There's always talk of which Formula 1 junior driver will be next in line for a promotion at their respective team, whether that be to a test, reverse or race driver role. And there is also plenty of attention drawn whenever juniors are dropped or part ways from their backers too.
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Junior drivers don't have to be realistic contenders for future F1 seats, they're another tool in the marketing arsenal more than anything else (see Ferrari's F1 struggles while their juniors swept everything before them). It's only once you get to the highest level of junior single-seater racing when the expectation emerges to reward strong performances on track with F1 opportunities.
Alpine have struggled in that regard with reigning Formula 2 champion Oscar Piastri. His private F1 test programme initially happened only because a fellow junior driver's finances enabled it, then his free practice debut was held back for so long that he's now on his way out of the team to seek a race seat elsewhere. Given what happened the first week of the summer break, Alpine has received deserved criticism of its approach to managing its junior talent.
So have the ten Formula 1 teams simply failed to spot a shining talent among the hundreds of gifted young drivers racing today? Not quite.
Multiple times this year, Drugovich has spoken about the freedom of choice he is offered from not being tied to any F1 or IndyCar team. His management is known to have been pursuing opportunities in both paddocks for 2023, including potentially filling the car that Alex Palou still hopes to vacate at Chip Ganassi Racing if his planned McLaren SP transfer does indeed goes through.
Drugovich is without a doubt one of the best drivers currently without connections to the top echelon of single-seaters, as his seven F2 wins, his utterly dominant 2018 Euroformula title – where he won 14 times in 16 races – and his deeply impressive 2017 ADAC Formula 4 season before that – where he was almost champion – all show.
He did, however, have noticeable weaknesses in his Euroformula campaign, and his development in F2 hasn't been linear either. In between his starring rookie season with MP Motorsport in 2020 and his brilliant return to the team this year, he had moved to top team Virtuosi in 2021 but failed to truly deliver, while team mate Zhou Guanyu did enough to earn an F1 graduation.
Had he been in a junior team like Zhou was, would Drugovich and made more of his season at Virtuosi and suitably improved as a driver? We'll never know, but it could well be worth any F1 team right now signing Drugovich up to guarantee he is F1-ready when a race opportunity arises.
Who else racing in the feeder series could benefit, either themselves or a team, by ending their free agent status?
Despite failing to score in the first five races of the year, Fittipaldi has since racked up 100 points and finished runner-up in three feature races, as well as third in two sprint races. That has put him fifth in the standings and, on multiple occasions, he has dipped into the Haas F1 garage with his brother to see first-hand how things go on. But despite his proximity, there has never been much 'hype' about Fittipaldi.
His car racing career started in Ginetta Juniors, a series he never really wanted to be in, and when he was able to move into open-wheel cars in Formula 4 he did not exactly set the world alight with Prema. However, a second season with the typically dominant team did result in the Italian F4 title and third in Germany's ADAC F4 championship. Continuing with Prema, he then came second in a very shallow grid in the inaugural Formula Regional European Championship season. Only winning two races that year lowered expectations for when he moved into the FIA Formula 3 Championship, a series that has proven with many talents – including Drugovich – that it is almost a lost cause to compete in if stuck with a midfield team not close enough to the points positions to benefit from reversed grids.
Fittipaldi did actually spend his first four years racing single-seaters as part of the Ferrari Driver Academy and it was only once he departed its ranks by choice did he then emerge as his own figure and as a more rounded driver than many had previously realised. Rejoining the F1 junior fraternity may not directly benefit him, but it would be an obvious pull with his surname for whichever team signed him alongside his expected second season in F2 in 2023.
Hitech's two former F1 juniors Juri Vips (Red Bull) and Marcus Armstrong (Ferrari) sit 10th and 11th in the F2 points and both have the talent to be back on someone's books, but a more interesting option for a second junior stint would be Trident's Richard Verschoor who is 13th in the standings.
The Dutchman won the first race of 2022 and was on the Jeddah feature race podium a week later, but has only scored three times since. Verschoor would need a big upturn in results to end the year in the top ten, but the F2 sophomore's pace has actually been commendable and the 21-year-old has clear potential.
He carried Red Bull patronage as a rookie in F4, where he dominated the North European Zone and Spanish championships in 2016. That was followed by a Toyota Racing Series campaign in New Zealand – in which he nearly became champion – and a middling Formula Renault run that did include a win in the Northern European Cup but only one podium in the more competitive Eurocup.
The post-Red Bull Verschoor took a long while to truly get into regular season form, coming close to the TRS title again and winning the 2019 Macau Grand Prix but only getting three podiums in three years in his more important European programmes. Stepping up to F2 last year on a limited budget showed that Verschoor could make his mark against the best, but he's starting to lose momentum again. An F1 tie-up would do him good, but it would need to be sooner rather than later.
Even further back in the F2 standings than Verschoor is Drugovich's team mate Clement Novalak who has only mustered up three points finishes in an erratic rookie season but two of those were top-five results in feature races.
Novalak is another who has had an up-and-down time of it in cars. When he has been successful, he has taken what could be described as the 'lowest common denominator' route to winning. He earned the moniker 'Mr Consistent' through a title-winning BRDC British F3 season that featured seven fourth places and a FIA F3 run last year where he maintained an outside title shot through five fifth places and three podiums, but never secured a pole or win. However, he was on average the fastest driver on single-lap pace and had the highest average finishing position of anyone in the field.
That has made the messiness of his time in F2 all the more confusing. While Drugovich has been consistent and clean up front, Novalak needs to up his game to support MP's teams title bid. Despite his lack of form in 2022 (which initially looked like it would be spent with Virtuosi before a change of mind and a move to be managed by Fernando Alonso), and the mirroring of his team mate's comments about the benefits of being a free agent, he is still definitely one of the top talents deserving of an F1 junior berth.
The 19-year-old Argentinian is a Youth Olympics medallist, former Alonso protege, Spanish F4 champion, FR Eurocup, TRS and FREC race winner and last year he became one of the hottest young talents in sportscar racing by starring for G-Drive Racing in LMP2 prototypes. Were it not for Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Russian outfit G-Drive would have aimed to have retained Colapinto's services in some capacity for 2022. Instead, he's been focused solely on FIA F3 with the debuting Van Amersfoort Racing team.
That new combination took pole on their first attempt and won on their third start, and two podiums since puts him ninth in the standings. If his management don't put him back into the sportscar driver market for 2023, then it would be about time that F1 teams start opening the doors after a year of Colapinto knocking on them and calling them up.
It's not just F1 teams that drivers in feeder series can align themselves with, as Formula E, IndyCar and Super Formula teams all have junior teams, as do engine suppliers Honda and Toyota. What's more, outside of Europe, the teams in the professional series also race in the lower ranks as a highly effective method of training both drivers and engineers.
F2 has 11 active juniors this year plus mid-season sacking Vips and Venturi's FE reserve driver Jake Hughes, while at the F3 level there are 14 young driver programme members plus Togo Suganami (B-MAX Racing) and Yuga Furutani (TOM'S) who race for the SF Lights branches of SF teams.
At the Formula Regional level, there are seven junior drivers (or junior team affiliates) plus mid-season signing Kazuki Oki at TOM's and Aston Martin ambassador Jessica Hawkins in W Series, then Meyer Shank Racing supports Braden Eves in IP2000 while Alfa Romeo's F1 operator Sauber backs Roberto Faria in GB3. IndyCar team Juncos Racing is also competing in IP2000 this year with two cars.
Formula 4 has the biggest presence of professional open-wheel outfits backing drivers. Once Red Bull-linked Arvid Lindblad makes his F4 debut this Autumn, there will be 11 F1 juniors, while SF team and manufacturer KCMG backs Stephane Sarrazin's son Pablo in French F4. Honda and Toyota then run their own official junior teams in Japanese F4, which adds another seven drivers to the list.
Two former Sauber proteges are racing in Ginetta Juniors this year, while in karting (ignoring current superstar Lindblad) there are eight F1-backed talents including two drivers actually run by Sauber, and an IndyCar presence in the form of Sebastian and Oliver Wheldon who are the sons of the late 2005 IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon. Both are signed to Andretti as juniors.
There are five F1 juniors at the other end of the ladder in more complex positions. Piastri and Ferrari junior Robert Shwartzman finished one-two as Prema team mates in F2 last year and now are not racing at all, and both Alpine and Ferrari would rather they don't move elsewhere next year. Red Bull's Japanese duo Ren Sato and Yuki Tsunoda and Ferrari's Mick Schumacher are all racing in professional single-seaters but have a risk of entirely losing their backing if they did lose their current seats for 2023.
Schumacher and Tsunoda race against each other in F1 at Haas and AlphaTauri respectively, while 2020 Japanese F4 runner-up Sato has been rushed up to SF after really impressing in SF Lights last year and is now under pressure from Red Bull's motorsport advisor Dr Helmut Marko as he has a typically difficult rookie season at Japan's top level.
With the likes of Piastri, Shwartzman, Jack Doohan, Theo Pourchaire and other F1 backed junior drivers seemingly on the cusp of breaking into the highest level, there is plenty of talent itching for an opportunity. But looking outside of those affiliated in Formula 1, there are so many drivers with just as much ambition who deserve to be taken into consideration.
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