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The class of 2014: The drivers set to shine this year

by Peter Allen

Photo: Francois Flamand/DPPI

Each year, a few drivers put in good enough performances to transcend the world of junior single-seaters and reach mainstream conciousness.

In 2013, there were four drivers who really achieved that – and they finished in the top four spots in our rundown of the year’s best. They were Kevin Magnussen, Stoffel Vandoorne, Daniil Kvyat and Raffaele Marciello.

Magnussen and Kvyat impressed their mentors so much that they will race in Formula 1 this year, for McLaren and Toro Rosso respectively. There’s great excitement around both, and we’ll be watching with interest as they take part in a new era for F1.

Meanwhile, Vandoorne and Marciello have been sent to GP2 by McLaren and Ferrari respectively, poised to shake up a series that had been in decline. Recent seasons have seen veterans prevail over talented rookies, but these two stars have the ability to put a stop to that trend. Among their competition will be the returning Jolyon Palmer, Felipe Nasr, Alexander Rossi and Mitch Evans, as they look to make a case for a place in F1.

So, which young drivers will make a name for themselves in 2014?

Formula Renault 3.5 has become a good place to look in recent years for the next big names, and 2014 looks set to be no different. GP2 may have bagged a pair of big names in Vandoorne and Marciello, but FR3.5 has already recruited some talented – if lesser known – drivers and the door is now open for them to catch the eye this year.

Will Stevens finished fourth last year, so comes into 2014 as the favourite after opting to contest a third year in the series rather than switch to GP2. Once a top karter who was recruited by the Honda F1 team, his single-seater career has been a bit of a slow burner, and he’s only won four races in five years. Now on the books at Caterham, he needs to start a winning habit, but was often the closest man to Magnussen and Vandoorne last year and has a fast package under him at Strakka (previously P1 Motorsport).

Marco Sorensen has had a mixed two seasons at this level, with bad luck restricting him to sixth in 2012 – yet that was still one spot ahead of fellow Dane Magnussen – before a troublesome 2013 where he and his team often lacked competitiveness on the way to seventh overall, with the obvious exception of a double win at Spielberg. However, the Lotus F1 Team rates him enough to promote him into a reserve driver role and he’s gained some beneficial mutual backing from Saxo Bank, too. In FR3.5, he’s been moved away from the Charouz-run Lotus squad and across to multiple champions Tech 1. There, he could be joined by Nigel Melker – sixth last year with the French outfit – if the figures add up.

Like Stevens, another returning driver looking to make the step to race wins is Sergey Sirotkin. He of course has already made a name for himself in F1 circles, but at the moment it’s for all the wrong reasons following his backers’ abortive attempts to get him a Sauber seat. While many F1 observers don’t know it, the Russian has bags of talent and a second year at this level is his big chance to prove it. Joining Fortec will give him a more consistently competitive car than he had at ISR last year.

Sergey Sirotkin

Sirotkin has a great chance to prove his F1 credentials (Photo: Jose Espallargas/ASM)

One of the aces up the sleeve of FR3.5 is its baby brother on the World Series by Renault package, the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0. That has sent Robin Frijns and Vandoorne up to FR3.5 in the past couple of years, and 2013’s top two from the Eurocup are also making the jump.

When Pierre Gasly won the 2013 Eurocup title, he wasn’t well-known except by those who follow the series closely. That all changed when he was finally recruited to the Red Bull Junior Team (he was under close observation by the programme in 2012). Not 18 until next Friday, he’s now been thrust into the limelight that shines on any driver who is identified as a potential future driver for the multiple F1 champions. Stepping into Antonio Felix da Costa’s shoes at the Arden team, Gasly will hopefully be given time to build up his experience level before being expected to perform miracles.

Gasly’s 2013 rival Oliver Rowland also makes the step up. Four and a half years’ Gasly’s senior, Rowland follows in the footsteps of Frijns and Vandoorne by joining Fortec. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a driver who came close to losing his crucial backing from the Racing Steps Foundation 12 months ago due to concerns over his off-track commitment. He is a McLaren Autosport BRDC Award winner and was once backed by the F1 team themselves as a karter. Like Frijns and Vandoorne before him, the 21-year-old should be mature enough to handle the big step up in machinery.

While Gasly and Rowland replace Felix da Costa and Vandoorne respectively, the man charged with filling the champion’s boots at DAMS is Carlos Sainz. He was comprehensively overshadowed by fellow Red Bull Junior Kvyat in GP3 last year, and that after a difficult F3 campaign in 2012. He showed on his FR3.5 debut in Monaco what he could be capable of at this level – running fourth until a race-long brake issue saw him succumb to Magnussen and Felix da Costa. While he could probably hold the Zeta Corse team responsible for his lack of results in further appearances last year, the same excuse won’t wash when he’s in Magnussen’s old car.

Along with Gasly and Sainz, a streamlined Red Bull young driver roster this year is completed by Alex Lynn. The Briton’s signature with the Austrian firm comes after he put his name onto the list of the most highly-rated drivers with victory in the Macau Grand Prix. He doesn’t need the financial support that comes with the Red Bull support, but does see it as his best chance of getting an F1 drive. Aiming to follow in the footsteps of Kvyat, he makes the switch to GP3 to drive for Carlin. He’s got both the speed and the experience to be a title contender from the off if he can get to grips with the car.

Alex Lynn

Lynn aims to use the Red Bull Junior Team as a springboard to F1 (Photo: David Robinson/Red Bull Content Pool)

Details of this year’s GP3 grid are still sketchy (only ten of the 27 drivers have been announced at the time of writing), but it seems that most of Lynn’s competition will come from returning drivers. Robert Visoiu and Patric Niederhauser have signed with Arden for their third years in the series. They stepped up from Formula Abarth together in 2012 as team-mates at Jenzer. Visoiu moved on to Arden last year and took two wins from reverse-grid poles, but wasn’t a factor the rest of the time. On the other hand, Niederhauser enjoyed a promising rookie season with two wins but struggled badly in 2013. He was fast in post-season testing with Arden and both he and Visoiu have got the potential to be contenders with Arden, who have claimed the past two drivers’ titles.

Another former Jenzer driver is expected to be a frontrunner in Alex Fontana. After a few promising appearances in 2011 and 2012, he finally joined the series full-time last year, but like Niederhauser he struggled with Jenzer. Highly-rated by those at the Lotus F1 Team, he will line up with ART after spending all three days of testing with the French squad, who have won all four GP3 teams’ titles to date. Alongside him will be Dino Zamparelli, who was a consistent points scorer with Marussia Manor last year and should be able to make a step forward in competitiveness.

Nick Yelloly seems likely to be the highest-placed 2013 driver to return, having finished sixth last year with four podium finishes. He might have his work cut out this time though, having switched from Carlin to Status Grand Prix. Status were race winners in the first three years of GP3 so know what they’re doing, but they had a nightmare last year with the revamped car and their regular drivers scored just two points between them.

Another likely contender will be Dean Stoneman, who came within a few tenths of a win in the final race of last year, on his first weekend in a single-seater since winning the F2 title in 2010 and subsequently being diagnosed with cancer. Driving for Koiranen, he went on to top the first day of testing, and those performances have attracted 2014 offers from other teams too.

Finally, Jann Mardenborough completes the Arden trio. The product of the GT Academy is still short on experience in single-seaters, but has started the year by racking up race wins in the Toyota Racing Series. He was a little anonymous when thrown in the deep end in European F3 last year, but GP3 will allow him to make the most of his talent with experience being less of a crucial factor. So he’s one to watch, even if he’s unlikely to be a title contender.

While Lynn and Mardenborough have made the switch to GP3, the FIA F3 European Championship will not be lacking any quality this year. The new season had looked wide-open until it emerged that 2013 runner-up Felix Rosenqvist is set to return. He lacks the budget to make the next step and Mercedes don’t have room for him in their DTM setup but are happy to continue backing him in F3. 2014 would be his fifth year of F3, and his fourth season in the European series with the Mucke Motorsport team. He prevented Marciello from wrapping up last year’s title until the final round, so will be pretty tough to beat if he continues in that vein.

The F3 silly season doesn’t appear to have worked out well for Lucas Auer. Fourth in the 2013 standings with Prema, the Austrian took the gamble of a move to rival squad Mucke at a point when it seemed that Lynn would continue in F3 with the Italians. But now with Rosenqvist returning as Auer’s team-mate, he may be regretting leaving Prema. Still, while Rosenqvist was pretty much the finished article as an F3 driver last year, 19-year-old Auer has the potential to make a step forward this year and match him.

Felix Rosenqvist, Lucas Auer

Pocket rockets Rosenqvist and Auer are set to join up at Mucke with lofty ambitions of succeeding Marciello (Photo: ITR)

Prema were the strongest team last year, but their 2014 chances may be affected by the departure of Lynn and Auer. Instead, they will field an intriguing quartet of two exciting rookies and two drivers who could surprise after quiet debuts in 2013. Esteban Ocon is a Lotus F1 junior who finished third in last year’s Eurocup Formula Renault and then impressed on his international F3 debut at the Macau Grand Prix, finishing tenth despite stalling and dropping to the back of the pack.

Fellow 17-year-old Antonio Fuoco replaces Marciello as Ferrari’s representative in the Prema F3 setup. He’s only done one year of single-seaters, but claimed the Formula Renault Alps title with a 50% win rate. Both he and Ocon have the talent to move to the front by the end of the season, but whether they’re there at the start of the campaign will determine whether they can be title contenders at the first time of asking.

Hoping to use their experience of F3 to lead the Prema attack will be Nicholas Latifi and Dennis van de Laar. They were 15th and 20th for Carlin and Van Amersfoort respectively last year, but have been proving their abilities in the Florida Winter Series and could be in a position to capitalise on Prema’s pace if their younger team-mates need time to get up to speed with F3 machinery.

If Prema’s driver line-up isn’t as potent as it was last year, Carlin’s should be in a position to take advantage. Jordan King claimed the British title last year and finished sixth in the FIA standings in his first year of F3. He was close to team leader Harry Tincknell last year and a year’s experience should move him closer to the front, where Carlin are more than capable of running.

One spot behind King last year was Tom Blomqvist. He has been lumbered with lesser teams for the past two years, despite some Red Bull backing last year. Carlin will give him his best chance yet of proving the ability that took him to the Formula Renault UK title in 2010.

Also in Carlin’s assault is Antonio Giovinazzi. The Italian did well in his first year of F3 last year, despite having to lead the Double R team with only a year of Formula Pilota China under his belt. He’s another who could flourish with a top team around him at Carlin.

Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 has become a crucial series to keep an eye on, and the past three years have given us Frijns vs Sainz, Vandoorne vs Kvyat and Gasly vs Rowland. It’s a bit too early in the year to know exactly who the protagonists will be in 2014, but Nyck de Vries will start as favourite if he returns, having been the form man in the last three rounds of 2013 after a difficult start to his second season.

Nyck de Vries

De Vries was the form man in the Eurocup at the end of 2013 (Photo: Francois Flamand/DPPI)

A rival of De Vries’ since karting, Ignazio D’Agosto will be returning for a third year and a switch from KTR to Koiranen should be enough to put the Italian firmly at the front. Fellow third-years Steijn Schothorst and Andrea Pizzitola should also move closer towards the sharp end with Manor MP, while Lotus-backed Alex Albon – a former karting rival of de Vries – has looked good in early pre-season testing as he stays with KTR after two low-key campaigns.

Egor Orudzhev is the next Russian youngster catching the eye. He finished seventh in his rookie campaign in the Eurocup last year with a consistent string of good points finishes, and won races in TRS at the start of 2014. He stays with Tech 1 for his sophomore season. Others opting for consistency for their second years are Bruno Bonifacio with Prema and Gustav Malja with Josef Kaufmann Racing.

From the Eurocup rookies, three standout names form Fortec’s trio. Matt Parry and Jack Aitken finished one-two in the Formula Renault NEC series last year, and they should be at the sharp end immediately. They are joined by Martin Rump, who only has a season in Formula Renault 1.6 behind him but narrowly missed out on titles in the Nordic and NEC championships at that level and was another to shine in TRS pre-season.

Others to watch for include reigning French F4 champion Anthoine Hubert with Tech 1 and Prema’s Dennis Olsen – third to Parry and Aitken in the NEC in what was his rookie season of cars.

In the second and final part of our 2014 preview, we look at seven karting stars making the step up into single-seaters this year.