Home Featured Five young drivers Renault should take a F1 chance on

Five young drivers Renault should take a F1 chance on

by Craig Woollard

Photos: Renault Sport

Following the news that Renault has lost Daniel Ricciardo to McLaren for 2021, it’s natural to assume that the team will be looking for a high-profile replacement. In the long term, youth could be the answer it needs

Sebastian Vettel’s decision to not agree to a new contract with Ferrari for 2021 has thrown Formula 1’s driver market wide open, with moves for Carlos Sainz Jr (to Ferrari) and Daniel Ricciardo (to McLaren) already agreed.

While there are many drivers out of contract elsewhere at the end of this year, the focus for now is on who will complete Renault’s line-up alongside the returning Esteban Ocon. The Frenchman has two-and-a-half seasons of race experience under his belt with Manor and Racing Point, and will plan to establish himself again on track and at Enstone this year.

Four-time world champion Vettel and former Renault drivers Fernando Alonso (a two-time champion with the team) and Nico Hulkenberg are already being linked to the second Renault seat, as is talent from within the manufacturer’s own under-pressure driver development programme.

Other drivers to have previously raced for Renault in F1 include Alain Prost, Rene Arnoux, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Eddie Cheever, Patrick Tambay, Jarno Trulli, Jenson Button, Jacques Villeneuve and Robert Kubica.

Formula Scout presents five young drivers, and an older Renault-known star, who should be in consideration for a 2021 seat…

Guanyu Zhou CHINA 20y/o
2020 F2, 7th in 2019 F2, 8th in 2017 & ’18 FIA European F3, 8th in ’17 Macau GP, 6th in 2016 TRS, 2nd in 2015 Italian F4

A former member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, Guanyu Zhou was a surprise package of 2019, when he took it to the established Formula 2 stars in his rookie campaign. He is one of the many drivers on Renault?s books and is now its official test driver, making this move the most logical.

He showed consistent progress in his three years in FIA European Formula 3, but didn’t leave the series with many expecting him to perform as strong as he did in F2. His first year with Virtuosi Racing featured five podiums, and a pole at Silverstone, and while victory never came his way he did put in one of the performances of the season in the Barcelona feature race.

Now, to convince Renault he is F1 standard, he needs to show that he can win races on a regular basis at that level. It won’t just be a case of making the most of when he is in a winning position, but taking strong results when luck isn’t going his way.

Of the few times where he could have won in 2019, Barcelona was the clearest case and he led on merit. Unfortunately those occasions did become less frequent as the year progressed.

Zhou not only has a year of F2 experience under his belt now, but put in more laps than all but the Prema drivers during pre-season testing. This will be crucial with the time spent out of the cockpit due to the current coronavirus crisis, as adapting to the changes that F2’s new 18-inch wheels bring will be all the more important with a lack of factory simulator access.

Talking of simulators, Zhou won F1’s first Virtual Grand Prix for Renault. And in real life he would become China?s first F1 driver ? an important market for both the series and the manufacturer. It would make for a much-needed feel-good story within F1, would strictly speaking be the first driver to progress into the series having impressed on the game and the sponsorship potential that comes with it could be crucial to Renault?s long-term presence in the world championship.

Christian Lundgaard DENMARK 18y/o
2020 F2, 23rd in 2019 F2, 4th in ’19 Macau GP, 6th in ’19 FIA F3, 2nd in 2018 FR Eurocup, 2017 F4 NEZ champion

In the discussion of underrated drivers in the junior ranks, Christian Lundgaard is regularly named. The Dane was on the pace immediately in FIA Formula 3 last year and would have become the series? first winner were it not for a penalty.

While finishing sixth in the FIA F3 Championship standings does not sound particularly impressive on paper, there are a fair few caveats to consider. Lundgaard was inexperienced at F3 level in comparison to many of his contemporaries, and his ART Grand Prix team did not turn out to be the title-challenging force it had been for in predecessor series GP3.

In fact, no driver was really going to get a look in to the top three in the F3 points last year such was Prema’s dominance, and Lundgaard was therefore only one point off being second best of the rest.

Renault placed its faith in Lundgaard during his rookie car racing season, in which he dominated the North European Zone and Spanish Formula 4 championships, and getting him all the way to F1 with the works team from there would be a good justification for a junior programme which is yet to create an F1 graduate.

The 18-year-old’s impressive maiden F3 campaign ? in which he firmly shaded Renault stablemate Max Fewtrell after losing the Formula Renault Eurocup title to the Briton as a rookie the year before – had cemented his place as one of the top drivers on the team?s books and bagged him a move up to F2 before Fewtrell.

Going against Lundgaard for an F1 drive though is of course his lack of F2 starts. We should have had a picture of his place in the order by now, but the delayed season and his failure to attend pre-season testing due to being quarantined means we only have two starts from last year to go off. They were tricky, but not discouraging, and like Zhou he has already been called up to test for Renault in the real world and race for the team in the virtual one.

2020 F2, 5th in 2019 F2, 2nd in 2017 GP3, 15th in ’16 FV8 3.5, 2015 FR Eurocup champion, ’15 FR2.0 Alps champion

Jack Aitken was a Renault test driver until last winter, when he left the team to take on a reserve role at Williams.

He was inducted into the Renault Sport Academy as one of the founding members in 2016 as reigning Eurocup champion, but could not see a way into a race seat as the team brought in Ricciardo and Ocon. But perhaps the greater opportunity to step up now lies at his former team.

Last year was one of his most impressive on track, taking a resurgent Campos Racing to the top step of the podium three times in F2 and coming sixth in Formula Scout’s end-of-year top 50 list of junior single-seater drivers.

He is popular, marketable (as a British-South Korean) and is one of the more experienced drivers on this list. The drives he produced to take victories at Baku, Silverstone and Monza in 2019 were all classy for vastly different reasons ? and included F2’s overtake of the year to win at home.

Sticking with Campos for this season was a risk given a title campaign would still be an act of giantkilling on Aitken’s part, but that’s the kind of performances that earn F1 seats and would strengthen the leadership credentials that Renault sorely needs.

Aitken knows the team at Enstone well, as well as the race-side operation, and is of the same mould as some of Renault?s recent drivers, making him a strong figure to place into the car.

Going against him is having to rebuild the bridge with Renault ? having left for a team he must have felt more confident of getting a race seat with. However, the kind of behind-the-scenes efforts that would be required to bring the two parties back together would be exactly the sort of story that Renault could do with right now, having changed its F1 line-up every year since its 2016 return.

Pascal Werhlein GERMANY/MAURITIUS 25y/o
18th in 2017 F1 – currently 14th in 2019-20 FE, 12th in 2018-19 FE, 2015 DTM champion, 2nd in 2012 F3 Euro Series

Pascal Wehrlein has some unfinished business with F1, and is still young enough for a return to generate a legitimate buzz.

He was brought into F1 originally by Mercedes-Benz through the DTM, a touring car move which came at the expense of an impressive-looking FIA European F3 campaign, and was placed at backmarker team Manor in 2016 when he was 21 years old.

His unconventional path mirrored Paul di Resta’s, a driver who perhaps should have also had another proper F1 opportunity.

When Wehrlein earned his F1 promotion, Ocon was the driver who was put in Mercedes’ DTM line-up in his place. That only lasted half a season, as he was then also promoted to a Manor seat, and immediately outshone team-mate Wehrlein.

Werhlein was no slouch, with a DTM title and an F1 points finish already to his name, but it was Ocon who earned a move up the grid to Force India for 2017. Nico Rosberg’s retirement also briefly put him in contention for a factory Mercedes seat.

Instead he bounced back at Sauber, although started badly with a pre-season injury, and had little say in keeping his seat for a second year as the team strengthened ties with Ferrari. That prompted a DTM return and an inspired move to Formula E.

While recent results have not been stellar, primarily due to the Mahindra team slipping down the order, Wehrlein has been a star of the series and made a big impact when he debuted with a near-win on his second start and a pole position.

It’s unfortunate that he still does not to have a win to his name, and he richly deserves one, and he has been stronger than ever since leaving Mercedes at the start of last year to join Ferrari’s F1 fold as simulator driver. A reunion with Ocon at Renault could bring both drivers and the team up to new heights.

Sacha Fenestraz FRANCE/ARGENTINA 20y/o
2020 SuperF, 2019 Japanese F3 champion, 6th in ’19 Super GT300, 3rd in 2018 Macau GP, 2017 FR Eurocup champion

Sacha Fenestraz is another former Renault junior with unfinished business and with a return story with feel-good elements.

He’s half-French, which makes him desirable to a team that wishes to promote talent from its home country (at least on the engine side) and wants someone who integrates well into the squad and as team-mate to Ocon.

The 20-year-old spent one year as a Renault junior in 2018, a place earned by winning the previous year’s Eurocup title, and his departure was as a result of being dropped after one underwhelming season in European F3 and a Macau Grand Prix podium.

Fenestraz needed to rebound last year, and did it in style. He moved out of the Surrey apartment he shared with Lando Norris and relocated to Japan to tackle Japanese F3 with debuting team Motopark. Five wins in the first six races marked him out as title favourite, and a continued podium presence made him a dominant champion.

Adding a sportscar campaign with Kondo Racing in Super GT’s secondary GT300 class helped build up a reputation that meant all of the local manufacturers were wanting his signature for 2020.

He settled on Toyota’s offer, and will race this year for Kondo in Super Formula and for TOM’S in Super GT’s top class. These are seats that are not only very well deserved, especially after what was arguably a harsh drop by Renault, but could also realistically carry him to the title as a rookie in either category.

It is a bit of an outside bet for him to be considered by Renault, but not one that would be totally unusual given Japan’s premier single-seater series has been used as a holding ground in recent years for F1-bound talent. Fenestraz also didn’t entirely end his links with Renault at the end of 2018, as last year’s GT3000 drive came in a car provided by partner manufacturer Nissan.

And one that missed the boat…

Pierre Gasly FRANCE 24y/o
2020 F1, 7th in 2019 F1, 15th in 2018 F1
– 2nd in 2017 SuperF, 16th in 2016-17 FE, 2016 GP2 champion, 2nd in 2014 FV8 3.5

Another young Frenchman who could have been in the frame is Pierre Gasly. However the 24-year-old has had a publicly known feud with Ocon in recent years, which might be too much to overcome to make this move across the F1 paddock likely.

Gasly?s 12-race stint with Red Bull Racing last year does not do him justice, but nor did it rid his reputation as a choker, yet his performances with AlphaTauri either side of that drive show he is more than deserving of being an F1 driver.

The resilience he showed from his failed stint at the A-team should make a transition to the higher-pressure environment of Renault easier than he found his last shot at machinery with podium potential, but would come at the cost of his relationship with Red Bull’s engine supplier Honda and the energy drink brand itself – an already flexible tie that doesn’t need to be cut.

He does have experience in the Renault ladder, having won the 2013 Eurocup and finished runner-up in FR3.5 a year later, and fits the bill nicely (Ocon situation aside) for what Renault actually needs. Such a move would also make him the third driver in as many years that Renault has poached from Red Bull, following on from McLaren-bound Ricciardo and Ferrari-bound Sainz.

And one that should have been on this list…

The unfortunate omission from this list is Anthoine Hubert ? a promising driver who was hot property in F2 last year but was tragically killed at Spa-Francorchamps. Hubert was bound for a seat at a top team this season and would have been a title contender, and it would have been exciting to see how he would have added to his two 2019 wins at the struggling Arden.

Given Ricciardo’s frustrations from his first year with Renault, and the slim chance of him being in a race-winning car this year, the Australian may have left the team even if Vettel’s Ferrari departure hadn’t occurred, and Hubert would have taken his place.

Additional?reporting by Elliot Wood