While Red Bull's formidable Helmut Marko is a well-known figure in the Formula One world, Mia Sharizman has quietly done the same job over at Renault and Alpine with great success. Formula One's newest driver, Guanyu Zhou, is a graduate of Sharizman's, as well as the highly-rated 2021 Formula 2 champion, Oscar Piastri.
The feeder series ladder to Formula One is gaining prominence with Mercedes, Sauber, McLaren, Red Bull, Ferrari, and Williams all vying with Alpine to find the best talent. But very little is known about how F1's future stars are managed in these proving grounds. Mia Sharizman opens up on this underreported world with some open and fascinating insight.
You are heading the Alpine Academy, rebranded from the Renault Sport Academy, as part of the so-called “Renaulution”. Can you tell people who aren't familiar with you who you are and what your role is within Renault?
My name is Mia Sharizman. I'm the Academy Director for the Alpine Formula One team, as you mentioned earlier – it's rebranded. I started in 2016 when Renault came back into Formula One and when we established the Renault Sport Academy. This has been a journey, obviously from Renault to Alpine. It's not just a change of name or change of branding, but it's also a [new] direction and renewed support.
Prior to that, I was in Formula One, and I was in GP2 with the Caterham Group, where I was the Team Principal for the GP2 team [from] 2012 to 2015. Beforehand, I was back in Malaysia and in Asia where I was the circuit manager in Sepang for the first Grand Prix in 1999. I was organizing the junior single-seater racing in Asia, back when Daniel Ricciardo was in Formula BMW Asia. So, it's been a while, but I tend to believe that hopefully, it will be of good use at some point, and here I am now!
Sounds like you've been going through changes, and going through the feeder series. And you've gone through a lot of different companies during that time, which would mean a lot of different management. So how did the 2021 Alpine reshuffle in these upper levels of motorsports change things for you?
I think one of the main things is it's not about so much of a different approach. It's always when an individual comes into your organization, […] it does have an effect on you. On how you move forward, how do you want to do it... Especially with the effect of having [racing director of Alpine F1 Team] Davide Brivio coming into the organization and having more focus on drivers.
Davide is more focused on just purely the sporting side and the driver side, which to me gives more [...] emphasis on going forward with the drivers. So, it's a good thing and it's a positive thing for us going forward.
How does your day-to-day office life work in a race week and outside of a race weekend?
My day-to-day in a non-race weekend? I preside over, obviously, the drivers. The drivers are based in Enstone. That's number one – where everybody will have their own tasks, and I sit down with them and [get] planning together with them and their team. So that is, in this day and age, a very difficult task to coordinate.
We even have a schedule template of COVID testing. We never had it before, [but] we are now having to make sure that we don't miss the simplest thing [like] a COVID test. We have to arrange them for everybody and the quarantine period and isolation period... and so all these things are something that I do day-to-day.
Besides that, we have trainers... we work within the same program, and my role is basically a conduit between the drivers and all the Formula One departments in Enstone. Whether [it's] the pro simulator engineers, the F1 engineers, the marketing communications... So, basically, they can pass through me, and I disseminate to all the drivers and allocate the role that every driver does during the non-F1, non-F2, non-F3 weekends.
So, it's quite a big task. Every race weekend, the academy drivers are in Enstone on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday if they are not at the circuit. During a race weekend, to be honest with you, my role is more as an observer of the drivers and of the junior teams that are contracted to us.
The main cardinal rule is that we do not get the drivers confused during an F2 or F3 weekend. You have to remember they are 17, 18, 19-years-old... the brain has a few compartments still that need to expand. So, basically, [if] they are in F2 mode this weekend, we don't bombard them with [...] everybody's point of view. The only focus is the driver and his engineer.
If you take, for example, Zhou or Piastri, you have the race engineer, you have his team manager, you have his manager, and then you [might have] their parents. And then if you were to add me there, and then you have their physio... So, five people are speaking to the driver in a race weekend.
We believe that less is better, so my role is just an observer, and to a certain extent, is more to understand what happens. It's all [...] in order for us to have a judgment towards the middle of the year, and towards the end of the year, to decide what we do with the driver going forward.
On the subject of expectations and performance, are there minimum expectations for each of your drivers? They can't all be F2 or F3 champions in a season. Is it survival of the fittest?
They are all in various different phases of their single-seater career, so to speak. [In 2021, with] Christian Lundgaard and Guanyu Zhou, you would say, "Look, this is a make-or-break year for you. Next year it will be a Formula One role, or a Formula One career, or an opportunity." That is something that we are very mindful... that when a driver is in the second year, that we start to work on the next phase.
Having said that, you still have to perform this year. However, we do believe if you perform, yes there will be opportunities. If you tell me that, yes, not everybody can be the champion, but if we get [the championship positions] one-two-three, it's a nice problem to have. And I think […] professionally, there has to be a reward for it. There has to be. If not, there's no point in, as you say, putting three drivers in a program.
We could have easily just made sure that we only have two drivers maximum in a level, which was something that we looked at. There are also the differences between [the] ways for a driver to move to Formula One. You have drivers who have the biggest budget in the world, and you have drivers who need to perform because that's the only year they can afford to be in Formula 2, for example.
Having said that, ultimately, you still need to be in the top three in a championship to be considered [as] deserving a position going forward. Irrespective of whether you have 50 million on one side, or can't afford another year of Formula 2. My role is to just to make sure that we have the option and [to] have them ready to move forward, whether move forward to the main team, or move forward to [...] a partner team, a customer team, a power unit supply team.
[My role is to take the] top three in a championship – that's number one...to win the championship is a good target. Number two is for a driver to have the super license; to make sure we cover ourselves to have [the] super license. And to look at the various different programs internally within Alpine. For example, the role of a reserve driver; the role of a simulator development driver.
Christian Lundgaard last year, for example, was doing 50 percent of the race support program in the simulator. Imagine 23 rounds – half of that he is in the simulator on the Thursday and Friday of the race weekend. So, somebody has to do that. Everybody, whether you are in Red Bull, whether in Ferrari, whether in McLaren... the role of the senior academy drivers, the F2 academy drivers, are more important now than ever.
The driver is almost a commodity, and a person that you're developing, and an asset to the team. There are so many facets that all come together in these people that you're looking after.
Yeah, and don't forget they all are teenagers. I mean, I just got a text about an hour ago from a driver who is just arriving in Bahrain. He is like, "Um Mia, can you please go to my house..." He left his vaccine pass in his house! It's things like that. And then I go to the house, I just checked the heater is still on... they left and the garbage bin is still out...
But at the same time, we are all fathers, we are all brothers of the drivers, and I think that's something that we have to look at. I do believe how you develop the human side of the driver will be portrayed to the professional side of the driver. That's where the role of parents is important for us.
Some [other teams] basically will say, "Parents go away! Don't disturb. We'll do it. We've invested in the driver." But, at the same time, I've never met them in their first 15 years of their life. I've only met them in the last three years, two years, and that's something that we have to invest a bit more in; making sure that they come out as a decent person at the end of the day.
That just reminded me of the tragic death of Antoine Hubert, who was in the Renault Academy a few seasons ago. How do you deal with that? Knowing that these young guys that you're looking after, and you are friends with, that you could lose one of them any time on any of these weekends?
Yeah... it's uh... it was something that somebody brought it up... I'm not saying that if it happens again [I’ll know how] to deal with it. It's not [something you] want, you know? We started to try to make a handbook. HR was trying to have this crisis management book. And I said that as much as a book is good, at the end of the day I can just throw [it] out the window. It... it has to be common sense how we deal with it.
I would say that to me, it was more... we have all the support systems, as a company when it was Renault Sport Racing, at that time. So, it wasn't just the Formula One team. We had [headquarters] Viry-Châtillon, we had Enstone... we were lucky, in the sense, that we had a very good support system as a company. But then, the emotional support system is with the brother, with the family, with the father, and that's where the role of the driver's manager became very, very crucial.
That is something that after the incident, I... made some changes to how we conduct ourselves, our business. I emphasize on a very big role where I work with the various driver managers of every driver. Because the family...during those times cannot function... will not be able to function. It will have to be somebody outside of the family [who can] function. I had to compartmentalize myself, as well. As much as we all are trying to be like their father or the brother to them, we have to be their employer... their boss.
That's the only way to get things working, especially when you're at the circuit. The family... [there were] only one or two of them, and then the support system was the team. The team suddenly comes into play and I do remember [support] from Cyril Abiteboul and everybody. Even Christian Horner and everyone that was involved, because Antoine was at [Horner's junior team] Arden at that time. And that was where we managed to have a system.
The simplest things [like] making sure about their personal accident insurance. Calling the insurer... repatriation... The simplest things. And that is something that I'm now imparting slowly, from drivers who are in Formula 4, Formula Regional, Formula 3, and Formula 2... the importance of this system. And nobody wants to talk about it, but I always make sure that we [talk about] it going forward. Even the young... even the drivers that we have, the five drivers that we have... we had [to ask] whether they want to be reminded of it, or whether they do not want to speak about it.
The simplest things... We put the [remembering Antoine Hubert] star on their suit before. Now, the question of whether we put [it on] again this year... Some of them never knew him, some of them knew him, and I always say that it's a personal choice. But there are lessons to take forward and I think that's something that the junior program racing as a whole needs to... I won't say brush under the carpet. But needs to make sure that they realize themselves that they must have a system going forward. Thankfully, we do.
We do not wish for it to happen again, but we know that it's something that is very very important in the junior single-seater series. It needs everybody to help. It needs to be highlighted for everybody.
You deal with so many drivers; Helmut Marko will deal with so many drivers... Is there anything consistent about the drivers? These are teenagers. I remember when I was in school there was a vast difference in the maturity of my friends. Is there anything you can spot in a driver that makes you say this is somebody who will or won't go further?
The first thing, and I'm sure if you were to ask Helmut, he will say the same thing – you have to be fast on one lap. You have to be fast irrespective of what you are like outside the car. What is in the car, that's the first product you look at. If you are fast, then you can work on a lot of other things. I would not say if you have the talent, you can always work on the other things. For us, you must be quick.
Nowadays, the modern-day junior single-seater program is results-driven. Results carry you forward. You must have the speed. You must have the results. In order to achieve the results, you must be level-headed. You must go through a year of a program. Speed will basically be one race [or] one round. But a championship result is across two months, three months, five months... In the case of Oscar Piastri, it was only two months.
So, consistency and level-headedness is something that we look at. Consistency on track is based on how stable you are off track. How stable your life is, how stable your independence is. What we see, at the end of the day, is the speed, the talent, and a stableness. You look at how volatile the driver is at home. Every driver will have different parents, a different mother, they [might] keep on moving everywhere. That's something that we try...we give that stability to them. So, we give them a place to stay, we give them a place to train, we control where they go and what they do and stuff like that.
For example, girlfriends, the simplest thing. A driver's season can be affected by girlfriends. I'm not saying that you can't have girlfriends. But I have seen it before where a girlfriend breaks up with a driver [on] the Friday before the race weekend, and you know what's going to happen [on] the Saturday and Sunday. It can make him be strong enough, or he just can't take it.
If you look at Oscar Piastri, he has been living on his own, [away] from his family who are in Melbourne for the past five to six years. Because he has been living on his own in boarding school, he learns how to live on his own, and he thrives in that. We have to force him... "Have you spoken to your father?!" It's just things like that, but he thrives in that. That's why he thrived in those weekends racing. He loves being on his own without anybody.
On the other hand, we had Max Fewtrell, for example, who can't – he couldn't survive the 11 weekends racing, because he always needed his family to be around him. So those are the things that suddenly you see and, I think that that we see now, after a few years, a driver who is quick, a driver who has the talent, and then the driver who is stable.
Is there something in your scouting that you look for in a driver? You can, presumably, only refer to what they deliver on track, but it sounds like you're really focusing on how the driver works off-track at Alpine. How can you know their personality when you're looking for them?
Funny you said that, because we have a scout in karting in plain clothes [and] no branding, who is at all the [karting] championships, who is also working in karting. We have a scout in Formula 4 and Formula Regional. So, we have a scout in these three levels, and what this scout does is feed me information about the driver. The result is easy – I can just click on the website, and I can look at the result, and I can just see that, you know...
But what we don't see is more about how is if the boy or the girl [...] keeps on fighting with everybody in the paddock. Or whether the father gets involved in the fighting. If the kid is fast then we will go, "Okay, you pass one side of things" and then the other part of it will be, "How is it outside the kart?"
In the paddock, there will be the famous kid, the popular kid, who will have the phone number of every [other] driver. But there will be a driver who is being alienated because everybody hates him because he keeps on winning. It's a bit like in school. I get reports from our scout to say, "You see this and you see that."
We will also receive an email from a driver's manager saying, "Mia, you should look at this driver. Can he be part of your program?" We will also find out whether he is also talking to Red Bull or Mercedes or Ferrari and then they'll just basically be going on who will give [them] the best offer.
We go beyond that [...] to understand whether you have a feeling or not. We do get information. We collect all the information. We will go and say, "Which parents are the pushy ones? Which one has funding? Which one has no funding?" For us has no bearing. It's more about who performs first. You have drivers who are offering a big amount of money to be in a program, for example, at the karting level. Imagine at 13-years-old, 14-years-old, already offering us big money to try to be in a program. That is happening now.
Renault, in particular, seems to put their junior drivers in Formula One cars a lot more than we see from other academies. Is that something you've pursued? Is that something you're seeing results from? What's the reason behind it?
When we first restarted the team in 2016, it was, we didn't even have a two-year-old car program at that time. We had to use a 2012 program using the [Lotus] E20. So, it was an immediate thing where we said, "Let's do this, and let's use [the cars]." I believe we had Esteban Ocon in 2016 doing the E20 program.
Then in 2018, I went through it, and I said to Cyril Abiteboul, "Look, let's try and do this." We needed financial resources. I needed a head start with financial resources to kick start the program whereby you entice drivers, and you offer [a place] to the academy drivers. It was more to see how they are... it was more of an evaluation process... that was what the first idea was. Then we developed the program to develop the drivers to suit their Formula 2 program.
When it first started it was, "Right! Have a day out. Here are four sets of tires. We will then evaluate." Now it's becoming one of the most important criteria for us to assess a driver. It became big two years ago when we started to [...] have between 10 to 12 days where they are dedicated to academy drivers at the Formula 2 and Formula 3 level. But, it [is] still based on a test and reward. It has to be. It is also an element of reward in the sense that you must perform in order to have the [F1] test.
We have a dedicated team. We call it the race support. We have a dedicated team where the test engineer is also looking after the academy drivers in terms of their engineering education throughout the year in Formula 2. We use the test program as a way to help the drivers in Formula 2. For example, we'll go for testing [at] future circuits where they're going to race in where we simulate a qualifying session, we simulate a race session. That's because under the regulations you're allowed to test a two-year-old car.
That is now becoming the attraction for drivers who want to be in the program. I think it's something, and you can see now Ferrari is doing it in Fiorano... It would be nice to have our own circuit to do it – it will be cheaper! But I think we have a very good partner in Paul Ricard, as well, in Le Castellet. I think that is our de facto base, so to speak. But we do other circuits, as well. It's something that yes, we all together looked at it. It's a very good tool to have, and I have the support of everyone in the factory.