The constant conveyor belt of potential Formula One drivers doesn’t stop for anyone. And such is the cut throat business of motorsport and Formula One in particular, the fact of the matter is: if you don’t cut it, you’re out. Just ask any Toro Rosso driver for instance. Just this week Jean-Eric Vergne, former British F3 champion and Formula Renault 3.5 runner up; a star of the future and until Monza 2013, a potential replacement at Red Bull for Mark Webber. Yet just as we’ve become accustomed to his name, another has come to knock the Frenchman off his perch. The announcement of 16 year old Max Verstappen (son of former F1 pilot Jos) has caused uproar in some quarters but excitement in others.
Now forget money and sponsorship deals that get most drivers a Formula One drives these days (slightly cynical here I know), this article aims to highlight the amazing amount of driving talent in the lower categories. I’ve had my fair share of disappointment seeing my favourite drivers climbing the ladder for them to be ignored by the F1 fraternity (James Courtney and Neel Jani back in the day to Robin Frijns more recently) so I’m going to focus on the moral stance that driving talent should rule. Even though it only kind of does. Here are my top 6 drivers to watch out for and why.
- Stoffel Vandoorne
The Belgian is currently racing in GP2 this year and with two wins he sits 3rd in the championship. A proven quantity, he has been snapped up by McLaren to form part of its junior driver programme – something current McLaren driver Kevin Magnussen was also part of. His versatility and ability to be competitive in a variety of machinery shows that the 22 year old from Kortrijk is the real deal. It was his blistering pace and smooth driving that allowed him to finish as runner up to Magnussen in Formula Renault 3.5 in 2013 and another strong showing in different cars this year shows he has what it takes. Several outings in the McLaren in testing will only make his name appear on more teams’ radars.
- 2010: F4 Eurocup 1.6 Champion
- 2012: Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 Champion (4 wins, 2 other podiums)
- 2013: Formula Renault 3.5 Runner Up (4 wins, 6 other podiums)
- 2014: GP2 Series – currently 3rd (2 wins, 4 other podiums)
- Carlos Sainz Jr
Son of World Rally champion Carlos Sr, Junior has not followed his famous father’s gravel footsteps. Instead, he has followed single seaters and after winning the Formula Renault NEC championship in 2011, he was added to the Red Bull Young Driver Programme. Graduating to Formula 3 in 2012, he competed in British F3 where he took four wins, whilst gaining valuable experience on European circuits in Euro F3. Sainz Jr has great versatility and he showed this in 2013. Dovetailing both GP3 and Formula Renault 3.5 campaigns, he showed great pace and commitment despite a lack of results, it was enough for Red Bull to put the teenager from Madrid in their F1 car in the mid season tests. Another outing in 2014 impressed onlookers even more, which make the prospect of another Sainz world champion irresistible.
- 2011: Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 champion (8 wins, 1 other podium)
- 2012: British Formula 3 (6th), Formula 3 Euroseries (9th), Masters of F3 (4th), Macau Grand Prix (7th)
- 2013: GP3 Series (10th)
- 2014: Formula Renault 3.5 – currently 1st (5 wins)
- Esteban Ocon
Another young driver signed to a Formula One team, 17 year old Frenchman Esteban Ocon is making waves in Formula 3 in 2014. The Lotus backed driver graduated from Formula Renault 2.0 Alps in 2012 to Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 where he finished third in the championship. A mature head on young shoulders, Ocon can dominate from the front as well as overtake through the field when required. This year he is Formula 3, where he has shown remarkable consistency throughout the season, so far with eight victories and a further ten podiums from 24 starts. He currently leads the championship from newly recruited Toro Rosso driver Max Verstappen and looks certain to join his series counterpart in the top flight in the future. With the possibility of Formula Renault 3.5 or GP2 next year, it will be interesting to see his career progress; let the speed flow.
- 2012: Formula Renault 2.0 Alps (7th)
- 2013: Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 (3rd)
- 2014: FIA European Formula 3 Championship currently 1st (8 wins, 10 other podiums)
- Oliver Rowland
Brit Oliver Rowland has gone largely under the radar in his home country despite winning the coveted McLaren Autosport Young Driver of the Year and the BRDC SuperStar awards in 2011. Since then his ascendency has been gradual but effective. After finishing second in Formula Renault UK and winning the equivalent 2.0 Winter Series, he moved up to Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 where he finished 3rd in 2012. Another season of Renault 2.0 in 2013 saw him finish runner up to eventual champion Pierre Gasly of France. Rowland finally graduated to the higher echelons of Formula Renault; now in 3.5 where he has impressed in more powerful machinery. Taking 6 top 5 finishes in 2014 including one win in Aragon, he lies 4th in the championship; the progression is steady but highly impressive. An F1 future may beckon.
- 2011: McLaren Autosport Young Driver of the Year Award
- 2011: Formula Renault UK (2nd), Formula Renault 2.0 Winter Series Champion
- 2013: Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 (2nd)
- 2014: Formula Renault 3.5 currently 4th (1 win, 2 other podiums)
- Tom Blomqvist
Another son of a past World Rally champion, Tom Blomqvist represents Britain rather than father Stig’s native Sweden. Tom has progressed through the junior categories, spending two years in Formula Renault in Sweden and the UK in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Blomqvist won the latter and progressed into Formula 3 in the form of the German ATS championship. Having learned his trade there, he then graduated to the Formula 3 Euroseries in 2012, finishing a respectable 7th. 2013 proved to be his breakthrough year though, finishing 3rd in the same series with 3 podiums and a credible 8th in the Macau Grand Prix. 2014 has been even more promising, and despite the brilliance of Ocon and Verstappen, Blomqvist has shown to be a match for the pair on occasions. The 20 year old has taken four wins this season and lies in third place in the standings, just ten points behind Verstappen.
- 2010: Formula Renault UK Champion
- 2011: German Formula 3 (1 win)
- 2013: FIA European Formula 3 (7th, 3 podiums) 8th in Macau Grand Prix
- 2014: FIA European Formula 3 currently 3rd (4 wins, 6 other podiums)
- Pierre Gasly
Along with Ocon, one of France’s most promising prospects, Pierre Gasly is making waves in Formula Renault 3.5 this season. After winning four races on his way to 3rd in the French Formula 4 championship, he quickly moved into Formula Renault 2.0. Despite much promise, he failed to deliver in his first year in the series, finishing a lowly 10th. However, this was a mere blip in the road to potential stardom. The Frenchman from Rouen quickly made amends for this in 2013 by taking the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 title, beating Oliver Rowland. A graduation to Formula Renault 3.5 was when eyebrows were really raised. Currently lying second in the series in his debut year, Gasly has taken four podiums and surely a maiden victory is not far off for the talented Frenchman. Another year to mature properly and we will see the full potential of Gasly.
- 2011: French F4 Championship – 3rd (4 wins, 3 other podiums)
- 2012: Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0
- 2013: Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 Champion (3 wins, 5 other podiums)
- 2014: Formula Renault 3.5 currently 2nd (no wins, 3 podiums)