Formula 1 is the ultimate aspiration of any promising young driver. For most, reaching Formula 1 involves an arduous journey from karts up through progressively more powerful single-seaters, beating increasingly talented competitors and, just as importantly, attracting and securing sponsorship along the way. The path is not always a simple linear progression through the tiers of single-seaters; Schumacher and Webber spent time in sportscars before entering Formula 1. More recently, Di Resta spent four seasons in DTM, winning a championship there before securing a seat in Formula 1. Occasionally a driver such as Räikkönen or Button will skip several steps along the way, jumping straight into Formula 1 from a lower tier of racing.
In an ideal world, the Formula 1 grid would consist of the 20 or so most qualified and most talented drivers in the world. In reality, Formula 1 is an extraordinarily expensive business, and drivers who bring strong sponsorship are sometimes favored over similarly talented drivers without the same level of support. Nevertheless, there is no denying that an extremely strong junior record is usually a requirement for reaching Formula 1. With the exception of a few pay-drivers at the back of the grid, every modern Formula 1 driver performed exceptionally on their journey through the junior ranks, some of them setting new records along the way.
Talent-spotters, motorsports journalists, and fans spend a great deal of time poring over results of junior drivers trying to identify who might be worthy of transitioning to Formula 1, and ultimately, who might be the next Schumacher or Senna. Most of this is based on gut-feel and often colored by biases. It would be nice to instead have an objective and quantitative means of comparing junior drivers.
I therefore developed a simple quantitative metric for assessing the strength of a junior drivers’ career. I took into account the following factors:
- How successful the driver was in each season
- How quickly the driver moved up through the tiers of junior racing
- How quickly a driver achieved success once they rose to a new tier
For this, it was first necessary to define what constitutes a “tier”. Everyone will agree that a move from GP3 to GP2 is a move in the right direction, to more powerful cars and more fierce competition. But what about the hundreds of other forms of racing? I devised a working definition of 4 tiers of racing, based on the typical career progression of drivers, the engine capacity, and the prestige of each category.
This is not a totally comprehensive list of all forms of racing, but it suffices for this analysis. There may be some dispute over where I placed individual categories, especially since the fortunes of different categories rise and fall over time, but hopefully you will agree that the tiers are generally quite sensible. Most drivers begin their careers in tier 4 or tier 3, then progressively work their way up towards tier 1 and, hopefully, Formula 1.
For each driver, I made a record of their junior career. I took information from driver pages on wikipedia, but these are often incomplete, so I had to do some extra digging in most cases. In this record, I included every season in which the driver completed at least half of the races. One-off events were not included, with three special exceptions marked by asterisks in the table above: the Formula Ford Festival, the Macau Grand Prix, and the Masters of Formula 3. I included these events because they carry a lot of clout — success in these events, which bring together the most successful drivers from several very competitive categories, has traditionally marked a driver for future success.
The finishing position in each season or event was scored using the traditional 10-6-4-3-2-1 system, which was used to score Formula 1 race results from 1991 to 2002. The score in each season was then modified by a multiplier, based on the number of seasons a driver had spent racing within the same tier. I included this to reward drivers who are able to achieve immediate success in a more challenging category. This is usually a sign of tremendous talent. On the other hand, a driver who takes several years to get to grips with a particular category is much less likely to achieve immediate success in Formula 1. The multiplier used was 5 for the 1st season in a tier, 2 for the 2nd season, 1 for the 3rd season, and 0 for seasons after that. While this provides a very large bonus for success in the 1st season and ignores results beyond the 3rd season, the key results were not changed much by reducing the 1st year multiplier to 4 or 3, or by increasing the post-3rd season multiplier to 1. One-off events used the same multiplier but did not add to the driver’s number of seasons in a tier.
Finally, I included a bonus for moving rapidly up the tiers. If a driver advanced from one tier to the next in 1 season or less (including skipping a tier), they received a 30 point bonus. This value was chosen to be slightly more than winning a category in the 2nd season (2×10 = 20 points), so as to not unreasonably penalize rapidly progressing drivers, relative to those who rack up points by staying in the same tier for many seasons.
So, what happens when this simple scoring system is applied to actual drivers? Well, I did just that, creating a ranking of the careers of junior drivers. Note that this first analysis is based only on results for completed seasons to date. No results from any incomplete 2013 seasons are included in the table below, meaning the rankings are slightly dated. An analysis that includes incomplete 2013 results is presented further below. With that point clear, let us consider the results.
|4||Sirotkin||154||Formula Renault 3.5||18|
|5||Magnussen||152||Formula Renault 3.5||21|
|6||Marciello||144||FIA European Formula 3||19|
|7||Tuscher||140||Formula Renault 3.5||17|
|8||Malvern||138||British Formula Ford||24|
|=||Vandoorne||138||Formula Renault 3.5||21|
|=||Zanella||128||Formula Renault 3.5||24|
|13||Rigon||121||Blancpain Endurance Series||27|
|14||Rosenqvist||119||FIA European Formula 3||22|
|15||A Pic||116||Formula Renault 3.5||22|
|=||Vervisch||116||Blancpain Endurance Series||27|
|=||Resende||115||South American Formula 3||20|
|=||Giovinazzi||110||FIA European Formula 3||20|
|22||N Prost||108||FIA World Endurance||32|
The most recent category for each driver is given, as well as the driver’s age as of Jan 1, 2014 for comparison. I cannot claim to have performed a comprehensive analysis of every single junior racer in the world, but I did perform a very thorough search and analysis of drivers who have been successful in the past 5-10 years in any well-known categories. I apologize if there are any important omissions. For inclusion, I required that drivers still be actively racing.
Many of the names on this list are familiar from Formula 1 feeder categories. Several in the top ten, including Frijns, Nasr, Magnussen, and Vandoorne, are widely considered by interested observers to have the talent and experience necessary to potentially succeed in Formula 1. Some other names may not be so well known, such as Scott Malvern, who has established himself as a genius of Formula Ford, but unfortunately lacks the support to progress to the next level, given he has needed to drop back to Formula Ford in 2013 despite winning the Formula Renault BARC championship on debut in 2012.
For the older drivers on this list — Vernay, Rigon, Vervisch, and Prost — the chances of reaching Formula 1 must realistically be fading. Nevertheless, Rigon and Prost were fortunate enough to be given runs at the recent Young Driver Test by Ferrari and Lotus, respectively.
Among the top 10, the three youngest drivers — Tuscher, Sirotkin and Marciello — make for interesting cases. Tuscher is so fascinating that we shall have to return to him further below! First let us consider Sirotkin and Marciello.
Sergey Sirotkin was recently recruited by Sauber for 2014. This has raised some eyebrows, because he comes with massive financial backing, he is currently only 17 years old, and his arrival puts the future of Robin Frijns at Sauber in jeopardy. Many have suggested that he may not be ready for Formula 1 yet and that it is another case of money speaking louder than talent, so it is a surprise to see him near the top of this list. It helps to take a closer look at his record.
The columns correspond to: the tier number; the number of seasons in that tier (not including one-off events, such as Macau); the position in the championship in each season; the score for this position based on the rules described above; and bonus points for rapid advancement to a higher tier.
The bulk of Sirotkin’s 154 points come from two sources:
(1) His rapid advancement through the tiers. There is a 30 point bonus for unusually skipping to tier 2 (Auto GP) after zero seasons in tier 3, and then another 30 point bonus for advancing to tier 1 (Formula Renault 3.5) after only one season racing in tier 2 categories.
(2) His immediate success in his first full season (the Formula Abarth European Series) at the tier 4 level, garnering 50 points.
It could certainly be argued that his rapid advancement has been partly driven by heavy sponsorship from day 1 — in that sense, he has perhaps gamed the scoring system. However, he has continued to be relatively successful as he has moved forward, including 3rd place in Auto GP, and only 60 of his 154 points are bonus-based. By comparison with others in the top 10, Malvern has 0 bonus points for rapid advancement, Frijns has 30 bonus points, while Vernay, Nasr, Magnussen, Marciello, Tuscher, Vandoorne, and Ericsson each have 60 bonus points. Clearly, Sirotkin is very talented, but whether he is deserving or mentally ready for Formula 1 is another question. I shall simply note that the entry age for Formula 1 inevitably continues to drop, as it does for many other elite sports. Concerns regarding age were raised in the past for Button and Räikkönen.
The other interesting case is Rafaelle Marciello, a gifted 18 year old who is currently part of the Ferrari Driver Academy, alongside the impressive Jules Bianchi. He is not yet widely discussed in Formula 1 circles, but I think that will surely change soon. Looking at his junior record, he is moving quite rapidly up the ranks, while consistently finishing championships in the top 3.
In fact, Marciello currently leads the 2013 FIA European Formula 3 Championship ahead of the very talented Felix Rosenqvist. I therefore expect Marciello to make waves in the coming years.
Now, the rankings above are all based on results to the end of 2012. We can also make projections into the future by assuming that each driver will finish in their current position in their respective 2013 series. I think this gives a better idea of the current balance of power. The results of that analysis are in the table below.
|2||Magnussen||172||Formula Renault 3.5||21|
|=||Vandoorne||168||Formula Renault 3.5||21|
|6||Marciello||154||FIA European Formula 3||19|
|=||Sirotkin||154||Formula Renault 3.5||18|
|8||Tuscher||140||Formula Renault 3.5||17|
|9||Malvern||138||British Formula Ford||24|
|12||Giovinazzi||130||FIA European Formula 3||20|
|=||Kirchhöfer||130||German Formula 3||19|
|=||Zanella||128||Formula Renault 3.5||24|
|17||Rigon||121||Blancpain Endurance Series||27|
|18||Rosenqvist||119||FIA European Formula 3||22|
|=||A Pic||116||Formula Renault 3.5||22|
|=||Vervisch||116||Blancpain Endurance Series||27|
|22||Resende||115||South American Formula 3||20|
|25||N Prost||108||FIA World Endurance||32|
Four of the top five drivers on this list are extremely hot property in Formula 1 circles at the moment: Frijns, Magnussen, Nasr, and Vandoorne. Magnussen and Vandoorne both seem to be incredible talents who will probably take this year’s Formula Renault 3.5 championship down to the wire. Magnussen is already on McLaren’s radar and performed very well for them at the Young Drivers Test. I hear there may be a seat free at McLaren in 2015…
Robin Frijns has perhaps the most exciting CV of any junior driver out there. He stunningly and controversially won the Formula Renault 3.5 Series on his first attempt. The only other driver to have achieved that feat is Robert Kubica, who won the inaugural 2005 championship. Frijns made an impressive transition to GP2 this year, dominating at his second weekend in Spain. He was not able to repeat that success in the following three weekends and was incredibly dropped by the team due to lack of sponsorship. His replacement, Adrian Quaife-Hobbs is certainly quite talented (90 points by this metric), but his career to date simply does not compare to Frijns’. It is rather depressing when the hottest prospect in any junior category right now cannot even afford a drive. Here is hoping that one of the midfield Formula 1 teams realize the magnitude of his talent and pick him up, because pay-drivers will only get you so far.
Felipe Nasr looks to be a very solid talent from Brazil. Running 2nd in this year’s GP2 series (at his second attempt), he will no doubt be on the radars of most Formula 1 teams. It was therefore disappointing to see him overlooked at the recent Young Driver Test in favor of several lesser talents. Davide Valsecchi, who tested with Lotus, took several seasons to win GP2 (he scores 76 points by this metric). Antonio Felix da Costa, who has been heavily hyped, received a test with Red Bull. While he has shown flashes of brilliance, he has not been consistently quick enough in recent years to be successful in Formula 1. He has no doubt benefited from being a member of the Red Bull Junior Team, but, if this metric is to be believed, it may be time for Red Bull to invest in some new talent. Their top drivers by this metric are: Sainz Jr. (105 points), da Costa (84 points), Kyvat (59 points), and Blomqvist (58 points). Several other drivers clearly did not deserve to be at the Young Driver Test, including the infamous Johnny Cecotto Jr., who continues to cause trouble in GP2. He scores only 30 points by this metric, with all of those points deriving from a rapid advancement bonus for his progression from Formula BMW to Formula Renault 2.0 after only one season. That advancement was certainly not justified on the basis of results, since he finished 23rd in the championship in Formula BMW.
So, you might ask, how good is good enough to be in Formula 1? Well, the very same analysis can be performed for the junior careers of the drivers currently in Formula 1. The results are in the table below, including the drivers’ ages on Jan 1 of the year they debuted in Formula 1. Champions are highlighted in red.
|21||van der Garde||75||27||2013|
First, it is clear that there are some exceptionally high scores — the top six all have higher scores than any current junior driver, even Frijns. Yet at the bottom end, we have a few pay-drivers with quite weak junior records that are outclassed by many aspiring drivers. It is interesting to note that of the top six in the list, five joined Formula 1 since 2010. This should not be too surprising, since it reflects the continually increasing demand for Formula 1 seats. Young drivers, in the absence of enormous sponsor support, must deliver increasingly impressive results to be considered for Formula 1.
The most exceptional record of all is Hülkenberg’s, which is surely one of the strongest junior records of all time. As seen in the table below, he won his first season in tier 4 (Formula BMW ADAC), then jumped straight to tier 3 (German Formula 3) and then tier 2. There, he topped A1 GP in his first season, with a dominant six-race winning streak, and finished 3rd and 1st in the Formula 3 Euro Series (winning with 85 points to Edoardo Mortara’s 49.5 points in 2nd place). During this period, he also finished 1st and 2nd in the Masters of Formula 3 event. Finally, he moved up to tier 1 (GP2), winning comprehensively in his first season with 100 championship points, ahead of an all-star field featuring no fewer than nine(!) other future Formula 1 drivers.
Breathtaking stuff. By comparison, imagine a hypothetical driver who won on their first attempt in each tier before moving up to the next tier. They would score 5×10 = 50 points for each of their seasons, and they would score a 30 point bonus for each transition to a new tier. They would therefore score 4×50 + 3×30 = 290 points. This does not take one-off events into account (e.g., Macau), but it is still impressive to see how close Hülkenberg is to this hypothetical ‘perfect driver’ score!
Alongside the young drivers at the top of the list stands Jenson Button, representing an earlier era. Having settled into his position among the calm and reasoned old guard, it is easy to forget that Button too was once a great prodigy, tearing through the junior ranks and arriving in Formula 1 as one of the youngest drivers of all time. After winning in tier 4 on his first attempt (British Formula Ford) and winning the prestigious Formula Ford Festival, he shot straight up to tier 2 (British Formula Ford), finishing 3rd in an impressive display of maturity. He followed that up with 2nd at the iconic Macau Grand Prix and 5th in the Masters of Formula 3 event. The Williams team thought they saw something special and signed him up after an impressive test.
Interestingly, the world champions as a group do not rank consistently higher by this scoring metric than other Formula 1 drivers. The average for a champion is 152±45 (mean±std), while the average for a non-champion is 149±58. Among the champions, Button obviously stands out as an exceptional junior racer. Hamilton also has a very respectable junior record, including an impressive first-time win in tier 1 (GP2). But he is penalized slightly for taking 3 seasons to win a title in tier 3 (Formula Renault 2000) and 2 seasons to win a title in tier 2 (Formula 3 Euro). Vettel moved at a similar pace through the junior ranks to Button, but did not enjoy quite the same level of success along the way.
Alonso was picked up for a Formula 1 drive by Minardi after just one season in tier 3 (Euro Open by Nissan), which he won (you can actually see him racing in this rare video), and one season in tier 1 (International Formula 3000), where he finished 4th, behind Mark Webber in 3rd. As an interesting aside, that season was won by Bruno Junqueira, who had just been knocked back by Williams in favor of Button. He never made it to Formula 1. In any case, the 19 year old Alonso finished that season strongly and it was enough to convince people who mattered, resulting in a meteoric rise to Formula 1. Räikkönen is an even more extreme case. He debuted in Formula 1 after only competing in 23 races at no higher than a tier 3 level (Formula Renault 2000), as shown in the table below. He was extremely successful in these races, winning 13, but it was nevertheless a significant risk on Peter Sauber’s part that worried other drivers at the time. Evidently, the talent-spotter was correct in this instance and the rest is history.
There is an interesting observation to be made regarding the Formula 1 champions at this point. Although the champions do not have higher scores on average, they arrive in Formula 1 from a lower tier than the non-champions (1.8±0.8 vs. 1.2±0.4; p = 0.03 two-tailed t-test), and they trend towards arriving at a younger age (19.8±5.8 vs. 22.3±2.0, p = 0.13) with fewer junior seasons in total (3.2±1.8 vs. 7.8±6.8, p = 0.17). This implies that the average threshold for being promoted to Formula 1 is not different between champions and non-champions (it is a score of around 150) — it is just that champions tend to reach that threshold more quickly. Had they instead been forced to spend the same amount of time in junior categories as non-champions, they would have heavily outscored them. This can be seen by plotting the trajectories of driver scores across their junior seasons up until the point that they made it to Formula 1.
The five champions are plotted in red. Their trajectories tend to rise more quickly than the non-champions plotted in black. This suggests that the average slope of the trajectory (i.e., the rate at which points are accrued) may be predictive of success in Formula 1. The drivers are ranked by this slope in the table below.
|22||van der Garde||5.8|
It is tempting to speculate on the future prospects of drivers who are not yet champions but appear near the top of this list, but I shall leave that job to the reader!
From the above findings, we can conclude two things. First, a driver who does the hard yards necessary to achieve a total score of about 150 has a chance of being considered for Formula 1, all else being equal. Second, the rate at which a driver achieves that score is indicative of how likely they are to win a championship in Formula 1, should they make it there. A rate greater than about 25 points/season is a very good sign for a driver. Taken together, these two conclusions suggest that to be super successful in Formula 1, a junior driver should aim to arrive after not much more than about 6 junior racing seasons (because 6×25 = 150). It is a very tall order, but that is the reality of the situation.
Of all the junior drivers I analyzed, those with the steepest trajectories, based on projected scores for 2013 results, are listed in the table below.
|1||Tuscher||70.0||2||140||Formula Renault 3.5||17|
|2||Kirchhöfer||65.0||2||130||German Formula 3||19|
|3||Giovinazzi||43.4||3||130||FIA European Formula 3||20|
|4||Resende||38.3||3||115||South American Formula 3||20|
|5||Malvern||34.5||4||138||British Formula Ford||24|
|7||Sirotkin||30.8||5||154||Formula Renault 3.5||18|
|=||Vandoorne||28.0||6||168||Formula Renault 3.5||21|
Again, we include the most recent categories and ages as of Jan 1, 2014. Here we find a few familiar names above the elusive 25 points/season threshold, including Frijns, Nasr, and Vandoorne. Magnussen falls just under at 21.8 points/season. At the top of the list, we also discover a couple of spectacular talents who are searing through the junior ranks at a rate to rival the likes of Alonso and Räikkönen. Could these be future Formula 1 champions? Let us take a closer look.
First on the list is Mathéo Tuscher, who is currently just 16 years old. To date, he has accumulated an incredible 140 points from just two seasons for a slope of 70, bettered only by Button and Alonso. At 14, he advanced from karts to single-seaters, dominating the 2011 Formula Pilota China series (tier 4). Of 12 races, he won 8, set 8 fastest laps, and took 10 poles! For 2012, he made a bold move straight up to FIA Formula 2 (tier 2), competing against much more experienced racers. He achieved a highly impressive 2nd place in the championship and he seemed to gain speed as the season went on, with 5 podiums in the last 8 races. As a result, he was a deserving winner of the Autosport award for Rookie of the Year. This year, he was given a run for just one weekend in Formula Renault 3.5 at Spain. I sincerely hope that he can achieve a regular seat in a top series as soon as possible, because right now he has future Formula 1 champion written all over him.
Second on the list is the young German Marvin Kirchhöfer, who is on course to collect 130 points in just two seasons for a slope of 65. Before reaching single-seaters, his karting record was excellent, including a dominant victory in the German Kart Championship. In his first season in single-seaters, he took a very respectable 1st place in the 2012 ADAC Formel Masters category (tier 4), winning 9 of the 23 races. This year, he logically advanced to German Formula 3 (tier 3). Such a move can make or break a driver; his performance in 2013 has been pure class. Of the 14 rounds so far, he has won 7, and through very consistent finishes he seems to have already built an insurmountable lead of 277-192 in the championship. If he can continue his success in a higher category next year — and I’m confident that he can — then he will be well on the way to gaining the attention of Formula 1 teams.
Identifying the most promising junior talents in motor racing is no doubt a challenging task. The scoring metric proposed here provides a promising means of making quantitative comparisons between drivers. More complex scoring metrics could of course be proposed that take additional details into account, e.g., including individual race results or taking opponents into account. The method proposed here has the advantage of simplicity — the score can be very easily and rapidly calculated for any driver. My hope is that such methods could ultimately lead to more equitable selection of junior talents for sponsorship and promotion, perhaps even forming the basis for racing scholarships. Formula 1 features the greatest drivers in the world, but it also has a pay-driver problem that is not going away. Meanwhile, feeder series that should be all about testing the mettle of promising young talents are polluted by repeat drivers with insufficient talent and deep pockets. I appreciate that racing is expensive and one can never hope for a true meritocracy, but hopefully this is a small step in the right direction.