The penultimate part of our Top 50 drivers review lists those that made it as far as the top 20.
20. Lucas Auer
Austria – age 19
Fourth in FIA F3 European Championship, third in Toyota Racing Series
Auer began the year with a strong second campaign in the Toyota Racing Series, leading the standings after two early wins but eventually slipping back to third behind Nick Cassidy and Alex Lynn. He then embarked on his first full season in the FIA F3 European Championship revived by uncle Gerhard Berger, driving for top team Prema.
With a year in the German series under his belt, Auer was a factor from the start with a second place in the opening race at Monza. Another podium followed at Silverstone, while at Brands Hatch he made the most of Prema’s dominance around the short Indy circuit with two third-places and a maiden race win. In his continued rivalry with Lynn, he was now ahead in third place in the standings and was still there with three rounds remaining after more podiums. Poor form at Zandvoort and Vallelunga compared to his team-mate eventually cost him the spot, but fourth was still a strong result for his first year in FIA-rules F3.
A switch to rival team Mucke Motorsport last week appeared to set up a 2014 title battle between him and Lynn, only for the Briton to join Red Bull yesterday and leave Prema for GP3. Staying with the Italian squad would now have made Auer the overwhelming favourite – trying to achieve the same with Mucke could provide a great challenge for a driver who’s still only 19.
19. Nico Muller
Switzerland – age 21
Fifth in Formula Renault 3.5
Muller showed strong progress in his second year in Formula Renault 3.5 with the unfancied Draco squad, with the highlights being two superb drives to victory in Monaco and Hungary.
He lost some points early on with inconsistency in the opening couple of rounds but then dominated the Monaco weekend, really putting his name on the map for the first time as he put the big names and F1 team-backed drivers into the shade on the morning of the Monaco Grand Prix. Just like in Monte Carlo, his Hungary win was proof of his own ability when that of the car was maybe not so important, finishing nearly half a minute ahead of the rest in treacherously wet conditions. Aside from his two wins, he would only score one other podium all season – a second place at Paul Ricard. That was opposite to the consistent Will Stevens and Nigel Melker who sandwiched him in the final standings.
Muller has long been linked to a factory role with Audi and tested their current DTM machine in the middle of the year. He has also been testing in GP2, and it would be good to see him race there next year in a proven team if his budget allows.
18. Will Stevens
United Kingdom – age 22
Fourth in Formula Renault 3.5
In contrast to Muller, for Stevens there were no particularly big results, but to finish fourth in the standings in Formula Renault 3.5 behind three drivers as highly-rated as Kevin Magnussen, Stoffel Vandoorne and Antonio Felix da Costa is a huge achievement and boosts a career that had been somewhat under the radar since his karting exploits.
The Stevens-P1 partnership had performed well in previous tests, and after a frustrating double non-score in Monza he showed what he was capable of with a searing drive from 11th to second at Motorland Aragon. Two more podiums in Spa and Moscow and a number of other high-scoring results brought him up to third in the standings with three weekends remaining. An awful time in Hungary undid all the hard work, but he saved his best performance until the final meeting at Barcelona. There, he forced champion-elect Magnussen into mistakes as he took second in race one, and then finished third behind the championship top-two in the final race of the campaign.
Now on the books at the Caterham F1 Team, Stevens will either move into their GP2 squad next year or hang on for another year in FR3.5 and attempt to win the title.
17. Felipe Nasr
Brazil – 21
Fourth in GP2
They say you’re only as good as your last race, and so Nasr has ended the year with plenty of doubters after spurning another chance of victory in the GP2 season finale with a first corner collision. But to judge him solely on how he ended the season would be to forget the heroics he performed at the start of it.
In his second year in the series, he finished all of the first eight races inside the top four. In Bahrain he had come to within 0.08 seconds of victory. At Silverstone he threw caution to wind in chase of that first win, but sustained race-ending contact a few corners into the race. He led in Hungary but a slow stop relegated him to third. At Spa, he was within six points of struggling leader Stefano Coletti, and was fighting back from a poor qualifying with some bold overtaking moves, but then went too far and hit team-mate Jolyon Palmer. In Singapore he led, but succumbed to Palmer’s stronger pace late in the race.
There are obviously still some rough edges, certainly when it comes to performing under pressure, but a driver who was so highly-rated will not want to spend more than two years in GP2. After all, he beat Kevin Magnussen in F3. With David and Steve Robertson of Raikkonen fame as his managers and a large sponsorship package acquired off the back of being Brazil’s big next hope, he’s been looking for an F1 chance. He may have to settle for a reserve role with Williams, but a run of Friday practices would be great preparation.
16. James Calado
United Kingdom – age 24
Third in GP2
2013 was meant to be the year that Calado won the GP2 title after his outstanding rookie season last year. It ended up being something of a nightmare in that sense, but the fact that he rescued third place in the standings proved his class and should prove to be a great experience.
Things started positively enough with a second place in the first race, but a careless collision on the first lap of the sprint race with Fabio Leimer ended up having a major impact on his season. It caused damage to his chassis that went undetected for several rounds, and it wasn’t until the Silverstone sprint race that he just about scraped his way back onto the podium. The Nurburgring was his best weekend of the season, delivering a pair of second places even though the ART team continued to struggle for pace. At Spa he claimed his first win of the year from pole in race two, but only after having to work hard to keep Julian Leal behind like he had done at Silverstone. By Abu Dhabi there was finally some speed, and after fighting back from a grid penalty after an uncharacteristic deliberate blocking move in qualifying, he drove away from the field to take another sprint race win.
Thanks to the efforts of new manager Nicolas Todt and long-term backers the Racing Steps Foundation, Calado did a series of free practice runs with Force India and deserves more such opportunities in 2014. A Mercedes DTM seat also looks like a possibility.
15. Antonio Felix da Costa
Portugal – age 22
Third in Formula Renault 3.5
Felix da Costa impressed everyone with his performances in late 2012 but came into this year needing to thread it all together into a title winning campaign in Formula Renault 3.5. He didn’t, and that has cost him dearly in terms of missing out on an F1 opportunity. It that context, his season was a disaster, but three wins in a series that was very competitive at the front was still a good effort.
His puncture-enforced retirement from second place in the season opener at Monza was a good sign of what was to come, even if he recovered to win race two. That non-finish combined with a poor weekend at Motorland Aragon quickly left him playing catch up, and he was hard on himself when he finished behind Kevin Magnussen at Monaco and Spa. A fine win in Hungary – where he overhauled Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne during the pitstops and then drove away from them – helped him salvage third in the standings, but ultimately finishing behind the McLaren pair didn’t go down well.
They might have preferred Daniil Kvyat for the Toro Rosso seat, but Red Bull have kept hold of Felix da Costa and an F1 reserve role means he should be in pole position if the chance arises during 2014. He’s also landed a BMW drive in a DTM grid that’s growing in quality by the year.
14. Fabio Leimer
Switzerland – age 24
After coming back for a fourth year of GP2, Leimer did what he had to do and won the title. It wouldn’t have been possible without the points he banked early on with wins in the opening two feature races of the year in Malaysia and Bahrain.
Non-scoring weekends in Barcelona and Monaco saw him lose ground to the then-leaders, and he would only add one more win – in the Monza feature race. However, he kept his head as everyone else lost theirs. From the Nurburgring onwards, his worst result was sixth. In four of those last six weekends, he followed up a fourth or a fifth in the feature race with a third place in the sprint race. It wasn’t the most spectacular way of winning a championship, but it certainly proved to be effective. Five-time winner Sam Bird was a threat going into the final weekend but while he stalled, Leimer kept his cool and continued banking the points he needed to wrap it all up.
But when you take that long to win in GP2, you either need a large sponsorship cheque or a particularly convincing campaign to attract interest from F1 teams, and he has neither. He might be able to attract some form of reserve role, but like Davide Valsecchi before him, getting any mileage will be difficult. F1 might be out of reach, but he would make a great professional racing driver in sportscars or the DTM.
13. Alex Lynn
United Kingdom – age 20
Macau Grand Prix winner, third in FIA F3 European Championsip, second in Toyota Racing Series
For most of 2013, Lynn quietly developed out of the limelight in the FIA F3 European Championship, just as he had done in the British series last year. As Raffaele Marciello and Felix Rosenqvist won 24 of the 30 races as they fought over the title, the less-experienced Lynn largely played a supporting role.
Strong weekends at Brands Hatch and the Norisring produced wins, and he finished all three Zandvoort races on the podium before a third and final victory of the campaign at Vallelunga. That was enough to secure the position of best series newcomer in third overall, ahead of team-mate Lucas Auer (who he had been fighting with since the Toyota Racing Series in January). Then came Macau. Having got pole on his debut last year, Lynn arrived amongst the contenders. He recovered from a crash to qualify third, and then overhauled Rosenqvist and Marciello to win the qualifying race. A lights-to-flag drive secured him victory in the biggest event in junior racing.
Since then he’s gone from weighing up a Formula Renault 3.5 move to negotiating another year of F3 with Prema to the surprise addition to the Red Bull Junior Team and a Carlin GP3 ride. He doesn’t need financial help from the energy drink giant, but they could provide the opportunity to follow Daniil Kvyat into F1 if he performs.
12. Antonio Fuoco
Italy – age 17
Formula Renault 2.0 Alps champion
Fuoco proved in his first season of single-seaters why he was chosen to join the Ferrari Driver Academy after impressing in private tests at Fiorano. Prema Powerteam were the class of the field in Formula Renault 2.0 Alps but in Luca Ghiotto and Bruno Bonifacio, Fuoco had two more experienced team-mates who had been title contenders in Formula Abarth last year.
He was a race winner in his weekend at Vallelunga and finished the weekend with a points lead that he would never surrender. He claimed double wins at Imola and Mugello, as well at one at Monza in-between. It was never comfortable for him, but things were helped by the fact that the balance shifted from Bonifacio to Ghiotto as the year went on, meaning neither was a year-long threat to Fuoco. Anyone who wants to point to a lack of competition though only needs to look at his sole guest appearance in the Eurocup where he scored a pole position and a pair of top five finishes.
That was a glimpse of what he could have done in a full-season in the Eurocup, but Ferrari have been sufficiently impressed to place Fuoco in the FIA F3 European Championship in place of Raffaele Marciello at Prema. Given Marciello had a fairly low-key rookie season in cars, there could be plenty more to come from Fuoco yet.
11. Facu Regalia
Argentina – age 22
Second in GP3
When he signed for ART’s GP3 team, Regalia was just another well-backed South American on the junior ladder, with his only race wins in Europe having come in the F3 Open last year. But he was only denied the GP3 title in his first full season by the unstoppable late charge of Daniil Kvyat.
Pre-season had suggested he could race with his more illustrious team-mates, and this was proven at round two at Valencia when he chased Conor Daly to the chequered flag in the first race. After picking up another podium at Silverstone, he found another level at the Nurburgring to claim pole and a lights-to-flag win. He was now the closest man to points leader Tio Ellinas, and caught and passed the pre-season favourite with a pair of third-places at Spa. His ability to stay out of trouble gave him another top three at Monza and strengthened his lead. A ragged finale in Abu Dhabi as he succumbed to Kvyat suggested he’s got some more qualities to add to his game, but this was some breakthrough season.
He should race in GP2 next year, just as his manager Adrian Campos revives his team in the series. There’s also the possibility of a tie-up with Force India, helped by a pre-existing sponsorship deal from his father’s firm.