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Red Bull Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel (C) of Germany smiles outside the paddocks ahead of the Canadian F1 Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, June 6, 2013. The Canadian F1 Grand Prix will take place on June 9. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS)
Red Bull Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel (C) of Germany smiles outside the paddocks ahead of the Canadian F1 Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, June 6, 2013. The Canadian F1 Grand Prix will take place on June 9. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS)

formula one

The blueprint of a Formula One driver Add to ...

So, you want to be a Formula One driver?

Being born in Europe or the United Kingdom constitutes an advantage.

Only six drivers this season are from elsewhere; in all, 346 of the 949 drivers in F1 history have hailed from Europe, 230 from the United States, 167 from the United Kingdom.

You should also stand about 5 feet 10 inches, weigh 165 pounds – the average size of an F1 driver in 2013.

Oh, and you’ll need to have been very, very good at racing go-karts as a kid.

Each of the 22 current F1 drivers, who are gathered at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve for this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix, got his first taste of competition in karting.

Coming from serious money also helps.

While some drivers have modest roots (Fernando Alonso of Ferrari, Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and triple world driving champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull chief among them), several others including Caterham’s Charles Pic and Marussia’s Max Chilton earned their seats at least in part because they are backed by considerable family fortunes (Pic’s mother owns one of Europe’s biggest trucking companies, Chilton’s father is chairman of a sprawling insurance empire).

It seems talent, though crucial, is only one part of the equation.

“Racing’s a fantastic sport, the only thing that’s a bit unfortunate is the cost. It’s so damn expensive, that just holds a lot of people back and makes it so difficult,” said Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg, who had the twin advantages of being an F1 driver’s son (his dad Keke won the championship in 1982) and growing up in the opulent surroundings of Formula One-loving Monaco.

“So many young drivers are struggling with money and it’s such a fight to get there.”

The starting grid for Sunday’s race – practice sessions will be held Friday, qualifying is Saturday – is dominated by Europeans (Germany and the UK are the most heavily represented, with four drivers each).

But asipiring drivers from this country should take heart.

According to gpguide.com, Canada has sent 15 drivers to the pre-eminent open-wheel racing series in the world.
 There are multiple paths leading to the big time, and they can be sinewy.

Consider Guelph, Ont., native Robert Wickens, a 24-year-old who races for Mercedes in the European Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters series.

Wickens was an F1 reserve driver for Marussia-Virgin Racing in 2011, having won a spot after finishing as runner-up in the Formula Two and GP3 feeder series.

“Maybe there is an ideal route to take, but for the most part there isn’t a traditional path, it’s isn’t like hockey, where you can go play Midget AAA, then maybe get drafted into the OHL, and then maybe get drafted into the NHL,” he said in an interview.

Wickens, who grew up in a middle-class family, started driving go-karts when he was seven – some drivers on the F1 circuit, such as Vettel, took their first spins as early as four.

“If you don’t kart and just go straight into cars you’re lost. You learn what an apex is, you learn and make mistakes on where to pass, how to pass, how to be aggressive and where,” he said, later adding “it’s the foundation of motor sports. My driving style, I built it around karting, I really haven’t changed my driving style much.”

After winning several North American karting championships, he was signed to Red Bull’s youth-development program after his first year in the entry-level Formula BMW series.

From there he went to a second year in Formula BMW where he won the championship, Champ Car Atlantic, A1 Grand Prix, World Series by Renault, Formula 3 Euroseries, Formula 2, GP3, Formula Renault 3.5, and then, finally, Formula One as a substitute driver.

It bears mention he excelled at every level.

“It wasn’t a linear path all the way up, I’d make a step forward, take a step back,” Wickens said.

Some of that owed to money.

Running a single season in GP2, considered to be one rung below F1, comes with a price tag north of $2.75-million (U.S.).

“At this point, you’re not making any salary, you’re not making any prize money and you need to find that [money] somewhere to prove yourself, to be in support of Formula One at all the European Grand Prix and to be in the spotlight of a Formula One weekend,” he said.

Wickens still harbours F1 aspirations – after all, he has raced against most of the grid at one point or another, from karting to GP3 – although he says it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he doesn’t return.

Success in DTM, a closed-wheel championship that draws huge crowds in Europe, couldn’t hurt – the circuit’s current point leader and defending champion is Canadian Bruno Spengler, it also features former F1 driver Timo Glock.

Scottish driver Paul Di Resta – whose cousin is four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti – made the leap from DTM to F1 with Force India in 2010 and is mooted for big things.

Another thing that becomes evident when looking at this year’s field: drivers who haven’t broken through to F1 by their mid-twenties likely aren’t going to make it.

Dutch rookie Giedo van der Garde, a former karting champion who drives for Caterham, is the exception at 28; a total of 10 drivers who will line up in Montreal are 25 or younger.

The young hot-shots include McLaren’s Sergio Perez, whose aggressive tactics have prompted anger among his peers and at least one threat – Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen, who should contend this weekend, threatened to punch him in the nose after the last Grand Prix in Monaco, won by Rosberg.

The 23-year-old Perez, in some ways, exemplifies the modern F1 driver; his father was a Formula Three champion in Mexico, he got into karting when he was six, and by 14 he had been signed up by a development team sponsored by Carlos Slim, considered the world’s richest man (he is also a financial backer for the Sauber F1 team, which gave Perez his start and now employs 21-year-old Mexican driver Esteban Guttierez).

It helps to have a deep-pocketed patron to navigate F1’s legendary internal politics, although the drivers form a tiny, closely-knit community.

After all, most of them have known each other since their karting days.

When Rosberg was asked how many drivers on the grid he had encountered before he was old enough to have a driver’s licence, his answer was immediate.

“It’s basically all of them,” he said.

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