Formula One is brimming with exciting young talent on the verge of making themselves top tier talents. F1’s youth revolution was underlined by Max Verstappen winning the title last year but it’s been hard to ignore the rise of several other young stars.
Whether it was Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in 2019 or Lando Norris over the past two years, there are plenty of drivers who are establishing themselves as the stars of F1’s immediate future.
Here’s a look at four drivers who are well placed to thrive this year.
George Russell finally has his chance to show what all the fuss is about this year. Many in F1 think Russell is the real deal and in his three years with Williams it was not difficult to see why. At the British team he showed why Mercedes has invested so heavily into his junior career.
He quickly established himself as an exceptional qualifier and made a habit of dragging the uncompetitive car into Q2 and occasionally into Q3. One of these stunning Saturday qualifying laps was the backbone of his maiden career podium at the Belgian Grand Prix.
We already had a glimpse of what he could do at Mercedes at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix as a stand-in for Lewis Hamilton following a positive Covid test. Russell would have won that race had it not been for a late Mercedes pit-stop blunder. Impressively, from the word go that weekend he appeared to be very close to the level of teammate Valtteri Bottas.
That’s where the key difference is this time around. He’s replacing Bottas this year and will race alongside Hamilton 23 times across the season. Bottas started strongly against Hamilton in 2017 but quickly faded and struggled to match the seven-time world champion’s incredible consistency.
Assuming Hamilton decides to continue racing, the events of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix may have lit a fire inside of him. As he showed in Brazil last year, when his back is against the wall he often delivers his best performances. Luckily for Russell, he probably doesn’t need to beat Hamilton across the course of the season to have a breakout year.
A win or two would be enough, as would proving that he is not just another Bottas — that is, a quick driver who can occasionally claim a pole or win a race — but is someone who can consistently match Hamilton’s level. If he can do that, he will finish the year looking like the long-term future of Mercedes.
There shouldn’t be any doubt remaining that Carlos Sainz is one of F1’s most talented young drivers. Other than a slightly slow start last year, the Spanish driver rarely looked out of place at Ferrari. He scored four podiums and out-scored teammate Charles Leclerc over the course of the year. That was a huge statement in his first year at Maranello.
Last year was a bit of a breakout for Sainz but was probably overshadowed by the hype around his former McLaren teammate Norris, especially in the first half of the season. This campaign feels like a massive opportunity for Sainz.
Like every team, Ferrari will look to move up the order this year. Regardless of whether it does or not, Ferrari has one of the most exciting driver pairings on the grid and we saw enough from Sainz in 2021 to know that it would be wrong to assume he will play second fiddle to Leclerc if the Italian team becomes the one to beat this season.
It’s so good to see Alex Albon get a second chance at Formula One. He’s got it with Williams, who picked him as the man to replace Russell — in fact, Russell played a big role in getting his friend the gig. That wasn’t just a case of one person helping out a mate.
Like many in the paddock Russell believes Albon did not get a fair chance during his time at Red Bull in 2020. It’s clear now that being Max Verstappen’s teammate is a difficult job.
Pierre Gasly wasn’t up to the task in 2019 and nor was Albon in 2020. Even former race winner Sergio Perez struggled to properly match the Dutch driver across a full season last year. Perez is clearly one of F1’s most talented drivers and Gasly has excelled in the years since at Alpha Tauri. In the context of knowing just how good Verstappen is, it is much easier to give Albon a different appraisal.
Getting out of the Red Bull programme will be huge for Albon. There’s two examples of why on the grid already. Sainz got out of it in 2018 and is now driving at Ferrari, having had the opportunity to show his talent at Renault and McLaren in the years since.
By comparison, Gasly appears to be slightly trapped where he is right now despite his incredible current performance level. His chances of getting another competitive car look unlikely while he is still tied to Red Bull, with Helmut Marko apparently unconvinced the French driver is worthy of another chance.
Albon is free of all that pressure and intrigue and has arguably landed at one of the best spots for a young driver on the grid. He’s at an improving Williams team that won’t expect the world from him from the first moment he climbs into the car.
The context of Albon’s season is different to the other drivers above him on this list – a win wouldn’t matter, Albon can reestablish himself as one of the stars of F1’s future if he can replicate some of the brilliance Russell delivered for the team over the last three years.
How good is Mick Schumacher? The answer to that question is still unclear. He had a strong junior career but his rookie season in F1 was with a Haas team a long way off the pace of the nearest car in the competitive order.
Schumacher comprehensively out-performed teammate Nikita Mazepin across the season but it’s clear after their first year together that Mazepin might not be the best measuring post for how good another driver is. Haas hopes last year was an anomaly and it can move back up the order this year.
Even if Schumacher just has a car that can challenge for a place in Q2, it will be a big step up from what he had last season. It’s unlikely Schumacher is going to create many headlines this year in the Haas, but there’s a chance of seeing him in a Ferrari too. Schumacher was named as one of Ferrari’s reserve drivers for 2022, meaning at certain races he will be first in line to replace Sainz or Leclerc if they are unable to race.
In the right car he could do enough to prove he’s got a long-term future on the grid, rather than just being a young man with a familiar face and famous name.