Robin Frijns and Other Young Drivers Who Deserve a Shot at Formula 1
Robin Frijns, Stoffel Vandoorne, Felipe Nasr.
Whether or not you've heard those names before will depend on how closely you follow motorsport. But fast forward five years into the future, and there's a good chance they'll be known the world over.
The three currently drive in either GP2 or Formula Renault 3.5 (FR3.5). Those are the two main "feeder series" to Formula One, each playing host to upwards of 30 young drivers every year.
Anyone who gets that far is a good driver.
Sadly for most of them, there's a fine line between being good and being good enough.
Spotting the difference is hard, not least because the single-chassis formulae aren't the level playing fields they might appear to be. Money talks all the way down the lowest level of karting, and a good team can be the difference between first and 21st.
But eventually the cream tends to rise to the top, and a select few drivers prove their talent and emerge as real contenders for the lower-league titles.
From them, a still smaller number will stand out further as having F1 potential.
Using the holy trinity of observation, racing record and gut feeling, I've picked out the five young drivers who most deserve a shot at F1.
Of these there are many.
Working out who to list was tough, because there are so many drivers out there with impressive records or who look very talented.
And it's worth mentioning that, despite not making my five, most of the guys listed below could probably do a better job than one or more drivers currently in F1.
Davide Valsecchi is the reigning GP2 champion and current third driver for Lotus.
He's undoubtedly a very good driver, but isn't in my Top 5 because of his lower formulae record and the sheer amount of time it took him to claim the GP2 crown—he started 96 races.
Luiz Razia came second to Valsecchi, but before that he was rarely eye-catching. He started 101 GP2 races.
Fabio Leimer currently leads the GP2 championship and was close to being included. He has a decent lower formulae record and usually beats his teammates—but like Valsecchi, his success took an age. This is his fourth full year.
Sticking with GP2, early 2013 season leader Stefano Coletti appears to be talented despite his mediocre record. He is a fine example of a driver whose history was affected by never driving for the best lower-formulae teams.
But for me at least, there remain more question marks over him than the five I picked.
Mark Webber's protege Mitch Evans looks very promising, but at only 19, he could do with at least one more year in GP2—hopefully with a front-running team.
The same can be said for Red Bull Junior Daniil Kyvat (but he'll probably be in FR3.5).
Ferrari's Raffaele Marciello is another up-and-coming name, but he's got at least two more years in the small leagues before he'll be ready.
Robert Wickens is currently plying his trade in DTM. He beat teammate Jean-Eric Vergne to the FR3.5 title in 2011, but he doesn't stand out as strongly as some others. Maybe if he'd been able to stay in single-seaters...
Sam Bird is another prominent name missing. He's looked very impressive in GP2 this year, after a good showing in FR3.5 in 2012.
But other guys have had more success in the junior ranks. The old faithful gut feeling put him below the rest.
And finally, Antonio Felix da Costa. I didn't even consider him as he's nearly guaranteed a seat at Toro Rosso next year, but my gut feeling says he wouldn't have made the Top 5.
One of the best ways to judge a driver is by how quickly they become competent at a new task. Britain's James Calado finished fifth in his first GP2 season with two wins and five further podiums, and Autosport named him the series' best driver of the year.
Before that, he performed consistently well in the lower leagues. He won two FR2.0 winter series in late 2008 before finishing second in the British championship in 2009.
Calado then finished second in British F3 in 2010 and in GP3 in 2011. Stepping up a level, he won a race at the season-end 2011 GP2 Final—his first event in the car.
In this year's standings he lies fifth, which doesn't sound like much of a step up from 2012—but his teammate is 22nd.
Force India saw his potential and he's now their third driver. He's shown promise in the few Friday practice sessions he's driven in, so hopefully he'll get his chance at a race seat sooner rather than later.
It's unlikely to be in 2014, though.
Kevin Magnussen is a member of the McLaren Young Driver Programme (MYDP). He looks set to become FR3.5 champion this year, ahead of Stoffel Vandoorne and Red Bull youngster Antonio Felix da Costa.
If you recognise the surname, it may be that you've heard of his father. Jan Magnussen started 25 races in the 1990s but never lived up to his potential.
Kevin won the Formula Ford Denmark series in 2008 and has since recorded Top 3 finishes in FR2.0, German F3 and British F3.
Magnussen seems mature beyond his years (he's still only 20) and is considered by McLaren to be ready for a race seat in F1.
If they had a second team, he would no doubt be stepping up next year—but they don't. While they're pushing hard to get him a seat elsewhere (Marussia, perhaps), he might have to spend a year in GP2 first.
Brazilian Felipe Nasr came over to Europe in 2009, announcing his arrival by dominating the Formula BMW championship. In 16 races, he finished first or second 14 times.
After a year learning the ropes at a smaller team, he produced another dominant performance to claim the British F3 title in 2010. Nasr followed this up with second in the prestigious Macau Grand Prix.
A brief (and somewhat unusual, by normal young driver standards) hop back over to the Americas resulted in third place at the 2012 Daytona 24 Hour race. He then spent a year getting to grips with GP2, scoring four podiums.
A more successful year has followed, and while Nasr (somehow) hasn't yet won a race in the series, he has remarkable consistency; no driver has more points finishes.
Nasr currently sits third in the standings with one race to go. Several teams have (according to Bernie Ecclestone) expressed an interest, so if Felipe Massa does move on to pastures new, Brazilian fans won't have to wait long for a new hero.
Wouldn't hurt to get that no-win albatross from around his neck at the final GP2 round, though.
Stoffel Vandoorne made a relatively late entry into proper single-seaters, and has only been driving cars for three years. While many of his current rivals left karting at 16 or sooner, Vandoorne was 18.
But he had instant success, winning the lowly F4 Eurocup on his first attempt.
Next up was FR2.0, and after two seasons, Vandoorne departed with the title at the end of 2012.
The 21-year-old Belgian won his first FR3.5 race and currently sits second in the standings in his rookie year, ahead of several more experienced, highly rated drivers. In February he joined the McLaren Young Driver Programme.
He doesn't have a lot of experience, but his rise to prominence has been meteoric.
McLaren think he's ready now, and Red Bull reportedly tried to steal him for next year's Toro Rosso seat. It should only be a matter of time before he makes the step up.
Robin Frijns is perhaps the brightest star currently burning in the lower formulae. He's got exceptional talent, a healthy dose of confidence and a string of titles to his name.
He should probably be on the F1 grid now. Instead, he's rapidly becoming the poster boy for the campaign against pay drivers.
Frijns entered single-seater racing in 2009, taking third in the Formula BMW Europe series in his first attempt. The following year, he claimed the title.
Next up was FR2.0. He never finished lower than fifth and claimed the championship on his first attempt. He also won the prestigious FR3.5 in his rookie year, beating Jules Bianchi to the title in contentious circumstances.
Then everything ground to a halt. Frijns secured a third driver seat at Sauber for 2013, but he wouldn't be driving in any sessions—he couldn't afford to pay them for it.
Several GP2 teams wanted him, but he couldn't afford their seats either.
He eventually got a drive with new outfit Hilmer, starting with Rounds 3 and 4 in Malaysia. Frijns won his third race in the series and came second in the fourth—the best weekend result any driver has had in GP2 this year.
But he's never known whether he'll be driving in the next round or not, because he can't afford to buy the seat full-time. He's only competed in 12 of the 20 races so far, with mixed results.
No driver highlights the financial failings of the motorsport world quite as well as Frijns does. But had he been a different character, he perhaps wouldn't be having these problems.
Frijns comes across as a very independent-minded guy, and he would rather do things his own way. Not long ago, he turned down a place on the Red Bull Junior Team because he didn't want to give up control of his career. GrandPrix247 reported that he said of 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.
He should be commended for that attitude (if not for actually giving voice to it), but if he had been more willing to accept a bit less control, he'd probably be sat in a Toro Rosso next year. He could even be alongside Vettel at Red Bull.
Hopefully his change of management will bear fruit in the future.
This topic will always produce disagreement. There are probably more variables at play in the lower leagues than there are at the pinnacle. If it's hard to say who the best driver on the current F1 grid is, it's impossible to pick out the best youngster.
Of course, though performance at a lower level is usually a good indicator of F1 potential, it's not a guarantee.
Of the five, I'd pick out Vandoorne and Frijns as being the most likely to go on to win races and challenge for the championship.
But go back to 2006 and you'll find Paul di Resta beating teammate Sebastian Vettel to the European F3 title. A bit earlier, you'd encounter Fernando Alonso entering the sport off the back of an F3000 season in which he finished behind Mark Webber.
Further still and you'd find Nick Heidfeld coming into F1 with a glittering record.
Never assume that a champion in one class will be a champion in another. Much will depend on the opportunities they're given and the cars they drive.
All or none of them could succeed. Only time will tell.