5 Promising Young Drivers Who Were Denied a Proper Chance in Formula 1

Oliver HardenFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2016

5 Promising Young Drivers Who Were Denied a Proper Chance in Formula 1

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    As a three-time world champion at the age of 31, Lewis Hamilton is living proof of what can happen when Formula One teams place their faith in young drivers.

    Placed alongside two-time world champion Fernando Alonso at the age of 22, Hamilton immediately repaid McLaren's trust by coming within a point of becoming the first-ever rookie champion in 2007.

    Hamilton made up for his near-miss by winning the title by the same margin the following season and, after enduring a few lean years, he now stands alongside the most triumphant drivers in the sport's history as a three-time world champion.

    Success stories like those of Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, the four-time title winner, have become commonplace in recent years as F1 teams place an emphasis on homegrown talent.

    But there are plenty of promising young drivers who failed to realise their potential due to reasons including mismanagement, mere misfortune and shortage of sponsorship funds.

    As Hamilton and Vettel prepare to go head-to-head for the 2016 championship, here are five drivers who were denied a proper chance in F1; from those who disappeared after one or two seasons—such as former McLaren star Kevin Magnussen, above—to those who never made a grand prix appearance.

Honourable Mentions

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    One former GP2 champion features in our list, but another should also consider himself unfortunate as he continues to wait for an opportunity in Formula One.

    After winning only three races en route to the 2013 championship, compared to the five victories claimed by title rival Sam Bird, Fabio Leimer barely registered on the F1 radar but seemed to rediscover some momentum in 2015.

    After joining Manor as reserve driver in June, the Swiss told ESPN F1's Nate Saunders that he expected to make his grand prix debut with the team—whom he first approached in his GP2-winning season—in 2015.

    But despite participating in practice in Hungary, a race seat didn't come the 26-year-old's way as Manor alternated between Roberto Merhi and Alexander Rossi in the final months of last season.

    If Leimer's exploits in the junior categories weren't enough to guarantee him a place in F1, Robert Wickens' successes certainly were.

    The Canadian finished second to Esteban Gutierrez in the 2013 GP3 standings and beat the likes of Jean-Eric Vergne and Rossi to the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 title. 

    But despite setting fastest times for Marussia and Lotus-Renault in the 2011 young-driver test in Abu Dhabi, where he participated in practice for the backmarkers, Wickens never really came close to an F1 drive and fell into the clutches of Mercedes, who found him a place in the DTM.

    And if you're looking for a driver who actually raced in F1 but was never given a proper chance, may we suggest Nelson Piquet Jr.?

    Yes, he only made five points finishes in one-and-a-half seasons and, yes, he was involved in the terrible "Crashgate" scandal of 2009, but as a young driver partnered with Fernando Alonso—in a Renault team under the abrasive Flavio Briatore and clearly built around the two-time world champion—he never stood a chance.

    Romain Grosjean's recovery from his adventures alongside Alonso in late '09 proved just how much a team in disarray can affect a youngster, and it is a shame Piquet—a highly versatile driver who challenged Lewis Hamilton for the 2006 GP2 title—was never afforded another opportunity in a more productive atmosphere.

Kevin Magnussen

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    As the latest member of the team's young-driver program to graduate immediately to a McLaren seat, Kevin Magnussen was regarded as the next Lewis Hamilton just two years ago.

    Indeed, the 2013 Formula Renault 3.5 champion mimicked the British driver by starting fourth and reaching the podium in his debut race in Australia, becoming the first (and still the only) McLaren driver to stand on the balcony since November 2012. But that was as close as he came to following in Hamilton's footsteps.

    While Hamilton finished no lower than third in the first nine races of his career in 2007, Magnussen's form declined almost as quickly as McLaren's pace evaporated, the team's fall down the order exposing the true rawness of his driving.

    As later noted by F1 journalist Peter Windsor, the impact of his highly experienced team-mate, Jenson Button, on the team's development and setup paths possibly neutralised Magnussen's advantage in terms of outright speed.

    But that didn't stop Eric Boullier, McLaren's racing director, telling ESPN F1 that Magnussen was suffering from "rookie syndrome," a little-known condition preventing him from developing the car.

    With good results increasingly scarce, Magnussen's driving became ever scruffier as Button's career entered an Indian summer, with a strong run of results toward the end of the season securing fifth spot in the constructors' championship and, most significantly, saving his skin ahead of Fernando Alonso's arrival.

    Demoted to a reserve role for 2015, Magnussen deputised for the injured Alonso in Australia, where he failed to even start after a pre-race technical issue 12 months on from his podium result. 

    As he told Autosport's Lawrence Barretto and Mitchell Adam, that wasted weekend came at the cost of a drive in IndyCar, where he would have remained fit, fresh and, above all, relevant ahead of a return to the F1 grid in 2016.

    Without the results and recent evidence to back up his talent, Magnussen was informed of his departure from McLaren on his 23rd birthday through an email from chairman Ron Dennis' personal assistant, as he told Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble.

    To add insult to injury, he was then denied a reprieve by the new Haas team, whose team owner later told the official F1 website the American outfit would have signed the Dane had they been unable to lure Romain Grosjean from Lotus.

    Magnussen now spends his time feeling bitter about his stint at McLaren and testing non-F1 machinery in the hope that someone, somewhere, will offer him the chance to restart his career.

Antonio Felix da Costa

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    Some drivers are just meant to drive for certain teams and some moves are just meant to happen.

    Just as Sebastian Vettel, even during his four consecutive title triumphs with Red Bull Racing, always seemed destined to race for Ferrari, Antonio Felix da Costa felt like a perfect match for Toro Rosso.

    Recruited by Red Bull's young-driver scheme in 2012, the Portuguese—having claimed six podium finishes, including four wins, in the final seven races—managed to finish fourth in the Formula Renault 3.5 championship despite missing the opening five races.

    Having won the iconic Macau Grand Prix event for good measure, Felix da Costa entered 2013 as the favourite for the 3.5 title. But while he endured an inconsistent season, finishing third behind Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne, his route to F1 seemed to be unaffected.

    Surely, the theory went, when Daniel Ricciardo is confirmed as Mark Webber's replacement for 2014, Felix da Costa, like every Red Bull-backed boy wonder before him, would be the next cab off the rank?

    But after Red Bull's signing of Ricciardo at the beginning of September, the wait went on and on until mid-October when Toro Rosso confirmed the previously unheard of 19-year-old Daniil Kvyat as Ricciardo's successor.

    If missing out on an F1 seat to his own flatmate, albeit the newly crowned GP3 champion, was hard to take, just imagine how Felix da Costa felt in August 2014 when he—banished to the DTM and preparing for the inaugural season of Formula E—saw 16-year-old Max Verstappen given a Toro Rosso seat.

    By that stage it was obvious that Dr. Helmut Marko, the head of the Red Bull Junior Team, had seen something he didn't like in Felix da Costa, who soon told Speed Week (h/t Motorsport.com) his F1 career—which consisted of three young-driver tests in 2010, '12 and '13—was over.

    Nevertheless, Felix da Costa continued to attend grands prix as Red Bull's reserve driver until 2015, when the 24-year-old finally parted company with the team.

Davide Valsecchi

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    From Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to Nico Hulkenberg and Romain Grosjean, GP2 champions usually go on to enjoy successful careers in Formula One.

    But as teams continue to fast-track their young drivers to F1, ignoring the conventional path, the reputation of F1's official feeder series has taken a hit.

    While the F1 teams' reluctance to offer 2008 champion Giorgio Pantano a second chance was understandable—the Italian failed to impress in 14 grand prix appearances for Jordan in 2004—the curious case of Davide Valsecchi hinted that GP2 was facing bigger problems.

    Despite his underwhelming junior career until that point, Valsecchi drove for Hispania in the 2010 young-driver test in Abu Dhabi before joining Team Lotus—who would later become Caterham—as reserve driver in 2011, when he participated in practice in Malaysia.

    After winning the GP2 title in 2012, albeit in a relatively weak field, the Italian secured a reserve role at the Enstone-based Lotus team for 2013. 

    And it looked as if the black-and-gold outfit were set to offer Valsecchi, who spent much of the year staring at screens in the garage, a race debut when lead driver Kimi Raikkonen was ruled out of the final two races of the season due to a back operation.

    But rather than placing their trust in a rookie, Lotus—still in contention for second place in the constructors' standings—signed 2008 Hungarian GP winner Heikki Kovalainen, leaving Valsecchi outraged.

    "From the sporting point of view it’s a tragedy," he told the Mirror's Byron Young, adding that he was "angry" to have missed out to Kovalainen, who was "not a great champion, not even an active driver" and whose "last results were five years ago."

    Valsecchi's frustration was justified as Kovalainen finished 14th in his two races for Lotus, who ultimately finished a distant fourth in the championship, but there was to be no way back following his outburst.

    He was dropped in favour of Charles Pic and, despite testing IndyCar machinery in late 2014, has not raced since. Working for Italian television in 2015, Valsecchi accompanied Raikkonen to work in Monaco when the 28-year-old, had he been given a chance by Lotus, could have been racing against the 2007 world champion.

Robin Frijns

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    In the modern era, most of the truly special drivers—the potential grand prix winners and future world champions—tend to emerge from a young-driver academy of some description.

    But for those with no links to Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes or Williams, the telltale sign of how good an up-and-coming driver is, and how great they may become, is when a number of teams fall over themselves to get a good, close look.

    That was the case for Robin Frijns, who despite never making a grand prix appearance drove in the colours of three separate teams.

    After accumulating three different junior championships in consecutive years—Formula BMW Europe (2010), Formula Renault 2.0 (2011) and Formula Renault 3.5 (2012), becoming the first debutant to win the latter since Robert Kubica—Frijns participated for two different outfits in a single young-driver test at Abu Dhabi in 2012.

    The Dutchman was let loose in Sebastian Vettel's championship-winning Red Bull RB8 as a reward for claiming the 3.5 title and also appeared for Sauber, who subsequently signed Frijns in a reserve role for 2013.

    Just days after representing the Swiss outfit in the young-driver test at Silverstone that July, Frijns was dropped by his GP2 team, telling GPUpdate.net how he had "no (sponsorship) money," before leaving Sauber in September.

    Despite his lack of financial backing, Frijns clung on to the fringes of F1 by becoming the third driver at Caterham, where he came close to a breakthrough in the pinnacle of motorsport.

    Tony Fernandes, the team owner, told GPUpdate.net that Caterham were tempted to employ him as one of their two race drivers, such was their excitement over his potential, before deciding to "be a little bit conservative in giving him time to get used to F1."

    Caterham's high opinion of their young driver was evident in the amount of track time he was afforded in 2014, with Frijns appearing in pre-season testing as well as practice sessions in Bahrain and Silverstone.

    If they did intend to hand Frijns a grand prix debut, however, they missed their window of opportunity as the team suffered terminal financial problems, with a Caterham seat going to the highest bidder in the closing months of the season.

    At a time the independent teams faced more money worries than ever before, Frijns—who denied he rejected an offer to join Red Bull's young-driver scheme, per the official Formula E website—was frozen out of F1.

    Still just 24, he finished second in the Blancpain sportscar series in 2015 and is currently competing in the second season of the all-electric series, where F1 careers go to die.

James Calado

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    James Calado was essentially the Jolyon Palmer of 2013: a media-friendly British driver with a respectable record in GP2 and a reserve role at a mid-grid Formula One team.

    But while Palmer will make his grand prix debut with Renault in 2016, Calado, still only 26, no longer appears on the F1 radar after switching to endurance racing.

    Runner-up to Valtteri Bottas in the 2011 GP3 championship, the Worcestershire-born driver made the natural progression to GP2 in 2012 and made an instant impression, claiming victory on the opening weekend of the season and ultimately finishing fifth in the drivers' standings.

    Although 2013 didn't quite go to plan—he failed to win a race until August, finishing third in the championship—Calado gained serious momentum and was offered several opportunities with Force India.

    Under the management of Nicolas Todt—son of FIA president Jean Todt and an advisor to Felipe Massa, Pastor Maldonado and the late Jules Bianchi, who tested for Force India throughout 2012—Calado received his first taste of F1 machinery in the young-driver test at Silverstone.

    Less than two months later, he was announced as Force India's third driver before participating in five grand prix practice sessions in Italy, Korea, India, Abu Dhabi and Brazil, which led to a full-time Ferrari drive.

    But not, alas, with the Ferrari we know and love.

    Supported by the Racing Steps Foundation, which backs under-funded youngsters, Calado told BBC Sport (h/t GPUpdate.net) that while Force India knew he was "doing a good job," his chances of earning an F1 seat for 2014 were "unlikely" unless "someone comes along with millions of pounds."

    That saviour never arrived and Calado joined the Prancing Horse's GT team in the World Endurance Championship, where he continues to race today.


    All statistics used in this article, unless stated, have been taken from the official Formula One website and Wikipedia