F1 Driver Development Programmes: Alpine Academy

Written by: Daniel Yi, Edited by: Morgan Holiday

Before Alpine, there was Renault, and before that there was Lotus, Lotus Renault and Renault again. Although technically, Lotus is a separate and different team from Renault, the history of the driver programs are shared due to the team entry remaining the same.

Driver Programme History

When Benetton was bought over and rebranded into Renault in 2002, they set up a driver development programme to scout for the next talent in racing. From 2002-09, it was named as Renault Driver Development. In 2010, Renault sold a majority stake in the team to Genii Capital and the programme was rebranded as the RF1 Driver Programme. Following the acquisition of Renault’s remaining stake in the team in 2011, the team was rebranded as Lotus Renault GP and the driver development programme was rebranded once again to LRGP (Lotus Renault GP) Academy. This arrangement lasted one single year before another rebranding from Lotus-Renault GP to Lotus F1 and the programme name was changed to Lotus F1 Team iRace Professional Programme. From 2013-15, the driver programme was rebranded as Lotus GP Academy. Renault Sport then reacquired the team from Lotus F1, leading to another rebranding back to Renault in 2016. The programme underwent yet another name change to Renault Sport Academy from 2016-20. After the most recent rebranding from Renault to Alpine, the Renault Sport Academy became the Alpine Academy.

Driver Programme Names

2002-2009: Renault Driver Development

2010: RF1 Driver Programme

2011: LRGP (Lotus Renault GP) Academy

2012: Lotus F1 Team iRace Professional Programme

2013-1015: Lotus F1 Junior Team

2016-2020: Renault Sport Academy

2021-present: Alpine Academy

Notable members

This programme has a combined total of 51 previous and current drivers (36 Renault, 10 Lotus, 5 current). Here are some notable and talented ones who have made the jump to F1.

Renault Driver Development (02-09) / RF1 Driver Programme (2010) / LRGP Academy (2011)

Robert Kubica (2002)

F1: BMW Sauber (2007-09), Renault (2010), Williams reserve (2018), Williams (2019), Alfa Romeo reserve (2020-present)

One of the biggest “what ifs” in F1, Robert Kubica could have been a world champion if not for that horrible accident. Don’t let the poor 2019 Williams fool you, Kubica is definitely no pushover and demonstrated talent from a young age. Renault signed him in 2002 and he went on to make his F1 debut in 2006 with BMW Sauber. Immediately he showed his skill and won the 2008 Canadian GP as well. He moved to Renault in 2010 and made a case for himself as one of the best drivers in F1. It was revealed that Ferrari had signed him for 2012 to partner Fernando Alonso, however, the horrific accident while rallying in 2011 dashed his promising career. Kubica spent 2 years rehabilitating and made a return to rallying in 2013. Kubica slowly fought his way back to F1 with private tests for Renault and Williams in 2017. Against all odds, he made his inspirational return to F1 with Williams as a reserve in 2018 and raced for them in 2019. He currently serves as the reserve driver for Alfa Romeo.

Tiago Monteiro (2002)

F1: Minardi test/reserve (2004), Jordan/Midland/Spyker (2005-06)

Tiago Monteiro holds the title of being the most successful Portuguese F1 driver. He was signed by Renault to the programme in 2002 and became a test driver for Minardi in 2004. In 2005, Jordan announced Monteiro as one of their drivers. He achieved his one and only podium in bizarre circumstances with a third place finish at the controversial 2005 US Grand Prix which featured only 6 running cars. In 2006, Monteiro remained with Jordan as it was renamed to Midland and rebranded into Spyker for the final few races. His F1 career was spent languishing with the backmarkers due to uncompetitive cars. Without a drive for 2007, he moved to the World Touring Car Championship where he still races today.

Heikki Kovalainen (2002-05)

F1: Renault test/reserve (2004-06), Renault (2007), McLaren (2008-09), Lotus Racing/Team Lotus/Caterham (2010-12), Caterham test/reserve (2013), Lotus F1 (2013)

The first driver from Renault Driver Development to graduate to Renault in F1, Heikki Kovalainen started as the test driver for Renault from 2004-06 and replaced the outbound Fernando Alonso at Renault for 2007. He picked up a podium in his rookie season before moving to McLaren to replace Alonso again for the 2008 season. He would remain at McLaren until 2009 before being replaced by Jenson Button for 2010, amassing a win and 2 more podiums. Kovalainen then joined Lotus Racing (Not related to Lotus F1) and remained at the team which underwent 2 name changes to Caterham until 2012. Kovalainen was subsequently dropped for 2013, but remained as Caterham’s test driver and deputising for the injured Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus F1 for the final 2 races in 2013. Rumours had linked him to a testing role at Mercedes for 2014 but instead he moved to Japan’s Super GT in 2015 and remains there till today.

Giedo van der Garde (2004)

F1: Spyker/Force India test/reserve (2007-08), Caterham test/reserve (2012), Caterham (2013), Sauber test/reserve (2014)

Before his days in the McLaren Young Driver Programme, Giedo van der Garde joined Renault Driver Development in 2004. He went on to become a test driver for Spyker/Force India during 2007-08. He then became a test/reserve driver for Renault-powered Caterham in 2012 and raced for them in 2013. Sauber subsequently picked him up as a test/reserve driver in 2014 as well as allegedly having a race seat for 2015. However, Sauber signed 6 drivers for 2 race seats. van der Garde settled out of court with Sauber and never raced in F1 again. Now, he races in WEC in LMP2 cars.

Pastor Maldonado (2004-05)

F1: HRT test/reserve (2010), Williams (2011-13), Lotus F1 (2014-15), Pirelli tyre test (2016-17)

The legend of Maldonado first began his Renault association when they signed him to the programme for 2004-2005. He was given an opportunity to be HRT’s test driver in 2010. After winning GP2 in 2010, Williams signed him from 2011-13. Despite the unfortunate reputation of reckless and crash-prone driving, Maldonado still showed skill and talent, having achieved Williams’ last race win in 2012 with a brilliant drive. Lotus F1 signed Maldonado to race for them in 2014-15. When Lotus F1 was reacquired by Renault in 2016, Maldonado found himself without a drive and turned to Pirelli testing duties in 2016-17. After F1, he’s gone on to race LMP2 cars and last raced in 2019 with DragonSpeed Racing in 24H of Le Mans and IMSA SportCar Championship.

Jérôme d’Ambrosio (2004, 2010)

F1: Virgin Racing test/reserve (2010), Virgin Racing (2011), Lotus F1 reserve (2012-13)

Jérôme d’Ambrosio earned a place in the programme for 2004 after winning Formula Renault 1.6 Belgium in 2003. He was not retained the following year but made a return to the programme in 2010. d’Ambrosio made his F1 debut as a test/reserve for Virgin in 2010 and raced full-time for them in 2011. He then became the reserve driver for Lotus F1 from 2012-13 and made a one-off appearance for them in 2012 due to Romain Grosjean’s race ban. d’Ambrosio then moved to Formula E until 2020 and retired, now serving as the deputy Team Principal for Venturi Racing in Formula E.

Lucas di Grassi (2005-07)

F1: Renault test/reserve (2006-09), Virgin Racing (2010), Pirelli tyre test (2011-13)

Lucas di Grassi joined Renault Driver development in 2005 and became Renault’s test/reserve driver from 2006-09. After being passed over for a Renault seat in mid-2009 in favour of Romain Grosjean, di Grassi joined Virgin Racing in 2010. Virgin did not retain him for the subsequent season and di Grassi spent 2011-13 as a tyre tester for Pirelli. After F1 he has mostly raced in WEC and Formula E where he remains to this day. He won the Formula E championship in the 2016-17 season.

Romain Grosjean (2006-09)

F1: Renault test/reserve (2008-09), Renault (2009), Pirelli tyre test (2010), Lotus Renault test/reserve (2011), Lotus F1 (2012-15), Haas (2016-20)

The Phoenix started with Renault’s programme in 2006. In 2008, he became the test/reserve driver for Renault, a role which he retained until mid-2009 where he was promoted to a race seat to replace Nelson Piquet Jr. Grosjean was not retained for 2010 and he took up tyre testing duties for Pirelli in 2010. He returned as a test/reserve for the newly rebranded Lotus Renault GP in 2011 and raced for them from 2012-15. In 2016, Grosjean moved to Haas. During the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, he miraculously survived a massive crash and blaze and went on to make a full recovery. During his time in F1, like Maldonado, he unfortunately developed a reputation for causing collisions and bizarre crashes, resulting in a race ban for 2012. Nonetheless, he showed his talent and achieved 10 podiums. Grosjean left F1 at the end of 2020 after not being retained by Haas, and is now racing in IndyCar.

Dani Clos (2007)

F1: HRT test/reserve (2012)

Not much is known about Dani Clos, but he joined Renault Driver Development in 2007 after winning Formula Renault 2.0 Italia in 2006 and was not retained the following year. He remained in feeder series until 2012 where he became the test driver for HRT, appearing in FP1 sessions for a few race weekends. After 2012, he continued in GP2 but with no significant results. He last raced in the 2019 European Le Mans Series and seems to have transitioned into a Youtuber, creating content around sportscars and test driving them.

Charles Pic (2009)

F1: Marussia (2012), Caterham (2013), Lotus F1 test/reserve (2014)

Charles Pic joined Renault Driver Development in 2009 and achieved third place in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series. Pic was signed by Marussia to race for them in 2012. In 2013, Caterham signed Pic on an initial multi-year deal which did not materialise. Caterham released him at the end of 2013 and took up reserve driver duties with Lotus F1 for 2014. After F1, Pic made a few appearances in Formula E and eventually retired in 2015.

Davide Valsecchi

F1: Team Lotus test/reserve (2011), Lotus F1 test/reserve (2013)

Davide Valsecchi signed with Renault Driver Development in 2009 alongside Charles Pic and capped it off by winning the GP2 Asia Series that year. He became the test/reserve driver for Team Lotus in 2011. After winning GP2 in 2012, Lotus F1 signed him as their test/reserve driver for 2013. Unfortunately he was passed over in favour of Heikki Kovalainen to replace the injured Kimi Raikkonen for the final 2 races in 2013. This led to a disappointed Valsecchi criticising the team publicly and may have led to his replacement by Charles Pic as reserve driver for 2014. Valsecchi made a few appearances in GT racing in the past few years and has mostly been involved in commentary since 2016.

Jan Charouz

F1: Renault test/reserve (2010), HRT and Lotus Renault test/reserve (2011)

Another driver that has seemed to have stopped racing as of now. Jan Charouz started his racing career in 2003 and spent several years with his family-owned team Charouz Racing System, racing in various series including Le Mans. Charouz became a member of the RF1 Driver Programme in 2010 and also became the test/reserve driver for Renault. This membership and role continued to 2011 as the newly-rebranded Lotus Renault GP and he also took up a test/reserve role with HRT in 2011 concurrently. After F1, he’s done some endurance racing but last raced competitively in 2014.

Fairuz Fauzy (2011)

F1: Spyker test/reserve (2007), Lotus Racing test/reserve (2010), Lotus Renault test/reserve (2011)

Malaysian racer Fairuz joined Spyker as a test/reserve driver in 2007 but did not see any track time during free practice sessions. Lotus Racing, who had some Malaysian affiliation, signed him as their test/reserve driver for 2010 on a multi-year deal, but parted ways after one year. In 2011, Fairuz joined the LRGP Academy and became Lotus Renault test/reserve driver. Since then, he has largely remained in Asia and raced in various GT series.

Lotus F1 Team iRace Professional Programme (2012) / Lotus F1 Junior Team (2013-15)

Marco Sørensen (2009, 2013-15)

F1: Lotus F1 test/reserve (2014)

Sørensen first joined the programme in 2009 under Renault but was let go just after one year. Lotus recalled him back to their programme in 2013 and he became their test/reserve in 2014. Since then, he has largely competed in the LMGTe categories for WEC and Le Mans to this day.

Kevin Korjus (2012)

F1: Lotus F1 reserve (2012)

Korjus was part of the programme in 2012. He made only one appearance as a reserve driver which was during the 2012 Italian Grand Prix where he filled in for reserve driver Jérôme d’Ambrosio who was filling in for the banned Roman Grosjean. After that, he mainly raced sportscars and last raced in 2016.

Alexander Albon (2013-2015)

F1: Toro Rosso (2019), Red Bull (2019-2020), Red Bull test/reserve (2021-present)

Albon has been mentioned as part of 3 driver programmes so far. During his karting days, McLaren and Red Bull signed him. As he moved into single seaters, Lotus decided to take a flyer on this British-Thai driver. In these 3 years, Albon’s best result was a second place finish in the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 championship. In 2019, Albon became an F1 driver with Toro Rosso and Red Bull, picking up 2 podiums along the way. Currently, he races in DTM and serves as the test and reserve driver for Red Bull. 

Matthieu Vaxivière (2015)

F1: Lotus F1 test/reserve (2015)

Matthieu Vaxivière only had a year in the Lotus F1 Junior Team, but managed to serve as their test/reserve driver during this time. He did not make any appearances during a Grand Prix weekend. After his stint, he moved to WEC where he currently remains.

Renault Sport Academy

Louis Delétraz (2016)

F1: Haas test/reserve (2018-20)

Following the return of Renault, the Lotus F1 Junior drivers were released and Louis Delétraz was signed to the once again rebranded team. Delétraz made his F1 debut as a test driver for Haas in 2018 and remained in the role until 2020. Now he currently races in European Le Mans and WEC.

Jack Aitken (2016-19)

F1: Renault test/reserve (2018-19), Williams test/reserve (2020-present), Williams (2020)

Jack Aitken was part of the first batch of drivers in the newly rebranded Renault Sport Academy in 2016. He carried out test/reserve duties for Renault in 2018-19. Subsequently, Aitken moved to Williams Driver Academy and became their test/reserve driver, even making a one-off appearance in the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, filling in for George Rusell who had gone to fill in for Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes. 

Honourable Mention

Anthoine Hubert (2019)

The late Anthoine Hubert was a huge talent and definitely a strong candidate for an F1 seat. He will be sorely missed. RIP

Current drivers

Christian Lundgaard (Age: 20) (2017-present)

Lundgaard joined Renault Sport Academy in 2017 and started his racecar career in style, winning SMP and Spanish F4. This was followed by a 2nd place finish in the Formula Renault Eurocup Championship in 2018. After finishing 6th in F3 in 2019, he made the move to F2 in 2020 where he still races now, 12th in the championship. Lundgaard also made his IndyCar debut recently, finishing 12th. 

Victor Martins (Age: 20) (2018-19, 2021-present)

Victor Martins had a dominant karting career. He moved to single-seaters in 2016 and finished 2nd in the 2017 French F4. This earned him an opportunity with Renault Sport Academy. Martins then moved to Formula Renault Eurocup and came in 5th and 2nd in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Despite the results, Renault elected not to promote him to F3 and dropped him instead. However, he made a comeback, winning the 2020 Formula Renault Eurocup and rejoining Alpine. Currently he competes in F3 where he is 7th place as of now.

Caio Collet (Age: 19) (2019-present)

Collet won French F4 in 2018, which led to Renault Sport Academy bringing him onboard. After moving to Formula Renault Eurocup, he achieved 5th place in 2019 and 2nd place in 2020. So far, his performances have shown promise. Currently, he lies 10th in the F3 Championship.

Guanyu Zhou (Age: 22) (2019-present)

Compared to his peers, Zhou has had a relatively slower progression in his career. After a runner-up finish in Italian F4 in 2015, he moved to F3 for 3 years. Although he had somewhat consistent improvement, but no outstanding seasons so to speak in the 3 years. Nonetheless, Renault signed him and he moved to F2 in 2019. Zhou showed promise in F2, winning Asian F3 and is now in 2nd place in the championship, battling Oscar Piastri for the title. Zhou has tested the Alpine A521 during FP1 of the 2021 Austrian Grand Prix and is also the reserve driver for them.

Oscar Piastri (Age: 20) (2020-present)

Oscar Piastri made his single-seater debut in 2016. Since 2019, he has been massively successful in the junior categories, winning Formula Renault Eurocup and earning a place in the Renault Sport Academy in 2020. Even more impressive, he won the F3 title in 2020 as a rookie and is currently leading the F2 Championship, competing with fellow Alpine Junior Guanyu Zhou for the title.

So far, Alpine is in a good position for the future with these excellent drivers. However, given that Ocon is likely to stay with Alpine for the long term and Alonso has an option for 2022, these young guys may not get to see the F1 cockpit for 2022. The more senior drivers like Lundgaard, Zhou and Piastri need to win the F2 title to justify why they should get the seat. While this would make for an exciting F2 series, it would also be a shame if any of these guys don’t get a chance for F1. 

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