Formula One teams are constantly on the lookout for the next up-and-coming star on the driver market. Red Bull was arguably the last team to unearth a potential multiple world champion in Sebastian Vettel who, at 23, looks set to be among the front-runners in F1 for years to come. There are thousands of hopefuls across the globe aiming to be the next Vettel, but very few make it to the top tier of motorsport. Trying to predict who will make the step up can be a complete lottery. Ever up to a challenge, we pick out the five drivers knocking on the door of F1 and hoping to become a future world champion.
Current series GP2
Previous titles French Formula Renault 2.0 (2007); F3 Euroseries (2009)
Genetically, Bianchi has the most prestigious pedigree of the young pretenders. His grandfather, Mauro, was a three-time world champion in the GT category while his uncle, Lucien, raced in 19 F1 races in the 1950s and 1960s – once finishing on the podium in Monaco – and also won the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the Frenchman’s father, Phillippe, likes to joke: “Jules was born on a kart track.” The latest of the Bianchi racing dynasty took up karting at the age of three and has proved admirable at every racing level. He was third in his first F3 Euroseries in 2008 and the best-placed rookie. A year later, he was crowned the youngest champion in the series history.
This year, he has taken the step up to GP2, F1’s main feeder series in recent years, and he currently lies third in the championship standings. He might well have been higher, too, had it not been for an accident in Hungary that saw him retire from race one and miss race two altogether. Ferrari clearly believe in his talent: he was the first person signed to the Ferrari Driver Academy last December and he is managed by the influential Nicolas Todt, son of former team boss and current FIA president Jean. He also has the backing of the French Motorsport Federation.
What they say about Bianchi “Jules is not as precise as Vettel with feedback but Sebastian was the top guy when it came to this. But I think Jules has more skills in driving; if the car isn’t perfect, he will compensate.” – Bianchi’s former F3 engineer Théophile Gouzin
Current series GP3
Previous titles Formula BMW Europe (2008), GP3 (2010)
At the start of 2009, Formula One still appeared to be a little way off for Gutierrez. But a dominant season in which he romped to the GP3 title has changed all that. Racing for ART in the championship, he won five of the 16 races on the calendar, grabbed three pole positions and endured just one podium-less race weekend – in Belgium in the penultimate round of the season. Such performances saw Peter Sauber snap him up as an affiliated driver to his eponymous F1 team during 2010 and, in September, he was signed up as the Swiss team’s official test and reserve driver for 2011.
But there are the sceptics who believe Gutierrez’s meteoric rise is only down to his lucrative backers, one of which is the wealthiest man in the world, Mexican businessman Carlos Slim. However, Gutierrez has shown from an early age the ability behind the wheel to match the financial backing that follows him. A promising karting career led to an invitation to join the Formula BMW racing fraternity. That move paid off in some style: he won seven races – six of which were consecutively – to be crowned champion in his first season.
What they say about Gutierrez “Esteban is extremely mature for his age and it has been a great pleasure to have him with us a great deal of the time this year as an affiliated driver. The team was rooting for him during his intelligent, fighting performances at the GP3 series. We are confident he will continue to develop strongly. With his modest manner and keen desire to learn, he has also made himself very popular among the team.” – Peter Sauber, owner of the Sauber F1 team
Current series Formula Renault 3.5 Euroseries
Previous titles Formula Renault 2.0 WEC (2008), British F3 (2009)
Ricciardo is a regular feature in the F1 paddock this season as the official reserve/test driver for both the Red Bull and Toro Rosso teams. Red Bull boss Christian Horner has no doubts about Ricciardo’s abilities as a racer. He has few, if any, detractors, following his first foray into F1 at the Circuito de Jerez on December 1. During the young drivers’ test, the Australian clocked the quickest time by over a second. As a result of his efforts, he joined fellow Antipodean Brendon Hartley as the Red Bull/Toro Rosso reserve and test driver. That test alone in Jerez has seen people talk about when, rather than if, Ricciardo will make the step up to F1, although he looks likely to have to wait with both Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi signed up by Toro Rosso for next season.
Ricciardo started in karts at the age of nine but first made his mark in single-seaters in Formula BMW from 2006. His greatest title to date, however, was when he was crowned British F3 champion last season after winning seven of 20 races and finishing on the podium in six other races.
What they say about Ricciardo “When we tested Daniel, we were looking at more than speed alone. It’s about the complete package: speed, fitness, feedback, intelligence, and the right feeling. He had a very good first test: his times were competitive, his feedback was good and his level of fitness proved he can survive at the highest level. He is a very promising member of the Red Bull Junior Team.” – Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.
Current series GP2
Previous titles British F3 national class (2007)
Should Perez have a solid weekend in Abu Dhabi in the build-up to the Formula One race, he ought to end up with the runner-up spot behind Pastor Maldonado in the GP2 Series this season for the Barwa Addax team in only his second season in the series. It feels like Perez has already been around for a lifetime in the junior formulae but, still, the Mexican is only 20 years old. On his day, he is lightning quick, as his four wins this season will attest to. Intriguingly, those wins have come at some of the ultimate tests for a racing driver: Monaco, Silverstone and Spa, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in F1 circles.
One of the major stumbling blocks to getting into F1 for any driver is a lack of sponsorship, but that does not appear to be a problem for Perez, who like Esteban Gutierrez is backed by none other than the richest man in the world, Carlos Slim, through his Telmex operation. Perez clearly has the natural talent – he won on his debut in the GP2 Asia series – and it remains to be seen which F1 team decides to take a gamble on his services. With few clear F1 options for 2011, he may, though, be forced to spend a third season on the GP2 grid.
What they say about Perez “Sergio is a driver of high repute in the GP2 series and my objective with signing him was and remains to place a Mexican driver in Formula One.” – Barwa Addax team owner Alejandro Agag.
Hamad al Fardan
Current series GP2
Previous titles Formula V6 Asia
There are a host of drivers from the Middle East steadily making their mark on the ladder up to F1. Khalil Beschir, Menasheh Idafar and Salman al Khalifa are among them but Hamad al Fardan appears to be the strongest candidate. He decided not to follow the path taken by his rally-driving father, Ahmed al Fardan, and instead opted for single-seater racing. To date, his rise up the ranks have been steady if slightly unspectacular. There have been wins in Formula BMW Asia, Formula V6 Asia and the Asian F3 Championship and there have also been occasional forays into GP2 Asia in 2008 and 2009.
In his opinion, however, his finest hour came in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand in which he started one particular race at the back of the grid and made his way through rain, snow and the rest of the field for victory. Under normal circumstances, he might not be in contention for an F1 seat, but the likes of F1 promoter Bernie Ecclestone are pushing heftily for a Middle East driver in the top tier of motorsport and, with a home race in Bahrain and one close to home in Abu Dhabi, al Fardan looks a very strong candidate to make the grade.
What they say about al Fardan "He is a very talented young driver and hopefully he can develop into a future Formula One star." - Former iSport boss Paul Jackson