Photo: GP2 Media Service
The penultimate instalment of our top 50 drivers of 2012 looks at drivers 20 to 11…
20. Daniel Juncadella
Spain // age 21
F3 Euro Series Champion // FIA European F3 Champion // Masters of F3 Champion
As the 2011 Macau Grand Prix champion, Juncadella entered 2012 as the favourite for the F3 Euro Series. He ended up winning it, as well as the concurrent FIA European Championship and the annual Masters of F3 at Zandvoort. So why isn’t he higher up this list?
In short, Juncadella’s successes were not entirely convincing. As a third year in F3, he shouldn’t have been pushed to the wire by a rookie and a Euro Series newcomer. Juncadella was probably the fastest driver over the entire season, but harmed his consistency with mistakes and clashes with other drivers. And it was one such error that saw him concede his Macau title at the end of the first lap. But while his season didn’t quite live up to expectations, Juncadella’s silverware count speaks for himself.
He has tested for Rapax in GP2 showing promising pace and could race for the team next year, but is also waiting to see whether F3 backers Mercedes make him an offer in the DTM.
Season highlight: Commanding Masters victory.
19. Marvin Kirchhofer
Germany // age 18
ADAC Formel Masters Champion
Amongst the best discoveries of 2012, Kirchhofer transferred his strong record from karting in Germany to his first season of cars to beat second-year driver Gustav Malja to the ADAC Formel Masters title.
He began on the right foot by winning his first ever car race at Oschersleben, while a double win next time out at Zandvoort gave him an early advantage in the points race. A quieter spell mid-season handed Malja the initiative, but Kirchhofer brilliantly rescued his chances with two wins and a second in the penultimate weekend at the Nurburgring. He still went into the Hockenehim finale playing catchup, but winning the first two races secured him the crown before capping his season in style with victory in the third reverse grid race.
Kirchhofer’s success has earnt him a promotion into the Motopark Academy-run Lotus outfit’s German F3 Cup squad, and even though the makeup of his competition is something of an unknown at present, he’ll surely start amongst the title favourites.
Season highlight: That Hockenheim treble.
18. Alex Baron
France // age 18
French F4 Champion
Pipping Kirchhofer to the position of the top karting graduate in our list courtesy of his somewhat more dominant season, Baron was by far the best of the bunch in a championship with an increasing reputation for producing promising young drivers each year.
The Anglo-Frenchman led from the first weekend, racking up eight wins and eight pole positions from the first ten races. That allowed him to comfortably secure the title with another pole at the penultimate weekend at Le Mans before winning the season finale at Paul Ricard. So impressive was he that after just the second weekend at Pau he was snapped up by Nicolas Todt and his Allroad Management firm. Whenever he had a trouble-free race he was on the podium, and on the two occasions he didn’t start from pole, he would win anyway. He may have been up against similarly inexperienced drivers, but it’s not a series that only attracts lemons.
Up next year for Baron – a step up to Formula Renault 2.0.
Season higlight: Lots of double wins to choose from, but we’ll go instead for his solitary win on the iconic streets of Pau.
17. Aaro Vainio
Finland // age 19
Fourth in GP3 Series // 18th in Formula Renault 3.5 Series
Beginning in single-seaters following a highly successful karting career, Vainio had gone a little under the radar in his learning seasons in Formula Renault 2.0 and GP3 in 2010 and 2011, but a promotion to manager Todt’s Lotus/ART team thrust him into a title battle.
At round two in Monaco he shone and made his case to be Formula 1′s next Flying Finn with an uncontested pole and victory at the scene of his Karting Cup triumph in 2008 that put him at the top of the standings ahead of overwhelming pre-season favourite Mitch Evans. He stayed close to Evans with podiums at Valencia and Silverstone before his campaign faltered. Contested the last three FR3.5 rounds and went from bottom of the pile in practice in Hungary to on the podium in the Barcelona finale.
Vainio’s been absent from any post-season testing, but that could be explained by Finland’s compulsory national service. As such, where he’ll be in 2013 is hard to guess but it’s difficult to see Allroad not remaining committed to him.
Season highlight: It has to be Monaco.
16. Raffaele Marciello
Italy // age 17
Third in F3 Euro Series // Second in FIA European F3 Championship
With his career-to-date largely confined to Italy except a disappointing stint in the Toyota Racing Series to kick off 2012, Ferrari Driver Academy star Marciello was still something of an unknown when he arrived in European F3, but he largely exceeded expectations. After a reverse grid win in the opening weekend at Hockenheim, he then shone at the Pau Grand Prix where he claimed a pair of dominant victories.
He continued that form by winning the two main races at Brands Hatch, and then one more victory at the Red Bull Ring. He had his more experienced teammate Juncadella rattled, and could have won twice at the Norising had the Spaniard not crashed into him in the first race. A difficult time followed at the Nurburgring and Zandvoort, twice retiring after clashes with another teammate Sven Muller, that saw him lose too much ground to Juncadella. He remained on the pace towards the end of the season, winning from pole at Valencia.
After his mature performances it’s easy to forget Marciello only turns 18 on Monday and has just three years of car racing behind him. He’ll return to F3 next year with Prema with the aim of winning the title.
Season highlight: His dominance on his Pau debut. One of the best performances by any driver all year.
15. Sergey Sirotkin
Russia // age 17
Third in Auto GP World Series // Fifth in Italian F3
Stepping up to Auto GP already seemed like a big step for Formula Abarth champion Sirotkin, but he put those fears to bed when he qualified on the front row on his debut at Monza. A stall cost his chances of a podium in Italy, but he won next time out at Valencia and claimed another podium in race two.
His pole position on the streets of Marrakech was the only one for anybody other than Adrian Quaife-Hobbs all year, and although he was beaten to second place overall by former GP2 racer Pal Varhaug, Sirotkin was the closest man to the champion in terms of speed all year long and claimed a well deserved second victory in the final race of the year at Sonoma. His Italian F3 campaign was comparatively less impressive, but taking the fight to Prema’s second year drivers would always have been a tough ask while fellow rookie Agostini seemed to benefit from the Mygale chassis underneath him.
Sirotkin tested both GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5 machinery post-season, including runs with top outfit DAMS in both categories although with no spaces there he’ll have to sign with another team.
Season highlight: Valencia victory, just two weekends out of Abarths.
14. Marco Sorensen
Denmark // age 22
Sixth in Formula Renault 3.5 Series
Budget constraints had forced Sorensen to spend a couple of largely under-the-radar years in German F3, but an impressive testing performance prompted Gravity to sign him up for their FR3.5 team. He was instantly on the pace, but breaking down out of the lead in race two in Aragon would sadly be a sign of things to come.
He did get one victory at Spa-Francorchamps, but had another taken from him by a penultimate lap puncture at Silverstone having led from the start. Second at the Hungaroring was just his third podium of the year, but he had the pace to have many more. At Moscow he was hounding Robin Frijns for the lead of race one when he spun, while race two ended after a collision a few corners in. He he won those races at Aragon at Silverstone, the extra 50 points would have seen him finish the year just a handful of points shy of third-placed Bird – a fine effort for a rookie season.
Sorensen ran every day of post-season testing with the same Lotus team, and it would be surprising for Gravity to do anything other than retain him.
Season highlight: Getting that win in Spa.
13. Pascal Wehrlein
Germany // age 18
Second in F3 Euro Series
With the move from ADAC Formel Masters to the F3 Euro Series seeming like a big step up, a learning year was expected for Wehrlein, but he amazingly ended up as the runner-up. His start to the season was solid and promising for a rookie, but he improved as the year went on.
At the Norisring he scored a pole and would have won a race had he not been taken out by Juncadella and William Buller in the two main races. Then in the final 12 races he claimed eight podiums. With just one win to his name, it wasn’t Wehrlein’s pace that was particularly impressive but his maturity, consistency and ability to stay out of trouble in a championship where everyone else seemed to crash into each other on numerous occasions. It was that that left him just 14 points behind five-time winner Juncadella at the end of the year.
A return to F3 seems the sensible thing for Wehrlein to do next year, with his Mercedes likely to keep him at Mucke.
Season highlight: Winning at the Nurburgring as those behind him lost their heads.
12. Jules Bianchi
France // age 23
Second in Formula Renault 3.5 Series
Bianchi may have finished third overall in both his seasons of GP2, but with just win in that time he had to stand on the top step more often as he switched to FR3.5 for 2012 alongside his Force India commitments. And that’s what he did, notching up three wins. And with four pole positions, he was arguably the fastest driver in the field.
It was only the physical last-race attack from Frijns that denied Bianchi the title. His rookie rival got a head start with a win and another podium at Aragon as Bianchi was excluded for a technical infringement and had a mechanical issue in race two. He fought back, racking up an equal number of podiums and wins to the Dutchman by the end of the season. There were still wobbly moments – not least in the penultimate race of the season – but he proved he has the speed and potential to deserve a chance at the highest level.
Bianchi remains a leading contender for the remaining race seat at Force India next year.
Season highlight: Winning on home turf at Paul Ricard to get himself the points lead going to the Barcelona finale.
11. Daniil Kvyat
Russia // age 18
Formula Renault 2.0 Alps Champion // Second in Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0
Kept by Red Bull in Formula Renault 2.0 for another year, the pressure was on Kvyat to win the Eurocup title after finishing third in 2011. He would fall short in his battle with Stoffel Vandoorne, but did win half of the 14 races. He couldn’t match Vandoorne’s superb consistency, but two non-scores for Kvyat isn’t unforgivable in what was a closely-fought and competitive championship.
He matched that win-dominance in the not-quite-so competitive Alps series, again winning seven of the 14 races but once again a lack of consistency nearly cost him the title, pipping Norman Nato by three points after they clashed in the final race of the season. His qualifying results could have been better and he’ll need to learn to stay out of trouble more, but his 50% win frequency proves why he’s on Red Bull’s roster.
Instead of the usual Red Bull route from Formula Renault to British F3, it seems Kvyat will race for MW Arden in GP3. He’ll be teamed up with fellow Junior Carlos Sainz again, having been beaten by the Spaniard in both 2010 and 2011.
Season highlight: Double victory at his new home track in Moscow, twice overcoming polesitter Vandoorne.