Although attempting to rank the best drivers of the year in the junior single-seater discipline is a bit more straightforward than trying to compare the relative merits of competitors across different sections of motorsport, it’s still not an easy task. Factors to try and balance include the position of a series on the ladder, the strength of the competition, the experience of the driver and of course their performance.
While the order of drivers can be considered to be quite important at the sharp end, much of this list is about giving the recognition that drivers deserve from a variety of different series, and that’s why it’s a Top 50 rather than 20 or 30.
We will publish the Top 50 Drivers over the next five days, with this first instalment covering the drivers from 50 to 41 and featuring top performances not just from Europe but also Brazil, New Zealand and Macau.
50. Andrew Tang
Singapore – age 20
Toyota Racing Series champion
Tang’s 2014 campaign was unfortunately cut rather short, but he began it in style by claiming the first title on offer each year, the Toyota Racing Series, become the first overseas driver to do so. He began his second crack at the five-week racing tour of New Zealand as an immediate frontrunner, despite having joined up with a new entrant to the category, Neale Motorsport.
He won the reverse grid encounter at the first round at Teretonga, and added another win the following weekend at Timaru. For the remaining three rounds he was consistently at the sharp end, claiming seven podiums including a further win, and that was enough for him to pip Jann Mardenborough to the crown by eight points.
Now hoping to prove himself in Europe, he was set for a second season in Formula Renault 2.0 Alps and made a late switch from Jenzer to Prema to boost his chances. He made a solid start with points in both of the opening races but sadly those would be his last of the season, forced out by compulsory military service that had been hanging over him during his TRS triumph. The timing is poor, but hopefully he can return to action before too long and be able to build upon his success.
49. Pedro Piquet
Brazil – age 16
F3 Brazil champion
A younger son of three-time F1 champion Nelson Piquet, Pedro made his entrance into single-seater racing at the start of 2014 in the Toyota Racing Series. His time in New Zealand only lasted two weekends due to an issue over the communication of his age, but he was able to spend the rest of the year making an impact in his nation F3 series.
The series was revitalised this year, with bigger grid numbers, but Piquet dominated. He began with a double victory in the opening round, and would repeat that feat (each time overcoming the reverse grid format) a further three times. In all, he won 11 of the 16 races. The quality of his opposition is obviously questionable – the only driver to beat him to the win more than once was fellow karting graduate Vitor Baptista in older B-class equipment – and this often allowed him to get away with some errors. But no matter what the competition was, to be the class of the field by quite a margin at his age and experience level shows he’s one to watch.
Of course with a name like that and associated backing, we can be sure that young Piquet will be able to go far if he’s good enough. He’s been testing in Europe with teams like Carlin and Van Amersfoort Racing, and after Max Verstappen lowered the entry barrier to the European series quite considerably, that’s a sensible move for him for 2015.
48. Nick Cassidy
New Zealand – age 20
Third in Macau Grand Prix
Much of Cassidy’s year was quiet, but he just had to be included here once again after ending 2014 with the highest profile achievement of his career to date, confirming his abilities against top opposition. The Toyota Racing Series champion of 2012 and 2013 did just one round in the category this time, enough to claim a third straight New Zealand Grand Prix crown.
As in 2012, his pre-season efforts to break into Europe yielded a late deal for the start of the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 season, this time with Koiranen. There was promise, but it’s a tough series to nail at the best of times, particularly without testing, not competing in the regional series and without good knowledge of the tracks, and he managed just three points finishes from a ten-race stint. Opportunities were coming in F3 though, and after two single-round deals last year, he now got a three-event spell with T-Sport. Imola and Hockenheim brought a best finish of 11th, but he shone when it mattered most – in Macau. Despite no previous experience on the tricky street circuit, he was on the pace all weekend, stayed out of trouble and finished a magnificent third – having run second for most of the main race before eventually succumbing to Lucas Auer.
If that’s not enough to get a full-time shot in European F3 next year, I’m not sure what will be. Hopefully it may be enough to convince potential backers that he deserves the same chances as Evans and Stanaway before him.
47. Norman Nato
France – age 22
Seventh in Formula Renault 3.5 Series
For much of his second season in Formula Renault 3.5 with DAMS, Nato continued to struggle, with new team-mate Carlos Sainz providing just as tough a yardstick as Kevin Magnussen had done. But, in two of the 17 races, he was the class of the field, winning on merit, and he deserves his place here as recognition of that achievement.
He mustered just a single point from the first four races, but then came Monaco. For the man from Cannes, this was something of a home race. And if there is one event for any FR3.5 driver to do well in, it’s the race on the morning of the Monaco Grand Prix. Nato was quickest in practice, took pole and led the race from start to finish, completing a hat-track of wins for DAMS on the support bill that weekend. In the rounds that followed there were some solid points, but there were also weekends where he was anonymous again, like Moscow. He showed Monaco wasn’t a one-off though when he won race two in Hungary after a fast start from P3 on the grid. For most of the season he was disappointingly low key, but on two occasions he reminded the world of the driver that was the closest man to Stoffel Vandoorne in F4 in 2010, and took the fight to Daniil Kvyat in FR2.0 in 2012.
He did a full three days of GP2 testing in Abu Dhabi with a trio of good teams, and a move there might do him good if it’s viable. Alternatively, a future in something like LMP2 might suit him well.
46. Matthieu Vaxiviere
France – age 20
Eighth in Formula Renault 3.5 Series
Vaxiviere scored six fewer points than his compatriot Nato in Formula Renault 3.5 this year, but gets a slightly higher spot courtesy of what was a pretty impressive rookie season in the category, re-establishing the reputation of this French F4 champion after a couple of disappointing years in FR2.0. And it came despite missing two rounds to injury.
He picked up some points early on in Aragon but his season was then derailed by a fractured vertebrae sustained on the first lap in Monaco. He made it back in time for the Nurburgring, where his form was even stronger, taking second place in race two. That would be the start of a run of seven points-scoring finishes from the last seven races, including a fifth in Hungary, third at Paul Ricard and fourth at Jerez. Eighth in the standings might not seem like much compared to his old rival Gasly, but it was still a strong performance and, in particular, a great recovery from his enforced lay-off.
He regularly set the pace in post-season testing, remaining with the Lotus-branded Charouz-run squad, and a second campaign in 2015 should see him move up the rankings. He enjoys some strong backing, and his main sponsor Francois Perrodo even gave him a Pro-Am Porsche drive alongside him in the World Endurance Championship this year. While that offers a good opportunity for the future, he’s earned a second season FR3.5 in the meantime.
45. Marco Sorensen
Denmark – age 24
11th in GP2 Series
12th in Formula Renault 3.5 Series
Sorensen’s year started with him flying upside down after just one lap at Monza, and that would end up as a bit of a metaphor for his third season in FR3.5 – his worst yet. But he also took the chance to redeem himself in a part-campaign of GP2, where he was a consistent points-scorer from the off and claimed a race win.
Perennially underfunded, Sorensen landed support from Saxo Bank over the winter, leading to a Lotus F1 reserve role and another year in FR3.5, moving to Tech 1 after a tough 2013. His fortunes didn’t improve though – aside from repeating his P2 in Monaco, his best was seventh as he consistently struggled for pace. His GP2 opportunity was therefore something of a reprieve. Thrown in at the deep end at Silverstone with no previous running in the car, and with an unfancied team in MP Motorsport, he scored points in both races, stealing eighth from Stoffel Vandoorne in race two. He repeated his double scoring feat at the next round at Hockenheim, where he ran very well in the damp second race to claim P4. He would have another double points finish at Monza and then again in Sochi, where he won race two from the reverse grid pole.
Hopefully, his performances will earn him a full GP2 campaign in 2015 with a top team, although he was absent from testing. It will probably depend on Saxo Bank continuing their deal with Lotus though, and these things are often unpredictable.
44. Jann Mardenborough
United Kingdom – age 23
Second in Toyota Racing Series
Ninth in GP3 Series
Mardenborough proved himself in single-seaters in his second year in 2014, narrowly missing out on a title and winning a race in GP3. He had shown promise in F3 last year – having only ended up there after impressive test outings intended to prepare him for Le Mans prototypes – but this time he was able to demonstrate his abilities.
In the Toyota Racing Series, a lack of consistency meant he had to settle for second, but with his first three single-seater wins he showed that he could now turn his speed into results. His opening two rounds of GP3 saw him get himself into strong positions, only to spin them away, and at Silverstone he failed get much out of a P4 grid slot and a great launch. But progress was made, and at Hockenheim he won race two from the reverse grid pole, and scored another podium a week later in Hungary. At Spa he was twice fourth, and more points followed in Sochi. The whole Arden team struggled in qualifying, but it was Mardenborough that often made the best race progress and he was their top scorer, ahead of two drivers who entered the series when the GT Academy graduate was embarking on his first year of racing.
He’s learning fast, but he still had a massive experience deficit to his competitors, and it’s clear what he could achieve given further seasons in single-seaters. But he’s also a dead cert for a part in Nissan’s new LMP1 project, given his performances in sportscars so far – the question is whether that will be a full-time WEC drive. He hasn’t done a lot of single-seater testing in recent weeks, but was very fast in Super Formula in Japan, a hotbed for LMP1 stars.
43. Pietro Fittipaldi
Brazil – age 18
Protyre Formula Renault champion
Ninth in Formula Renault 2.0 Alps
The grandson of Emerson Fittipaldi ended his second year of single-seater racing with a dominant performance in the Protyre Formula Renault series in the UK. After a dual campaign of Renaults and BRDC F4 in 2013, he focussed on the latter this year and capitalised on his year’s experience.
At the opening round at Rockingham he won race one, but it was the subsequent rounds where he really hit his stride, claiming eight consecutive wins across Donington, Brands Hatch and Snetterton. He winning run was ended at the penultimate round at Croft, but victory in race two there was enough to wrap up the title ahead of a relatively scrappy final round at Silverstone. Particularly impressive about his hit rate was that he was only on pole for two of the ten races he won, often holding his nerve as others messed up their starts, or winning out in racing combat. Later in the season, Fittipaldi tested himself against tougher continental competition in the Alps series and scored some top five finishes with his regular MGR Motorsport squad, before sampling top European squad Koiranen in the Alps and Eurocup finales.
While a full-time assault on the Eurocup is a possibility for 2015, it makes more sense after two years in FR2.0 machinery to make the leap into F3, and has been testing to that aim with Fortec.
42. Kimiya Sato
Japan – age 25
Auto GP champion
After finishing as runner-up in Auto GP in 2013, Sato’s season was supposed to be about him stepping up to GP2. But while that was a rather low-profile disappointment, a spontaneous dual programme in Auto GP saw him claim the title in dominant fashion despite only taking part in six of the eight race weekends, winning half of the races he started.
Returning with the same Euronova team as before (thanks to the relationship between his manager Taki Inoue and his ex-F3000 team-mate Vincenzo Sospiri), Sato won the erratic opener in Marrakech and finished second in race two, setting him up for a title challenge. A double victory at the Hungaroring gave him a large enough margin to skip Monza with his lead intact, before claiming main race wins at Imola, Spielberg and the Nurburgring to seal the crown with a round to go. In GP2, he seemed to adapt to the car quickly in pre-season testing but his campaign was one of various woes, and it wasn’t until the penultimate event in Sochi that he notched up what would be his only two points. As good as his Auto GP performances were – against a few other established and successful single-seater campaigners – his lacklustre GP2 showing tarnished his efforts.
Having another go at GP2 would make sense for Sato for 2015. Whatever is said about the level of Auto GP, it’s clear that he can drive a big car quickly and confidently, so there should be nothing stopping him. At the same time, at 25, it may be time to pursue options outside of single-seaters.
41. Sandy Stuvik
Thailand – age 19
Euroformula Open champion
It was a little puzzling that Stuvik returned for a second season in the rebranded Euroformula Open (previously F3 Open), given that he had finished second in 2013 and even tallied the most points, only to lose out to Ed Jones on dropped scores. But, he did the only thing that would have been acceptable upon his return, and that was to win the title. And he did so, eventually, in commanding style.
Early on though, he did make hard work of it. Defeated by car racing debutant Alex Palou in race one, it looked like things might be tougher than expected, and even though he won four of the next five races, a poor weekend at the Hungaroring led to him losing the points lead to his lesser-known team-mate Artur Janosz, with Palou not far behind. But Stuvik was a phenomenal force after that. Two wins at Silverstone. Two wins at Spa. Two wins at Monza. Title in hand, he claimed his 11th win from the 16-race season in the final round at Barcelona.
After this success, Stuvik must now test himself against tougher opposition. As last winter, he has tested in GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5, and it really would be a surprise to see him fail to make the jump this time.