We present our verdict on the ten best drivers in junior single-seater racing in 2013.
10. Esteban Ocon
France – age 17
Third in Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0
After a solid learning year in his maiden single-seater campaign in 2012, Ocon took a big step forward this season and finished close behind the two title contenders in the ultra-competitive Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0.
After a switch from Koiranen – where he was in the shadows of Daniil Kvyat last year – to ART, the Lotus F1 junior was rapid in pre-season testing but couldn’t convert that into race-winning form to begin with. Second places at Motorland Aragon, Moscow and the Hungaroring were the highlights from the opening five weekends, where he was impressively consistent and a top ten finisher in every race outside of an off-weekend in Austria. His first win came in a thrilling wet-dry race on home soil at Paul Ricard, passing Dennis on the penultimate lap after the pair began on slicks and surged to the front as the track dried in the second half of the race. Another victory followed in the final race of the year once Pierre Gasly and Oliver Rowland clashed up front.
Ocon will race in the FIA F3 European Championship for Prema next year, and made a promising debut at Macau where he came back to finish tenth after stalling at the start. Having only turned 17 in September, he’s potentially got a big future ahead of him.
9. Oliver Rowland
United Kingdom – age 21
Second in Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0
Concerns over his off-track performance nearly saw Rowland lose his crucial backing from the Racing Steps Foundation over the winter, but he was handed the lifeline of a second Eurocup campaign. Forced to switch from Fortec to Manor MP, he moved to the Netherlands and worked with the team during the week.
After a podium at Aragon, Rowland claimed a superb first win of the campaign at Spa-Francorchamps though a non-finish in race two cost him points early on. He finished the following weekend at Moscow with the championship lead though, having finished second in race one to Pierre Gasly – who was emerging as his closest rival – and then won race two after contact with the Frenchman. A third win followed at Spielberg, but contact from RSF stablemate Jake Dennis at the Hungaroring came just as Gasly began to hit his stride, significantly reducing his lead. Another win for Gasly in France moved him ahead, and Rowland was left to pull off a desperate move in the final race in Barcelona which resulted in contact and a penalty. He only needs to look at last year to realise that finishing second in the Eurocup is no disaster though. He did also win half of the eight NEC races he contested.
Next year he will make the step up to Formula Renault 3.5, and will rejoin Fortec. He’s overcome one challenge this year, but following Robin Frijns and Stoffel Vandoorne at the team will probably be the greatest test of his career yet.
8. Felix Rosenqivst
Sweden – age 22
Second in FIA F3 European Championship, Masters of F3 winner
When Pascal Wehrlein was given a late call-up to the DTM, Rosenqvist stepped up to the plate to lead Mucke Motorsport and provide the challenge to Prema and Raffaele Marciello. Now in his fourth year of F3, the Swede allowed his rival to get a bit of a head start in the early rounds, but really gave him something to worry about later on with some exquisite performances.
He did score wins at Silverstone and Hockenheim, but it was Spielberg where he really came on strong. Despite not starting any of the races in Austria from pole, he won all three, with a particularly impressive round-the-outside move on Kvyat in the final race. That brought him in touch with Marciello, who failed to finish on the podium at all that weekend, and he edged closer with another win at the Norisring. He lost ground again as Marciello dominated at the Nurburgring, only to claim maximum points again at Zandvoort. Once again it coincided with a Marciello shocker and the gap was now less than ten points, but Rosenqvist’s inconsistency ultimately cost him. Another poor weekend in Vallelunga meant that a double win at Hockenheim was too late. In the one-offs, Macau victory eluded him but he did add a comfortable second Masters win to his resume.
Without lots of backing and the big reputation that some of his contemporaries have, it’s going to be hard for Rosenqvist to make the next step up the ladder that he deserves. His F3 success has proven his abilities, and it would be great to see him get a chance in the DTM or sportscars.
7. Sam Bird
United Kingdom – age 26
Second in GP2
For us to include someone of Bird’s age and experience this far up the top 50 shows just how impressive a job he did this year. When he joined the new Russian Time team just before the opening round of the season, he hadn’t driven the GP2 car for 15 months and the team had only had one test themselves since taking over from iSport.
He was fast from the very start, and delivered a first win in the Bahrain sprint race in just the team’s fourth race. In Monaco he survived a hit from behind in the start-line pile-up to win the feature race by more than 20 seconds. He followed that in the next round at Silverstone with another supreme win after going from fourth to first in one corner as those in front tripped over each other. Despite tough weekends in Germany and Hungary, another dominant win from pole at Spa thrust him into title contention. After a fifth win of the year in the Singapore sprint race, he was within seven points of Fabio Leimer going to Abu Dhabi and qualified ahead. Unfortunately he stalled from the front row, and that prevented him from overhauling the more consistent Swiss driver. On his day though he was absolutely the class of the field.
While he’s not future F1 champion material, his 2013 performances matched to his mileage with Mercedes probably mean that no other rookie could jump into an F1 seat right now and do as good a job as he could. He’s not going to get that chance without money though, so IndyCar or the DTM instead provide his best chances of racing next year.
6. Pierre Gasly
France – age 17
Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 champion
A promising rookie campaign in Formula Renault 2.0 last year put Gasly among the favourites for 2013 and the youngster ended up delivering the title after a superb campaign, setting himself up for a big future.
Early consistency helped him bank some early points with three podiums from the first four races, before a maiden win from pole position at Moscow. Still second behind Oliver Rowland at this stage, it was his performances in the three-round run-in that swung things in his favour. He was peerless in the wet first race in Hungary as others lost it dicing with each other, and added his third in on home soil at Paul Ricard. This put the pressure on his rival going into the final round, and that was eventually enough for him to secure the title.
That gave him a scholarship fund to use towards a Formula Renault 3.5 seat, and then he landed a place on the Red Bull Junior Team and an Arden drive for 2014. He was under observation by Helmut Marko’s scheme in 2012 but they opted not to sign him over the winter, only for his Eurocup title to obviously change their mind. The combined pressure of Red Bull and the FR3.5 performances of his predecessors Frijns and Vandoorne will be huge. Only 18 in February, if he can cope with it all he’ll be something rather special.
5. Marvin Kirchhofer
Germany – age 19
German F3 champion
It doesn’t take many words to explain why Kirchhofer’s season was good. In his second season of single-seaters, after winning the ADAC Formel Masters title at the first attempt last year, he dominated the German F3 Cup. He won exactly half of the 26 races, claimed 13 of the available 20 pole positions and also posted 17 fastest laps. He finished on the podium in all but one race. In that race, he was fourth.
So what about the competition? Kirchhofer’s Motopark team were absolutely the class of the field, but he had two good team-mates. He saw off Emil Bernstorff, who was ADAC Formel Masters runner-up in 2012 and had a season of European F3 under his belt, and Artem Markelov, who did German F3 last year and was fourth in ADAC Formel Masters the year before. Even if the rest of the field he had to pass in reverse grid races wasn’t that strong, he still managed to do so cleanly – proven by his complete lack of non-finishes.
Having dominated the domestic scene, it’s time for Kirchhofer to step up a level and test himself against the very best. That could be in GP3, where he may stay in the Motopark family by racing for Russian Time, or go to an established squad like Arden who he has also tested for. European F3 is an alternative, having tested for Prema and more recently Fortec.
4. Raffaele Marciello
Italy – age 19
FIA F3 European Champion
Marciello might have been the favourite for the FIA F3 European Championship title this year, but the fact that he delivered on that expectation so confidently makes it hard to believe that he only turned 19 this week. He led the championship from start to finish, and his triumph was never really in doubt even if there were a couple of wobbly weekends along the way.
He began on the front foot with two wins at Monza, and even though fellow 2012 star Pascal Wehrlein then disappeared to take up a DTM ride, the more experienced Felix Rosenqvist provided an adequate challenge once he really got firing. That was shown by the Swede’s maximum points hauls at Spielberg at Zandvoort as Marciello suffered nightmare weekends, but the Ferrari protege twice got back up and stretched his advantage again – once with a treble of his own at the Nurburgring and later with two wins at Vallelunga which made things relatively straightforward going into the Hockenheim finale. He undoubtedly had the best package with Prema, but was still a class ahead of his talented (albeit less experienced) team-mates and took 13 wins and 12 pole positions. He claimed pole position at Macau too, but a poor launch left him playing catch-up and eventually led to him crashing out.
He set a stunning pace in tests in GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5 and will surely be a star in whichever series Ferrari opts to place him in next year.
3. Daniil Kvyat
Russia – age 19
It’s been a whirlwind year for Kvyat, who missed out on the Eurocup Formula Renault crown 12 months ago but is now a Formula 1 driver after an unstoppable late charge to the GP3 title interspersed with some fine performances in F3.
The GP3 campaign began difficultly at Barcelona, but Kvyat quickly got a handle on things and delivered four straight top-fives across the Valencia and Silverstone rounds. Battery failure wrecked his Nurburgring weekend, but his progress continued with a first podium in Hungary. He found the next level at Spa with a first win – one of three consecutive dominant race one victories that saw him catch and pass Facu Regalia to wrap up the title. In F3 he was ineligible for points but was fast from his debut at Hockenheim, where he claimed a pole position. He took a trio of poles at Spielberg and finally grabbed a first win at Zandvoort.
Even before the Abu Dhabi GP3 finale, he had sealed a 2014 F1 ride with Toro Rosso. It certainly seems to be early (why skip out Formula Renault 3.5?) and there may be motivations for Red Bull other than his own ability, but there’s no doubt that if handled properly by his bosses, he’s got the talent and maturity to make it work.
2. Stoffel Vandoorne
Belgium – age 21
Second in Formula Renault 3.5
Impressive winter testing and the performances of his predecessor Robin Frijns last year meant that Vandoorne’s rookie season in Formula Renault 3.5 was not a surprise, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an excellent campaign.
Winning his first race at this level at Monza was stunning, and he was the early championship leader. He lacked consistency, but he was unbeatable at his best. After a second win of the campaign at home at Spa, he then completely dominated the Moscow weekend with two comfortable wins from pole position. He was back in the points lead at this point, but three retirements cost him in the second half of the year, even if he was in the top four when he did make it to the finish. He wasn’t a match for his fellow McLaren junior Kevin Magnussen, but that’s no big deal given just how great the Dane was. Magnussen did graduate out of Formula Renault 2.0 at the end of 2009, too, even if Vandoorne is actually a few months older.
With no real room for him in Formula 1 just yet, he will benefit from another year of single-seater racing in GP2 next year. He was a pace-setter with the DAMS team in Abu Dhabi testing but with their seats now taken, he will have to go elsewhere.
1. Kevin Magnussen
Denmark – age 21
Formula Renault 3.5 champion
Magnussen grew from a promising young driver into a champion ready for a Formula 1 drive with McLaren during 2013. He hadn’t won a title since Danish Formula Ford in 2008, and in his rookie Formula Renault 3.5 campaign last year he was quick but ragged and inconsistent.
After settling for a pair of seconds at Monza, he signalled what he was capable of with a dominant win at Motorland Aragon. Another victory at Spa helped him on his way, although he briefly lost the points lead again after Vandoorne’s Moscow heroics. A run of five podium finishes then helped him build a gap, before finding another gear going to Paul Ricard. There he was dominant, but denied a race one win by a technical infringement. The next day was the perfect example of his maturity, as he bounced back to deliver another emphatic win and get one hand on the championship. He sealed the deal in perfect fashion with a double victory in Barcelona. In a league of his own on his day, he was also capable of settling for a decent haul of points the rest of the time.
McLaren have been impressed with racing, his F1 testing and his approach out of the car. Only more mileage in an F1 car would make him more ready for his debut than he already is.