As we wait for the 2018 season to fire up, and as Williams resolve the Kubica-Sirotkin-Wehrlein trilemma, it seems a good time to update the annual junior driver rankings.
As in previous years, I’m using a simple scoring system that can be easily computed by hand. It takes into account the different tiers of junior categories, as well as how long drivers spend in each tier (bonuses are bigger for more rapid success). This system is intended to be a way of quickly identifying potential talents. It doesn’t take into account important secondary factors such as the level of competition in a series in a particular year, or the team a driver competed for (a relevant performance factor, even in spec series), so it is complementary to more detailed, traditional talent-spotting approaches.
Two metrics are generated by this scoring system:
- The Achievement score: This is a summary of a driver’s cumulative junior career achievements, weighted by racing tier and time spent in each tier.
- The Excitement score: This is the Achievement score divided by the number of whole seasons, and therefore reflects how rapidly a driver is accruing achievements.
The top 2017 juniors
It would be difficult to overlook Leclerc’s stunning 2017 season. His 8 poles in 11 rounds was unprecedented. Only once in GP2 history did a driver take at least half of the season poles (6/11 for Piquet Jr. in 2006). Leclerc’s 7 race wins in the season was also a match for Vandoorne’s GP2 record achieved in 2015. They were not all feature race wins, as Vandoorne’s were, but then Vandoorne was not a series rookie. One could perhaps debate the quality of the 2017 F2 field, but Leclerc dominated his teammate Fuoco, who is a pretty decent talent.
When Leclerc topped the Excitement score rankings last year, I said that Ferrari would most likely want to evaluate him in F2 before promoting him to F1, given what happened previously with Marciello (a phenomenon up to GP3, who sort of flopped in GP2). A brilliant rookie season from Leclerc was all the proof Ferrari needed and he will race for Sauber next year. F1 fans should be salivating at the prospect.
As always, I updated my database with the year’s results, including adding new junior drivers or drivers I had previously overlooked (45 added in total). Drivers aged over 30 were excluded. The top Excitement scores for 2017 juniors are plotted below, with current F1 drivers at the time of their F1 debut in blue for reference.
Leclerc actually increased his Excitement score from 28 last year to 36 this year, which is unusual for a driver this far into their junior career. The only drivers I have found with historically higher Excitement scores when they debuted in F1 are Alonso (40), Button (39), and Badoer (36.3). For reference, Ayrton Senna’s Excitement score was 31 and Jan Magnussen’s was 29.2. See last year for other historical cases.
One of the main uses for the Excitement score is identifying drivers to watch early in their junior careers. This would potentially be useful for F1 junior teams, especially if they are trying to sign up talents cheaply before their main competitors. This is probably a high sensitivity but low specificity method. Sometimes these drivers go on to be very impressive (Leclerc was identified by my method back in 2014), but in other cases they don’t sustain the results (e.g., Pedro Piquet). Last year, I identified the three highest Excitement score drivers as Leclerc, Verschoor, and Giovinazzi. Giovinazzi subsequently debuted in F1, but it’s unlikely that he will retain a seat for 2018 due to first preference going to Leclerc. Verschoor went on to have a strong Toyota Racing Series season, but in typical Marko fashion, he was dropped by Red Bull following a modest season in FR2.0.
The Excitement score is also the strongest predictor of future F1 performance (Achievement score is predictive too, but less so). Besides Leclerc, four other junior drivers made it above the threshold of 20 for the Excitement score this year.
Lando Norris (UK)
The McLaren junior Lando Norris is starting to climb the Excitement score ranks through sustained excellent results, including his Euro F3 title as a rookie against a ridiculously impressive field. He’s undoubtedly one of the best junior drivers out there.
Oliver Askew (USA)
Askew is the most junior of this bunch, having accrued his 30 points from just one full season. He narrowly won the US FF2000 series, ahead of Rinus van Kalmthout, and therefore will progress to Pro Mazda, the next step on the Road to Indy. There are a couple of caveats to add: that Askew is aged 21 (relatively old for a karting graduate), and that he had prior experience in the Formula Masters China Series and Formula Ford, but not quite enough to count as a full season (I require 50% of the races in a season for it to count). Whether his results could translate to the European scene is questionable. Nevertheless, he is certainly one to watch on the US scene.
Christian Lundgaard (Denmark)
17-year-old Lundgaard is in a similar position to Verschoor last year, having dominated the F4 ranks straight out of karts with 17 wins in 44 starts. He convincingly won both the Spanish and SMP F4 titles in 2017. He has been signed by Renault and they will likely support and carefully observe his progress in FR2.0 in 2018. His times in testing have been impressive to date.
Gilles Magnus (Belgium)
Magnus continues to ascend rapidly through the junior ranks. In his first year out of karts, he was 2nd in the French F4 championship. Although Magnus won only one race that season, the champion Yifei had a full extra year of experience in the series. In 2017, Magnus moved up to the FR2.0 NEC series, where he was again runner-up, this time to Michael Benyahia (another driver who spent two years in F4). Magnus also demonstrated his versatility by co-driving the winning car in the 24 Hours of Zolder. It will be interesting to see where he goes next. A step up to Euro F3 would be a natural progression, but it is never an easy step, so a step across to FR2.0 Eurocup might be on the cards.
It should be noted that Magnus benefited from the fact that drivers participating in the FR2.0 Eurocup were not eligible for FR2.0 NEC points. This rule weakened the NEC field and effectively made the NEC series a pathway to Eurocup (i.e., a lower tier series). If I were to downgrade FR2.0 NEC to tier 4 this year, Magnus would instead have 30 points from 2 seasons, for an Excitement score of 15. This would still be very impressive, but no longer ahead of others including Victor Martins (18), Marvin Kirchhofer (17.7), George Russell (17.6), Matheus Leist (17.5), Robin Frijns (17.1), Kenta Yamashita (15.9), Joel Eriksson (15.3), and Neil Verhagen (15).
Turning to the year’s top Achievement scores, I have graphed them below.
In terms of cumulative achievements, Robin Frijns and Nick Cassidy top the list of juniors. Cassidy (23 years old) spent many seasons racing very successfully in the Toyota Racing Series and other non-European series, but did not really make an impact in Europe until his appearance in Euro F3 last year, where he placed 4th. This year, he won the ultra-competitive Super GT series. Despite his high Achievement score, his Excitement score is only 10.3, due to the number of seasons he took to achieve it. Frijns (26 years old) remains one of the world’s preeminent drivers, with an Excitement score of 17 to complement his Achievement score of 188. His Excitement score previously peaked at 27 and is now progressively decreasing, as he is no longer eligible for more points at his current tier (only the first three full seasons in a tier count).
Leclerc and Norris have accrued similar Achievement scores, but by completely different approaches. Leclerc progressed through junior series at breakneck speed (four years between karts and F2), sometimes facing much more experienced drivers (e.g., in Euro F3), whereas Norris has been more methodical, stepping up a tier only when he is completely ready, and has essentially won everything in his path. Norris has started 164 races and will compete at the junior level for at least another season, whereas Leclerc will debut in F1 with only 94 races under his belt. This difference in rate of achievement is highlighted by plotting the Excitement and Achievement scores together.
From this plot, we can see how Leclerc in particular, but also Frijns and Norris, have established themselves as the best junior prospects around. Leclerc, as a Ferrari junior, arrives in F1 this year. Norris is a McLaren junior and will likely be in contention for an F1 seat in 2019-2020. I am beating a dead horse with Frijns’ case, but suffice to say he is out of consideration for an F1 seat, which is rather ridiculous when Toro Rosso is scrambling around for second-rate options.
How does Williams-hopeful Sergey Sirotkin rate? His scores are respectable, but not super impressive: Excitement score of 11, Achievement score of 96. He outranks three current F1 drivers on both metrics: Marcus Ericsson, Sergio Perez, and Brendon Hartley.
Top US talents
There is a long and rich history of crossovers between Formula 1 and IndyCar series drivers, going back to the 1950s, when Indianapolis featured in the Formula 1 calendar (although F1 drivers rarely appeared there). Both series had successful exports in the 1990s, with Mansell winning the IndyCar title as a rookie in 1993, and Villeneuve very nearly achieving the equivalent feat on his transition to Formula 1 in 1996. While skills obviously do not translate completely between the series (oval racing is absent from Formula 1, tyres, engines, aerodynamics, and driver aids differ, etc.), the occasional crossovers do permit indirect comparisons of driver talent, as do the many co-appearances in junior single-seater categories.
Alonso’s appearance at the 2017 Indy 500, along with Gunther Steiner’s recent claim that no US driver is currently ready for F1, fueled discussions regarding the quality of IndyCar talent. Hamilton’s comments about IndyCar drivers in the wake of the Indy 500 incited a lot of anger, and led Graham Rahal to hit back with the comment:
I put Scott Dixon in a Mercedes all day long, and Lewis is going to have more than he really wants to deal with, I guarantee you. Maybe not me, but Scott Dixon.
It must be said that the most notable crossover comparisons in the past decade have not really gone in IndyCar’s favor, as summarized below.
- Bourdais was something of a journeyman in European feeder series, taking three full seasons to win the F3000 crown. He was then a dominant force in IndyCar, but in Formula 1 he was dominated by Vettel and compared unfavorably to the rookie Buemi in his second season before he was dumped by Toro Rosso.
- Sato was one of the weaker drivers on the F1 grid; my performance model rates him outside the top 15 in all years of his career. In 2004 he finished only 8th in the championship in the second best car. His overall race record of 1-21 against Button is among the most imbalanced in F1 history. In IndyCar, he established himself as a mid-level but erratic performer, capable of occasional poles and podiums.
- Barrichello raced in IndyCar in the twilight of his career at age 40. Although a rookie, he was quite competitive with teammate Kanaan (excluding mechanical DNFs, it was 5-7 in races).
- Montoya at his peak was certainly an above average Formula 1 driver, but not among the absolute elite. He was closely matched with teammate Ralf Schumacher, and clearly beaten by teammate Kimi Raikkonen. In IndyCar, he nearly won the 2015 title at age 40. His projected performance in 2015, accounting for age, would put him among the worst 5 F1 drivers.
- Chilton was never a serious championship competitor in any single-seater series, and he was the standout weakest driver on the F1 grid. In IndyCar, Chilton has been dominated by Dixon (one of the strongest IndyCar drivers), but post-rookie-season he has been competitive with veteran teammates Kimball (age 31) and Kanaan (age 43).
- Gutierrez was quite uncompetitive during his rookie year in IndyCar, where he subbed for the injured Bourdais. However, it should be noted that he was rated the worst performing driver in F1 by my model twice before losing his seat there.
- Rossi had a respectable junior career but only a very short appearance in F1, during which he demonstrated he was quicker than Will Stevens (one of the weakest F1 drivers of the past decade). In IndyCar, he has been fairly competitive.
Via these crossovers, we are of course only seeing a subset of drivers. Are there other drivers on the IndyCar grid who might be stronger representatives of the series?
To try to answer this, I computed the junior career Achievement and Excitement scores for all drivers currently officially confirmed for the 2018 Formula 1 and IndyCar series. I computed these at the time that each driver first debuted in either Formula 1 or IndyCar (so Excitement scores in particular are not affected by subsequent years spent racing). The results are graphed below.
We can see from this that the majority of IndyCar drivers have junior career results consistent with F1 backmarkers; 58% of the IndyCar grid have a lower Achievement score than Ericsson, and 55% have a lower Excitement score than Ericsson. This is consistent with the fact that many of the best-known IndyCar drivers previously attempted the European route (e.g., F3/GP3 series) and weren’t competitive enough to continue there. Other IndyCar drivers, such as Chilton, are failed F1 drivers. Nevertheless, there are a few standout IndyCar drivers with junior career results predictive of an average or better performance level in Formula 1. They are Scott Dixon, Spencer Pigot, ex-F1 driver Takuma Sato, Helio Castroneves, and 2018 rookie Matheus Leist. As we know (e.g., in the case of Sato), junior career results are not definitive predictors of F1 success, but they do correlate.
An important thing to note is that the tiering of US series in my scoring system may be favorable to drivers who never or rarely race in Europe (e.g., Pigot and Dixon). Currently, USFF2000 is classed as tier 4, Pro Mazda as tier 3, and Indy Lights as tier 2. Thus, for example, Spencer Pigot’s record of 2nd and 2nd FF2000; 4th and 1st in Pro Mazda; and 1st in Indy Lights, is considered equivalent to a driver in Europe achieving 2nd and 2nd in Formula BMW; 4th and 1st in FR2.0 NEC and Eurocup; and 1st in GP3.
A number of drivers on the 2018 IndyCar grid have competed in top European series (GP2/F2, FR3.5, GP3, Euro F3, British F3) and seven of these have also competed in Indy Lights (the top feeder series on the road to Indy). The table below shows their rookie results (first full season) in each series.
Many of the best IndyCar drivers were clearly not competitive in European series; the last two IndyCar champions (Newgarden and Pagenaud) were also-rans in GP3 and FR3.5, respectively. We can also observe that when drivers compete in both series, they typically have more competitive results in Indy Lights than in top European series. Leist is an apparent exception, but with an important asterisk: the British F3 series was a top series throughout the 1980s into the early 2000s, but significantly weakened leading up to its 2014 collapse (I downgraded it to tier 3 from 2013 onwards).
Some of the difference in results between European series and Indy Lights may be attributable to drivers improving in the interim, or having skillsets better aligned to oval racing, but given the magnitude of difference it more likely reflects Indy Lights being an easier environment for success than a series like GP3. We should therefore be a bit cautious in interpreting some of the highest scoring IndyCar junior careers, especially Dixon’s and Pigot’s. As a hypothetical, if I were to downgrade Pro Mazda to tier 4 and Indy Lights to tier 3 (more in line with how these series are treated by the FIA Superlicense system), Spigot would score 63 Achievement and 13 Excitement, while Dixon would score 80 Achievement and 13 Excitement. This would put them among the lower end of current F1 drivers.
Nonetheless, these results indicate that there is some decent talent on the IndyCar grid. Based on this analysis, we wouldn’t predict any current IndyCar drivers to be competitive with the elite F1 drivers, but a few of them could probably be quite respectable performers in the F1 midfield. It would be sensible for a midfield team (e.g., Haas) to carefully evaluate them, although they are of course limited by the current FIA Superlicense system, which essentially rules out a driver like Spigot unless or until he can challenge for IndyCar titles.
That’s all for now. More content when the F1 cars are running again!