2014 was another great year for junior single-seater racing, with some great (very) young drivers making a splash and some more experienced names securing big championship titles. The final part of our countdown celebrates the very top performers this year, from GP2, Formula Renault 3.5, GP3 and European F3.
10. Dean Stoneman
United Kingdom – age 24
Second in GP3 Series
After impressing on his GP3 debut in Abu Dhabi at the end of 2013 – his return to single-seaters after cancer brought a halt to the 2010 F2 champion’s career – Stoneman contested a full season in the category this year and claimed the runner-up spot with more wins than anybody else, claiming a victory in each of the last four rounds despite an enforced change of team.
The first win of his comeback came on the opening weekend in Barcelona in the reverse grid race, but the next few rounds were tougher as he and the Marussia Manor team struggled to qualify at the front of the grid, even though Stoneman always made good progress in races. He won the main race at Spa by holding it together on slicks on a damp track and was victorious again in Monza, triumphing in a battle with points leader Alex Lynn in race two. Then, the team had to withdraw, impacted by the crisis engulfing the parent F1 squad. For Sochi, Stoneman was forced into a last minute return to Koiranen, the team with which he made his series bow. In a car that had spent all season propping up the grid in the hands of Carmen Jorda, Stoneman was immediately rapid, claiming a dominant pole, winning race one and then coming close again in race two. That weekend took him from eighth to second in the standings, before winning again in Abu Dhabi.
On that form, Stoneman is clearly a great driver, and his story is remarkable. It would be good to see him continue in Europe and perhaps get some sort of F1 opportunity, but he is now looking at a future in North America.
9. Oliver Rowland
United Kingdom – age 22
Fourth in Formula Renault 3.5
Last year’s runner-up in Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, Rowland made the step up to FR3.5 with Fortec Motorsports as Robin Frijns and Stoffel Vandoorne had done before him. Although his campaign was not quite as impressive as theirs and fourth in the points was perhaps a little disappointing in relative terms, he still did well to get two wins against strong opposition.
It only took him until his second round in the series in Aragon to notch up his first win, halting he run of the previously dominant Carlos Sainz. This made Rowland the Spaniard’s closest rival, a position he demonstrated by racing him hard for fourth on the first lap in Monaco. However, contact-induced non-scores at Spa, Moscow, Nurburgring and Paul Ricard lost him ground, even though he was otherwise a consistent frontrunner. He ended the year with a very strong weekend at Jerez, finishing a very close second in the first race and then dominating the second from pole position. That left him just two points away from third in the points, and only 11 behind second-placed Pierre Gasly. His highs were higher than his win-less younger rival, but his lack of consistency cost him. However, quite a bit of that can be put down to bad luck.
Rowland’s backers the Racing Steps Foundation have wisely kept him in the series for a second season, giving him a fantastic opportunity to get a major title under his belt. If he can maintain his Jerez form and work on the weaknesses in his game, he could be unstoppable.
8. Roberto Merhi
Spain – age 23
Third in Formula Renault 3.5
The man who claimed top spot in our first edition of these rankings in 2011 for his European F3 triumph made a successful single-seater comeback this year after a couple of difficult seasons in the DTM with Mercedes. Handed an opportunity in Formula Renault 3.5 by the new Russian owners of the Zeta Corse team, Merhi grabbed it with both hands.
Surprisingly after a low-key pre-season, Merhi finished second in just the first race of the campaign at Monza. The next few rounds were tougher, but he returned to the front in Moscow, winning race two from pole position. This was the beginning of a great run of form, with a second place and another win following at the Nurburgring, with similar results coming in Hungary. Merhi was now Sainz’s biggest title rival and just 16 points behind. But the advantage swung back to his compatriot in Paul Ricard, where Merhi was off the podium, and a double non-score in Jerez relegated him to third in the final standings.
Merhi got a surprise opening at the Caterham F1 Team following their mid-season management change, and he got to do free practice in Monza, Suzuka and Sochi. Unfortunately the rumoured opportunity to race never came, not even when there was a seat going for Abu Dhabi. It would have been no less than this proven top single-seater racer deserves. It remains to be seen where he can go from here.
7. Pierre Gasly
France – age 18
Second in Formula Renault 3.5
The fifth consecutive Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 champion to make use of the scholarship prize to make the step up to FR3.5, Gasly not only had the performance of past graduates to live up to, but also the massive pressure that came with being a new recruit to the Red Bull Junior Team. And all at just 18. But Gasly coped wonderfully well, showing great maturity and consistency.
He made the podium in his first race and never looked back. In total, he made the podium in all but three weekends, and finished second on six occasions. He only failed to score in two races, and finishing second only to his more experienced Red Bull stable-mate Carlos Sainz – and only 35 points adrift – was a great effort. All that was missing was a win. His best opportunity for one came on home soil at Paul Ricard when he qualified on pole for race two, only to lose out to Sainz off the line. But every other part of his game was impressive, and he did with a team that was perhaps not as competitive as DAMS or Fortec.
Gasly contested the final three rounds of GP2 with the Caterham team which was tough with no testing and he failed to score points, but did qualify a very creditable sixth in Abu Dhabi. Switching to DAMS for the post-season tests, he showed incredible pace with the champion team, topping four of the six sessions. Red Bull have another top talent on their hands, and he could well be giving them a headache in 12 months’ time.
6. Alex Lynn
United Kingdom – age 21
GP3 Series champion
After his win in the Macau Grand Prix marked him out as a top talent, Lynn made a surprise entrance into the Red Bull Junior Team and switched to GP3 for 2014 with the aim of following Daniil Kvyat as champion and into F1. He succeeded in the first bit of that aim without it ever looking in doubt, but the second part will have to wait for now.
Sealing his place on the grid well before anybody else, a strong pre-season made Lynn the overwhelming title favourite and he backed that up by winning the main races in Barcelona and Spielberg from pole position. After that spectacular start, the rest of his season was more about consistency, and he learnt from the mistakes of failing to score in the reverse grid races in Spain and Austria to add to his tally in every remaining race. That included a double podium at Hockenheim and a Sunday win at Spa. He certainly lost his performance edge as the season wore on as his Saturday form declined, but he continued to drive well and pick up as many points as he could, and it was still as dominant a campaign as anybody has managed in GP3 before.
The emergence of Max Verstappen and the fact that another Red Bull Junior won a title in a higher series meant the F1 berth didn’t come for Lynn, despite both Toro Rosso seats changing hands. He seems confident of a role somewhere in F1 next year, though. There is a number between 3 and 1, and moving up to GP2 with Carlin would be sensible, and he has the capability to go his own way without Red Bull if needed. But a DTM seat also sounds plausible after a recent test with BMW.
5. Jolyon Palmer
United Kingdom – age 23
GP2 Series champion
Palmer did what really any driver needs to do if they come back for a fourth season in GP2 by winning the title, and he did so in pretty impressive fashion compared to the two champions before him. Joining the DAMS team and getting them back on top after a year away, Palmer did the opposite to his predecessor as team leader Marcus Ericsson by getting a brilliant start to the campaign.
On pole for the season opener in Bahrain, he was beaten to the win by a debutant but did well to come through to win the sprint race, following that up with a pair of second-places in Barcelona and then the feature race victory in Monaco, giving him a 44-point lead after just three weekends. Results were not quite as strong during the summer, but Spielberg was the only track where he failed to make the podium. He had to wait until the Monza sprint race to take a third win – completing a fine recovery from being excluded from qualifying – and his fourth followed in the Sochi feature race, allowing him to wrap up the title with three races to spare. It wasn’t until the next day that he failed to score a point after a spin – something he rather embarrassingly repeated in Abu Dhabi. Experience is all well and good, but Palmer impressed with his maturity and speed. Only three times did he fail to qualify on the front row and he was brilliant when overtaking, both aggressive and clean.
Being GP2 champion shouldn’t automatically get you to F1 but Palmer would deserve a place in a 22-car grid. However, with numbers shrinking, his budget wasn’t enough for Sauber, leaving him bitter about losing out to Ericsson and Nasr. Those seats did go to higher bidders but he is also hampered by taking nine seasons to get to this point and really impress. He has undoubtedly matured into a fine driver though, and will show that whatever he does next.
4. Carlos Sainz
Spain – age 20
Formula Renault 3.5 champion
After his disappointing seasons in Formula 3 and GP3, Sainz finally delivered on his potential this year in Formula Renault 3.5. Joining DAMS after they had turned Kevin Magnussen into a champion, the long-time Red Bull Junior took charge of the series from the very first weekend and led it until the end, claiming a series record seven victories along the way.
When he was winning, Sainz was usually untouchable. It was that way in the second race of the season at Monza, doing what he had been denied by a car issue the day beforehand. He was dominant in the first race in Aragon, and in both races at Spa, beating all his close rivals in Monaco inbetween. With four wins from the first seven races he had a 43-point lead. His problem was that when he wasn’t winning, he wasn’t even on the podium. DAMS struggled in Moscow, and his fifth win in race one at the Nurburgring was followed by a first corner collision on Sunday. He then looked all out of sorts in Hungary, and Merhi’s momentum had cut the gap to just 16 points. But Sainz responded perfectly in Paul Ricard, with another two commanding wins. That meant the title was wrapped up when Merhi crashed out at the first corner in Jerez – which turned out to be another tough weekend for DAMS where Sainz failed to score.
Having got over seeing first Daniil Kvyat and then Max Verstappen promoted into Toro Rosso seats ahead of him, Sainz got his reward for delivering Red Bull their first FR3.5 title and a place alongside Verstappen next year. There is still some perfecting to be done, but Sainz’s driving ability has always been up there with the best of his peers. This year he grew up.
3. Stoffel Vandoorne
Belgium – age 22
Second in GP2 Series
After finishing second in Formula Renault 3.5 as a rookie in 2013, Vandoorne took on what should have been a much tougher challenge in GP2 this year. But he made it look almost as straightforward, winning his first race, getting over a rough patch and ending the season as the form man with a record four consecutive pole positions.
After his magnificent win on debut in Bahrain, he then went five races without points after a stall in Barcelona and a strategy error by his ART team when running well in Monaco. He was back on the podium in Austria, there again at Silverstone, and twice missed out on wins at Hockenheim. That second victory finally came with a commanding display over Palmer and Nasr in the Hungary sprint race. His pole run then began at home at Spa, but he was overhauled for the win by Ferrari counterpart Raffaele Marciello. He put that right in Monza, and was leading in Sochi until a badly timed safety car caused him to do most of the race on the softer tyre, pulling away to salvage fifth, followed by a second on Sunday. In Abu Dhabi he was a dominant winner, and did enough in the sprint race to claim second in the championship. If we’re picking faults, he wasn’t great at progressing from further down the order in sprint races, and didn’t always get the best result from his pace, but that’s excusable for a rookie.
Vandoorne did more than enough in the second half of the year to show that he’s good enough for F1, but there just aren’t enough seats to accommodate him right now, and the arrival of Fernando Alonso has even caused him to be relegated from his McLaren reserve role. But they still rate him, giving him numerous testing opportunities during the year. For next year Vandoorne will have to go through another season of GP2, and it would take quite a disaster for him to not win the title. But it will give him experience of closing out a championship in a tough series – which might come in handy one day.
2. Max Verstappen
Netherlands – age 17
Third in FIA F3 European Championship
Zandvoort Masters winner
What is there to say about Verstappen? Well, being a top karter always bodes well. So did his apparent speed in early tests in cars, and wins in the Florida Winter Series. But stepping into European F3 straight out of karts? Too soon, surely. But as we learnt over the rest of 2014, Verstappen was no normal karting graduate. He was no normal 16-year-old.
Driving for a Van Amersfoort Racing team that had only made the podium once last year, there was no pressure to do anything special. But Verstappen was on the pace of the leading contenders from the off, and made the podium on his first weekend. He won on his second. At round five at Spa, he found another level, claiming an astonishing triple win at the fabled Belgian track. He did the same at the Norisring a week later. The following weekend, he won the prestigious Zandvoort Masters on home soil, albeit against a reduced field. F1 bigwigs were now fighting for his signature, and an erratic weekend in Spielberg didn’t prevent him joining Red Bull, running in their colours from the Nurburgring, where he would win again.
There was talk that he had been offered a 2015 race seat at Toro Rosso in order to secure his services, and it proved to be true. He’d been made an F1 driver at 16. He made his free practice debut before the final two rounds of the F3 championship, where he notched up another two wins but did lose the runner-up spot in the standings. In Macau he stayed out of trouble in practice and qualifying, but then pushed too hard in the qualifying race having got himself up into second. An impressive drive back to seventh in the main event wasn’t enough to reverse the mistake that the doubters were waiting for. Verstappen is an incredible prospect, but there is plenty of work to be done before he realises his full potential.
1. Esteban Ocon
France – age 18
FIA F3 European champion
Unlike Verstappen, Ocon may have had some single-seater experience under his belt, but he was still a rookie stepping into what was a highly competitive FIA F3 European Championship grid with good, older drivers, and yet the Formula Renault 2.0 graduate excelled from the beginning. His early form was incredible, and that was enough to carry him through slightly quieter times later on.
Winning the second race of the season at Silverstone from pole, three podiums that weekend made Ocon the early championship leader and he maintained that position until the end. He won again at Hockenheim, at Pau and then twice at the Hungaroring. He only missed the podium once in those first 12 races, and already had an 82-point lead. Forced to settle for second four times by Verstappen during the Spa and Norisiring weekends, he fought back with a hat-trick of his own in Moscow. A disappointingly scrappy weekend followed at Spielberg, but it speaks volumes about Ocon’s achievements this year that that was his only truly bad weekend. In the run-in, Nurburgring and Hockenheim weren’t great compared to what he did earlier on, but inbetween that, his ninth win of the campaign in the first race at Imola preceded him wrapping up the title before the end of the weekend. His Macau weekend started quietly but he almost took the lead on the first lap of the Grand Prix, only to break his suspension through little fault of his own, triggering the massive pile-up that followed.
Ocon’s season wasn’t perfect because it didn’t end as impressively as how it began, but it was still a remarkable campaign from a young man who only turned 18 in September. With the Lotus F1 Team and Gravity Sports Management behind him and his engine manufacturer Mercedes courting and promoting him too, his future looks bright. Next year, it looks like he will step up to GP2 and form a mouthwatering French super-team at DAMS with Gasly. The move up there from F3 is a big one and he might need a couple of years in the category, but then you might have said the same about F3 this year.