Formula 1’s summer break means it’s time for PaddockScout’s annual look at the junior single-seater stars who could feature in silly season and have a place on the grid come next March.
This year, things seem particularly difficult to predict this early into the season. A lot can change in what’s left of the year – 12 months ago neither Daniil Kvyat nor Marcus Ericsson were sufficiently on our radar to be identified in this feature.
But numerous drivers have already made enough of an impression in 2014 to get noticed, and others are loitering with enough talent and/or backing to be a threat. Here, we give our verdict on some of the leading contenders’ chances of breaking through next year.
Currently first in GP2
With seven rounds done and just four to go, Jolyon Palmer has enjoyed an impressive campaign in GP2 so far. Much was made coming into the campaign of the amount of highly-rated youngsters on this year’s grid, but Palmer has made the most of his experience, his maturity and the strength of the DAMS car underneath him to beat them all. He’s aware that winning the title in your fourth year and having some sponsorship isn’t necessarily enough to break into F1, and that he needs to be convincing week-in, week-out.
To his credit, that’s exactly what he’s done. He’s only won twice, but he’s qualified on the front row on six out of seven occasions, finished on the podium in five feature races and never finished outside of the top seven. He doesn’t have the raw ability and illustrious CV of his peers, so therefore won’t be attracting the top teams, but he has proven that he’s a fast and reliable driver up against some of the best, and he’s been the form man in GP2 for about 12 months now. He’s got good financial backing, too. He will need to clinch the title though – it will take a lot of money for people to be interested in somebody who could only finish runner-up at their fourth attempt.
His father Jonathan means he’s long been linked to Williams, but their 2014 form means they will have better alternatives. A vacancy at Force India might be his most competitive opportunity, but Marussia and Caterham will be the most realistic. Marussia would be a good match, but it depends if the team would be keen on partnering him with Max Chilton, or whether he could even unseat his fellow Briton. Chances of a 2015 race seat: 50%
Currently second in GP2 – Williams reserve driver
After finishing fourth in GP2 last year, Felipe Nasr returned for a third campaign in the series alongside his new role as Williams reserve and things have gone well so far. Grabbing his first win in Barcelona unlocked the flood gates, and he added two more victories soon after that. He’s failing to make many inroads into Palmer’s lead though, and Hungary (where he claimed his first pole but was still passed by his rival in both races) showed that he’s not quite consistently at the top of his game yet.
Nonetheless, he has a long-standing reputation as a future F1 star. He’s got a well-connected manager in Steve Robertson, strong backing from Banco do Brasil and a foot in the door at Williams. All that, combined with a top-two finish in GP2, could be enough for him to make that breakthrough to the top division.
Could his chance come at Williams? There’s no doubt that compatriot Felipe Massa is underperforming, and that promoting Nasr in his place would keep Banco do Brasil and Petrobras sweet. But Williams can rightly see themselves as frontrunners now, and has Nasr done enough to convince them he deserves a regular podium-winning car? Probably not, yet. Just as last year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him linked with Force India, Lotus, Sauber, Marussia and Caterham. Having now spent a year as a reserve, there will be more urgency to secure a seat this time around. Chances of a 2015 race seat: 50%
Currently third in GP2 – McLaren reserve driver
An impressive second to fellow McLaren man Kevin Magnussen in his rookie Formula Renault 3.5 campaign in 2013, Stoffel Vandoorne switched to GP2 this year to complete his single-seater education. It’s never easy for a rookie in GP2 these days, but Vandoorne showed his class by winning on his debut in Bahrain. Five races without a point then followed, but he’s been a consistent frontrunner since, came close to winning both races in Hockenheim and finally secured his second victory in Hungary.
That last result catapulted him from sixth to third in the standings, a very respectable position for a newcomer behind drivers of Palmer and Nasr’s experience and form. Continuing this run would surely be enough for him to conclude his time in the junior ranks, but where will his chance come in F1?
He’s tested for McLaren on a couple of occasions so far this year, but they aren’t going to want a rookie to partner Magnussen, or to replace the promising Dane with another newcomer. With Force India not keen on having other teams’ proteges, and Sauber having some big-budget options, Marussia and Caterham would have to be the most obvious options. Or perhaps Lotus could be a possibility in the event of Romain Grosjean moving on, maybe as compensation if the Frenchman moves to Woking – both to Lotus for nicking their star man, and to Vandoorne’s management TSP for booting out their main man Jenson Button. Chances of a 2015 race seat: 50%
Currently tenth in GP2 – Ferrari Driver Academy
Ferrari protege Raffaele Marciello had a bigger jump to make than Vandoorne – stepping up from European F3 – and it has shown in his points tally, which is just 30 to the Belgian’s 109. That doesn’t tell the whole story though. After a low-key and pointless opening three weekends, the Italian has undoubtedly been one of the fastest drivers in the four rounds since Austria, where he claimed a double podium.He was on pole in Silverstone but suffered a car failure, and in Hockenheim and Hungary he was the leading driver on the eventual winning early-stopping strategy, but twice had pit stop problems (once with car problems, once with speeding).
He will surely break out of that run before the end of the season and climb the standings, but he’s got a lot of catching up to do to get himself into a top position. Therefore, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him come back next year with Racing Engineering and go for the title. There’s no shame in a driver from F3 having to take two years to nail GP2, and at 19 he’s certainly still learning. While he’s fast, he’s evidently not as mature as others yet. That will come.
There is one scenario that could see Ferrari giving Marciello an early F1 debut. If Jules Bianchi is promoted (perhaps to the factory team), they may opt to put Marciello in his place. He would be capable of stepping up should that vacancy arise. If it doesn’t, the new Haas team will be a good option for 2016. Chances of a 2015 race seat: 15%
Currently first in Formula Renault 3.5 – Red Bull Junior Team
Often, there’s a driver who looks a near certainty for an imminent promotion to F1, and this year that driver is Carlos Sainz. Having been overhauled by Daniil Kvyat during their GP3 campaign together in 2013, the Spaniard has reacted perfectly this year. He’s begun getting results from his undoubted natural talent, and has stepped seamlessly into Kevin Magnussen’s shoes at DAMS in FR3.5 by dominating races on regular occasions.
Taking a 39-point lead into the final three rounds in September and October, he’s on course to become the first Red Bull Junior to win the FR3.5 title. Like any well-performing Red Bull driver in that series, he’s been surrounded by rumours all year about a move to F1 – the latest in regards to the new regime at Caterham. There was talk that that could happen imminently, but it seems more likely that he will first need to wrap up the championship, so as not to be rewarded prematurely.
After the Jerez WSR finale, he would be able to contest the final three GPs, or he may have to wait for 2015. That could be with Caterham, or Red Bull may decide that Jean-Eric Vergne has no future with them and Sainz could join Kvyat at Toro Rosso. When Red Bull want him to be in F1, he will be there. The only thing that could stop him would be an FR3.5 championship collapse. Chances of a 2015 race seat: 90%
Currently second in Formula Renault 3.5
Having been dropped from Mercedes’ DTM squad over the winter following two disappointing years in the tin-top series, former European F3 champion Roberto Merhi has relaunched his single-seater career in style with an impressive campaign in Formula Renault 3.5 with the unfancied Zeta Corse team. After a second place on his debut at Monza, he then went through a quiet spell but has now had two wins and a second place in his last three races.
That’s elevated him into second in the standings, as the nearest rival to fellow Spaniard Carlos Sainz. A rival of new F1 stars Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas in the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup back in 2008, it’s taken him a long way to get to this point but his recent form must have raised eyebrows in the F1 paddock. Maintaining that form and even winning the title would only raise that interest further and suggest that he could do a good job in the big league.
He doesn’t have a lot of personal backing though, so it would probably take a fair amount of charity from a team boss to make it happen. Mercedes could help, but doing so could be unfair on Merhi’s former team-mates who have cracked the DTM. His DTM struggles could make him unattractive, but on the other hand it did give him experience of a more professional environment than most F1 rookies are used to. Chances of a 2015 race seat: 5%
Currently third in Formula Renault 3.5 – Red Bull Junior Team
Winning last year’s Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 title was enough for Pierre Gasly to secure a place on the Red Bull Junior Team after interest from the Austrian firm in previous years. Stepping up to Formula Renault 3.5 for this year, he has yet to win a race but had an impressive first half to the campaign with four podiums which saw him sit second to more experienced stablemate Sainz. A tough weekend at the Nurburgring saw him slip to third behind Merhi.
At only 18, he wasn’t expected to win the title and a top three finish will certainly be respectable. If a late season spurt got him ahead of Sainz, he could move ahead of the Spaniard in the queue for an F1 seat, although even then it may be deemed that he needs to do more racing or to spend a year as a reserve driver before making the step.
Most likely though is that he comes back for another year in FR3.5, perhaps taking Sainz’s seat at top squad DAMS. The pressure will then be on to win the title at the second attempt. Even then, Red Bull’s talent backlog means nothing is guaranteed with them, but their backing will at least provide him with a chance to impress others on track. Chances of a 2015 race seat: 5%
Currently fourth in Formula Renault 3.5
After losing out to Gasly in last year’s Eurocup title race, Oliver Rowland made the same step up to FR3.5 using his backing from the Racing Steps Foundation. He made a similarly impressive start, and a win at Motorland Aragon saw him take the early fight to Sainz. But he’s had a lack of consistency since then, with one non-finish at each of the last three rounds causing him to drop back to fourth.
Like Gasly, a late season push could really put him into the shop window for F1 teams. RSF had trouble getting previous drivers Oliver Turvey and James Calado into F1 race seats, and Jack Harvey set sail for the US knowing that chances are limited. In terms of raw talent though, Rowland potentially trumps them all. The fact that McLaren didn’t retain him out of karts will have put the top teams off a while ago, but he may be a tempting proposition to others looking to bring on their own talent – Force India for instance.
Ultimately though, without tens of millions of pounds to help him and plenty of competition around, it might take a title or a top-two finish in a top series to really catch the attention. If he doesn’t win, a sophomore FR3.5 campaign would seem likely, or a GP2 switch could be possible. Chances of a 2015 race seat: 5%
Currently fifth in Formula Renault 3.5 – Sauber test driver
Sensibly, Sergey Sirotkin’s proposed graduation to F1 with Sauber for 2014 was put on hold and the Russian returned for a second season in Formula Renault 3.5 for a title tilt with top team Fortec. After a solid start, he then suffered four consecutive non-finishes, seemingly all through no fault of his own. That left him well in arrears of the series leaders, but he put an impressive end to the run with a maiden win from pole on home soil in Moscow.
He followed that with three top-four finishes and now sits fifth in the standings, and there’s time for him in the remaining rounds to make further progress up the order. But, even allowing for his earlier poor luck, he’s not showing convincing field-leading pace on a consistent basis. Therefore, at the moment, his chances at Sauber for 2015 would likely rest upon him being the highest bidder, up against known quantities like Esteban Gutierrez and Giedo van der Garde and the exciting prospect offered by Simona de Silvestro.
With that trio all being well-backed themselves, bringing significantly more cash to the table will be no easy feat. But in addition to the firms previously announced as part of the Sauber deal, Sirotkin this year gained the support of SMP Racing, who seem to present in every form of racing except F1 – they were rumoured to be part of Kvyat’s move to Toro Rosso, but nothing has materialised from that. What Sirotkin also has is potential and talent, and if he can convert that into a convincing end to the FR3.5 campaign, he could move to the front of the line at Sauber and others. Chances of a 2015 race seat: 30%
Currently first in GP3 – Red Bull Junior Team
Fresh from victory in last year’s Macau Grand Prix, Alex Lynn joined the Red Bull Junior Team for 2014 and switched to GP3. His aim was to win the title and then follow in the footsteps of Daniil Kvyat by getting a promotion to F1. So far, he’s succeeding in the first part of that goal. He started the year with pole and race one victory at both Barcelona and Spielberg, and has been ever-present at the front since then, giving him a 31-point lead.
With four weekends remaining, there’s nothing to suggest he can’t maintain his consistent frontrunning form, although just one non-scoring weekend could see that advantage evaporate completely. If he does seal the title, he’ll have achieved his target, but his F1 step may be a lot harder to achieve. He already had tough competition in the form of fellow Red Bull Juniors Sainz and Gasly, both performing well in a larger car in FR3.5. And now this week’s news that Max Verstappen has joined the fold doesn’t make things easier for Lynn.
He does show a level of maturity that suggests he could do a good job in Formula 1 immediately, but is he rated as a strong long-term prospect? With more Red Bull-backed drivers than there are seats, Lynn’s future chances with the brand are far from assured even if he succeeds on track. Joining Red Bull has given his reputation a boost, but he might be wise to go it alone again next year since he has the financial and and management support to do so. Chances of a 2015 race seat: 10%
Currently first in FIA F3 European Championship – Lotus F1 Team Junior
Esteban Ocon has taken the junior single-seater world by storm in 2014, coming into a highly competitive FIA F3 European Championship out of Formula Renault 2.0 and dominating the title race. He won races at each of the first four rounds, and later added a treble at Moscow. Even though he didn’t score at all at the last round in Austria, he’s 94 points clear of anybody else with three weekends remaining.
Looked after by Gravity Sports Management and thus tied to the Lotus F1 Team, Ocon would smash the record for the youngest F1 driver by around a year if he made his debut next March as, remarkably, he doesn’t turn 18 until September. Even though it would be a big step for him, it isn’t completely unrealistic. If Lotus were to lose the services of Romain Grosjean for next year, fellow Frenchman Ocon may be a very tempting replacement. A further incentive could be new Lotus engine partner Mercedes, who have backed Ocon this year as a factory F3 driver and may encourage his promotion.
On the other hand, it’s important to remember that Ocon moved to F3 this year because it was a more intermediate step than Formula Renault 3.5, and that the latter might be considered to be the best step for his development for 2015. But, his performances this year have been a step up from anything he’s done before and so bigger things shouldn’t be ruled out. Chances of a 2015 race seat: 15%
Currently first in FIA F3 European Championship – Red Bull Junior Team
Max Verstappen has rivalled Ocon, both on track in the FIA F3 European Championship and in terms of making the biggest impression. He surprised by stepping straight up to F3 out of karting, and then surprised even more by being right on the leading pace. He was a winner in his second race weekend at Hockenheim, and later claimed six wins in two consecutive weekends at Spa and the Norisring, before adding victory in the Zandvoort Masters.
Unsurprisingly, the leading F1 teams have been chasing his signature, and this week Verstappen opted for joining Red Bull over Mercedes. A year younger than Ocon and therefore only 17 next month, a sensible step for next year would be into FR3.5 or GP2, but there are rumours that Red Bull could have offered him a Toro Rosso F1 seat in order to prize him away from Mercedes.
When Red Bull already have three well-performing Juniors eyeing F1 seats in addition to their four contracted F1 drivers, that would be a big risk. It would be a big risk to Verstappen’s development, too. There can be little doubt that he would have the pace, but it’s questionable whether he yet has a lot of the other attributes needed, which he could pick up by having further years in junior single-seaters. It would be one thing if he was promoted to F1 because he was ready, but doing so out of greed is another. Chances of a 2015 race seat: 25%
Other potential candidates
A Lotus F1 tester, who could be an option to fill any potential vacancy at Enstone thanks to the team’s deal with Danish firm Saxo Bank. That support has already enabled him to move into GP2 half way through the year, and claim six top tens in six races so far. Third FR3.5 campaign hasn’t gone to plan aside from a second place in Monaco, despite challenging the likes of Jules Bianchi and Robin Frijns in 2012.
2012 European F3 champion, who is in his second year in the DTM with now uncompetitive Mercedes and has used long-term support from both the German marque and Kazakh backers Astana to land F1 tester deals with Williams last year and Force India this year. Would therefore be a possible candidate to fill any seat that arises at the Silverstone squad, or perhaps at newly Mercedes-powered Lotus.
Having struggled to land anything full-time since winning the FR3.5 title in 2012, Frijns joined Caterham as reserve at the start of the year and impressed Tony Fernandes. The Malaysian selling up could have put an end to his hopes of a 2015 promotion, but in his place has come Frijns’ compatriot Christijan Albers. The team’s ownership might be apparently “Swiss and Middle Eastern”, but Albers could use his strong Dutch business contacts to get a deal together.
American ended his long-term association with Caterham following the change of ownership, and off the back of a torrid start to the season with their GP2 arm following a promising end to 2013 and off-season testing. Has now joined rival squad Marussia with the prospect of more Friday running. There’s little evidence of financial support yet, but he has been linked to the Haas project and both they and mutual engine supplier Ferrari (an Italian firm keen to exploit the US) might be keen on him getting experience with Marussia.
Put incident-ridden 2013 behind him to start 2014 GP2 campaign strongly with pace, wins and remarkably clean racing to repair some of the damage done to his reputation. Had no sponsors evident then, but his changed ways were enough to get the Venezuelan sports ministry and oil firm Venoco back on side in time for Hockenheim to complete the season. Stepping up that investment to F1 levels is another matter, but can never be ruled out. Sits fourth in the standings, despite a run of three non-finishes.
After suffering a monumental collapse while leading the GP2 standings this time last year, the Monaco man has recovered with a string of top four finishes and a first victory for over a year at Hockenheim. A talented driver but still not quite an all-round performer, he’s unlikely to be F1 teams’ first choice, but he’d be a contender if he could gather enough money.
Second season in GP2 has been riddled with inconsistency, but two consecutive feature race wins in Britain and Germany boosted his stock considerably, and he is one of many with a shot at third place in the standings. The 2012 GP3 champion doesn’t have an abundance of funding, but if he ends the year strongly and an F1 team takes a liking to him, mentor Mark Webber could help sort something out.
Now in his fourth year in GP2, Leal finally made a consistent impression towards the front with six top five finishes in the opening five rounds of the season. He’s dropped off again recently, and is unlikely to interest most F1 teams. But with strong backing from Colombia and its energy sector in particular, he got himself a test with the new-look Caterham recently and their management hiring a driver like him can never be ruled out.
British racer joined Caterham’s development programme last year in a season where he finished fourth in Formula Renault 3.5, often running champion Kevin Magnussen closest. Staying in the series for 2014, he needed to step up and start winning races. He did that in the opening race at Monza, but qualifying struggles since have seen him fall to sixth. Has personal backing, but it may not be enough paired with his current form.
Backed by Petronas and therefore linked to Mercedes, one rumour has Jaafar joining Lotus next year as part of their Mercedes engine deal with the Malaysian oil firm funding it. He’s only currently ninth in the FR3.5 standings though, in his second season in the category. Such a move would be unlikely to please Marlon Stockinger of the neighbouring Philippines, who is a Lotus junior and one spot ahead of Jaafar in the standings.