Home Featured The top-tier champions who stepped down to junior single-seaters

The top-tier champions who stepped down to junior single-seaters

by Ida Wood

Photo: Toyota Gazoo Racing

Ritomo Miyata has joined the list of drivers who won a top-level single-seater title then raced in junior series

Nearly every young driver starts their single-seater career dreaming of one day reaching Formula 1, IndyCar, Super Formula or maybe even Formula E. Some make it to these top-level professional series but then lose their place there and have to prove themselves again in a second-tier series to earn back their place on the grid alongside the best of the best.

Others make it to the pinnacle of single-seater racing then realise it’s not quite for them and switch to sportscar racing, where it’s more viable to have a long-term career as a paid driver, then there is an unexpected list of drivers who have conquered the very top rung of the single-seater ladder and following their title success have then headed down the ladder to a junior series.

After a decade of no surprises of that kind, this year Toyota sent Super Formula champion Ritomo Miyata to Formula 2. Under Toyota’s ‘Challenge Program’ driver development scheme linked to its World Endurance Championship team, Miyata has moved over to Europe to race in both F2 and the European Le Mans Series. Miyata is already a champion at the top level of GT racing (in Super GT), so it could also be considered a step down that he is spending this year in the second tier of prototype sportscars as well as second-tier single-seaters. Considering Ryo Hirakawa’s McLaren F1 reserve driver role, there could also be ambitions for Miyata to compete in a different top-tier series in future.

Miyata is the first ever SF champion to head down the ladder, and so far none of FE’s champions have done it although Nelson Piquet Jr raced in Indy Nxt two weeks before he claimed the inaugural FE title in 2015.

F1 champions were racing F2 cars in the 1950s because those machines were used in F1, then in the 1960s the Tasman Series – a championship run in Australia and New Zealand – took advantage of the off-season during the Northern Hemisphere winters to attract big F1 names and often in modified F1 cars.

After wrapping up the the 1960 F1 world championship title early, Jack Brabham did a few F2 races. He would later become an F2 and Tasman regular to show off his own Brabham racing cars, and down under he raced modified Brabham F1 cars in 1964, ’65 and ’66, a Formula Junior car in 1967 and ’68 and a car specifically designed for the series in 1969.

Phil Hill succeeded him as world champion in 1961 with Ferrari, and in 1965 he joined the Tasman Series in a Bruce McLaren-designed Cooper T70. The basis of the car was a 1963 F1 chassis, but McLaren had made design revisions specifically to have a lightweight model suitable for Tasman races.

Graham Hill won his first F1 title in 1962, and made Tasman Series appearances in a modified Brabham F1 car in 1964, in a Lotus F2 car in 1967 and then another modified F1 car in 1968.

In addition to defending his first F1 title, Jim Clark raced and won in the British F2 championship in 1964. Since that proved a success, he decided to add more to his plate in 1965 and he was F1, British F2, French F2 and Tasman Series champion. He continued in smaller single-seaters for several more years, and was a race-winner in European F2 in 1967.

One of his rivals in that series was 1964 F1 champion John Surtees, who took several podiums and then returned to European F2 in 1972 in a car designed and run by his own Surtees team and won the Imola Grand Prix.

Finally, Denny Hulme followed up F1 world championship success in 1967 by driving a Brabham F2 car to a Tasman Series podium in 1968.

All of the above also took part in specially organised races for F2 cars in Europe (and won quite a few of them) which were one-off events rather than part of junior series. F2 series on the continent also changed their regulations to introduce a driver grading system that made the F1 stars ineligible to score points.

Only one IndyCar champion has ventured back down the ladder, and that is Roger McCluskey. He won the 1973 USAC Championship Car season through consistency, as he had one victory that season, and in his 20-year career at American single-seater racing’s top level he only won five races in total. His final season was in 1979, and that year he also made a cameo in the USAC Mini-Indy Series (now known as Indy Nxt).

F2 races won by top-tier single-seater champions
Year Winner Races
1960 Jack Brabham Danish GP
1964 Jim Clark Pau GP, Eifelrennen, Grovewood Trophy, British Eagle Trophy
1964 Jack Brabham Kanonloppet, Albi GP, Ile de France GP, Int. Gold Cup
1965 Graham Hill Autocar Trophy
1965 Jim Clark Pau GP, Rouen-les-Essarts GP, Albi GP, London Trophy, British Eagle Trophy
1965 John Surtees Int. Gold Cup
1966 Jack Brabham Sunday Mirror Trophy, Barcelona GP, Limborg GP, Kanonloppet, Finnish GP, Pau GP, Reims GP, Ile de France GP, Albi GP, London Trophy
1967 Jim Clark Barcelona GP, Madrid GP, Finnish GP
1967 John Surtees Guards’ Int. Trophy, Limborg GP
1969 Graham Hill Albi GP
1970 Jackie Stewart London Trophy
1971 Graham Hill Jochen Rindt Memorial Trophy
1972 Graham Hill Monza Lottery GP
1972 John Surtees Imola GP
1972 Emerson Fittipaldi Brazilian F2 round one

More recently, there have been other shortlived series that could be considered to sit at the top level of the single-seater ladder, even if their grids included some drivers who were also still racing on lower rungs.

Although Alexandre Premat, Nicolas Lapierre and Christian Vietoris all contributed to the claiming of A1 Grand Prix titles for their respective countries, those titles were delivered solely to the country rather than those who drove for it. However when Team Ireland won the 2008-09 title Adam Carroll was the only driver at the wheel, and in the 2006-07 season Nico Hulkenberg did all but one round for Team Germany and his points haul was more than enough to earn his nation the crown.

Carroll did two IndyCar races in 2010, having been linked to Lola’s failed F1 entry bid, and in 2011 stepped down a rung on the single-seater ladder to race part-time in GP2 and the Formula 3000-spec Auto GP series. Two fifth places were his best results from four GP2 rounds, and in Auto GP he took a win, two second places, a pole and a fastest lap from six races.

A week after winning the A1GP title aged 19, Hulkenberg began his Formula 3 Euro Series season. He had already done a year in German F3 and got a win, and on the continent he took four wins and two poles in a grid packed with talent. Hulkenberg remained in the series for 2008, and romped to the title with seven wins. He was also Masters of F3 runner-up, and the next year moved back up the ladder to GP2.

He claimed pole on debut in the Asia series, and on his second outing there took pole, feature race victory and third in the sprint race. A full season in the main series followed and Hulkenberg became champion with five wins and three poles. A return to single-seaters’ top tier had been earned for 2010, and Hulkenberg drove for Williams in F1. Despite taking a pole as a rookie he was not retained for 2011, and has been on and off the F1 grid ever since with no podiums from his 205 grands prix.

Just as shortlived as A1GP was the football-themed Superleague Formula, which also ran for just four seasons. Champion in 2008 and 2010 for the Beijing Guoan and R.S.C. Anderlecht clubs respectively was Davide Rigon, who between his two title-winning campaigns spent a year in GP2. He got one podium in the Asia series and just three points in the main series.

Rigon returned to GP2 for one weekend in 2011 and finished 10th on his return, then in 2012 made a Formula Renault 3.5 cameo. Since then he has firmly been focused on sportscar racing and F1 simulator duties with Ferrari.