perspective, I'm sure there are just as many scholarly schemes on the circuit side.
I remained pretty circumspect until I got to Austria. And that's when the real worth of this whole thing hits you. And, actually, there's no confusion. In Academy terms, this one is the real deal.
For starters, there's Robert Reid. He's the one who teaches you what to eat, what to think and why it's worth running up and down or being able to do star-jumps on a gym ball. And then there's Alex Wurz. He's going to show you how to drive.
And behind the two of them, there's a whole backroom of staff from their respective companies turning theory to practice.
I've been to a few of these shootouts before, but nothing as impressive as this one. For starters, there's an empty Wachau Ring circuit and eight fuelled-up BMW M3s to help sort the wheat from the chaff. Leading the judging panel, Wurz and Reid soon realise that reducing 18 to 10 in three days is no easy task. And they can't do it. In the end, 10 becomes 12.
To my mind, allowing two more drivers in to the scheme devalues the original concept of taking the 10 most promising young drivers in the world. The top 10 were there, it just took more work and more whittling to get to them. But, by dint of this being the pilot year, two more spaces are found.
By the end of the selection, Wurz is bubbling. He's convinced future world champions walk among the freshmen.
And he knows the six workshop sessions running at different venues around Europe (starting with another gym-based bashing in Edinburgh next week) between now and the end of the year will make the difference. Wurz and Reid have been there and done it. Granted, neither were quite as successful in their field as the Beatles, but both were considerably more than one-hit wonders. And now they want to impart their knowledge to guide the youth of today.
The funding for the FIA Institute Academy comes from the FIA Foundation, which is a charity set-up by the FIA proper to promote safety and sustainability. The Institute's mandate is on the safety side - and the Academy is a pro-active part of that policy. Teaching these 12 drivers how to be quick and safe on the stage and circuit is undoubtedly going to help them on the road. And, of equal importance, by exposing them to the hard facts of road safety and arming them with the statistics, they can become the fashionable role models.
As much as the FIA Institute is a stand-alone organisation, free from the policy-makers of the FIA, the very fact that it retains the letters F-I-A at the front of its title will always infer a link. And the Institute would, to my mind, be foolhardy to let that slip. For this quango-style body, the FIA can still lend a huge weight.
Drivers underwent hard physical tests
Having returned from Melk, I spoke to various people in our industry about the concept behind the Institute Academy and it soon became clear that inbound manufacturers with embryonic motorsport programmes would be looking in on the Academy for their drivers. The impartiality on which the FIA is built is exactly the reason why team principals will look to the FIA Institute's Academy for an honest appraisal of who's hot and who's not.
The Foundation funding has given this scheme a great start, but the future of the Institute has to lie in the future of private investment. Securing solid commercial backing for this programme shouldn't be the biggest sell, but maintaining the inherent integrity which comes from the Institute is vital.
And commercial development of the FIA Institute Academy is a must for the next step. In its current state, the programme is all very virtuous, but come December, world champion in the making or not, these drivers will be booted out to sink or swim.
That's not right.
We've seen this too many times before. For me, the classic example is the inaugural Pirelli Star Driver scheme two years ago. Jarkko Nikara was and is one of the most prodigious young talents in world rallying.
He showed his ability across the board in his season as a PSD and where is he today? He's begging and borrowing to make a tired Mitsubishi stretch to another season of Finnish Championship.
So, we raised his expectations, illuminated his talents to the world. Then put him back in a box and left him alone. Without the ability to take this talent forward, what's the use of finding it in the first place?
At the end of the day, the 12 guys on the Academy can all drive, there's no doubt about that. The next 10 months will knock the arrogance out of some, build the self-confidence of others and fine-tune the physique of them all. Come Christmas, in Reid's words, we'll have the complete driver.
The next job is to make sure they've got a seat.
Read more on the FIA Academy in this week's issue of AUTOSPORT, available here.
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