As Formula 1 teams are making their final selections for 2017, it is a good time to consider the quality of the incoming junior crop, and identify who is likely to make headlines in coming years.
Junior career metrics
Over the past three years on this blog, I have presented and tweaked some metrics for assessing junior careers. Unlike other metrics out there, mine are primarily designed to quantify how quickly a driver is successful in different racing categories. Scores are therefore weighted based on the difficulty level of the junior category and how long a driver spends at each level. Winning a championship in the first year is worth much more than doing it on the second or third attempt. For a full description of how I calculate this, see last year’s junior rankings post. The two metrics that I define are:
THE ACHIEVEMENT SCORE: This represents a sum of all the driver’s junior career achievements, weighted by time spent in each category and difficulty level of that category. The Achievement score can only increase over time, but a driver is no longer eligible to score points in any category level after three full seasons completed at that level.
THE EXCITEMENT SCORE: This measures the rate at which the driver has accrued their Achievement score. Specifically, it is the Achievement score divided by the number of full seasons in all categories (where a full season is defined as starting at least half the races). This number can potentially go up or down and tends to be most volatile early in a driver’s career. It is intended to be used as a marker for identifying exciting up and coming drivers before they have necessarily won many titles.
Do junior careers predict success?
The metrics I have defined for junior careers are currently just heuristics, not based on any actual fit to data. I think they may be a useful tool for thinking quantitatively about junior drivers’ careers, but it’s important to ask whether they are in any way predictive of driver performances in Formula 1.
To check this, I computed the correlations of junior Achievement and Excitement scores with driver performance rankings in Formula 1 using my model of driver vs. team performance. I used every driver who debuted in Formula 1 since 1990 and used average whole-career points per race, rather than my preferred metric of 3-year peak, so that I could include drivers with very short careers.
Since I was going further back in time with junior careers, I added the Monaco F3 Support Race as one of the standalone events for which drivers could score extra points (along with the Formula Ford Festival, Macau F3 race, and Masters of F3), because this was for a long time viewed as a key race for juniors to prove their worth.
Below are the graphs of Formula 1 career performances versus Achievement and Excitement scores. Linear best fits are shown, along with 95% confidence intervals for the linear fit.
The first thing to note is that both Achievement and Excitement scores are significantly correlated with a driver’s performance in Formula 1. There is a definite positive relationship, and this relationship is strongest for the Excitement score. However, we can also see that there is a great deal of variance not predicted by an individual’s junior career results. In other words, it’s difficult to accurately predict how a driver will perform in Formula 1 based solely on their junior career metrics. Whether it is possible to develop more predictive metrics than the ones I have proposed here (e.g., using machine learning) is a question I hope to revisit in a future post.
Significant outliers are highlighted on both graphs. For the Achievement score, both Max Verstappen and Fernando Alonso far outperformed their junior achievements in Formula 1. This is naturally because they both had very short junior careers, so they had very high Excitement scores but relatively low Achievement scores.
Gianmaria Bruni, Ralph Firman, and Luca Badoer stand out as drivers who had quite respectable junior careers but really couldn’t translate those results into strong performances in Formula 1. Interestingly, Nico Hulkenberg (the driver with the highest Achievement score of 201) is far from the best overall performer in Formula 1, but not actually too far below the average trend line.
The junior career “hall of fame”
From the above analysis of drivers going back to 1990, I can create tables of the top junior careers for all drivers in that period. Here is the top 10 for junior Achievement scores.
This top 10 is an interesting mix of mostly “promise unfulfilled” drivers. Interestingly, the top 2 are currently active drivers.
Now here is the top 10 for junior Excitement scores.
This top 10 contains drivers with considerably more Formula 1 success, which is consistent with the Excitement score being more highly correlated with driver performance in Formula 1, which I showed above. The top 2 here are interestingly McLaren’s current driver line-up.
Next, I looked at the junior career metrics for all the world champions since 1994.
In general, the Achievement scores of champions are nothing exceptional, besides Lewis Hamilton‘s. In many cases, future champions were picked up by Formula 1 teams early on the basis of their outstanding progress through the junior ranks. This is reflected in the generally high Excitement scores. Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, and Kimi Raikkonen in particular were wunderkinds promoted to Formula 1 with very little single-seater experience. The two obvious exceptions to this are Jacques Villeneuve and Damon Hill. Hill had an incredibly weak junior career by the standards of any successful Formula 1 driver, but this has to be viewed in context, as he never raced in go-karts and didn’t even begin racing cars until he was 23 years old.
The slowest juniors
Among drivers with very low junior career scores, it’s interesting to consider just how far they are in performance terms from the best drivers. It’s often claimed that in equal machinery the whole Formula 1 field would be separated by less than 1%. I suspect that range is an underestimate for most seasons, given there are many examples of larger average differences than this between teammates in Formula 1 or within spec series.
To quantify this, I took drivers’ qualifying times in the highest junior category in which they competed and computed the median percentage difference from the pole time. Below I graphed the slowest drivers I found.
Of these drivers, Giovanni Lavaggi is ranked the slowest to have actually raced in Formula 1, and he had a dreadful reputation as a Formula 1 driver, but in his defense (as well as Inoue’s, Amati’s, and Belmondo’s) he raced for low-budget teams in International F3000 before it became a spec series, so his 4.0% deficit was surely in part mechanical. In Formula 1, Lavaggi averaged 1.6% slower in qualifying than his teammates (Andrea Montermini and Pedro Lamy), who themselves were not particularly strong drivers, and one imagines would have been a long way off a top driver in equal machinery. For example, Michael Schumacher outqualified Martin Brundle by an average (median) of 1.3% in 1992 when they were teammates at Benetton, and Brundle himself was certainly above average (i.e., likely at least as quick as Montermini or Lamy in equal machinery). A difference of 3-4% between Michael Schumacher and Giovanni Lavaggi in equal machinery would therefore seem reasonable.
Taki Inoue‘s and Carmen Jorda‘s teammates were title contenders in their respective series, so their time deficits must primarily be on the driver. During Inoue’s time in Formula 1, he averaged 1.7% slower in qualifying than his teammates (David Brabham, Gianni Morbidelli, and Max Papis), who again were not top drivers.
Channoch Nissany and Carmen Jorda of course never raced in Formula 1. I included them here out of curiosity, because they are two drivers often discussed as being among the slowest ever to be under any consideration for a Formula 1 seat. Jorda was a development driver for Lotus with simulator time but no actual seat time. Nissany did complete a Formula 1 practice session for Minardi in which he was 12.9 seconds (15.9%) off the pace and 7.3 seconds (8.4%) behind teammate Robert Doornbos. It’s worth noting that Nissany’s 5.2% figure in F3000 is based off just three (very poor) qualifying sessions in International F3000.
2016 junior driver rankings
The new junior driver rankings for 2016 are presented in the table below. For feeder series that are unfinished, I used current championship rankings.
The table is ordered by Achievement score, with red indicating a score ≥130 and yellow indicating a score ≥100. Also included is the Excitement score, with red indicating a score ≥25 and yellow indicating a score ≥15.
Drivers who are currently in Formula 1 or thought to be signed for a 2017 seat are included for reference.
As was the case last year, Nico Hulkenberg has the highest Achievement score overall and Robin Frijns is the highest rated driver yet to reach Formula 1. Stoffel Vandoorne, formerly the second highest rated, debuted in F1 this year and will take a full-time seat at McLaren in 2017.
Among the big movers in 2016, Antonio Giovinazzi jumped from 27th last year to 2nd this year, on the basis of his spectacular rookie season in GP2, 2nd in last year’s Euro F3, and a win in the Masters of F3 event.
Lando Norris is another driver advancing rapidly up the list, with his first appearance in the top 30 this year at 14th. He has steadily progressed through the ranks of F4, FR2.0, and the Toyota Racing Series, winning titles in every series. In 2016, he started 59 races and won 21. He will likely debut in Euro F3 next year and must be considered a likely title contender. A rookie championship title there would take him to an Achievement score of 139.
Lance Stroll will reportedly join Williams next year, although it is yet to be officially confirmed. In doing so, he will jump ahead of the more senior Williams junior driver, Alex Lynn, who was a promising GP3 champion two years ago but has struggled to really impress in his second season of GP2 this year. Stroll’s jump from F3 to F1 is clearly catalyzed by the financial backing of his billionaire father, but not without merit given his junior ranking and his dominant season in the Euro F3 series.
Pierre Gasly has moved from 11th last year to 9th this year on the strength of his current 2nd place in GP2, but it seems Red Bull were expecting a decisive title victory. What will happen next for Gasly is unclear, but the Red Bull Junior Team has proved to be utterly merciless, dropping Alex Lynn and Dean Stoneman in recent years.
Follow-up on last year’s most exciting drivers
Last year, I highlighted five drivers to watch based on their junior Excitement scores. It’s time to check in with each of them.
Pedro Piquet, Excitement score 18 (↓17)
Pedro came into 2016 off the back of two consecutive and dominant titles in Brazilian F3. It was clearly time to test his mettle in more competitive series, and it’s fair to say that the results this year were a huge disappointment, with his Excitement score falling from 35 to 18. I noted last year that Pedro’s unsuccessful and rapidly aborted 2014 campaign in the Toyota Racing Series raised questions about how he would fare in series with greater international representation. Another attempt at the series in 2016 netted only 5th in the championship, very much in the shade of rookie champion Lando Norris. The Euro F3 campaign was worse, with 19th in the championship and a best race finish of 6th. 2017 will be a year for rebuilding.
Robin Frijns, Excitement score 21 (↓6)
It remains difficult to fault Frijns’ junior record. After a successful foray into GT cars in 2015, he is now back in single-seaters in Formula E. Amlin Andretti was not the most competitive car in the field, but he dominated teammate de Silvestro. This year he will likely face a stronger challenge from teammate da Costa.
Kenta Yamashita, Excitement score 21 (↓6)
At the end of last year, Yamashita seemed very well positioned to jump to a top international series, such as GP3 or GP2, having proved his worth in two seasons of Japanese F3. A painful last-round loss of the championship to Nick Cassidy instead led to Yamashita contesting and winning the Japanese F3 title on the third attempt. The time to cash in on his results in Japan seems to be rapidly passing by.
Marvin Kirchhofer, Excitement score 21 (↓6)
Kirchhofer featured in my most exciting driver list for the past threeyears running after a stellar start to his junior single-seater career. Last year’s loss of the GP3 crown to rookie teammate Ocon took off some of that shine. This year’s GP2 campaign was decent for a rookie in that series, including one podium, but also unspectacular. 2017 will need to be a breakthrough year for him, with GP2 race wins at a minimum, otherwise Kirchhofer’s career may be going the way of many bright early talents who don’t quite advance to the next level.
Charles Leclerc, Excitement score 28 (↑1)
Last year, after observing Leclerc’s brilliant driving in Euro F3, I suggested the time was ripe for him to move up to GP3. This year, he has continued to look very strong and leads the GP3 championship as a rookie. He remains on this year’s list below.
The most exciting current junior prospects
This year, there are three stand-out performers on the Excitement scale. Interestingly, two of these drivers are looking like they have futures with Ferrari. With Haas now effectively acting as a Ferrari B-team, and links remaining with Sauber, the Ferrari Driver Academy boasts as good a chance as any junior program for getting drivers seats in Formula 1. Moreover, they don’t yet have the same ruthless reputation that most associate with the Red Bull junior program, who have churned through 18 drivers since 2012. Given Mercedes have their hands currently full with Wehrlein and Ocon, and McLaren took two years to get Vandoorne on the grid, Ferrari seems the obvious pick for a top junior right now.
Charles Leclerc, Excitement score 28
In an age in which every junior driver is seemingly being measured against Max Verstappen, Leclerc is one of the few who clearly compares favorably. His Euro F3 campaign in 2015 was in my view every bit as impressive as Max Verstappen’s the year before. In 2016, Leclerc stepped up to the considerably more powerful GP3 cars and generally looked strong since winning the first race of the season. He leads the championship going into the last race weekend and most importantly leads another Ferrari junior, Antonio Fuoco, who is now in his second year of GP3. While a Formula 1 seat cannot be out of the question, I expect Ferrari will promote Leclerc to GP2 next. They may still be wary after their previous top junior, Raffaele Marciello, struggled to continue his earlier junior successes in GP2.
Richard Verschoor, Excitement score 25
Verschoor is the latest addition to the Red Bull junior squad. This was his first year out of go-karts, and it was a phenomenally successful campaign. He took very dominant titles in both of the full seasons he contested, winning 16/20 races in Spanish F4 and 11/20 races in SMP F4. This driver is definitely one to watch in the future and it will be interesting to see how quickly Red Bull try to push him forwards.
Antonio Giovinazzi, Excitement score 23
Giovinazzi has suddenly found himself in the rather strange position of leading the GP2 championship as a rookie — a notoriously difficult series for rookies — while not being on the roster of any Formula 1 junior teams. Looking back, it’s intriguing to note that Giovinazzi was highlighted among the top three most exciting drivers in my first 2013 analysis. Ferrari are clearly interested, having given him time in their simulator, and being Italian surely cannot hurt either. If he is to sign with the Ferrari Driver Academy, the question then arises: what are the plans for 2017? If he wins GP2, he is undoubtedly ready for Formula 1, and in any case he cannot race another season in GP2. This may make Giovinazzi a dark horse for a Haas seat and it will be interesting to watch how this one plays out. Without a Formula 1 seat in 2017, he may end up in a similar position to Vandoorne, having to bide his time in another series such as Super Formula.
As always, we’ll check in on these drivers again next year!