Alpine's driver line-up for 2022 has been decided, with the team confirming on Wednesday that they will retain Esteban Ocon for 2022 and on a long-term deal that will see the French driver stay with them until 2024.
It's an unsurprising contract extension, given the praise that Ocon has received for outshining Fernando Alonso throughout the season so far, and the high regard in which Alpine hold the man they snaffled away from Mercedes' clutches.
Ocon's signing means he teams up with Alonso, with the Spaniard locked in for 2022 for the first year of the new regulations.
But, with Alpine's Driver Academy made up of some very talented junior drivers, there's now a need to start evaluating whether or not to break free from Groupe Renault and try to find another way to break into Formula 1.
Hitting the glass ceiling
While Red Bull get criticised quite a bit for the ruthless nature of their junior programme, they can't be criticised for giving their juniors ample opportunity to get into F1. Pierre Gasly, Yuki Tsunoda, Alex Albon are all beneficiaries of this aggressive approach, while upcoming drivers Liam Lawson and Juri Vips are now knocking on the door.
At Ferrari, their junior programme is booming too. Antonio Giovinazzi is cutting his teeth at Alfa Romeo and learning from World Champion teammate Kimi Raikkonen, while Mick Schumacher and Charles Leclerc have both graduated to Formula 1 with Ferrari backing.
Robert Shwartzman, Marcus Armstrong and Callum Ilott are also all now on the verge of being able to find a way into the sport.
Mercedes may not have the same level of drivers feeding through the junior ranks, but their programme was remarkably small until the last twelve months. George Russell still represents their highest level 'junior', and recent signings to the programme have been at karting level.
Contrast that with Alpine, who have Formula 2 frontrunners Guanyu Zhou, Christian Lundgaard and Oscar Piastri, as well as Formula 3's Victor Martins and Caio Collet.
Zhou, Lundgaard and Piastri have been given regular test outings in older F1 machinery, with the Danish driver carrying out one such test, with the R.S.18, earlier this week at Silverstone.
But, despite all this preparation, there simply is nowhere for these juniors to go. Ocon's signing has closed the door firmly for the three Formula 2 drivers that were hopeful of a possible step up, and it's an issue that Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi acknowledged.
"We have a lot of them knocking at the door, actually, Lundgaard, Zhou, they are one or two FP1s away from having the super license, Piastri has the super license already," Rossi told RacingNews365.
"Honestly, we almost have too many of them really. So at the moment, we are looking at options for all of them, whether they continue a bit, whether they go to another team, whether they become part of our team in the capacity of reserve driver or, in the medium term as a driver. We're looking at all these options. And we have plenty actually. So I said I'm rather fortunate here."
While Rossi views it as a fortunate issue, it's less fortunate for the drivers whose careers are in danger of stalling.
Targets being missed
Two years ago, the then Renault Academy had set itself a target of getting one of its junior drivers into Formula 1 by 2021.
The leading light at the time was Anthoine Hubert, whose tragic accident at Spa-Francorchamps was a severe blow for the Renault Academy. His death meant that Zhou, who struggled for consistency, took over as the senior driver, although he has now been joined by Piastri and Lundgaard in the season since.
Speaking at the end of 2019, Academy Director Mia Sharizman had hoped to be able to look to the juniors to promote them to a race seat.
“We can call next season the ‘attack’ year for the Academy," Sharizman said of the 2020 season.
"We aim to win championships and we are also targeting building a reputation for our programme, so the best young talent out there wants to be with Renault. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how next season pans out; it’s an exciting time.
"The target has always been to have an Academy driver in a position to be in the Formula 1 race seat by 2021, so there’s a lot of hard work ahead. We’re confident this can be achieved.”
However, Sharizman then outlined that the Academy were disappointed in Zhou and Lundgaard's achievements in Formula 2 in 2020. Zhou finished in sixth place, with the rookie Lundgaard in seventh.
“We hoped for more from Zhou and Christian in FIA Formula 2 and we are somewhat disappointed with the outcome of finishing sixth and seventh in the Championship despite some strong performances resulting in wins and podiums.” said Sharizman.
Looking to 2021, the team opted for the available experience of Fernando Alonso, rather than promoting from within their own ranks as Ferrari and Red Bull, as well as McLaren, have done in recent years.
No customer teams means no opportunities
This is the main area in which Alpine are unable to deliver for their juniors. Unlike Ferrari, who have customer teams Alfa Romeo and Haas, as well as Mercedes with Williams, McLaren and Aston Martin, Alpine have no engine customers any more. This lack of alignment means that there's no other teams with which they can forge a mutually beneficial arrangement to get seat time for a junior, unlike the other manufacturers.
And, disappointly for the juniors, there's no plans at Alpine to actively chase such an arrangement.
"No, no, we're not actively looking," Rossi told RacingNews365.
"The reason being, I'm not convinced, at the moment we can afford the distraction. It's time consuming. In a perfect world, it helps. You have more data points, you can develop, it takes the team higher.
"But the reality of the past few years is that if you're not ready for that, if you're not geared up in terms of the amount of people working in the organisation, it can become a drag on your operations.
So at the moment, I'd rather us to focus on ourselves and improve in the many areas where we can improve. And then we might consider once we're set up, we might consider extending our roster of customers. But for now, honestly, I think it's better like that."
While Oscar Piastri is in a position to wait another year or two to see if there's the possibility of replacing Fernando Alonso if the Spaniard calls it quits after 2022, Lundgaard and Zhou are now in a position where they risk being usurped and passed by upcoming talents with momentum behind them. But Piastri, too, is in danger of the same issue if Alonso does decide to extend his stay under the new regulations.
It's time for the Alpine junior drivers to ask some serious questions of their masters, or it's time to look elsewhere.