Tomorrow’s World: The rise of Formula 1’s next generation

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Young stars coming through the ranks of motorsport is nothing new. However, you would be hard pushed to collate a more promising and exciting set of youngsters than the class of 2017. And whilst some may be inclined to say that a falling average age on the grid is a worrying sign – these cars are far too easy to drive these days (!) – others would argue that it marks a new era for Formula 1, one that we should welcome with our own youthful exuberance.

To give you an idea of how young this year’s grid was – the average is taken from all 25 drivers that partook in a Formula 1 race at their most recent race – in 2012, we saw a median age of 29 years and 3 months; Michael Schumacher the veteran at a spritely 43, with Jean-Éric Vergne the youngest – 21 years Schumacher’s junior. The 2017 average is almost two years lower – even with Kimi Räikkönen‘s 38 years, Jenson Button‘s 37 and Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa‘s offering of 36. What’s more, we started the season with two teenagers for the first time in Formula 1’s history.

And, as the old timers start to hang up their gloves and unplug their radios, one can only see that average falling once again.

Lando Norris – 2017 FIA Formula 3 European Champion, Second in 2017 Macau Grand Prix

Another stellar year for the Bristolian culminated in a role as McLaren’s reserve driver for 2018, as well as a seat in the FIA Formula 2 series with Carlin and the Autosport National Driver of the Year award. Not bad for a year’s work.

On his way to the Formula 3 European Championship, the 18-year-old took nine wins in 30 rounds, along with a further 11 podiums and eight pole positions – enough to earn him a 53 point buffer over second placed Joel Eriksson by season’s end. His triumph marked a fifth championship win in three years and saw the wider world stand up and notice his huge talent.

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His team principal Trevor Carlin believes that Norris holds many of the same qualities that he saw in F1 graduates Takuma Sato, Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo; a driver who can produce big performances when it matters the most and can trouble the leaders even on a rare off day. This is down to his nature as a perfectionist.

“[Lando] is his own worst critic and, considering there’s a lot of people out there who want to slag him off, for him to be his own worst critic sums things up really,” Carlin told Autosport.

“He can just do it, but he’s not satisfied when he’s not P1.”

His drives helped Carlin recover from a dire 2016 F3 season where they finished in sixth – over 500 points adrift of champions Prema Powerteam – to second, 127 points behind the Italian powerhouse.

Norris also gathered data for McLaren in the official in-season test at the Hungaroring in August, setting the second fastest time on the second day in what was just his second taste of Formula 1 machinery. It will certainly not be his last.

George Russell – 2017 GP3 Series Champion

Another young Brit who has broken into Formula 1 via the reserve driver route, Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team junior Russell won the GP3 Series at his first attempt, with four wins and an extra three podiums, clinching the crown with one round spare.

Furthermore, this came after Russell had suffered a poor opening round at the Circuit de Catalunya as he struggled to master a hand-held clutch. However, a break-through test in Hungary eased his worries and the 19-year-old never looked back.

Somewhat ironically, the Hungarian round later in the year threatened to derail his championship charge – he failed to take the start in the feature race before finishing a lowly eleventh in the sprint event. That disappointment sparked a stunning run of form, including a dominant pole and feature race win at Spa-Francorchamps.

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Alongside a run in the Mercedes M08 at Hungary in August, his calendar year was garnished with two Free Practice outings with the Sahara Force India F1 Team in Brazil and Abu Dhabi. It’s widely expected that Russell will continue with Force India in their new guise as a test driver, whilst he participates in Formula 2 – although it remains unknown what team he’ll join.

He says he will prioritise a successful F2 campaign over testing duties with Force India and Mercedes and, not short in confidence, believes that he is ready for a chance in Formula 1 next year if the opportunity arises – maybe with Williams Martini Racing.

“I feel I’ve been prepared well, and I won the GP3 championship this year,” the teenager told Autosport in November.

“If you look at the facts the only options are Williams and Sauber. Let’s say in January, if something happens, I can say I’m the guy to jump in, and I’m the guy ready to make the step.”

King’s Lynn may well have another F1 driver, but will it be 22 or 23 years after its last?

Esteban Ocon – 8th in 2017 Formula 1 World Championship

Another Mercedes protégé, Ocon was a surprise pick for the vacant Force India seat at the end of 2016, as Nico Hülkenberg jumped ship to the Renault Sport Formula 1 Team. Despite his Manor Racing team-mate Pascal Wehrlein initially expected to be promoted, Ocon wasted little time in showing his wealth of talents – scoring points in every single race bar Monaco and Brazil and ruffling the feathers of the highly-rated Sergio Pérez in the process, finishing just 13 points shy of the Mexican in the final standings.

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And courtesy of the last 12 months, ‘Mr. Oconsistency’ is now favourite to join the Mercedes senior team should Lewis Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas leave and Max Verstappen cannot be prised away from Red Bull Racing – but more on him imminently.

And you would think that he’d take to that role like the proverbial duck to water, having displayed a maturity that extends well beyond his 21 years. When the two Force India’s came to blows twice at the Belgian Grand Prix – a race that marked the Frenchman’s one year anniversary in Formula 1 – the cooler character was not Pérez, six years Ocon’s senior.

Having made his mark by winning in a talent laden Formula 3 European Championship in 2014, Ocon’s career has shot upwards, even after leaving the comforts of Renault.

Max Verstappen – 6th in 2017 Formula 1 World Championship

Verstappen’s first full year at Red Bull was not without its problems. By the end of the British Grand Prix, the Formula 1’s youngest ever driver had retired from half of the races in the 2017, his shine tarnished by dogged reliability from the TAG Heuer branded Renault power unit..

It got heated – his father Jos threatened that his son would leave Red Bull should the situation not improve.

“I notice about Max that he’s very disappointed.” Verstappen Snr. told Dutch broadcasters Ziggo Sport.

“It’s tough to keep yourself motivated the whole time when things are going like this.”

“After seven or eight laps, he’s standing at the side of the track again. This should not be able to happen, certainly not at a top team.”

With Renault on their backs too, the Bulls were firmly caged.

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Fortuitously for the Verstappen camp and Red Bull, Malaysia proved to be a turning point. Effectively starting from second after Räikkönen’s electrical woes, the 20-year-old hunted down Hamilton before executing a textbook move on the Mercedes at Turn 1. He soon scampered away to claim his second career victory, 505 days after his first. A podium and…near-podium in Japan and the United States proved to be the amuse-bouche for another dominant win in Mexico, with race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase often pleading for him to slow down in order to protect the shaky Renault engine. He playfully rejected the requests.

Sixth place in the championship doesn’t tell the tale for Verstappen in 2017, who has shown a notable increase in maturity when faced with problems that he cannot control – he’s not incorrigible after all.

Partnered with the same raw talent he has shown from day one, it may hold him in good stead later, when he’s fighting for higher prizes than sixth.

Lance Stroll – 12th in 2017 Formula 1 World Championship

Few drivers have come under as much scrutiny and divided as many opinions as Lance Stroll. The runaway 2016 Formula 3 European Champion had plenty of doubters going into the season, with the general consensus being that he is in the seat courtesy of his father’s money and certainly not talent. Although, you would assume that a major junior championship win would quell those thoughts.

Skating off the road at Campsa corner in winter testing and some shaky early races did nothing to improve the situation, although it has been clear to see that Stroll has made constant improvements as a driver over the last year.

From the skittish steering movements to the ‘rabbit in headlights’ look during interviews and a lot in between, the Canadian has grown into the role and will be hoping to continue that upwards trend into 2018 – with whoever he may be partnering at Williams.

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He produced two standout performances in his debut year. The first came at the chaotic and inimitable Azerbaijan Grand Prix, where he used the considerable grunt from the Mercedes powertrain to his advantage and, most importantly, kept his nose out of trouble throughout the whole weekend; it was something the other 19 on the grid failed to do.

Eighth on the grid turned into third on race day, Bottas pipping him to second by the length of a nosecone. He didn’t mind too much, for he became the youngest rookie to claim a Formula 1 podium. Additionally, a soaking wet Italian Grand Prix Qualifying helped demonstrated Stroll’s car control – fourth place was converted into second after grid penalties for the Red Bull duo – becoming the youngest man to start on the front row.

So, it’s clear, there are positives to Stroll’s season. If he can find consistency and some encouragement throughout next year, he may give his sceptics an awful lot to ponder going into 2019. Just make sure he doesn’t look at social media.

At all costs.

Carlos Sainz Jr. – 9th in 2017 Formula 1 World Championship

Sainz Jr. looked to be heading to an all-too-familiar dead end with Scuderia Toro Rosso and the Red Bull Driver Academy after a public jibe at Helmut Marko. Thankfully for the huge Real Madrid fan, Renault have proved to be what Zinedine Zidane has been for Casemiro – a second chance.

Of course, it’s not over for Sainz Jr. and Red Bull – the Austrians have merely loaned the Spaniard to Renault until the end of the 2018 season, where there may be the senior seat he’s been craving since Verstappen was promoted as opposed to him in early 2016.

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However, his slightly strained relations with Red Bull and Toro Rosso took a bigger hit after the move, as his brilliant seventh place in the United States helped Renault leapfrog Toro Rosso in the Constructors’ Championship in contentious circumstances.

Certainly, Renault will be overjoyed with his early contributions – he only needs four more points with the French marque to beat his predecessor Jolyon Palmer’s points total over nearly two years.

And with the form he’s shown with underpowered Toro Rosso cars – Renault reliability and performance withstanding – you would expect him to achieve that at Australia. A good battle between himself and new team-mate Hülkenberg is something to look forward to in 2018.

Charles Leclerc – 2017 FIA Formula 2 Champion

Monegasque driver Leclerc was already a name on the lips of many motorsport fans before his superlative inducing debut year in F2; but as we approach his first Formula 1 season, the expectations are even higher for the softly spoken Scuderia Ferrari junior, who showed great character to overcome a huge personal loss in 2017.

Unfortunately, his father Hervé couldn’t watch him secure the F2 title, but was lucky enough to see his perfect drive in the Bahrain sprint race – just his second race in the category. Having made an unusual pit-stop, demoting him to fourteenth position with around half of the race to go, Leclerc passed 13 cars with effortless efficiency to snatch victory from Luca Ghiotto‘s grasp.

Seven wins out of the 22 races and numerous displays of outstanding feel for the car – see his start at Austria where he showed cat-like reflexes to avoid the crawling Ralph Boschung whilst keeping the car from going completely sideways – made him one of the most successful F2/GP2 Series champions in history, only Stoffel Vandoorne has managed as many wins in a single season at that level.

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His race pace is not the most impressive attribute for the 20-year-old – as hard as that may be to believe – for he took eight pole positions out of a possible eleven, including six in a row at the start of the season. It’s something that will hold him in good stead in F1, as the Sauber F1 Team have typically struggled to get air time during races over the last few years. With a current-spec Ferrari engine propelling him, who knows what he can do.

Having impressed in Free Practice at the Malaysia, United States, Mexican and Brazilian Grand Prix for the Sauber, Leclerc will race alongside Marcus Ericsson as the Swiss privateers partner up with Ferrari subsidiary Alfa Romeo.

Although, don’t be under the illusion that Leclerc is solely there because of that fact.

Pierre Gasly – 2nd in 2017 Super Formula Championship, 21st in 2017 Formula 1 World Championship

After holding off another man who could have easily made this list in Antonio Giovinazzi for the 2016 GP2 Series title, Gasly’s career took a slight stall.

With no seats available at Toro Rosso for the Red Bull backed driver, the Frenchman was sent over to Japan to take part in the Super Formula Championship – a heavily competitive series that boasts some fine drivers in its own right.

And despite being the youngest driver on the series’ grid, Gasly so nearly took the championship in his maiden year. After a slow start at the opening rounds at Suzuka and Okayama, Gasly found his touch, taking back to back wins at Motegi and Autopolis – the only other driver to take two wins was fourth placed man Yuhi Sekiguchi.

Second place at Sportsland SUGO set up a finely poised title showdown at Suzuka with Hiroaki Ishiura, however Typhoon Lan robbed Gasly of the chance to challenge Ishiura, who won his second title in three years.

It capped a frustrating weekend for the 21-year-old, who had handed his new Toro Rosso seat back to the previously shunned Daniil Kvyat for the US Grand Prix as he decided to take part in the Super Formula finale. It mattered little, for Gasly resumed Toro Rosso duties in Mexico.

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Having made his full debut at Malaysia, Gasly has had little chance to show his talents, as Toro Rosso limped to the end of the season with cursed reliability. Hopefully, their new partnership with Honda can start well, or Gasly may find his Formula 1 future hanging by a thread through no fault of his own.