Guessing which driver will emerge as the next Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso is incredibly difficult. There are so many drivers racing in a wide variety of successful Formula One feeder series that picking one out is a lottery.
The current drivers in Formula One have come from a variety of series; some are from the defunct F3000 series, while others came straight from national Formula 3 championships. Paul di Resta has famously come from DTM, the German saloon car championship.
Nearly half the current grid came from the official Formula One feeder series, GP2. This series was set up in 2005, but since then only two of its former racers, Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen, have gone on to win a Formula One Grand Prix.
So how can a young driver make the break into international motorsports premier category? Motor racing is expensive, and so money has always been one way of smoothing the ride. Sergio Perez of Sauber and Pastor Maldonado of Williams have been able to tap sponsors from their native Mexico and Venezuela respectively to secure their places on the F1 grid.
But they have the talent too—Maldonado is the reigning GP2 champion and Perez finished second in 2010. Young drivers also need an available seat in Formula One, but since in-season testing has been banned the attention of Formula One teams has shifted to established drivers.
Hiring a known quantity is a safer route than gambling on a rookie. It’s no coincidence that drivers such as Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher and Jarno Trulli are still in the sport despite making their debuts in the 1990s.
A young driver can significantly increase his chances of landing himself a Formula One race seat if he is fortunate enough to become affiliated with a Formula One team. Most teams have a young driver programme, and these programmes are spurred on by the fear of missing out on the next Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher.
Daniel Ricciardo, age 21, has successfully progressed through the Red Bull driver programme and the Australian is now on the brink of Formula One. Ricciardo is currently sixth in the highly competitive 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 Series. This series is similar to GP2, with big, powerful cars which are incredibly fast and require total commitment.
Robert Kubica is a previous series champion and Jaime Alguersuari was driving in the series when he made his Formula One debut in 2009. Ricciardo recently put in a storming performance at the very tough Monaco race, where he won from pole position, setting fastest lap along the way.
He also put in some stunning lap times at the official Formula One young driver test in Abu Dhabi at the end of 2010. He drove for Red Bull Racing on both days of that test, giving him a wealth of rare Formula One experience. He is now hotly tipped to make the step into Formula One with Red Bull’s junior team, Toro Rosso—possibly even at some point during this season.
The pressure is truly on Toro Rosso’s current drivers Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari. Red Bull also has Jean-Eric Vergne, a Frenchman, on their books. Vergne, also 21, is currently leading the Formula Renault 3.5 Series, having scored four podium finishes from six races so far in 2011. He clearly has the consistency necessary to win this prestigious championship and his progress will be closely monitored by Red Bull.
Jules Bianchi is another 21-year-old Frenchman, and he is in the fortunate position of being a member of the Ferrari young driver programme. Unfortunately, his GP2 season has failed to impress so far and he currently sits 13th in the table. He has to pull out some solid performances if he is to better his 2010 season, when he finished third overall.
He certainly has the pedigree though, for like Hamilton and di Resta, he has been a champion of the highly rated Formula 3 Euroseries. He is certainly one to keep an eye on but his path to Formula One isn’t clear. Ferrari has Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso under contract for 2012 and they wouldn’t put a rookie in the car in 2013.
A possible scenario is that Sauber’s Sergio Perez, who is also on the Ferrari young driver programme, could step into Massa’s seat in 2013 and if Bianchi performs well in 2011 and 2012, he could be placed at the Ferrari-engined Sauber team in Perez’s place. But motor racing is constantly evolving and predicting what may happen one or two years in the future is always a risky game.
Also racing in GP2 this year is Sam Bird, 24. The British driver has tested for Mercedes GP in the past and is currently second in the championship after six of eighteen rounds. Setting competitive times in the F1 young driver test in November went a long way in securing his position as an up and coming driver and he attracted strong feedback from Mercedes GP Team Principal Ross Brawn.
The comments given were particularly positive and Sam will be firmly on the radar of a variety of Formula One teams.
These drivers need to continue to focus on their fitness and they need to work hard with their engineers to understand their cars so they can get the maximum from them at every race. They also have to make sure they get strong results; ultimately it is points on the board that count. And they will probably need a bit of luck.
But they all have the potential to realise their dream of reaching Formula One.