5 Young Drivers with the Best Chance of Securing a Formula 1 Race Seat in 2017
The Formula One driver merry-go-round never stops turning; with the passing of every year, a fresh batch of young hopefuls lines up ready to snatch the seats possessed by those who were starting to believe they had already made it.
Pascal Wehrlein and Jolyon Palmer will make their racing debuts in 2016, and they'll be joined by Rio Haryanto, according to the Telegraph's Daniel Johnson. Kevin Magnussen and Esteban Gutierrez could also pass as new boys—both are returning to the sport after a year on the sidelines.
But for every winner there is a loser, and for every dream fulfilled, another is shattered. Pastor Maldonado, Roberto Merhi and Will Stevens are the unlucky trio who have lost their seats and will have to find alternative employment in 2016.
When the current season draws to a close, the cycle will continue as it has since the start of the world championship era all the way back in 1950. Old hands will depart and new faces will enter—but who will the rookies of 2017 be?
Here, we examine five of the biggest talents making their way through the junior formulae—one each from the young driver programmes of McLaren, Williams, Red Bull, Mercedes and Renault—and look at what each needs to do in 2016 to give himself the best chance of an F1 race seat next year.
One of them is almost guaranteed a seat, but the rest still have a little bit left to prove.
Stoffel Vandoorne of McLaren: Super Formula
Stoffel Vandoorne's name will be familiar to most F1 fans by now. If any driver yet to make his F1 debut is worthy of being called a future world champion, it's him.
The Belgian was a relatively late starter in the world of single-seaters, kicking off his car-racing career in the F4 Eurocup series at the age of 18 in 2010. He won the title, then spent 2011 in one of the smaller Formula Renault 2.0 teams.
A switch to one of the big boys saw him take the FR2.0 Eurocup crown in 2012, and he won on his debut in the FR3.5 series on his way to second in the 2013 championship. He switched to GP2 in 2014, and again he won on his debut.
Vandoorne was second in the championship in his first year, and in 2015, he was dominant—seven feature race wins and nine additional podiums saw him score more points than the second- and third-placed drivers combined.
There is no question he is ready for F1; given his record, it would have been quite reasonable for him to make his debut at the start of 2014.
Unfortunately, McLaren—who have been supporting Vandoorne's career since early 2013—have thus far been unable to get round to promoting him. Were he backed by Red Bull, Mercedes or Ferrari, Vandoorne would already be making a name for himself at the highest level.
And maybe if Renault team principal Frederick Vasseur had got his way, Vandoorne would be lining up on the F1 grid for Renault in 2016.
Instead, he announced in mid-February that he'll spend the season racing in the Japanese Super Formula series with the Honda-powered Docomo Team Dandelion Racing.
The cars are not much slower than F1—six Super Formula drivers lapped Suzuka in 2015 quicker than the fastest Marussia in qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix—but it is at best a sideways step from GP2 and another wasted year for Vandoorne.
He's probably done enough already to secure a promotion to F1 in 2017 regardless of what he achieves in Japan, but doing well won't hurt his cause.
Vandoorne will be racing on circuits he has never seen before against a lot of experienced drivers, including Kamui Kobayashi and Andre Lotterer. Even with his ability and record of rapidly learning his way around new cars, he'll need time to adapt.
In addition, Super Formula has two engine suppliers, Honda and Toyota, with the latter being the more successful of late; Toyota-powered cars won seven of the eight races and occupied the top four slots in the 2015 teams' championship.
But Vandoorne is a special talent. A race win or two, a handful of podiums and some new, powerful friends within the Honda organisation would be a reasonable return before his F1 career starts in 2017.
Alex Lynn of Williams: GP2
Alex Lynn is something of a rarity—a former member of the Red Bull Junior Team who still looks capable of making it in F1. And he wasn't kicked out of the programme that has pushed 11 drivers into the sport; as he told his local newspaper, the Braintree and Witham Times, he chose to leave.
The 22-year-old opted to instead link up with Williams, feeling they offered a better shot at reaching his ultimate goal.
Lynn made his single-seater debut in the 2009 Formula Renault UK Winter Series, finishing 10th in the standings. The following year he won the championship and followed it up in 2011 with another title—this time in the main FR UK series.
He stepped up to Formula Three in 2012 and won a single race on his way to fourth overall in the British championship. Lynn was third in European F3 in 2013 with three wins, and he finished the year by winning the prestigious Macau Grand Prix.
In 2014 he moved up to GP3, winning the championship at his first attempt, and a decent rookie season in GP2 in 2015 saw him win twice and end the year sixth overall—ahead of team-mate Pierre Gasly.
Lynn does not currently look entirely ready for F1; though occasionally very quick, he lacked consistency in 2015 and made a number of silly mistakes—including crashes at Monza and Sochi—that cost him a lot of points.
He'll remain with the DAMS team for 2016's GP2 campaign—a season that could determine his future.
DAMS are one of the best teams in GP2. They have won the team's championship twice in the last four seasons, and three of the most recent five drivers' champions have been DAMS drivers.
Lynn will be partnered at the French squad by Nicholas Latifi, a driver with a record that suggests he isn't going to be a front-runner. The full weight of the team will therefore be behind the Brit—and that means he needs to deliver week in, week out.
Unless DAMS suffer a slump, Lynn has to be aiming to either win the GP2 championship or finish a close second.
If he can do that, there's at least the possibility of being promoted to a Williams race seat in 2017.
Pierre Gasly of Red Bull: GP2
Pierre Gasly occupies a highly sought-after spot in the world of young drivers—he's the only Red Bull Junior Team member anywhere near ready to step up to F1, having joined the programme in 2013.
He left karting behind in 2011 to compete in the French Formula Four championship, and following a slow start to the year, he ended up third in the standings after winning four of the final five races. Formula Renault 2.0 came next, and he finished finished 10th overall in 2012 with two podiums.
It wasn't the best of years, but Gasly switched to the Tech 1 team for 2013 and had a much better time of things. He won three races to take the championship ahead of Oliver Rowland and Esteban Ocon, and at the end of the year, he was recruited by Red Bull.
They placed Gasly in Formula Renault 3.5 for 2014. Though he failed to win a race, he was second six times and third twice and ended the season second in the standings behind Carlos Sainz Jr. Following the normal route of progression, a switch to GP2 beckoned.
Gasly joined top team DAMS, taking over the seat vacated by outgoing champion Jolyon Palmer.
His results overall were mixed—the Frenchman proved his raw pace by starting on pole three times toward the end of the year, but he couldn't convert any of them to victories and ended up a disappointing eighth in the standings.
Like his team-mate, Alex Lynn, Gasly's problem was that he never really found a consistent rhythm and was guilty of making too many errors. He'll remain in the series in 2016, now driving for Prema, and will also serve as Red Bull's reserve driver.
With a full season behind him and plenty of experience of the unique, fast-wearing Pirelli tyres, Gasly will have no excuses if he fails to perform in 2016. Prema are new to GP2, but they have a great record in F3, and they should be capable of putting together a team that can challenge somewhere near the front.
But it's hard to say whether they'll be set up well enough to give Gasly a shot at the title.
With this in mind, his target won't be clear until we see how good Prema are. If they're good enough, the championship is his goal—Red Bull juniors are expected to excel, not just make up the numbers.
If they're only average, he'll still need to get some wins under his belt at the very least and show some good consistency. Even if he's only sixth or seventh, he should still be in pole position if a seat at Toro Rosso opens up for 2017.
Esteban Ocon of Mercedes: DTM
Esteban Ocon beat Max Verstappen to the 2014 European Formula Three title, but an immediate promotion to the big time was not on the cards for the Frenchman. He did, however, pick up a useful backer—Mercedes.
He started racing cars at the age of just 15 in 2012 but didn't make an immediate impact in Formula Renault 2.0, finishing 14th in the Eurocup championship with a single podium. The following year, he became a part of the Lotus F1 Junior Team, and in FR2.0, he won two races and was classified third overall.
Ocon's star began to truly shine in 2014. He joined the Prema Powerteam squad in F3 and displayed an almost unnatural level of consistency for a rookie, taking 18 podiums from his first 21 races. His form tailed off a little toward the end of the year, but he had done enough to take the championship at the first time of asking.
He also made his F1 race weekend debut, driving in first practice for Lotus in Abu Dhabi.
Mercedes acquired Ocon from Lotus ahead of the 2015 season, and a switch to GP3 in 2015 saw him continue where he left off. Ocon's only win came in the very first race of the year, but he only missed out on the podium in four of the 18 rounds.
No other driver managed more than eight podiums, and Ocon secured the title at the final race.
Mercedes tend to do things a little differently to their rivals, using DTM as a proving ground rather than GP2, but it seems to work—Pascal Wehrlein won the 2015 title and will race in F1 for Manor in 2016.
Ocon will take over the seat he vacated, but he'll also be spending time in the F1 paddock as reserve driver for Renault. If needed, he'd be more than ready to step in.
DTM is a very close, highly competitive series, and Ocon's Mercedes stablemates will include experienced and talented drivers like Paul di Resta, Robert Wickens and Gary Paffett. Ocon will also have to get used to racing a larger car with a roof and windscreen—something he hasn't done before in a competitive environment.
But his career to date shows he is a very quick learner, and the close field in DTM makes consistent points-scoring extremely important. A realistic, top-end target for Ocon would be to finish as one of the top eight or 10 drivers.
Though perhaps overambitious—Wehrlein didn't manage it in his rookie year—that would be the sort of performance that could prompt Mercedes to place him at one of the teams they supply.
Or maybe they'd let Renault continue their loan. If the French team wants a French driver for 2017, they could certainly do worse than Ocon.
Oliver Rowland of Renault: GP2
Carmen Jorda will be in the middle of the shot whenever the TV cameras visit the Renault garage in 2016, but new recruit Oliver Rowland represents the more serious side of the French team's driver development programme.
He began single-seater racing at the age of 18 when he entered the 2010 Formula Renault UK Winter Series. Rowland won the final race of the championship to finish sixth overall, and the following year, he entered the main FR UK series.
Thirteen podiums from 20 races saw him take second in the standings, just behind more-experienced Alex Lynn, and in December, Rowland was named as the winner of the prestigious McLaren Autosport BRDC Award, which recognises the most talented young British drivers.
He switched to the FR Eurocup in 2012 and 2013, finishing third the first year and second the next, before moving up to FR3.5 for 2014.
Rowland won two races and finished fourth in the standings, ahead of team-mate Sergey Sirotkin, and stayed on for a second year in 2015. This time around, he was dominant, winning a record eight races on his way to a comfortable championship.
Renault were impressed, and in February 2016, Rowland was announced as a member of their new young driver programme. He will race in GP2 with MP Motorsport in 2016.
All GP2 cars start off the same, but some teams are better than others at setting them up and operating smoothly. MP Motorsport were eighth in last year's teams' championship, and they have never had one of their drivers finish in the top 10 of the drivers' standings.
But then, they've also never had a particularly promising young driver sat in one of their cars—so Rowland should still be aiming high.
It's very difficult to win the GP2 crown in your first full year, but he can definitely target the odd race win. Beyond that, he needs to show good consistency and understanding of the Pirelli tyres—and, of course, he has to beat experienced team-mate Daniel de Jong.
Renault will have a lot of drivers to choose from for 2017, so being promoted that soon might be a long shot for Rowland. But if he can pull an exceptional debut GP2 season out of the bag, there's no reason for his name to not be in the mix.
Driver career statistics used throughout sourced from Driver DB.