Luke Smith and Phillip Horton  |    11 January 2017

Feature: 17 to watch in '17 - Who's who?

It may only be January, but the racing season will soon be upon us. With the majority of series testing through February ahead of a March kick-off, it won’t be long until we’re beside ourselves with more racing than you can shake a gearstick at.

2017 promises to be a hugely exciting season across a number of championships, but who will be the drivers to light the year up? In this special feature, Luke Smith and Phillip Horton pick 17 drivers to watch in 2017, ranging from F1 world champions to up-and-coming juniors still plying their trade further down the ladder.

Lewis Hamilton (GBR)

Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton had a pretty rough time of it throughout 2016. Despite winning more races than any other driver, taking more poles and sweeping the final four races of the year, Hamilton fell five-points shy of a fourth crown to Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg. Had it not been for a string of early-season reliability dramas and, most crucially, his fiery engine blow-out in Malaysia when leading by 20 seconds, Hamilton would likely have had a fourth title. Conversely, Hamilton also skewered himself with a litany of sub-par getaways, which cost him vital places off the line. Nevertheless, he now heads into 2017 not as the underdog, but as the favourite following Rosberg’s shock decision to retire from racing. With new regulations in play and a faster, fiercer F1 being promised, Hamilton should flourish. Hamilton smoothly adapted to regulation shifts in 2009 and 2014, so a similar approach can be expected this time around. Team-mate-to-be Valtteri Bottas will certainly pose a threat, but frankly, Hamilton is the number one driver at Brackley now. With the intra-team tension defused, we may see the Briton back at his very best this year - a prospect we should relish.

Max Verstappen (NED)

A Grand Prix winner, two years of Formula 1 experience, and a legion of passionate fans behind him, and yet Max Verstappen is still just 19. Verstappen’s ascension through the ranks has always been accelerated but this year will be when the attitudes will change. Verstappen has always exceeded expectations, but he has now reached the pinnacle, racing for a Formula 1 team which wants to compete for the title. Such goals will not perturb Verstappen, whose concoction of natural talent and the precociousness of youth has led him to this position. Verstappen’s racecraft is sensational, while his late-season qualifying improvements against the mighty Daniel Ricciardo, after having initially been trounced over one-lap, typified his continued upward trajectory. Should Red Bull’s RB13 be a Mercedes-beater, Verstappen will have to take the next step, and do so against the majestic Ricciardo, who is in the prime of his career. To beat Ricciardo, Verstappen will have to eke out everything, and string together an entire campaign, rather than rely on the attention-grabbing stand-out moments, and you’d believe the Dutchman has the capability to do so. The intra-team dynamic at Red Bull will be a gripping sub-plot throughout the course of the year. 

Esteban Ocon (FRA)

From GP3 champion to Force India via a nine-race spell with Manor, tests with Mercedes and Renault, and a stint in DTM: it was quite the 2016 for Esteban Ocon. The Frenchman was plucked from GP3 to DTM by Mercedes but his Formula 1 test role with Renault always indicated that single-seater’s top echelon was on the horizon. Ocon impressed Mercedes during mid-season testing at Silverstone and the manufacturer swooped when Rio Haryanto’s funding perished, placing Ocon at Manor, alongside fellow Mercedes protégé Pascal Wehrlein. The German gained the upper hand, ostensibly through his greater experience, but once up to pace Ocon provided glimpses of his prestigious talent. This was most prominent in Brazil, when Ocon starred in wet conditions, only dropping out of the top 10 in the final laps. Renault eyed Ocon long-term but Mercedes acted swiftly, with Ocon signed as a replacement for Nico Hülkenberg at Force India. It presents a huge opportunity for Ocon, who joins a respected midfield outfit, against a rounded driver in Sergio Pérez, the Mexican having eliminated his erratic nature to add consistency to his natural flair. Force India, though, has an unpolished diamond in the lanky Frenchman and both sides will flourish from the partnership. 

Stoffel Vandoorne (BEL)

A phenomenal GP2 champion graduating to Formula 1 with McLaren in Car #2 alongside Fernando Alonso. A decade ago it was the turn of Lewis Hamilton, this year it’s Stoffel Vandoorne. The Belgian hotshot has had to wait longer than most for his chance – race day in Melbourne will be his 25th birthday – but this is a huge opportunity to display his talent among the sport’s elite. Vandoorne dismantled highly-rated opposition in GP2, scoring a scarcely believable seven Feature Race wins and smashing most of the series’ records. In Super Formula he exceeded expectations, triumphing twice, and scored a point on his Formula 1 debut in Bahrain last year, despite minimal preparation. The low-maintenance Vandoorne has the ability to preserve tyres while maintaining pace in an effortlessly commanding never out-of-control driving style. Witness his GP2 race in Bahrain, when tyre wear was on a knife-edge. On lap 14 he was three-seconds clear of the chasing pack. Then he pulled the pin. By lap 21 the gap was 14.2 seconds. It was astonishing. This year he goes up against the mighty Alonso, still performing at a relentlessly high level. Vandoorne has the ability to rattle Alonso, and the talent of both will drive McLaren forwards, back towards where it belongs. 

Carlos Sainz Jr. (ESP)

Carlos Sainz Jr. nearly didn’t get a Formula 1 drive at all back in 2015, with Max Verstappen getting the nod for a Toro Rosso seat before Sebastian Vettel’s surprise decision to leave Red Bull for Ferrari. And yet now it seems unthinkable that the Spaniard could have some so close to being cast by the wayside. In his two seasons, he has proven himself to be one of F1’s most talented youngsters. Despite being forced to sit in Verstappen’s shadow during their time together at Toro Rosso, Sainz proved himself to be more than capable of taking on the Dutchman. With the intra-team tension eased following Verstappen’s promotion to Red Bull, Sainz took the Toro Rosso by the horns to lead the team and claim some notable results despite being hamstrung by a 2015-spec Ferrari power unit, particularly later in the year. With Toro Rosso returning to current-year Renault power for 2017 and aero - a particular strength of the team under the leadership of James Key - being a key battleground this year, expect Sainz to come out fighting. If he can wipe the floor with Daniil Kvyat again, it would be a true mark of his quality.

José María López (ARG)

With three WTCC titles under his belt, José María López decided that enough was enough at the end of 2016: when Citroën left, he’d be going with them. The Argentine has conquered tin-tops with such conviction that a return to single-seaters - where he cut his teeth back in GP2 10 years ago - came knocking courtesy of DS Virgin Racing (DS being a sub-brand of Citroën). López made a splash on debut in Hong Kong by qualifying an excellent third, only for a suspension failure to cause him to crash out of the race. A so-so weekend in Marrakech ended on a high with a point for P10, but with the nature of Formula E cars being so alien to any other car on the planet, a period of adjustment was always likely. López is poised to become the latest member of the FE/WEC double duty club in 2017, being in line for an LMP1 seat with Toyota in place of Stéphane Sarrazin. With such a successful racing record, López will be a key asset to his teams through 2017; seeing him continue his success from WTCC into both championships would come as little surprise.

Felix Rosenqvist (SWE)

There isn’t enough space to list all of the series that Felix Rosenqvist raced in 2016 or the success he attained. The Swede made the move to Indy Lights from Formula 3 after winning the 2015 title, but didn’t stop there. He took three victories, including a double in Toronto, before departing the series to focus on his other commitments. A stint in DTM with Mercedes was dovetailed with appearances at the Spa 24 Hours and Macau, finishing second in both events, before he committed to Formula E with Mahindra. Rosenqvist impressed on debut in Hong Kong before an error caused him to crash, ending hopes of a podium finish, but he made amends in Marrakech. Pole position was followed by a gallant drive to third, with Rosenqvist ultimately powerless to stop Sébastien Buemi and Sam Bird surging ahead. Mahindra knows it has one of the brightest racers in motorsport on its books, with a breakthrough victory for both Rosenqvist and the team surely on the cards this year. Quite what else Rosenqvist will do to keep busy remains unclear, but one would imagine he would not be satisfied with only kicking butt in one series in 2017.

Josef Newgarden (USA)

2011 Indy Lights champion Josef Newgarden was the hottest property during the 2016-2017 IndyCar off-season after enjoying back-to-back campaigns in which he took the fight to the establishment. Despite only picking up a single victory through 2016, compared to two the previous year, Newgarden was more consistent and threatening behind the wheel of the Ed Carpenter Racing #20 entry. Newgarden’s victory at Iowa wasn’t a victory: it was a demolition (completed, it must be added, with broken bones from his terrifying accident at Texas). His efforts did not go unnoticed, with speculation linking him to seats at both Penske and Andretti for 2017. Penske eventually won the race for his signature, opting to bump two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya in favour of Newgarden; a statement that speaks volumes about the American’s ability. With the right car underneath him, there is no reason why Newgarden can’t challenge for the title and take the series by storm, in much the same fashion Simon Pagenaud did after making his own move from a midfield team to the behemoth front-runner back in 2015. That said, Pagenaud’s first season with Penske will act as a warning that there may be a period of adjustment for Newgarden this year.

Charles Leclerc (FRA)

Ferrari protégé Charles Leclerc fulfilled pre-season expectations in 2016 by securing the GP3 Series crown as a rookie, fending off a spirited challenge from ART team-mate Alexander Albon. Leclerc’s assimilation with Ferrari, having joined its young driver scheme at the start of the year, led to him piloting the SF16-H in-season, along with his practice outings in his guise as Haas’ development driver. Leclerc’s Formula 1 runs during a busy stretch of four GP3 rounds in five weekends compromised his results in the junior category, but he regrouped and sagely focused on his duties with ART, an impressively mature approach for someone who, at the time, was touted for a 2017 F1 seat. Haas ultimately opted for experience, but Leclerc will remain on its radar as he graduates to the GP2 Series this season. Leclerc will compete for Prema, which emerged as the pace-setter in 2016, taking nine wins and the Teams’ title as Pierre Gasly and Antonio Giovinazzi finished 1-2 in the standings. Leclerc was often supreme on Saturdays but wobbly on Sundays in GP3, a situation he will need to rectify in GP2, while he will also face an intra-team challenge from Antonio Fuoco, who will regard GP2 as a fresh start after flattering to deceive in GP3 and F3. The top three in the standings should be within reach for Leclerc this year. 

Louis Delétraz (SUI)

Delétraz, son of hapless backmarker Jean-Denis, is creeping onto Formula 1’s radar as he prepares to compete full-time in GP2 this year. Delétraz’s success in junior Formula Renault categories, including the 2015 2.0 NEC cup, led to him joining Renault’s junior scheme, revived upon the manufacturer’s return to Formula 1. Quirkily, Delétraz moved into the rebranded Formula V8 3.5 Series in 2016, despite the category losing Renault’s backing. Delétraz immediately impressed, winning at Aragón, and was a season-long title contender despite winning only once more. Delétraz ultimately missed out to the experienced journeyman Tom Dillmann, but his performances had already caught the eye of GP2 teams. Delétraz made his debut in the 2016 finale with Carlin and this year will move up fill-time into the category with Racing Engineering, which has been a front-running team for the best part of a decade, and finished runner-up in the Teams’ standings in 2015 and 2016. The Andalusian outfit also guided Giorgio Pantano (in 2008) and Fabio Leimer (in 2013) to the Drivers’ crown. Delétraz has time on his side to develop, but he has already demonstrated that he has a lengthy career ahead as a professional racer, whether in single-seaters or sportscars.

George Russell (GBR)

Russell’s talents first came to the fore in single-seaters when he claimed the 2014 BRDC Formula 4 championship, and impressed on his first weekend in European Formula 3 when he triumphed in only his second start with Carlin. The remainder of the year was a sterner test, but sixth overall reflected an encouraging campaign. Russell stayed in F3 in 2016 with the revamped Hitech outfit and was regularly the biggest challenger to the dominant Prema operation. Russell won twice, with his most impressive form coming at the demanding Pau and Spa-Francorchamps circuits, to finish third in the standings, as the highest non-Prema racer. Russell stepped up a notch at the Macau Grand Prix and romped to pole by 0.37s, before finishing seventh in the main race. Russell’s achievements caught the attention of Mercedes and he was a guest of the team at last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, watching the race from the garage, amid a mooted role in its junior team. Russell is poised to compete in GP3 with the supreme ART squad this year; he and probable team-mate, Renault-backed youngster Jack Aitken, will be the favourites for the crown.  

Mick Schumacher (DEU)

Mick Schumacher will always be inexorably compared to his father, seven-times Formula 1 champion Michael, and such an association has its advantages and its perils. However, irrespective of the achievements of Michael, Mick is emerging as a rising talent in his own right. Schumacher’s second season in ADAC Formula 4 netted him second in the standings, a position he matched in Italian Formula 4, winning 10 races from 42 starts across both categories. Perhaps more impressive was his charge from the back of the grid to second in the Monza finale, carving his way through the pack with assurance. Schumacher, currently competing in the Asian-based winter MRF Challenge, will move into European Formula 3 with Prema this year. The Italian outfit has a dominant record in the category, having provided the Drivers’ champion on each occasion since the series’ rebranding in 2012, most recently Lance Stroll, now in Formula 1 with Williams. This year’s Formula 3 line-up is already burgeoning with talent, and Schumacher will face an intra-team threat from the rapid Callum Ilott, so expectations should not be unnecessarily lofty. A handful of podiums, and a comfortable top 10 classification in the standings, would represent a competent season.  

Lando Norris (GBR)

With Jenson Button having exited, and Lewis Hamilton into his thirties, Britain will soon be eyeing a new Formula 1 star. The diminutive well-financed Norris could be the answer. The Bristolian, 17, will graduate to European Formula 3 with Carlin this year after an impressive 2016 made the world sit up and take note. Norris, the 2015 MSA Formula champion, began his year with a title in the Toyota Racing Series and won both the Eurocup and NEC championships in Formula Renault 2.0. Norris also debuted in European Formula 3 at Hockenheim, catching the eye with his pace, and charged from 26th to 11th on his first appearance at the prestigious Macau Grand Prix. Carlin endured a difficult year in Formula 3, with Prema having dominated the series and the likes of Hitech and Van Amersfoort also taking wins, but with Norris at the wheel, the team will be confident of revitalising its prospects. Norris, meanwhile, will receive a private Formula 1 test with McLaren courtesy of his BRDC Autosport award at the end of last year; if he continues on his current path, it will be far from his last. 

Ott Tänak (EST)

Tänak’s potential has been long-established, and he was set to enter 2017 as M-Sport’s leading driver under revised regulations, having hailed the squad’s new Fiesta RS during testing. Then Volkswagen dropped the bombshell that, after four dominant years, it would be quitting the sport. Sébastien Ogier, a free agent, wrapped up a deal with M-Sport, meaning that Tänak will go up against the four-time World Champion in the same machinery. Tänak’s path to this point hasn’t been straightforward; he received his chance with M-Sport in 2012 but an array of incidents meant he was dropped at the end of the campaign, and spent 2013 in his native Estonia. Tänak regrouped and for 2015 made a full-time return with the same outfit, though gained most attention for his astonishing escape from a sinking car after plunging into a Mexican reservoir. 2016, though, was much stronger as he switched to the DMACK operation, denied victory in Poland only by a late, heart-breaking puncture, and rounded out the year with second in Britain. His previous experience with M-Sport should stand him in good stead, and if he can string together the peaks of his performances, he has the ability to rattle Ogier. 

Kris Meeke (GBR)

Six years ago when he was still fighting to establish himself on the global rallying scene, Kris Meeke appeared in a Peugeot advert with the tagline ‘Meeke Not Mild’. And boy has he proved that to be the case in recent years. When he finally got his break in WRC with Citroën back in 2014, he took advantage of the opportunity by racking up four podiums through his first full season in the series. A breakthrough victory followed in 2015 at Rally Argentina, but when Citroën announced it would be shelving much of its 2016 efforts in order to prepare for the regulation change in 2017, Meeke’s rise looked to have hit a ceiling. In typical Kris Meeke fashion, he simply smashed through it by taking two sensational victories in 2016, having only entered seven rallies. His starring moment came in Finland where he led from Stage 2 onwards and even tamed the fearsome Ouninpohja stage with the fastest time. With Citroën now back full-time, the Ulsterman can now mount a serious challenge for the title in 2017. The flux surrounding Volkswagen’s departure has certainly helped matters, but the M-Sport Ford, Hyundai and Toyota teams will still offer stiff opposition. Could Britain get its first WRC champion since Richard Burns in 2001 this year?

Pipo Derani (BRA)

Given the magnitude of his achievements throughout the 2016 season, it is perhaps puzzling that more is not known of Pipo Derani’s plans for 2017. The Brazilian shot onto the scene in 2015 with a strong debut WEC campaign for G-Drive Racing, but really stole the show last year. Victories at the Rolex 24 and Sebring included starring roles from Derani, who had hoped to carry his strong early-season form through the rest of the year. Alas, he was unable to add any more victories to his tally, although remained a shining start of the LMP2 class, doing enough to secure an LMP1 outing with Toyota at the end-of-season rookie test in Bahrain. Derani has thus far only committed to doing the North American Endurance Cup rounds of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, giving him the chance to defend his titles at Daytona and Sebring. One would imagine he’ll land a seat somewhere in LMP2 for the WEC season, with Tequila Patron ESM opting to focus its efforts on IMSA for 2017. Whatever he’s racing, though, Derani will surely continue to establish himself as an endurance star in the making.

Nick Tandy (GBR)

Nick Tandy’s 2016 proved to be something of a come-down following his breakthrough victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans the previous year. As part of the underdog trio alongside Earl Bamber and Nico Hülkenberg, Tandy arguably played the biggest role of all three en-route to their famous victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe with some stunning stints through the night. However, with no third LMP1 car being entered for 2016, Tandy had to step down to a one-off appearance at Le Mans in GTE Pro with Porsche, as well as focusing on his efforts in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. He remained as sharp as ever, though, warranting a promotion into a full-time LMP1 seat with Porsche for 2017 following the departures of Mark Webber, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas. Tandy will feature as part of a stacked line-up in the #1 919 Hybrid, racing alongside Neel Jani and André Lotterer. He may be the least experienced of the three, but it would be of little surprise to see him match his more esteemed and hyped colleagues. A shot at the big time is no less than Tandy deserves; expect him to grab the opportunity with both hands this year.

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