I started this blog just over a year ago with an analysis of junior drivers. It seemed fitting to climb my way up to Formula 1 analyses by beginning in the junior categories. Junior success doesn’t always translate exactly into Formula 1 greatness — just ask Jan Magnussen for one side of the story and Damon Hill for the other side — but it is undoubtedly one of the best predictors. Drivers who deviate greatly from their junior performances are the exception rather than the rule.
As part of my previous analysis, I devised a method for rating the achievements of any driver’s junior career. Two specific metrics were identified as potential markers of future success. These metrics are intentionally crude. They are not intended to replace traditional talent-spotting methods, which involve much more detailed analyses of strengths and weaknesses. For example, they do not account for which teams the driver raced for, which is much less important in spec series (as evidenced by the usual 7+ winning teams in GP2), but still significant. Nevertheless, the metrics provide a rapid and effective means of separating the wheat from the chaff and identifying potential superstars of the future. The two metrics are described below.
1. The achievement score
For my previous analysis, I wanted a quantitative metric that would allow me to compare the overall quality of different junior careers. I defined a metric that awarded points for successes, with greater emphasis on successes achieved shortly after graduating to a tougher category, since this is a key marker of talent. The scoring method is outlined below.
a. Different categories of racing are assigned to different tiers.
The tiers are defined fully in the previous article. They are: tier 4 (e.g., Formula Ford), tier 3 (e.g., Formula Renault 2.0), tier 2 (e.g., GP3), and tier 1 (e.g., GP2).
b. For each full season, a driver is awarded points depending on their championship position.
A “full season” is defined as a season in which a driver starts at least 50% of the races in the calendar. Points are awarded using the following system.
1st = 10 points
2nd = 6 points
3rd = 4 points
4th = 3 points
5th = 2 points
6th = 1 point
c. Drivers receive bonuses for achieving success rapidly within a tier.
The following multipliers are applied to the points scored in each season in the driver’s career.
1st season in tier = 5 x points
2nd season in tier = 2 x points
3rd season in tier = 1 x points
4th season in tier and beyond = 0 x points
This prevents drivers from simply racking up points by racing forever in the same categories, while providing large bonuses to drivers who are immediately quick in a more powerful car.
d. Drivers receive bonuses for rapid tier progression.
Whenever a driver moves to the next tier after spending one season or less in the previous tier, they receive a 30 point bonus. This rewards drivers who move straight up to harder categories, relative to those who move more slowly and complete more seasons in total.
e. Drivers receive points for special events.
Drivers also receive points for their positions in the Macau Formula 3 race, the Masters of Formula 3, and the Formula Ford Festival These standalone events do not count towards the total number of seasons completed. Previously, these standalone events were scored using the same multiplier as full seasons in each tier, but some readers made the important observation that this probably greatly overvalues standalone events. I now use a flat multiplier of 1 x points for all standalone events. The drivers most affected by this were Button (falling from 220 points to 148 points) and Bottas (falling from 206 points to 144 points). They had both previously made huge points on standalone events in their first full seasons of each tier (i.e., with a 5 x points multiplier).
2. The excitement score
It usually takes many seasons for a driver to build up an impressive achievement score. In my previous analysis, I found that drivers who make it to Formula 1 on merit typically exceed an achievement score of about 140. All but the lowliest of Formula 1 drivers exceed an achievement score of 100.
However, good talent-spotters can sometimes pick out top drivers much earlier (e.g., Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen). Future champions tend to accrue their achievement score more quickly than non-champions, marking them out as particularly exciting prospects. I therefore also defined an ‘excitement score’, which is the achievement score divided by the total number of full seasons.
This metric could be considered a marker of ultimate potential. It can be very high early on in a very promising career and then tends to decrease over time in all but the most outstanding drivers.
Junior driver rankings 2014
Using the two metrics described above, I scored the junior careers of the most promising drivers yet to reach Formula 1. For reference, I also scored the junior careers of all 2014-2015 Formula 1 drivers confirmed to date. The scores are presented in the table below, with drivers ranked by their achievement score. Formula 1 drivers are in red, potential drivers are in black.
The list includes junior drivers with an achievement score of at least 100. Achievement scores of 180+ are green, achievement scores of 140+ are yellow. Excitement scores of 50+ are green, excitement scores of 25+ are yellow. Seasons is the number of full seasons, using the definition above.
The top four drivers in the list are all Formula 1 drivers. Just below them are three outstandingly promising junior drivers.
1. Marvin Kirchhofer
Kirchhofer was one of two drivers I highlighted in my previous analysis as a potential future superstar — the other was Matheo Tuscher, who struggled to regain his 2011-2012 form after a year spent mostly away from racing, but remains one to watch in 2015. At the time of last writing, Kirchhofer had an achievement score of 130 from 2 full seasons, for an excitement score of 65. In his first season of single-seaters he dominated ADAC Formel Masters (9 wins in 23 races). In his second season, he dominated German Formula 3 (13 wins in 26 races). This year, he played with the big boys in GP3 and immediately took 3rd in the championship, behind only Lynn (in his 6th year of single-seaters) and Stoneman (in his 7th year of single-seaters). Kirchhofer is by far the most outstanding talent on the list who is yet to be grabbed by a Formula 1 junior team, but that surely won’t remain the case for long. Given he is German, he would be a particularly savvy choice for Mercedes, who are relatively behind the curve in junior driver development. Pascal Wehrlein (96 points) remains the Formula 1 team’s reserve driver and their only junior prospect. His first two years in single-seaters were quite strong, but he has since taken a peculiar sideways step into DTM where he has generally struggled.
2. Stoffel Vandoorne
The star of the McLaren junior program continued to impress with 2nd in GP2 in 2014. This was the most impressive performance by a GP2 rookie since Hulkenberg’s championship on debut in 2009, showing that exceptionally talented rookies can still make themselves known above the throng of repeat pay-drivers that have undermined the series’ relevance recently. Notably, Vandoorne now just exceeds Kevin Magnussen by both junior career metrics, putting McLaren in a difficult spot as they try to determine their 2015 driver line-up. They have two very strong juniors and at most one available seat.
3. Robin Frijns
Frijns is at this stage beginning to look like a cautionary tale. He is undoubtedly one of the most talented juniors of the past several years and yet he now seems unlikely to ever drive in Formula 1. This is largely a consequence of his decision to spurn the Red Bull junior team — worried that they might trash him after a single year in Formula 1 — and try to go it alone. However, in today’s climate, a driver either needs massive financial backing or the backing of a Formula 1 team. Alternative routes no longer seem to exist, as Frijns has demonstrated.
Other drivers worth highlighting on the list are:
Max Verstappen: In just one year and two seasons (Florida Winter Series and Formula 3 Euro) Verstappen has soared up the list, with 3rd in both seasons and 1st in the Masters of Formula 3. It is easy to see why the Red Bull junior team were excited, and also why they faced a more difficult choice for the second Toro Rosso seat. Ultimately, Sainz (125 points) seems like the safe pick over Gasly (100 points) and Lynn (93 points), although he doesn’t currently show any signs of being a future champion. Verstappen is higher potential and higher risk. Hopefully making the jump to Formula 1 so early — earlier than any other driver in history — will not prematurely extinguish his very promising career. Verstappen’s main 2014 rival, Esteban Ocon, now has an achievement score of 84 points and will likely exceed 100 points in 2015.
Felipe Nasr: The recent Sauber recruit brings plenty of cash from Banco do Brasil, but there’s no doubting that he is a solid junior talent. Last year, he was ranked 3rd of all junior drivers by achievement score. His GP2 career fell slightly short of expectations, dropping him slightly down the list, but he should do Brazil proud in Formula 1. At the very least, he should perform better than Sauber’s current line-up, which my driver ranking model considers the worst in Formula 1.
Antonio Fuoco: Jules Bianchi seemed destined for a Ferrari seat in 2016, possibly via Sauber in 2015. After his tragic accident, Ferrari are left looking to their other junior academy drivers for future champions. Marciello is currently their most developed junior and received a run in the recent Abu Dhabi test with Ferrari, but he was outshone by Vandoorne in GP2 this year and has been the subject of some rather prickly tweets from his own academy. The collapse of Marussia has also removed one avenue for Ferrari juniors into Formula 1 in 2015. That problem may be remedied by the arrival of the Ferrari-allied Haas team in 2016. In the meantime, Fuoco has been rapidly establishing himself as one of Ferrari’s brightest talents. He won the 2013 Formula Renault 2.0 Alps series, the 2014 Florida Winter Series, and established himself on the main stage with 5th in 2014 Formula 3 Euro. A very strong performance in 2015 could put him in the picture for a 2016 Haas seat.
Andre Lotterer: Lotterer has had a long and distinguished career in single-seaters and sportscars. His chances of Formula 1 seemed all but gone (as indicated by his excitement score!) until he was called up for a one-off appearance with Caterham. Sadly, the car lasted only a single lap.
Ben Barnicoat: Besides Vandoorne, who now seems ready for Formula 1, McLaren have been nurturing Barnicoat and de Vries. de Vries had a disappointingly slow start to his single-seater career. His first three full seasons in Formula Renault 2.0 yielded little. He has now found winning form, but currently has an achievement score of only 42 points. Barnicoat was immediately successful, winning his first two full seasons in Formula Renault 2.0. In 2014, he pulled out early from two more Formula Renault 2.0 series after some middling results — because he completed less than half a season of each, these don’t affect his excitement score, but the results do still raise some question marks.
The lost GP2 champions
Before GP2, Formula 3000 was the highest category of single-seaters below Formula 1. Winning the International Formula 3000 title was a surefire way of gaining attention from Formula 1 teams. Across the series’ existence from 1985-2004, 16 of the 20 champions went on to start an F1 race. The four exceptions were: Junqueira, who narrowly missed out on a Williams seat to Button in 2000, Sospiri, who tried but failed to qualify for the 1997 Australian Grand Prix, Wirdheim, who was Jaguar’s third driver when Red Bull purchased the team and pursued their own drivers instead, and Muller, who was a test-driver for Arrows, Sauber, and Williams.
Formula 3000 received a makeover in 2005, being replaced by the faster and more relevant GP2 cars. For a while, things were very good. Every GP2 champion from 2005-2011 graduated to Formula 1. Recently, however, the expense of the series and the increasing challenges for rookie drivers have led to the series being dominated by repeat drivers with loads of cash. The last three champions have all been in at least their fourth year of GP2 and they were far from outstanding when they started in the series, as their results in each full season show.
Valsecchi: 15th, 17th, 8th, 8th, 1st
Leimer: 19th, 14th, 7th, 1st
Palmer: 28th, 11th, 7th, 1st
This is reflected in the lower achievement and excitement scores for recent GP2 champions.
Consequently, Formula 1 teams have stopped paying attention to drivers who earn GP2 titles only through repeated attempts. Valsecchi was overlooked for the proven talent Kovalainen (156 achievement points as a junior) when Lotus needed a replacement for Raikkonen. Leimer was told that $14 million couldn’t buy him a seat at Sauber last year. Palmer has no current prospects of a seat in Formula 1 next year or beyond.
Talents to watch
While I can’t claim to have performed an exhaustive analysis of all junior drivers, I did take a very broad sample. By scoring the careers of all those drivers, we can identify potential rising stars based on those with the highest excitement scores. Last year, I found 2 juniors with excitement scores of at least 60 (Kirchhofer and Tuscher). This year there are 3. One of those is still Marvin Kirchhofer, who I discussed above. The other two emerged in 2014.
1. Pedro Piquet: Nelson Piquet’s younger son (brother of Nelson Piquet Jr.) just graduated to cars after a superb karting career. He made a brief appearance in the 2014 Toyota Racing Series and ran a full season in Brazilian Formula 3. In the latter, he was uncontested, winning an incredible 11 races in 16 starts. This is definitely one to keep an eye on.
2. Charles Leclerc: This 17 year old from Monaco was stunningly impressive in 2014. In his first year out of karts, he took 2nd in the Formula Renault 2.0 series, behind the more experienced McLaren junior Nyck de Vries and one place better than the very talented Russian Matevos Isaakyan, who missed the opening round due to being too young to compete.
We’ll check back in on these juniors next year!