Max Verstappen and 5 Phenomenal Young Talents on Track to Formula 1
Max Verstappen will replace Jean-Eric Vergne at Toro Rosso in 2015. In the process he will become the youngest driver in Formula One history, and the 14th graduate from the Red Bull Junior Team to reach the pinnacle of motorsport.
He isn't the only youngster who'll be making a splash in years to come.
All the top teams have driver-development programs of some description. McLaren's produced Lewis Hamilton and Kevin Magnussen, while Ferrari can be thanked for Sergio Perez and Jules Bianchi.
Williams brought Valtteri Bottas through and Mercedes had a hand in Paul di Resta's rise.
Those same programmes, and others, are now filled with a new crop of promising youngsters, all hoping to follow Verstappen into F1.
Here are some of the best—one from each of the three main young-driver programs, and three who are officially unattached.
I examined this topic last year, and featured names such as Stoffel Vandoorne, Kevin Magnussen and Felipe Nasr.
Some of those drivers will be revisited—others are fresh on the scene.
Also in the Red Bull Junior Team are Carlos Sainz Junior (Formula Renault 3.5) and Alex Lynn (GP3). Both lead their current categories, and both may have a shot at going further up the ladder.
Of the two, Lynn looks the more promising—but neither is entirely convincing.
Red Bull certainly thought so, anyway.
Jolyon Palmer currently leads the GP2 series, but he's been there since 2011. A truly great driver would have made his mark sooner.
Felipe Nasr is second in the same series, and was featured last time. He was borderline for this edition too, and only really left out because of the desire to not have too many repeats.
He probably deserves a shot, but is unlikely to be a future champion.
And Sergey Sirotkin was supposed to be well on his way to F1 with Sauber, but his progress appears to have stalled.
Max Verstappen is the youngest driver featured here, still only 16 years of age. His rise has been meteoric.
The Dutchman was born into a racing family. His father, Jos Verstappen, drove in 106 grands prix during the 1990s and 2000s, while Max's uncle, grandfather and mother also raced competitively.
He began to follow in their footsteps at the age of seven, claiming his first title two years later.
By the end of 2013 he had, per driverdb, won 22 karting titles.
The time was right to move up to cars, and for 2014 he signed to drive for Van Amersfoort Racing in the European F3 championship.
He scored a podium in his third race and a race win in his sixth. Six straight wins came a little later in the season, and he currently lies second in the championship behind Frenchman Esteban Ocon.
Though Verstappen does appear to possess genuine talent, many will consider his promotion to F1 premature.
Frijns won the Formula Renault 3.5 series in 2012, his debut season. The year before was his first in FR2.0, and he won that too. And in 2010, he won Formula BMW.
Talent is not the problem—in all likelihood he has at least as much as half the current F1 grid. His stumbling block is a lack of money—or rather, a combination of that and a somewhat independent personality.
During his rise towards the top, Frijns was twice invited to join the Red Bull Junior Team, but twice he said no. Had he accepted either invitation, he'd almost certainly be in F1 by now.
The Dutchman explained his decision to De Telegraaf (h/t Auto123.com) in 2012, and didn't mince his words. He said:
I twice said no to Red Bull.
I know their games. You cannot decide what you want to do, and if you don't do what they want, you're out. They treat you like a dog.
In my career I've always made my own choices and I want to continue to do that. I need people around me who I can trust, and so Red Bull is not for me, even though I have won more than Vettel did before he made his name in Formula One.
Take that, Helmut and Co.
After a fruitless year as Sauber's reserve in 2013, he moved on. Despite his lack of funding, Autosport reported that backmarkers Caterham strongly considered him for a race seat this year; he ended up as their reserve driver.
With Caterham under new ownership, Frijn's short-term future is uncertain. He should have had a shot by now—hopefully he'll get one soon.
Stoffel Vandoorne is a member of McLaren's Young Driver Programme, and another man I mentioned last time. At 22 he's relatively ancient in comparison to some on this list, but he didn't start racing cars until 2010.
That year, he easily won the Formula Four Eurocup. 2011 saw him come fifth in a strong Formula Renault 2.0 series, which he won in 2012—ahead of Daniil Kvyat, among others.
He moved up to FR3.5 in 2013 and came second to more-experienced McLaren stablemate Kevin Magnussen. Vandoorne's performances were sufficient to earn him an invitation to drive for Toro Rosso in F1—an invitation which, per grandprix.com, he declined.
McLaren were impressed too, but don't have four seats to fill. Magnussen got the race seat alongside Jenson Button, while Vandoorne had to make do with a role as third driver. He is also competing in the GP2 championship—and won his first-ever race in the series.
He currently lies third in the standings with 109 points—79 clear of the next-best rookie and 83 ahead of his team-mate.
Vandoorne has shown he is good enough to deserve an opportunity at the top level, but probably won't get it at McLaren next year.
Perhaps they'll arrange him a seat a bit lower down the grid...
Raffaele Marciello is the Ferrari kid on the block—and like his parent team, he's having a tricky year.
The 19-year-old has been a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy since 2010. He finished third in the Formula Abarth series before moving up to Italian Formula Three, where he was again third.
European F3 followed. Though Marciello won seven races in his debut season, he narrowly lost out in the title race to more experienced team-mate Daniel Juncadella. The Italian made amends the following year, winning 13 races and the championship.
Still supported by Ferrari, Marciello is now racing in the GP2 series. He has endured a difficult time, struggling at race starts in early rounds and missing out on several points finishes through technical issues.
But he has still managed two podiums, and claimed a first GP2 pole position at the British round in July.
He lies 10th in the championship, a long way behind experienced team-mate Stefano Coletti and even further behind fellow rookie Stoffel Vandoorne.
The raw stats only tell part of the story, but there's no doubt Marciello could do with a little bit more luck in the second half of the season.
Mitch Evans is officially unattached, but he has some looser ties to a certain energy-drink company.
Managed by Mark Webber, the 20-year-old carries Red Bull logos on his helmet and has usually driven for Christian Horner's Arden team since he began racing in Europe in 2011.
He arrived with an impressive pedigree from Australasian racing, a two-time champion of the Toyota Racing Series. Evans started his international racing career in GP3, winning his third race and coming ninth overall.
The Kiwi remained in the series for 2012, surviving a late-season slump to claim his first major championship title.
GP2 was the next step, but he and the team had a disappointing year. Though Evans was third in only his second race, he only scored three further podiums on his way to 14th overall.
But he did beat his team-mate, the hugely experienced Johnny Cecotto Junior.
Evans remained in GP2 for 2014, moving to Russian Time. The 2013 champion team changed most of their personnel over the winter and lost ground to the competition, but Evans has still managed two wins and a second place.
He currently lies sixth in the standings, within touching distance of third.
Oliver Rowland is my "dark horse" choice—a lesser-known driver who isn't affiliated to any team or former driver and doesn't have a major commercial sponsor—but who is still doing the business.
The Englishman graduated from karting with the help of the Racing Steps Foundation. He got used to cars in the six-race 2010 Formula Renault UK Winter Series, winning once.
In 2011 he entered the full series in the same class, finishing second. His displays saw him win the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award for the top young driver, earning a £100,000 cash prize and an F1 test for McLaren.
Rowland moved into the Formula Renault 2.0 European series for 2012, coming third, and in 2013 he was second.
He is now racing in the FR3.5 series. Teamed up with Sauber protege Sergey Sirotkin at Fortec, Rowland was on the podium in his third race and won his fourth. He currently lies fourth in the standings, ahead of the more-experienced Sirotkin and still very much in the title race.
But Racing Steps could not afford to acquire him an F1 seat. If he wants to progress further, he'll need to either find a wealthy sponsor or align himself with a team.
That's my five—who would you have picked?