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The most surprising junior single-seater returns

by Elliot Wood

Photo: Formula Motorsport Limited

Carlin called up McLaren GT driver and ex-European F3 racer Ben Barnicoat for the recent FIA F3 rounds at Silverstone after losing one of its drivers. It’s not the first surprise return to junior single-seaters

Most returns seen in sport are attempts by athletes to recapture former glory with an old partner or team in a familiar series, or because there is unfinished business in need of attention before a career can move on to its next step.

But sometimes there are totally random moves that are logical but would not have been predicted by anyone, are too last-minute to have any gameplan behind them, or come about more for the benefit of the PR department than for the sporting challenge the athlete faces.

Drivers racing in junior single-seater cars are supposed to be in the development stage of their career, bar maybe Formula Ford 1600 where value-for-money and historic tournaments keep competitors coming back for sometimes decades.

Some drivers do reach a professional status and quickly return to the junior ranks when they realise they require more learning, and more results, to genuinely establish themselves at the top level.

GP2 champions Timo Glock and Giorgio Pantano are excellent examples of this, having both made it to Formula 1 with Jordan in 2004 and then Champ Car/IndyCar in 2005. They couldn’t keep themselves in either series, so sought to find a second way in by landing seats in GP2.

They finished fourth and fifth in the 2006 points, then first and third in 2007. Glock earned a solid F1 seat at Toyota for 2008, the year in which Pantano won his GP2 title. He secured a Superleague Formula drive off the back of his success, but then raced in Auto GP in 2010 as he still aimed for F1. After four further IndyCar starts in two years, his hopes dried up.

For the purposes of this article, such junior single-seater returns aren’t considered. Ideally a driver should have spent at least two years outside of the junior sphere, preferably having gone on to race at a professional level in that gap, and their return cannot be down to a pre-existing development or test driver role.

Mathias Lauda AUSTRIA 2014-15 MRF Challenge
Junior career: 21st in 2005 GP2, 9th in 2004 Auto GP, 13th in 2004 Int. F3000   Return: 6th in 2014-15 MRF Challenge

At the end of 2014, M&N Racing’s Jose Pottamkulam Ootta attracted two very big names to the India-based MRF Challenge. Neither driver was actually massively known in motorsport at the time, instead signed up due to the reputation of their fathers and the movie-making possibilities of their single-seater exploits.

Mathias Lauda actually skipped karting at the start of his career and went straight into single-seaters in World Series Lights (formerly Formula Nissan). He didn’t embarrass himself, and picked up two podiums in his second season in the series. Already in Formula 3000 by his third year in motorsport, Lauda seemed to adapt quickly and was 13th in the F1-supporting International series.

After his three-time F1 world championship-winning father Niki bought him a A1GP seat for winter, he then contested the new GP2 series in 2005 but was firmly at the back. Regardless, he landed a place in professional racing with a four-year stint in the DTM. That was followed by a move to sportscars, where he’s had a long-term role with Aston Martin.

Lauda’s MRF appearance came around after his friend Freddie Hunt, whose father James famously beat Lauda Sr to the 1976 F1 title, called him up on behalf of Ootta. Hunt had previously raced in British Formula Ford and ADAC Formel Masters.

The first MRF round took place at former GP2 Asia venue Losail in Qatar, with Lauda and Hunt qualifying sixth and eighth on the 14-car grid. Lauda challenged for the podium in the first race, while Hunt scored a point in 10th after starting from the pitlane due to a formation lap stall.

A photo finish denied Lauda a podium in race two, and sixth in race three put him on race four pole. After being deposed of the lead, he dropped to ninth with a mechanical issue, while Hunt crashed heavily. Neither were competitive in Bahrain, but Lauda did pick up a reversed-grid race win. He skipped the Chennai season finale but came sixth in the standings.

Antonio Felix da Costa BRAZIL 2016 Macau GP
Junior career: 3rd in 2013 FV8 3.5, 2012 Macau GP winner, 3rd in ’12 GP3, 4th in ’12 FV8 3.5   Return: 2016 Macau GP winner

In the first six years as a professional driver, recently crowned Formula E champion Antonio Felix da Costa only won six races. It was this barren run that he immediately referred to upon taking the 2019-20 FE title in Berlin last weekend.

Two of those race wins came in the 2016 Macau Grand Prix, when he made a surprise return to F3 after having already established himself as a BMW factory driver in the DTM and as a giant killer with former F1 minnow team Aguri in FE.

“There is no aim as such in going back for me,” da Costa said ahead of his Macau return, having won the event for Carlin in 2012. “I’m just doing it for the love of the sport, so when I got the call from Trevor [Carlin] a few weeks ago I couldn’t say no.”

Unlike many of the quick drivers, da Costa had a trouble-free first qualifying session of the Macau weekend to put him on provisional pole. In the second session he also made it to the top of the times until the very end, when Hitech GP debutant George Russell and Van Amersfoort Racing’s Callum Ilott surpassed him.

The qualification race was delayed due to the heavy braking zone at Lisboa being wet, and there was immediate chaos once it got underway. The safety car came out, and da Costa slipstreamed into the lead once action resumed. He then held off Ilott for the rest of the race.

Sergio Sette Camara passed his Carlin team-mate da Costa for the lead at the start of the main race, and the latter once again benefitted from a the long run to Lisboa on a restart to move back into first. After fending off an attack from Sette Camara into Lisboa on the next restart, da Costa managed his race to win the FIA F3 World Cup.

Ben Barnicoat BRITAIN 2020 FIA F3
Junior career: 9th in 2016 FIA European F3, 2015 BRDC British F4 Autumn champion   Return: currently 19th in 2020 FIA F3

For almost all of Ben Barnicoat’s career he has been representing McLaren, and it was a great shame that after four titles in four years in karts and cars he parted company with the F1 team before his single race-winning season in FIA European F3 in 2016.

In karting he kept Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen on their toes, and moved into single-seaters with the financial aid and management of British driver support programme Racing Steps Foundation behind him. He debuted in Formula Renault BARC’s three-race Autumn Cup at Rockingham, where he took two wins and a second to top the points.

Sticking with the Fortec Motorsports team he debuted with, Barnicoat concentrated on the FR Northern European Cup for his first full year in cars in 2014 and won the title. Fourth in the Eurocup followed – a season which underwhelmed until he changed engineers, and he also won BRDC British Formula 4’s Autumn Trophy.

It wasn’t enough to retain McLaren’s support, but he became one of its young drivers again when he moved to sportscars in 2017. That evolved into full factory status, although success with the brand has been hard to find bar a sole British GT4 win despite showing plenty of speed. Last year he fronted Carlin’s first foray into prototypes, and just missed out on the Asian Le Mans Series title. That set up the relationship that led to him being called by the team two weeks ago to replace Enaam Ahmed in its FIA F3 line-up.

McLaren had to give permission for Barnicoat to race twice at Silverstone, and he may have driven at Barcelona too had it not summoned him back. He started and finished 20th on his single-seater return after his progress was thwarted by contact, and improved to 12th the next day. On the second weekend he fared even better, qualifying in ninth (Carlin’s best result this year) and scoring a point with a 10th place finish. That put him on pole for race two, where he was in contention for a podium before retiring with a fuel pump failure.

If he returns to FIA F3 again at Spa-Francorchamps, it will be more proof his single-seater career should have gone further in the first place.

Antonio Pizzonia BRAZIL 2007 GP2, 2012, ’14 & ’15 Auto GP
Junior career: 6th in 2001 Int. F3000, 2000 British F3 champion   Return: 27th in 2007 GP2, 1st in 2015 Auto GP

Antonio Pizzonia worked his way up the British junior single-seater ladder in the late 1990s, winning a third title in as many years in British F3 in 2000, and the Brazilian showed his credentials to the F1 paddock in two seasons in International F3000.

First he bagged a Williams test role, then a race seat at Jaguar for 2003. But after scoring no points, he was dropped with fives races to go. Williams rehired him, and he stood in for the injured Ralf Schumacher for four races in 2004. He was far more competitive this time, admittedly in a race-winning car, but demoted back to test driver status for 2005.

Once again injury enabled an F1 race chance in place of Nick Heidfeld, and he finished seventh on his return before four disappointing races. Pizzonia didn’t want out of the top level, so raced part-time in Champ Car in 2006. That wasn’t going to bring him back to F1 though, so he stepped down to GP2 for 2007 with Fisichella Motor Sport but was replaced after three rounds.

A return to Brazil beckoned, and it looked like Pizzonia would be giving up on F1 for good. After three years in Stock Car Brazil and Superleague Formula, where he represented local team SC Corinthians, he returned to the junior ranks again.

Auto GP had grown from an Italy-based series to a global championship by 2012, and Pizzonia joined the field with the Zele Racing team when it headed to Curitiba in Brazil. Two problems for Adrian Quaife-Hobbs meant a double win for Pizzonia, and drove him to find a way on to the grid for the Sonoma season finale. He qualified third there, but a crash with Quaife-Hobbs ruined his weekend. He was invited back by Zele for the 2014 season finale and another podium made him pursue a full-time seat alongside his Stock Car duties.

Pizzonia topped 2015 pre-season testing, and a last-lap pass denied him a double win to start the year at the Hungaroring. He dominated the first race at Silverstone, but a stall meant he had to start the second from the pitlane and could only recover to third place. A lack of entries forced Auto GP called off the rest of the rounds, but points leader Pizzonia wasn’t awarded the title.

Emma Kimilainen FINLAND 2019 W Series
Junior career: 5th in 2009 FPA, 10th in 2008 ADAC FMasters, 2nd in 2006 FFord NEZ   Return: 5th in 2019 W Series

The second run at junior single-seaters for Kimilainen is notable in that it’s been considerably more successful than the first.

In her youth, the Finn was a race-winner in Formula Ford but did not get the same sort of results when she moved into slicks-and-wings championships. She actually went into open-top sportscars between FFord and the next level of lower formulae, which started with an ADAC Formel Masters campaign in 2008 as a Volkswagen-Audi junior.

She claimed one podium and 10th in the points with Van Amersfoort Racing – only two places behind a young Daniel Abt – before moving across to Formula Palmer Audi for 2009. The opposition in the British series was weaker, but she visited the podium four times and was fifth in the standings, and only twice across 20 races did she finish outside of the top 10. Admittedly those kinds of results in a series such as FPA don’t set the world alight, and when the global financial crisis hit Finland her career was done.

Kimilainen used her time out of racing to earn a degree and start a family, until a phone call several years later drew her back into motorsport in the Scandinavian Touring Car Championship. But she originally only had eyes on single-seaters, so W Series was a no-brainer move when it was created last year.

Arriving as the oldest in the series, Kimilainen turned out to be the surprise of the season. A clumsy crash from one of her rivals in the season opener reaggravated a neck injury and forced her out of two rounds, but she returned with fifth at the Norisring, victory from pole at Assen, second place at Brands Hatch and three fastest laps. Had she not missed races, she would likely have been right in the title hunt.

An even greater ‘what if’ is if W Series hadn’t cancelled its 2020 season, which Kimilainen was one of the title favourites for.

Roberto Merhi SPAIN 2014 FV8 3.5, 2018 F2
Junior career: 2011 F3 Euro Series & Int. Trophy champion   Return: 3rd in 2014 FV8 3.5, 4th in ’14 Macau GP, 12th in 2018 F2

One of the lesser-known stories of Mercedes-Benz’s young driver patronage is the case of Roberto Merhi, whose time in F3 and the DTM was supported by the manufacturer.

Merhi made his F3 debut aged 16 in 2007, and was winning races a year later while also fighting Daniel Ricciardo for Formula Renault titles in his main programme. As a Mercedes-supported driver, much in the same way Felix Rosenqvist was a few years later, he earned a seat at Manor in the F3 Euro Series. He made the podium on his debut, but he scarcely replicated that form and struggled in particular with reversed-grid races. A move to Mucke Motorsport for 2010 was an improvement, but he limited his potential by also juggling a part-season in the new GP3 series.

Returning his focus solely on F3 for 2011, and with the lead Mercedes-powered team Prema, Merhi dominated the Euro Series and won the only ever running of the FIA F3 International Trophy despite start-line crashes in both the Masters of F3 and Macau Grand Prix. He reportedly turned down a GP2 drive to move to the DTM for 2012, forming part of a revived Mercedes Junior Team under the mentorship of Michael Schumacher, who was part of the Junior Team in the 1990s.

The results in Merhi’s two-year DTM spell were pretty damning bar a wet-weather podium at Hockenheim from 21st on the grid in his last start.

So came Merhi’s first junior series return. The Spaniard signed up to race in Formula Renault 3.5 for 2014, and despite his talent was not tipped for title as he was with unfancied Russian team Zeta Corse. The season started with a second place, and a mid-year charge to three wins in five races against eventual champion Carlos Sainz Jr catapulted him right onto F1’s radar. Before he knew it, he was contesting free practice sessions for Caterham and being linked heavily to a race drive.

That didn’t come about, and he ended up third in the FR3.5 points, with his focus on securing an F1 seat for 2015. That too didn’t materialise, so he signed a deal with Pons Racing to stay in FR3.5. Then a few days later, Manor signed Merhi for the upcoming F1 season. At first he juggled both, with each sapping momentum out of the other, until a Red Bull Ring crash earned him a FR3.5 race ban. Two months later, his F1 seat became only a part-time gig too that he had to share with Alexander Rossi.

Manor Motorsport founder John Booth moved to the World Endurance Championship for 2016 and brought Merhi along, with the Spaniard claiming its first class podium at Spa with a last-lap move. Like Pizzonia, Merhi wanted back in to F1 – and he took his limited backing and re-stitched 2015 overalls over to Campos in GP2 successor Formula 2.

A failed one-off at Barcelona didn’t put him off, as he landed a part-time with Rapax late in 2017 and scored 16 points. A new car for 2018 meant a new start, and Merhi brought a brand new plain-black racesuit as he joined MP Motorport. He stood on the feature race podium twice, but his victory ambitions were unrealistic and he left the team before rejoining Campos for the final two rounds. He intended to race in 2019 too, but re-obtaining an FIA superlicence was by then an unlikely reality.

And one that didn’t quite happen…

Nelson Piquet Jr BRAZIL 2016 Pau GP
Junior career: 2nd in 2006 GP2, 2004 British F3 champion, 2nd in 2003 Masters of F3   Return: two races in 2015 Indy Lights

After being shown the door in F1 in 2009 and being involved in the ‘crashgate’ scandal, Nelson Piquet Jr sought to rebuild his career in as many avenues as possible. Which inevitably did not miss out junior single-seaters.

Piquet won the British and South American F3 titles as a teenager, then spent two years in GP2 and was second to Lewis Hamilton in the 2006 title race. After a year on the sidelines he entered F1 with Renault, and took a podium as a rookie.

His first post-F1 activity was NASCAR, and he worked his way up the junior ranks there too, with two years with wins in American stock cars’ third tier, and then a full season in its equivalent of GP2. He also started a rallycross career at this point, and it wasn’t until 2014 that he returned to single-seaters with the Campos-run Team China Racing in FE.

Ahead of the London season finale where he would claim the inaugural FE title, Piquet was called upon by Carlin to race in Toronto for its new Indy Lights setup. The British outfit had entered the North American series with Euroformula champion Ed Jones and former F1 driver Max Chilton, whose father Grahame is Carlin’s CEO, and wanted a driver of equivalent experience to Chilton due to his Le Mans 24 Hours debut with Nissan falling on the same weekend.

Piquet took pole on his Lights debut, but was denied victory when RC Enerson hit his rear tyre and flew over the top of him, causing him to retire. A less spectacular but similar incident ended his second race too, but his street circuit form was rewarded with the FE title a few weeks later.

The reunion with Carlin, which ran him to the British F3 title, kept junior single-seaters in the back of Piquet’s mind. Further street circuit experience was only going to be beneficial for FE, and a shot at the 2016 Pau Grand Prix in European F3 opened up when Raoul Hyman couldn’t take up his Carlin seat. It was intended to open up the possibility of entering Macau too.

An opportunity to race against his younger brother Pedro, driving for VAR, was denied by the FIA through a line in the series’ sporting regulations that stated “any driver application to participate in the Championship will be studied by the FIA and accepted or rejected at its absolute discretion”.

FIA Single-Seater Commission president Stefano Domenicali’s reasoning was Piquet’s entry was against the spirit of the championship, which had already moved to reduce the age of drivers in the series and how long they could spend in it.

The winner of the first race in Pau that weekend was Barnicoat, and thankfully his F3 return wasn’t denied by the rulemakers.