At just 18 years old, as a race-winner in Formula 2 and with two years of Formula 3 under his belt, America’s Jak Crawford appears well on his way towards a future in Formula 1.
But after four years being helped on that journey by Red Bull and its young driver program, he left the junior team at the end of last season. A new opportunity awaits in 2024 as he will tackle his sophomore F2 season with a new team in DAMS, and will join another F1 driver program, but it’s left Crawford with a Helmut Marko-shaped badge of honor at a young age.
“It’s quite a weird feeling – I feel like I’ve been doing this a long time, but then you look at my age, compared to most of the guys, I’m probably one of the youngest still in F2,” Crawford tells RACER. “So it’s very weird to look at, because I feel like I’ve had a long career in single-seaters so far. And you look at some of the guys there in their lower 20s, and they have a lot more experience than me in single-seaters.
“I feel like I’m in a good position. It’s a bit weird saying I’ve been in Red Bull for four years, and I’ve been dropped and I’m only 18. It is a bit weird to say that, but I do think it’s a good opportunity for myself, relieved of pressure.”
From the outside, the pressure appears to be the toughest aspect of being a Red Bull Junior, and Crawford admits that’s the case, as drivers try and stay on the right side of Marko, who runs the Red Bull Junior program. But that’s not to say the Austrian is a scary character to deal with – just a demanding one.
“I think the hardest things are obviously the pressure and expectation that is set on you,” Crawford says. “He puts a lot of faith in his drivers, but he also expects a lot. And sometimes, if you’re not directly in the F2 paddock, knowing what’s going on, it can be difficult to tell with regards to team performance or driver performance and stuff like that.
“So sometimes that can play a factor in how he sees things. But definitely the biggest thing is, the last thing you want is to have a bad weekend and receiving a phone call from Helmut to say to come meet him.
“He’s very busy, so you end up waiting on him. And then you sit there and he just walks up, and then he says, ‘So…’ in a very deep voice! Then he asks ‘What happened?’ And his conversations are very short, very straight to the point.
Crawford spent four years in Red Bull’s development program before being cut last year, but he already has another F1 development role — believed to be with Aston Martin — in the works. Red Bull Content Pool
“Sometimes he’s brutally honest. That’s the right way to say it. Sometimes it can be too brutally honest, where it can be unfair at times, if you want to say, but it’s not so bad. To me it was very, very short, and very to the point.”
Crawford can recall the day he was offered a contract by Marko at the age of 14, following just one day of testing at the Red Bull Ring. He remembers thinking his father “was crazy for not signing straight away,” but while there was an urgency to the situation, it’s one that he says shows belief in the drivers being supported.
“It showed faith, for sure,” he says. “Prior to that I had one day on the Red Bull sim as a part of the whole experience, one day of sim at Van Amersfoort in preparation, and then one day of testing. So I think straight away, Helmut had made up his mind since he arrived on track on the first day, so he texted me. That definitely shows good faith.”
Once that commitment has been made, however, the expectations ramp up quickly, and how much of a say a driver has on the direction of their career appears to greatly reduce. A lack of experience, trust in those running a junior program and a desire to impress all add up to being largely accepting of whatever path they’re told to take.
“Helmut is very straightforward with what he wants and basically we’d always know around the Austrian Grand Prix,” Crawford says. “We always went to go see Helmut and that was when we would discuss our racing plans. And that was a bit different each year, because of COVID a couple years and whatnot. But I remember very specifically one was over the phone, and one was in person.
“Me and my dad and my manager, we have all these talks about what we want to do, the ideal situation, blah, blah, blah. And then that never happened. It never turned out that way.
“An example would be in 2020, where I was in the middle of my F4 season. I think we’re a little over halfway into the season, and I’m in a hotel in Munich, Germany. Helmut calls me and he says, ‘I want you to test in F3 in two weeks with Hitech. And I was like, ‘All right,’ and then basically, I went to Hitech, and I was driving for them next year!
“And an in-person one happened in my move to Prema. We had our own sort of goal set in mind when we went to talk to Helmut about what we wanted for 2022. And straight away, he says, ‘I’ve arranged a deal with Prema for you to drive in F3 with them for next year.’ And that was it.
Dr. Helmut Marko, who heads Red Bull’s development program, has a reputation for being direct that’s well-deserved, according to Crawford: “He puts a lot of faith in his drivers, but he expects a lot.” Red Bull Content Pool
“It happens quickly. Every time then at the beginning of the year, you have a meeting with him, usually before the first race or on, like, the Thursday before the first weekend, and he gives you a target. And I don’t think there’s been one year where he hasn’t told me that he wants me to win the championship! So that’s been his goal. I actually seriously think every single year. Besides maybe this year, I think it was top three.”
While Crawford admits he feels he would have been better off delaying his entry into F3 by a year — a move that would likely leave him looking at stepping up to F2 as a rookie now at 18 — there’s plenty he reflects on from his four-year Red Bull spell as beneficial to his development.
“I really enjoyed how relaxed it was,” he says. “And you get to be part of the Red Bull brand. I was living near the factory [in Milton Keynes], it was super, super relaxed. I didn’t have too many commitments, I was in the sim all the time, I was in the gym all the time, but there was no strict regimen, which was good for me. And I really enjoyed that lifestyle.
“Another thing is, you’ve got the Red Bull branding on the car, on the suit, on the helmet, and you get to be a Red Bull athlete and represent your country as well, which is quite cool. And you do some fun little things here and there — three, four times a year — that involves doing some kind of media thing, but it turns out to be really fun.
“There’s also a lot of good learning opportunities. Guillaume Roquelin, who’s now head of the junior team, he came in in the middle of 2022. And ever since then, I felt like there was a massive change in the program. It was more educational. I was learning more, I was getting more feedback about everything and having more preparation before the the event from Red Bull. So I really enjoyed that aspect to it as well.”
After a debut year in F2 that saw him pick up a win for a Hitech team that has been slipped from the front in recent years, and score the only pole position for a driver outside the top six positions, Crawford’s four other podiums to his teammate Isack Hadjar’s one was not enough to keep him in the Red Bull program. Hadjar got the FP1 runs and was retained, while Crawford was released.
That form went under the radar slightly but has led to him picked up by another F1 team — which RACER understands to be Aston Martin — while there’s a switch to DAMS for 2024 as a new car comes into effect in F2. It all adds up to more high targets for America’s next F1 hopeful.
“I’m really, really excited,” the Charlotte-born driver says. “I’ve never been more excited for a year of racing, that’s for sure. It’s definitely going to be busy as well. With DAMS, doing lots of prep, traveling to France, a lot to do work with them. And as well with the F1 team doing lots of sim work for them as well, which will be good experience. I’m hopefully getting into an F1 car at some point, which will also be very good experience.
“I can say I’m very much looking forward to the year. My priority is of course F2. It’s a very important year for myself and in my second year. With the new car, I feel like the team and I have a very good opportunity to perform well. And I’m super excited for this year.
“I think it’s definitely possible to fight for the championship this year. That is my goal. And it’s also one that the F1 team has set out for me. It’s not like I’m under a lot of pressure from them to do that, it’s obviously just a goal, but it’s a goal for myself as well. So we’re on the same page.”