With silly season underway, it is a good time to consider which junior drivers are most deserving of a Formula 1 seat next year. Any incoming juniors will obviously be competing not only with the current grid but also recent drivers Vergne, Magnussen, Gutierrez, van der Garde, and Sutil. And of course, it’s doubtful drivers will be selected purely on merit.
As usual, I like to take a quantitative approach to these problems. Two years ago I proposed a metric for assessing the quality of a driver’s junior career. Some metrics already existed for ranking drivers across motorsports, such as the World Driver Rankings at Autosport, and the Driver Rankings at Driver Database. However, none of these seemed well suited to junior talent-spotting, where it is essential to view results in the context of a driver’s prior experience and rate of progress. The metric I proposed divided junior categories into four tiers and then rewarded drivers who achieved results rapidly within a given tier, with diminishing returns for those who stayed in a single tier for a long time. Following reader suggestions, I tweaked the metric last year, and I have made further updates again this year. The key changes are as follows.
- Last year, I removed the bonus applied to standalone events, as this was giving them too much weight in the overall score.
- This year, I have removed the bonus for moving from one tier to another, as this allowed drivers to accrue points simply by buying their way into the next tier with no competitive results. The justification for the bonus was to reward drivers who keep progressing over those who spend longer in each tier, but this is now reflected in the Excitement score. The multiplier has also been changed to benefit drivers who make rapid progress.
- This year, I also gave increased weight to results in higher tiers, as many readers suggested.
The new metric
The rationale for this metric is to reward drivers who are able to rapidly get to grips with new, more challenging categories of racing, as this is usually the sign of an extremely talented driver who could thrive in Formula 1. The Achievement score is a measure of a driver’s cumulative junior success, while the Excitement score is a marker of potential, useful for identifying top talents early in their careers.
These metrics should not be considered a replacement for traditional detailed talent-spotting methods, which involve careful analysis of driving styles, competitors, and teams (since team differences exist even in spec-racing). However, my approach does allow a quick impassive survey of the current standout drivers who are worth more detailed attention and could therefore be used as a first-pass method for identifying potential stars.
Tiers of racing
I previously proposed a breakdown of junior categories into four tiers. The table below summarizes the tiers used for this method and the categories that I have placed into each.
As always, you could debate whether certain categories should be bumped up or down a tier, especially as they gain or lose prestige over time. Broadly, however, the tiers reflect the usual career progression of junior drivers.
First, let’s look back at the 2013 and 2014 rankings to see what became of the top-ranked drivers under the earlier versions of the metric.
At the end of 2013, the top 5 drivers based on Achievement score were Robin Frijns, Kevin Magnussen, Felipe Nasr, Stoffel Vandoorne, and Jean-Karl Vernay. Of those, two have since raced in Formula 1 and Vandoorne seems close to securing a seat. Frijns remains a cautionary tale — his decision to go it alone rather than accepting the terms of a Red Bull contract has left him unlikely to find a Formula 1 drive. Meanwhile, Vernay, now aged 27, has switched focus to sportscars after failing to attract sufficient attention in his single-seater career. Based on Excitement score, two juniors were identified as talents to watch in 2014: Marvin Kirchhofer and Matheo Tuscher. Both drivers raced in GP3 in 2014, with Kirchhofer taking an impressive 3rd in the championship as a rookie. Tuscher, the former Autosport Rookie of the Year, showed flashes of brilliance, but ultimately failed to live up to promise, with 2015 being an even more disappointing campaign.
At the end of 2014, the top 5 drivers based on Achievement score were Marvin Kirchhofer, Stoffel Vandoorne, Robin Frijns, Jean-Karl Vernay, and Sergey Sirtokin. None of those drivers have yet made it to Formula 1, but Vandoorne and Sirotkin are both under consideration, given their strong GP2 results in 2015. Based on Excitement score, three drivers were identified as talents to watch in 2015: Pedro Piquet, Marvin Kirchhofer, and Charles Leclerc. Following up on those predictions, Piquet has continued to impress in Brazil, leading the Formula 3 championship for the second year in a row. Kirchhofer is having a solid year in GP3, currently running 3rd, but a title challenge was anticipated. Leclerc has proved to be a phenomenally exciting talent, following in Max Verstappen’s footsteps to outpace much more experienced drivers in European Formula 3.
The top 2015 juniors
Having revised the junior career scoring metric based on reader suggestions, I applied it to junior driver data up to and including the 2015 season (using current positions for 2015 standings). Below are the top-ranked juniors of 2015, ordered by Achievement Scores. Also shown are the drivers’ Excitement scores. For reference, junior career data are shown for all F1 drivers active from 2014-2015. Red indicates an Achievement score of at least 130 of an Excitement score of at least 25. Yellow indicates an Achievement score of at least 100 or an Excitement score of at least 15.
Nico Hulkenberg‘s phenomenal junior career, which included both rapid progression and four junior titles, remains the highest rated overall. To date, he is yet to fully realize that promise in Formula 1. As in my previous articles, we see that the most successful Formula 1 drivers tend to have very high scores in Achievement, Excitement, or both. Sebastian Vettel is seemingly the only exception, since he had a relatively weak junior career by the standards of Formula 1 champions. Drivers who were talent-spotted and promoted to Formula 1 relatively early, such as Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen, Max Verstappen, and Nico Rosberg, have particularly high Excitement scores and lower Achievement scores.
The two highest rated juniors are Robin Frijns and Stoffel Vandoorne. Both made an impressive jump from FR2.0 to FR3.5 in only their fourth year of single-seaters, with Frijns taking the title ahead of Bianchi after a controversial collision, and Vandoorne running a strong 2nd to his more experienced stablemate Kevin Magnussen. Subsequently, Vandoorne has gone from strength to strength racing for ART in GP2, while Frijns has struggled to find continuing support, with abortive links to the Sauber and Caterham F1 teams. Frijns managed only a half season in GP2, demonstrating his talent with a rookie victory for one of the category’s weakest teams, before moving into GT1 cars, where he is now leading the Blancpain Sprint Series with teammate Laurens Vanthoor (ranked the 6th best junior talent currently).
Third in the junior rankings is Kenta Yamashita. The 20-year old has made extraordinary progress through the Japanese single-seater ranks in recent years. Beginning with a clean sweep of the entry-level Motegi series (four hat-tricks in four races), he moved up to Formula Challenge Japan and again won the title as a rookie. His next step was to the highly competitive All-Japan Formula 3 series, where he was narrowly beaten by the more experienced Nobuharu Matsushita (currently Vandoorne’s teammate and 9th in GP2). This year he leads the championship, although he is under pressure from the single-seater veteran Nick Cassidy going into the final race weekend. Simultaneously, he has run in GT300, although with less success there. Will we perhaps see a move to European single-seaters in 2016, following Matsushita’s lead?
Formula 1 junior teams
Looking through the list above, it is interesting to note how many of the top-ranked juniors are still free agents. Of the top 10, nine are currently unsigned. Stoffel Vandoorne is the exception. Just as Ferrari had great plans for Jules Bianchi before his tragic accident, McLaren will no doubt be carefully charting out Vandoorne’s future. Looking at McLaren’s available drivers, there is an abundance of talent and an obvious logjam due to a lack of available Formula 1 seats.
Vandoorne and Magnussen are both clearly deserving of a seat in Formula 1, but with two high-performing world champions at McLaren and few remaining seats, it’s unfortunately difficult to see how they could both make it onto the 2016 grid. If the problem isn’t resolved quickly, matters may get worse, since Nyck de Vries and Ben Barnicoat are both potentially within two years of being ready for Formula 1, although neither has quite lived up to their initial promise so far.
At Ferrari, only Raffaele Marciello seems ready for promotion to Formula 1 next year, but his chances have been dented by two underwhelming seasons in GP2, lowering his Excitement score from 14 to 11. Given another strong year, Antonio Fuoco may overtake Marciello in the queue to join the grid, presumably at either Manor or Haas.
Lance Stroll had a very strong start to his single-seater career, but has been somewhat overshadowed in 2015 by two other F3 Euro rookies, Charles Leclerc and George Russell. Meanwhile, Guanyu Zhou is just getting started in single-seaters, but has looked decently quick in Italian Formula 4. Given Ferrari have an enviable driver promotion system available through their Formula 1 customer teams, now is surely the time to grab some of the best unsigned juniors, of which there are several rated higher than anyone in their current academy.
The Red Bull junior team remains in a state of constant flux. In the past year, Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. were promoted to Toro Rosso, Alex Lynn left to look for opportunities elsewhere, and both Dean Stoneman and Callum Ilott joined the squad.
Gasly and Stoneman are performing well in their rookie years of GP2 and FR 3.5, respectively. Since the Toro Rosso line-up is likely to remain unchanged for 2016, Red Bull will no doubt be keeping a close eye on this pair to see if they are worth retaining for another year in the top junior categories for a possible promotion to Formula 1 in 2017. Meanwhile, Callum Ilott has been thrown into the deep end, going straight to Formula 3 Euro and the Toyota Racing Series from go-karts. So far there is little to show for this gamble, but he may be a longer-term investment. With solid line-ups at both Red Bull and Toro Rosso for at least a year, the junior team can obviously afford to experiment for now.
The Mercedes team have recently begun planning for their longer-term future by investing in single-seater talents, in addition to their DTM squad. Pascal Wehrlein was shifted into DTM following a successful initial period in single-seaters. Although it has taken time for him to master DTM, he is now second in the championship and Mercedes are seemingly attempting to move him back towards Formula 1.
Esteban Ocon is an exciting recent addition to the team, after his split with Lotus. Following an unremarkable couple of years in FR 2.0, he gained attention with a title in Formula 3 Euro. This year he has continued to impress, leading his highly-ranked ART teammate Marvin Kirchhofer in GP3. If he can keep improving, he will soon be very hot property in Formula 1 circles.
The Lotus team are supporting a large number of juniors, in addition to their reserve driver Jolyon Palmer and development driver Carmen Jorda.
Finally, Williams have a small junior program again, having poached Alex Lynn from Red Bull. They also continue to support the relatively unaccomplished racer Susie Wolff in a development driver role.
Talents to watch in 2016
As usual, I like to finish these junior driver rankings with a prediction of who we should watch next year. Five drivers currently stand out based on their Excitement scores.
1. Pedro Piquet, Excitement score = 35
Piquet was one of my picks last year and he continues to look very exciting. At the age of 17, he will likely soon have a second Brazilian Formula 3 crown. In that category, he has won 19 of his 26 races. Of course, he cannot keep racing in Formula 3 forever, and next year should see him progress to a more competitive category alongside some other big fish. For now, he is also gaining experience with cameo appearances in other categories. The only question mark over Piquet relates to his poor showing in the 2014 Toyota Racing Series, where he made his debut in cars. After six difficult races, his season was stopped by licensing issues relating to his age. This was perhaps a case of trying to run before he could walk.
2. Robin Frijns, Excitement score = 27
Frijns’ extraordinary junior results have maintained a high Excitement score even after progressing to Tier 1, which is quite unusual. But is there any hope of salvaging his Formula 1 dream at this point? He surely has zero chance of a 2016 seat, but should nevertheless be maneuvering himself for a possible 2017 drive. A GT1 championship will help, and he still has some time on his side at 24, but he needs to remain in the limelight in 2016, whether it be by financing a drive with a top team in GP2 or joining WEC. To quote Jackie Stewart,
People are either in love with you or they ignore you completely. If they start ignoring you, there’s the chance that you’ll stop getting breaks and no longer have the decent drives. There is always an anxious new talent standing on the sidelines keen to take your place in the team, intent on making a name for himself. So it is a good thing for a driver to race as much as he possibly can in other categories, particularly if his major single-seater programme is not bringing him much good luck.
3. Kenta Yamashita, Excitement score = 27
After his brilliant results in Japan, and the successful transition to GP2 made by his compatriot Matsushita, next year will hopefully see Yamashita make the jump to either GP2 or FR 3.5. Given his pedigree, I would predict him to make an immediate impact in either category.
4. Marvin Kirchhofer, Excitement score = 27
Kirchhofer continues to look like one of the outstanding talents of the current generation. His first three years in single-seaters were stunning, with rookie titles in ADAC Formel Masters and German Formula 3, followed by 3rd in GP3. However, his star is somewhat on the wane this year. The ART team were expected to dominate the season, with title-favorite Kirchhofer and newly-crowned Formula 3 European champion, Ocon, in their stable. Instead, both drivers have struggled to manage tyre wear, and Kirchhofer has delivered a muted performance, trailing Ocon 7-2 in race results. Kirchhofer also burned some bridges with a bizarre last-minute exit from his planned European Formula 3 campaign at the beginning of the season. One hopes this season is only a hiccup for a very accomplished racer, but 2016 will likely be a make-or-break year for the German.
5. Charles Leclerc, Excitement score = 27
In a year when the European Formula 3 series has faced backlash over driving standards, Leclerc has looked mature beyond his years, with incisive but measured racecraft and brilliant car control. Building on his phenomenal transition to cars in FR 2.0 last year, Leclerc has posted results to rival Max Verstappen’s last year. Red Bull are unlikely to pull the same trick twice, so Leclerc will probably have to earn a place in Formula 1 by more conventional means. A move to GP3 would seem a natural progression for 2016, as Leclerc is still rather inexperienced to risk a jump to Tier 1, as Luca Ghiotto learned last year.
As always, we’ll check in on these promising juniors again next year!