Before Formula 1 and the junior categories return from the summer break, we’re having our annual speculative look at which young drivers might get to make their F1 debuts next season.
In 2015, Carlos Sainz, Max Verstappen, Felipe Nasr, Roberto Merhi and Will Stevens have made the step and are all making a positive impression to varying degrees.
Predicting who might end up where at this early stage is difficult to call (we rated Merhi’s chances at 5% this time last year) and involves a fair amount of educated guessing.
To further complicate things, with teams holding onto veterans like Kimi Raikkonen, the market certainly isn’t favoured towards aspiring rookies this time around.
But if any newcomer does get the chance to race in F1 in 2016, chances are they will be one of the following.
Currently: First in GP2
F1 status: McLaren test and development driver
Sometimes it’s not obvious who the most F1-ready driver is in the junior ranks at any one moment. But in 2015 it’s been clear.
Stoffel Vandoorne has been a cut above the rest in GP2 this year, and although his form has not been unexpected, it’s been truly impressive nonetheless.
After winning the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 title in 2011, Vandoorne joined McLaren and then finished second in Formula Renault 3.5 and second in GP2 in consecutive rookie seasons. Now he returns from GP2’s summer break for his home round at Spa-Francorchamps this weekend with 194 points to his nearest rival’s 109.
That he’s even doing GP2 this year was ultimately down to McLaren’s driver logjam, rather than him not already being ready to make the jump. But he’s used his sophomore season to emphatically demonstrate his ability, and to prove he can live up to the highest of expectations.
At this point it should be near-guaranteed that Vandoorne will be an F1 driver next year, but nothing’s happened so far this year to resolve McLaren’s problem of having twice as many drivers than it has seats.
Vandoorne has perhaps done enough though to elevate himself ahead of his old FR3.5 rival Kevin Magnussen in the team’s thoughts – no small feat given the Dane really did nothing to deserve being dropped to the subs bench in the first place.
Vandoorne’s 2015 performances have been such that if McLaren don’t give him the graduation that he deserves, there will be no shortage of other teams interested in his services, including the very best. That may just force McLaren’s hand and make this most difficult of decisions quite straightforward.
Verdict: He’s done all he can. Has a realistic shot at a McLaren seat and will no doubt have offers elsewhere.
Currently: Second in GP2
F1 status: Tested for the Manor team in 2010 and 2012
Most of the rest of this feature can also double up as a look at who might finish second to Vandoorne in the GP2 standings – the battle that will surely be the main focus in the second half of the series. All of the drivers in contention could be considered candidates for F1 seats, and the superlicence system means there’s plenty at stake between them.
The driver currently holding second is perhaps the least fashionable of the lot. Rio Haryanto’s in his fourth season in GP2 and only managed a couple of podiums prior to this year.
A move to Campos for 2015 has unexpectedly paid off, however. He’s been Vandoorne’s toughest rival at times, and claimed three sprint race victories.
Experience has played it’s part, but Haryanto is mixing it with some very talented drivers and showed promise in his GP3 days with three wins in two seasons, coming off the back of a dominant Formula BMW Pacific title.
Haryanto’s profile appears to be massive in his native Indonesia, and is no doubt increasing rapidly with his recent success. He’s long been supported by state-owned oil firm Pertamina, and being on the brink of F1 could well attract further funding.
Pairing such backing with second place in GP2 and the superlicence points that come with it could make him a tempting proposition for an F1 team.
His most likely destination would surely be Manor. John Booth’s operation and Haryanto know each other well, he having raced for Manor in his two GP3 seasons and continued the relationship into his maiden GP2 campaign. His GP3 performances in 2010 earned him a prize F1 test with the squad, and he appeared again alongside then-team-mate Max Chilton in 2012.
Some other F1 teams may be unsure about Haryanto’s ultimate ability, but Booth will know one way or the other. He knows a talented driver when he sees one, and has ensured the race drivers for his F1 team have always met a certain standard, even in difficult times.
Basically, if Haryanto races for Manor, it won’t just be because of funding, but because Booth is satisfied that he’s good enough.
Verdict: Unlike to attract bigger teams, but backing and history could make him a Manor contender.
Currently: Third in GP2
F1 status: Five free practice outings with Caterham and Marussia 2012-14
Alexander Rossi saw a potential F1 debut slip away on no less than three times last season. Perhaps it’s just not meant to be?
He was announced to be racing with Marussia in Belgium, only to make way again after first practice once a reported payment issue was resolved. As reserve he was entered to race in Russia after Jules Bianchi’s tragic accident, but the team entered just one car and then did not even make it to America, where Rossi would have made a popular home debut.
Those near misses came after three-and-a-half years affiliated to the Caterham team, in which time Tony Fernandes gave him four free practice runs but never promoted him to a race drive.
In that period he was placed with Fernandes’ often-struggling junior series teams, causing him to lose the momentum of consecutive third-place finishes in GP3 and FR3.5. There was a feature race win at the end of his rookie GP2 campaign in 2013, but the following year was a write-off.
There was speculation he might return to America for 2015, but the impending arrival of the Haas team added new impetus to his F1 ambitions.
With an undisputed top GP2 team in Racing Engineering, Rossi has had nowhere to hide this year but began very brightly, taking the fight to Vandoorne with some consistent and strong early results, and a pole position in Monaco.
Things faded with a blank weekend in Hungary just before the summer break – not ideal timing, just as speculation of potential Haas drivers ramped up.
Rossi is the most accomplished American racer to ascend the European junior scene for a long time, and it could be a while until a compatriot matches his record. If there’s any driver who fits an American-entered Ferrari B-team right now, it’s the Californian of Italian heritage.
There is some strong competition from established F1 drivers, though. Rossi’s current form might be enough to secure a Haas seat, but some big wins before the season is out would cement it.
Verdict: The obvious candidate for Haas, but a truly convincing run of form would smooth the process.
Currently: Fourth in GP2
F1 status: Sauber tester in 2014
This isn’t the first time that Sirotkin has featured on a list like this, but on this occasion it’s not because of some monetary fortune that’s been pledged to a struggling F1 team, rather because he’s putting in the performances on-track.
The Russian’s rookie GP2 season has been outstanding, with podiums in Monaco and Austria followed by a feature race win at Silverstone and a double visit to the rostrum in Hungary. He resumes the season in Spa just six points behind second-placed Haryanto.
His form has gone a long way to repairing the damage done to his reputation by the attempts by some around him to get him into a Sauber race seat well before time.
With the required funds never appearing, his 2014 Sauber appearances were limited to a test day and a Sochi free practice session. After failing to live up to his status as one of the FR3.5 pre-season favourites last year, he’s now been able to focus entirely on his actual racing and the benefits are clear to see.
A real future in F1 is now considerably more tangible than it ever was before. If he can secure second place in GP2 – and on current form he’s well on course to do that – there can be little doubt that several F1 teams will be taking a serious interest in him.
As well as a top GP2 driver, they will see the potential commercial benefits of a good Russian racer. But the political and economic situation there means that Sirotkin being able to deliver on such expectations from a team may be tough.
The all-encompassing SMP Racing scheme is his biggest visible sponsor at present, and although it may have F1 ambitions, it was known last year to have been hit by the sanctions against Russia.
For 2016, getting Sirotkin into a team like Manor may be straightforward. Recent performances could certainly attract bigger teams, but a little more patience and a GP2 title tilt in 2016 may ultimately be needed for such an opportunity to become reality.
Verdict: Outstanding recent results make him hot property, but reputation means big funds will be expected.
Currently: Fifth in GP2
F1 status: Williams development driver
Alex Lynn might have followed up his 2013 Macau Grand Prix win with the GP3 title last year, but the competition in the Red Bull ranks meant he couldn’t use that as a springboard straight into F1.
With opportunities limited, he chose to part with the firm and instead secured a development role with Williams and a top GP2 seat with DAMS.
He’s made a fine impression with the latter opportunity, being on the pace from the off and taking a reverse-grid win in just his second weekend, at Barcelona. Better was to come in Hungary when he won the feature race from pole.
That performance came as speculation increased as to the future of Williams incumbent Valtteri Bottas, with Lynn doing everything he could have done to put his name into the frame as a possible replacement.
To be doing so well in a first season in GP2 – particularly when stepping up from GP3 as opposed to ‘across’ from FR3.5 – is impressive, but is it good enough to get as competitive an F1 seat as one at Williams? It seems unlikely.
Good commercial support means Lynn could probably take a sponsorship package to get a seat at a smaller team for next year – he would almost certainly be attractive to Manor – but you get the feeling he has his sights set higher than that.
If a Williams seat is what he wants, he may well have to wait. But with Bottas contracted through to the end of 2016 and Felipe Massa reaching the end of his career, he could be very well-placed for such an opportunity with a strong second GP2 season.
Verdict: Reputation constantly growing, but Hungary repeats will surely be needed to get Williams seat he wants.
Currently: Sixth in GP2
F1 status: Red Bull Junior, RBR/STR tester
With Carlos Sainz (the only driver to finish ahead of him in FR3.5 last year) moving on up to F1 and Lynn leaving the scheme, Pierre Gasly has assumed the position of chief Red Bull Junior this year – a status evidenced by testing appearances for both Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso.
Much was expected in his rookie GP2 season after some searing testing pace, but his form in competition has not reached such heights.
Being sixth in his maiden campaign with three podiums to his credit is certainly not bad, but Gasly has generally been outshone by his team-mate Lynn. That’s unlikely to be making him popular with Helmut Marko, who presumably let Lynn go on the assumption that Gasly would be the better bet.
All that doesn’t really matter for now though, given that it seems unlikely that a vacancy will arise at Toro Rosso this winter, and Gasly’s not yet doing enough to make sure that a space gets opened up for him somewhere.
For Red Bull to think about letting him go would be foolish though, given that they really ought to have somebody ready in case of an opening.
Whether Gasly has a future in F1 with Red Bull might be hard to say, but he does have another option going forward. He’s been closely tied to Renault since winning the Eurocup FR2.0 title in 2013, and with talk of the French manufacturer returning to F1 team ownership in the near future, Gasly could have opportunities there.
Even if a Renault reacquisition of the Lotus team happened in time for 2016, Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado would probably be secure, so Gasly seems likely to be waiting whatever happens.
Verdict: First in line at Red Bull’s door without banging it down, Renault’s future could be key to his.
Currently: Seventh in GP2
F1 status: Ferrari Driver Academy member, Sauber tester
When Raffaele Marciello signed with Sauber as a test and reserve driver for this season, it seemed obvious that the Swiss-born Ferrari protege was being lined up for a race seat there in 2016.
But despite making three free practice appearances with the team so far this season, the door appears shut already for next year with both Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson re-signed (cue jokes about Sauber having more than two drivers).
Sure, finances and politics would always play its part in any deal for Marciello to race for Sauber, but the fact is that his GP2 performances aren’t up to scratch either.
His sophomore campaign in the series has been a disappointment, and Spa this weekend marks a year since his one and only victory – an impressive triumph over Vandoorne in wet conditions.
Unlike last year, he has been able to consistently score points, but opportunities for big results keep being spoiled.
With the Sauber option gone, the Ferrari-powered Manor and Haas would remain as possibilities, but it would surely take an upturn in form before the end of the season for the Scuderia to try to push for such a deal.
Verdict: 2016 chances get slimmer with every GP2 weekend that passes without him winning.
Currently: First in Formula Renault 3.5
F1 status: Mercedes simulator work
At the next FR3.5 round at Silverstone, Oliver Rowland will get to drive an F1 car for the second time. For the second time, it will be as a prize. On this occasion it’s a Red Bull as reward for leading the FR3.5 standings, three years after sampling a McLaren as a prize for winning the McLaren AUTOSPORT BRDC Award.
Rowland is currently on course to follow in the footsteps of Kevin Magnussen and Carlos Sainz by winning the title, but can he succeed them in moving straight into an F1 race seat?
While those two were officially tied to F1 teams, Rowland isn’t, meaning there isn’t just somebody ready to give him a seat if he gets the job done. Furthermore, his funding his limited compared to some, relying on the Racing Steps Foundation to be able to race.
Even though he appears to have built a link with Mercedes, it’s difficult to see a berth opening up for him at most teams. Perhaps a possible avenue could be Manor, though.
The team may not be the most obvious destination for a driver short of backing, but it has given Roberto Merhi a chance this season.
And if it can offer a similar opportunity to a driver next season, a FR3.5 champion hailing from the same South Yorkshire area that the team calls home would surely be the perfect choice.
Of course even if such an option exists, it will depend whether Rowland and those around him feel that would be the best route to take.
Verdict: Chances slim with limited funds, but would be a home-grown star at Manor.
Currently: Third in DTM
F1 status: Mercedes reserve, Force India tester
Pascal Wehrlein might not have raced a single-seater since early 2013, but we’ve kept a close eye on him since and particularly after Mercedes started moving him towards Formula 1 by making him its reserve driver towards the end of last year.
Mercedes knows it needs to start building for the future on the driver front to continue on from its current spell of dominance, and like the result of a lab experiment to create the ideal successor to Hamilton and Rosberg, Wehrlein is the focus of those efforts.
On the F1 side he’s been kept busy testing for both Mercedes and Force India, while he’s been doing a fine job in the DTM, following on from becoming the series’ youngest winner last year by being a strong title contender this year.
To have done that in the extremely competitive, fully professional series shows that the 20-year-old is something special.
Those performances make it seem increasingly likely that Mercedes will push for him to him to race in F1 soon, and its engine customer Force India seems like the place to make that happen.
A potential hurdle is the superlicence system, which at the second attempt is still only giving a DTM champion a fraction of the points needed, but to block Wehrlein on those grounds would be madness.
The only sad thing is that with teams like Ferrari making such conservative driver choices, Nico Hulkenberg may have to be forced out to make way.
Verdict: If Mercedes wants him racing a Force India, he’ll be racing a Force India.