Feature: F1's young guns ready to take 2019 by storm
Half of the drivers on the 2019 Formula 1 grid will be aged 25 or under as teams look to youth for success. Motorsport Week reflects on the arrival of the next generation.
With due respect to Stoffel Vandoorne – axed through poor form and bad timing – and the dropped Esteban Ocon – a victim of ill-fortune – it’s difficult not to feel that one outcome of the 2018/19 silly season is the near-completion of the arrival of Formula 1’s new generation.
It is entirely natural and cyclical occurrence for such a change to take place, but 2018/19 has put the seal on a generational overhaul not seen in several years.
The past two years has resulted in Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button, Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso bidding farewell to Formula 1, taking with them four (and very nearly five) world titles, and over 1000 Grands Prix worth of starts. The irrepressible Kimi Raikkonen defies the trend – fitting, really – and there is a five-year age gap between him and the second-oldest driver on the 2019 grid: (almost unthinkably) Robert Kubica, who turns 34 this Friday. Only four other drivers (Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Romain Grosjean and Nico Hulkenberg) are in their 30s.
Next season’s Formula 1 grid will see several karting rivalries reunited at the front of the grid – and it is a mere handful of years since those drivers were competing against each other at that level.
Red Bull will field Max Verstappen (21) and Pierre Gasly (22, 23 in February), Charles Leclerc (21) will join Ferrari, meaning half of the expected front-runners will barely be above University age. Verstappen has already shaken up F1 and often dominated discussion points – not many drivers force regulations to be tweaked and twisted – while the straight-talking Gasly and humble-but-focused Leclerc will be forces to be reckoned with come next year, as both Red Bull and Ferrari seek validation of the young driver schemes that they have developed. Further down the grid Lando Norris (19) is joining Carlos Sainz Jr. (24) at McLaren, George Russell (20) will link up with Williams, while it would be remiss not to throw into the mix Lance Stroll (20), Alexander Albon (22) and even Daniil Kvyat, who is still only 24 in spite of his rollercoaster F1 career – he’s four months younger than full-time Sauber debutant Antonio Giovinazzi. Making your proper debut aged 25? What a throwback!
It is impossible not to trace the trend back to Verstappen’s shock ascent to F1 for 2015; Stroll and Norris securing F1 race deals aged 18 was no longer a stunning anomaly, and barely newsworthy, while drivers are now being pushed up the single-seater ladders at a rapid rate, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse – the wider perception of how youngsters should develop and progress has been irreversibly altered in recent years.
It is difficult not to look at the current crop of youngsters and feel a massive sense of excitement for the next decade. Most drivers that have been given the ‘potential World Champion’ moniker in recent years have secured the step to F1, facilitated by the rise of young driver programmes, rather than fall by the wayside in favour of the well-funded and lesser talented.
“There is definitely a generation change going on in F1 at the moment, and I’m super happy to see people like George Russell and Lando Norris getting into F1,” said Carlos Sainz Jr., who rose to Formula 1 on the Red Bull programme.
“Thinking that I am 24 but it is my fifth year next year in F1 seems quite crazy. At the age of 24 I still feel like I have 15 years ahead of me. But I have already done five. So I have that good combination of youth and experience. But having even younger people is good for F1 nowadays and is the right direction. Those guys are also very talented.”
Russell, Norris and Albon’s respective graduations means this year’s lead F2 trio will be in F1, while the Williams driver’s predecessors as F2/GP2 champions are already with top teams.
“I think the Formula 1 teams are starting to recognise the level in junior motorsport,” explained Russell. “I think we’ve all been very lucky, especially myself and Lando, to be around a Formula 1 team for a couple of years now, and going to the races, and we learn a huge amount. Of course you always get quicker and when you gain experience, you just become more knowledgeable. I think this generation of drivers is a very, very good one.”
Norris concurred with his compatriot, commenting: “I guess it’s a good thing for the sport, for Formula 1, for three new drivers, the top three from Formula 2 to be going into Formula 1, I think it’s quite a cool thing.”
There is always excitement about watching young sportsmen: the notion of being able to witness potential (hopefully) fulfilled, the narrative that they still have to shape, and the various paths that they have trodden to reach the pinnacle. That most of them are humble and grounded, and often take to Instagram Stories to chart their everyday lives, heightens the impression that this is a generation of affable young guns who just happen to be extremely gifted drivers. And that three of them are potentially in race-winning, or title-contending, machinery only adds to the spectacle. The likes of Russell, Norris and Albon will be taking their first steps, while Verstappen, Gasly and Leclerc will be competing at the sharp end – providing more than one strand of interest. Drivers such as Vettel, Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo will have to look over their shoulder to ensure their best chances haven’t yet passed…
There are still a smattering of drivers working their way through the ranks – there always are – but for 2019 the next generation of Formula 1 stars have well and truly arrived.