Ten drivers to watch in 2017

To mark the new year, here’s 10 junior single-seater drivers who could have big seasons in 2017.

Charles Leclerc

GP2 with Prema
Charles Leclerc

Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service

Few doubt that Leclerc would be capable of stepping into a Formula 1 race tomorrow if he needed to, but to make that jump from GP3 is not how his long-time manager Nicolas Todt – or the Ferrari Driver Academy – does things. Instead, he’ll do GP2 with Prema, and just like when he went to GP3 with ART, that’s a combination that will start as favourites. OK, so no rookie has won GP2 in the Pirelli era, but Antonio Giovinazzi couldn’t have come much closer to doing so last year. Leclerc is likely to team up with fellow Francophone Guillaume Capietto, who has engineered the last two champions in Stoffel Vandoorne and Pierre Gasly, and don’t be surprised if he makes it three in a row with the similarly gifted Leclerc.

See also: Antonio Fuoco is struggling for relevance against more recent Ferrari arrivals Leclerc and Giovinazzi, but a return to Prema for his GP2 move ought to bring out his best. Fellow Italian Luca Ghiotto will face a tougher task if he joins Arden with Jagonya Ayam support, but he ensured Trident was a competitive force in 2016.

Alex Albon

GP2 with ART*
Alex Albon

Photo: Zak Mauger/GP2 Series Media Service

From the humble beginning to his single-seater career, Albon gets better every season, to the point that last year in GP3 he challenged the hugely-rated Leclerc as a fellow F3 graduate in the same team. He’s got what it takes to make a similar impression in GP2, where he topped the times on his second day of testing (and was third overall), 0.03 seconds ahead of Leclerc. That was no fluke, as he’s shown great speed in ‘big’ single-seaters in Formula 3.5 runs in the past. There may be improvements required to his all-round game in order to succeed in GP2, but that should come naturally if he just continues his recent progress.

See also: Team-mate Nobuharu Matsushita gets the luxury of a third season with ART but he needs to use it, with two quick teens chasing him up Honda’s ladder of talent. Oliver Rowland will also go again, this time with DAMS, after a promising rookie campaign with MP fizzled out.

George Russell

GP3 with ART*
George Russell

Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service

If someone had told Russell after winning on his debut weekend in F3 at Silverstone in 2015 that he would only score two more victories in two whole seasons, he’d probably have been disappointed. He never got a chance in the best machinery though, and still showed what he was capable of with a first-time pole in Macau – perhaps a greater test of ability than anywhere else. His talent hadn’t been going unnoticed anyway: A week later he was a guest of Mercedes in Abu Dhabi amid rumours of a junior programme deal, then ended GP3 testing quickest by half a second. With ART he’ll get that top equipment, and be odds-on to repeat the successful F3-to-GP3 switch of Gutierrez, Bottas, Lynn, Ocon and Leclerc.

See also: Making the same move as Russell, Frenchman Anthoine Hubert could flourish if he gets a deal with his compatriots at ART, but following entirely in the footsteps of Ocon and Leclerc could be too big an ask.

Nirei Fukuzumi

GP3 with ART*
Nirei Fukuzumi

Photo: Zak Mauger/GP3 Series Media Service

Fukuzumi looked every bit the part in ART’s dominant GP3 line-up of 2016, and it was probably only his total inexperience of European competition that left him trailing his illustrious team-mates in the points race. He won’t have that excuse to hide behind next year, and ART is certainly not making it easy for him with who it is set to recruit alongside him. In that company, he could lack the consistency to be champion, but it will be interesting to see what he’s capable of at his best. In a crucial year for Matsushita, and with Tadasuke Makino set to come over to European F3, it would be as good a time as any for Fukuzumi to stake his claim as Honda’s best shot at a home-grown F1 driver.

See also: Also out to prevent another rookie champion will be Jack Aitken, who could compete another ART super-team after a fine end to his own maiden season at Arden. As more of a known quantity, he’ll start as a more fancied contender than Fukuzumi on paper.

Niko Kari

GP3 with Arden*
Niko Kari

Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service

He was far from perfect, but Kari displayed bundles of potential during his European F3 campaign in 2016. With his previous car experience restricted to a season in a centrally-run Formula 4 series confined to the far north-eastern extremities of Europe, he was the least experienced driver in the field, but he was quick from the off, and come the penultimate round was passing the champion-elect around the outside to win a race. That was enough to encourage the not-easily-pleased Red Bull, which will switch him to GP3 for 2017. With Arden stronger than anyone in race-trim, he could be very spectacular to watch, and if the team can produce its ART-beating form from the outset, he’s capable of springing a title upset.

See also: While Kari’s GP3 debut at Spa didn’t spell an immediate end to his F3 campaign, Arjun Maini and Alessio Lorandi did make full-time moves mid-season after F3 frustrations. Both are clearly talented drivers, but both need results in 2017.

Maximilian Gunther

European F3 with Prema*
Maximilian Gunther

Photo: FIA F3 European Championship

It’s not confirmed yet, but it would be a surprise if both parties didn’t want to link up again for another year. It’s certainly been hinted at in a feature in German tabloid Bild that pitches him as Germany’s next big F1 prospect. And that’s exactly why it makes sense. Go to GP2 or GP3 with no titles to his name, his reputation amounting to little more than ‘the guy that Lance Stroll beat’ and with the weaknesses that contributed that result perhaps still part of his game, and his career could fizzle out. Stay in F3, work with Prema to become more rounded and win the title with Mercedes power, and Toto Wolff could be fast-tracking him to F1 in no time. The title would be far from a forgone conclusion (see the next two drivers in this list), but he’s certainly fast enough to win it. And finishing runner-up in a third year of F3 isn’t a disaster anyway: just ask Giovinazzi, or Marco Wittmann.

See also: Gunther’s compatriots Mick Schumacher and David Beckmann. The former steps up to F3 with Prema as a serious prospect after many wins in his second year of F4. The latter beat him in karts and their rookie F4 seasons though, and should do so again in F3 with 2016 podiums with Mucke under his belt prior to his switch to Van Amersfoort.

Callum Ilott

European F3 with Prema
Callum Ilott

Photo: Prema

Ilott went a long way last year to proving the talent that caught Red Bull’s attention in the first place, and which it might just regret letting go of so quickly. But there were still weaknesses on display too. And that’s why joining Prema for another year of F3 in 2017 is a genius move. Rene Rosin’s team nurtures its drivers at least as well as any F1 team, and Ilott spoke upon signing about the ‘family feeling’ that reminded him of his Italian karting squads. In short, this could be one potent partnership. Gunther’s return will be a considerable but not insurmountable barrier to winning the title. After all, as the newcomer, Ilott has more to gain.

See also: Joel Eriksson was incredibly impressive in his rookie F3 season last year, and even beat Ilott in the final standings. That he stays with Motopark – which really is like family – will make that result hard to repeat, but if he and the team can continue their late-2016 form – when he was second only to Stroll in terms of points scored – he’ll be a big threat.

Lando Norris

European F3 with Carlin
Lando Norris

Photo: FIA F3 European Championship

Norris has made everything he’s done so far in single-seaters look easy, but F3 will provide him with a real test. Or at least that was the theory. But it was a theory he went a long way to disproving in Macau in November, in just his second FIA F3 event. He was among the quickest drivers from the start, and although he hampered his chances with a couple of crashes, he ended the weekend with a superb main race fightback. He had already had plenty of test mileage, and he’s a big sim user, but no amount of practice makes you quick first-time in Macau. A title challenge as a rookie would be incredible, but with Norris to rule out the incredible is foolish.

See also: At 22, and making what some would consider a step down from GP3, Jake Hughes‘ route into to European F3 is on one hand vastly different to that of Norris, yet also identical on the other, having impressed as part of Carlin’s all-new line-up for the Hockenheim finale and then again in Macau. Hughes, whose full-time move comes with Hitech, has the speed to win races and the maturity to be more consistent than anyone.

Sacha Fenestraz

Formula Renault with Josef Kaufmann Racing
Sacha Fenestraz

Photo: Sebastiaan Rozendaal / Dutch Photo Agency

Fenestraz was in the shadows of Norris in the rookie stakes in Formula Renault last year, but has given himself the best chance of bursting out of them in 2017 by replacing the Brit at Josef Kaufmann Racing, whose alumni also include Robin Frijns and Stoffel Vandoorne. The Franco-Argentine has shown his skills on street circuits and in the wet, two sets of conditions that highlight talent better than anything else. Now he just needs to put it all together in ‘normal’ circumstances. That won’t be easy with some tough competition, but on paper, his chances are better than anybody’s.

See also: Fenestraz split the wins at the Estoril Eurocup finale in October with Will Palmer, who will be very dangerous if he possesses the same trait as older brother Jolyon for making big strides in sophomore seasons. There’s also set to be a strong rookie contingent, potentially including Dan Ticktum, who looked very capable in F3 in Macau, as well as F4 champions from Britain, France and NEZ/Spain respectively in Max FewtrellYifei Ye and Richard Verschoor.

Marcus Armstrong

Formula 4 with Prema*
Marcus Armstrong

Photo: Tony Kart

This 16-year-old New Zealander already looked like one of the most promising karting graduates for 2017. Then he was signed by the Ferrari Driver Academy. Not only has that made him an even more tantalising prospect than before, but it has also changed his likely 2017 programme. He had previously avoided F4 and instead raced gearbox karts with a view to entering Formula Renault or even F3, but the Maranello affiliation is likely to mean linking up with Prema in F4 instead, and thus even better chances of a first-time title. It’s impossible to rule him out picking one up in the coming weeks in his native Toyota Racing Series either.

See also: It will be another Prema driver Juri Vips that starts as favourite for F4 glory in Germany, having ended 2016 as the best-placed rookie both there and in Italy. Among rookies, watch out also for Logan Sargeant, whose glittering karting resume makes him America’s best shot at a true F1 star.

*drivers’ programmes still to be confirmed