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Motorsport.com's Top 20 junior single-seater drivers of 2019

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Motorsport.com's Top 20 junior single-seater drivers of 2019
Dec 14, 2019, 12:16 PM

With Formula 1 enjoying one of its strongest rookie intake in 2019, Motorsport.com looks at the top 20 junior drivers of 2019 aiming to follow in the footsteps of Alexander Albon, Lando Norris and George Russell.

Before we get into our countdown proper, it's worth noting that we decided not to include the late Anthoine Hubert. Suffice to say however that had the talented Frenchman not been cruelly taken away from us in that fateful Spa F2 crash, he would have figured highly on this list.

20. France Sacha Fenestraz, age 20

All-Japan F3 champion (8 wins, 18 podiums, 5 pole positions)

Sacha Fenestraz, B-Max Racing with motopark

Sacha Fenestraz, B-Max Racing with motopark

Photo by: Jun Goto

After a chastening 2018 season in European F3 that resulted in him being axed by Renault’s junior programme, Fenestraz headed to Japan in 2019 in search of a change of fortunes, signing up to spearhead B-Max Racing/Motopark’s charge in the All-Japan F3 series.

Despite his lack of familiarity with the tracks, Fenestraz came out on top in a year-long duel with TOM’S title favourite Ritomo Miyata, picking up eight victories along the way, and now finds himself poised to graduate to Super Formula in 2019.

What’s more, he’ll go down as the final Japanese F3 champion, as the category is rebranded Super Formula Lights in 2020 with the introduction of a new car. Jamie Klein

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19. Russian Federation Alexander Smolyar

3rd in Formula Renault Eurocup (3 wins, 10 podiums, 2 pole positions)

Alexander Smolyar, R-ACE GP

Alexander Smolyar, R-ACE GP

Photo by: DPPI

One of the two SMP-backed youngsters on this list, Smolyar made a big step forward in 2019, and would’ve likely retained an outside shot at the Eurocup title until the very end if not for a pair of puzzlingly poor qualifying showings at Spa-Francorchamps.

As a former F4 title rival of Renault-backed standout Christian Lundgaard, he should now have built up enough credentials to earn a decent shot at F3 – especially as he looked instantly very handy in his sole day of post-season testing in the category with the Charouz-run Sauber Junior Team. Valentin Khorounzhiy

18. Norway Dennis Hauger, age 16

Italian F4 champion, German F4 runner-up (18 wins, 26 podiums, 12 pole positions)

Dennis Hauger, Van Amersfoort Racing

Dennis Hauger, Van Amersfoort Racing

Photo by: Van Amersfoort Racing

The most exciting driver in Formula 4 in 2019 was without a doubt Hauger. The Red Bull junior demolished the Italian F4 field and had a close rivalry with Theo Pourchaire in the German series.

He lost the title, sure, but by only seven points and Hauger was still arguably the quickest driver overall. It didn’t matter if he started from pole or 14th, the Norwegian could always fight for the victory at any track.

Unfortunately, his astounding racecraft was paired with unacceptable inconsistency, the youngster falling behind in races, sometimes due to bad luck but way too many times because of his own doing, with bizarre frequency.

That’s something he must fix, but Hauger right now looks like the most talented driver of his generation and Red Bull would be foolish to give up on him. David Gruz

17. United Kingdom Callum Ilott, age 21

11th in FIA Formula 2 (2 podiums, 1 pole position), 6th in Macau GP

Callum Ilott, Sauber Junior Team by Charouz

Callum Ilott, Sauber Junior Team by Charouz

Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images

Ilott arrived in Formula 2 this season with something of a point to prove after a slightly underwhelming GP3 campaign in 2018 with ART.  But a pair of podium finishes (albeit in reverse-grid races) and an impressive qualifying record, including pole at Monza, with the unfancied Charouz squad can be considered a rehabilitation of sorts.

In the end, 11th place in the standings was enough to beat two fellow Ferrari juniors in Mick Schumacher and Giuliano Alesi, ending the year as third-best rookie.

Replacing Luca Ghiotto at UNI-Virtuosi in 2020, he could even be regarded as a dark horse for title honours. JK

16. JapanNobuharu Matsushita, age 26

6th in FIA Formula 2 (2 wins, 5 podiums, 1 pole position)

Nobuharu Matsushita, Carlin

Nobuharu Matsushita, Carlin

Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images

Matsushita had a clear goal for the 2019 F2 season, which was to finish high enough in the championship to earn a superlicence: fourth.

The Honda protégé fell a full 60 points shy of that goal, but that doesn’t mean his year was a write-off; far from it. For while he only matched his sixth place in the standings of his previous campaign - 2017 - this was a much more convincing campaign with feature races wins at the Red Bull Ring and Monza.

A shame then that he is destined to return to Super Formula in 2019, his F1 dream seemingly over. JK

15. France Theo Pourchaire, age 16

ADAC Formula 4 champion (4 wins, 12 podiums, 6 pole positions)

Theo Pourchaire, Carlin Buzz Racing

Theo Pourchaire, Carlin Buzz Racing

Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images

Pourchaire is 16 years old but he has already collected more silverware than most of his rivals can dream of, the Frenchman ending six of his last seven years as a champion in karting and cars. Last year he won the junior class of French F4, this time he triumphed in Germany.

He stood on the podium in 76 and won 47 percent of the races he entered – although admittedly the strength of the French series somewhat inflates that number.

This year, unlike Hauger, Pourchaire had a near-perfect campaign, aside one very bad weekend at Hockenheim, which was the reason why Hauger was able to finish relatively close to him in the points. Formula Renault would be the perfect place for him to continue his impeccable record but he may gain even more by going directly to F3. DG

14. United Kingdom Jack Aitken, age 24

5th in FIA Formula 2 (3 wins, 7 podiums)

Jack Aitken, CAMPOS RACING, celebrates on the podium with Jordan King, MP MOTORSPORT, and Nyck De Vries, ART GRAND PRIX

Jack Aitken, CAMPOS RACING, celebrates on the podium with Jordan King, MP MOTORSPORT, and Nyck De Vries, ART GRAND PRIX

Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images

Though going from 11th to fifth in the standings may not represent a massive step from his rookie season to the sophomore campaign, Aitken deserves credit for putting together what was comfortably the best campaign for his Campos team in F2/GP2 since Rio Haryanto’s 2015 run that earned the Indonesian an F1 half-season.

Much like Haryanto, Aitken came up big in reverse-grid races, which allowed him and Campos to counter their reliably average qualifying performances. And it was no coincidence that Baku, a circuit where one-lap pace doesn’t matter so much, was easily his best weekend of the year.

Few would begrudge Aitken a future in grand prix racing, but though he remains affiliated with Renault, there are several juniors under the French marque’s wing whose credentials just about edge his. VK

13. Denmark Frederik Vesti, age 17

Formula Regional European Championship champion (13 wins, 20 podiums, 10 pole positions), 10th in Macau GP

Frederik Vesti, SJM Theodore Racing by Prema

Frederik Vesti, SJM Theodore Racing by Prema

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

Let’s get the obvious caveats out of the way first – yes, it was a sparse first grid for the Formula Regional European Championship, and yes, in the first few rounds Prema basically looked in a category of its own.

Nonetheless, the 13-win Dane was a credible first champion, gradually dispensing with the intrigue in the title fight and staying the course even as Prema’s dominance faded somewhat and some big-name guest drivers turned up later in the year.

He looked reasonably convincing as part of Prema’s Macau roster too, but assuming he moves up to FIA F3 next, it’s the 2020 campaign that will prove the true test of his potential. VK

12. China Guanyu Zhou, age 20

7th in FIA Formula 2 (5 podiums, 1 pole position)

Guanyu Zhou, Uni Virtuosi Racing

Guanyu Zhou, Uni Virtuosi Racing

Photo by: FIA Formula 2

This F2 field wasn’t quite as strong as the last few seasons but the championship still had a very impressive top rookie in Zhou, who spent three years in F3 and never bettered eighth in the standings, only to then move up to F2 and immediately do better.

It wasn’t a few flashy results that earned him a creditable seventh in the standings, but consistency. He never finished outside the top 10 and was in the top five more than half the time. He was also the second-best qualifier of the field following the first two rounds.

Next year will determine if Zhou just reached his normal level much faster than drivers usually do or if the Chinese youngster can become an F2 title contender. DG

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11. India Jehan Daruvala, age 21

3rd in FIA Formula 3 (2 wins, 7 podiums, 1 pole position)

Jehan Daruvala, PREMA Racing

Jehan Daruvala, PREMA Racing

Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images

Joining Prema in F3, Daruvala was blessed with the best environment possible on this particular rung of the junior single-seater ladder, and two wins in the first three races suggested that the Indian driver had been set for his career breakthrough.

It all went swimmingly in the first half of the season before contact with Pedro Piquet at Silverstone, and a quiet weekend at the Hungaroring initiated by poor qualifying created a deficit to Robert Shwartzman that only grew as the season progressed.

It was still a respectable season, but Daruvala remains one step away from star-talent status. DG

10. Denmark Christian Lundgaard, age 18

6th in FIA F3 (1 win, 2 podiums, 2 pole positions), 4th in Macau GP

2018 ranking: 13

Christian Lundgaard, ART Grand Prix

Christian Lundgaard, ART Grand Prix

Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images

Given ART’s dominance in GP3, it was logical to assume the French outfit would at least figure somewhere in the title conversation when it came to the first year of the new FIA F3 series.

It didn’t quite work out that way, but Lundgaard’s star quality – already evident from his dominant F4 campaigns in 2017 – continued to shine through nonetheless, as he saw off the driver that beat him to last year’s Formula Renault Eurocup title, Max Fewtrell, and late-2018 GP3 form man David Beckmann.

A sole victory and sixth in the points isn’t an accurate reflection of his performances, which have earned him a step up to F2 next year with ART. JK

9. Australia Oscar Piastri, age 18

Formula Renault Eurocup champion (7 wins, 11 podiums, 5 pole positions)

Oscar Piastri, R-ACE GP

Oscar Piastri, R-ACE GP

Photo by: DPPI

By seeing off a host of Renault-affiliated drivers to the Eurocup title, Piastri cemented himself as almost certainly the best junior driver currently not signed to an F1 development programme – although even that feels like a matter of time.

The former British F4 runner-up was run close to the Formula Renault crown, but was ultimately a deserving champion on the back of two imperious pole-to-win doubles at Silverstone and the Nurburgring.

And though his main title rival (who makes an appearance higher up in the list) edged him when it came to many of the key stats, it was Piastri alone who managed to win races by over 10 seconds during the campaign – and did so twice. VK

8. France Victor Martins, age 18

Formula Renault Eurocup runner-up (6 wins, 14 podiums, 9 pole positions)

Victor Martins, MP Motorsport

Victor Martins, MP Motorsport

Photo by: DPPI

Since his rapid rise in karting back in 2016, Martins hasn’t been able to win a championship in cars yet – after missing the French F4 title by four points, he lost by only 7.5 points this season. But while in French F4 he was still a diamond in the rough, this year he put together a much more mature campaign.

He had more pole positions and podiums than champion Piastri and ultimately what cost him the title was Race 1 at the Hungaroring, when Piastri spun out on the formation lap and Martins won, but the race ended early due to torrential rain, and he only got half points.

Even more heartbreaking was the fact that Martins’ car broke down on the formation lap of the preceding race, and the winning Piastri was able to take full advantage of that. DG

7. New Zealand Marcus Armstrong, age 19

FIA F3 runner-up (3 wins, 7 podiums, 1 pole position), Toyota Racing Series runner-up, 8th in Macau GP

2018 ranking: 7

Marcus Armstrong, PREMA Racing

Marcus Armstrong, PREMA Racing

Photo by: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images

Though it was too little to late for his title hopes after a lean start to the season, some qualifying setbacks and a costly safety car procedure error at Monza, the fact that Armstrong delivered comfortably his best weekend of the year in Sochi was a promising sign.

Contesting just his third full season in cars, he was less experienced than most of his direct rivals, which mitigates the rough edges that clearly remain in a driver who has long been earmarked as one of the current generation’s standout talents.

It’s also inescapable, however, that he’s now finished well behind his fellow Ferrari protege Shwartzman in their two seasons as Prema teammates. If that happens next year in F2 as well, then as talented as Armstrong is, he risks becoming an also-ran in the Scuderia’s crowded roster of F1 hopefuls. VK

6. Canada Nicholas Latifi, age 24

FIA Formula 2 runner-up (4 wins, 8th podiums)

Nicholas Latifi, Dams

Nicholas Latifi, Dams

Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images

For the first three rounds of the 2019 season, it looked as if Latifi was on course for F2 title glory at his fourth attempt with the DAMS squad. In fact, it’s easy to forget Latifi was some 30 points clear of eventual champion de Vries after the Barcelona round in May.

But then, just as the Dutchman’s season really got going, Latifi’s stalled, as a lacklustre weekend in Monaco was compounded by indifferent showings in France and Austria.

A return to form in Hungary for a third feature race win was too little, too late, but by then it was becoming clear that Latifi was destined for the second Williams F1 drive in 2020 in any event. JK

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5. Brazil Sergio Sette Camara, age 21

4th in FIA Formula 2 (2 wins, 8 podiums, 2 pole positions)

2018 ranking: 10

Sergio Sette Camara, Dams

Sergio Sette Camara, Dams

Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images

It was a tough call regarding which DAMS driver to place higher in this list, but a pair of pole positions, and a more convincing conclusion to the campaign culminating in a superb victory in Abu Dhabi just about gives Sette Camara the nod.

True, after a stellar 2018 with Carlin, an expected title challenge failed to materialise, not helped by being punted into a spin by Ghiotto in Baku and a disastrous Barcelona weekend.

But from then on, he was a near-constant presence in the top five, coming within just 10 points of his more experienced, F1-bound teammate in the battle for the runner-up spot in the standings. JK

4. Italy Luca Ghiotto, age 24

3rd in FIA Formula 2 (4 wins, 9 podiums, 2 pole positions)

Luca Ghiotto, UNI VIRTUOSI

Luca Ghiotto, UNI VIRTUOSI

Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images

Back for a fourth season and with most of the top names from the 2018 season gone, this was Ghiotto’s time to do some real damage in Formula 2.

In all fairness to the Italian, he had his best year in the series – he qualified on the first two rows for fun, and even when he didn’t he was in the mix, like his Monza run to second from 14th. But the title was still too far as bad luck, as well as mistakes, crept into the equation.

Ultimately, Ghiotto was able to take second in GP3 and third in Formula 2 and, being someone who had to cope with limited budget for most of his career, that is something he can be very proud of as he begins to transition to sportscar racing. DG

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3. Estonia Juri Vips, age 19

4th in FIA Formula 3 (3 wins, 4 podiums, 1 pole position), Macau GP runner-up

2018 ranking: 5

Juri Vips, Hitech Grand Prix

Juri Vips, Hitech Grand Prix

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

The highs of Red Bull protege Vips’ FIA F3 campaign were a match for any of the three drivers that finished ahead of him in the championship, with back-to-back feature race wins at the Red Bull Ring and Silverstone establishing him as the only threat to Prema hegemony.

What he lacked was the same level of consistency, which ultimately doomed his title bid. Still, he made up for that by turning in a mighty series of performances over the course of the Macau GP weekend, not long after making an assured debut in Super Formula at Suzuka.

A pathway to F1 still looks achievable for this talented, if taciturn, Estonian. JK

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2. Netherlands Nyck de Vries, age 24

FIA Formula 2 champion (4 wins, 12 podiums, 5 pole positions)

2018 ranking: 14

Nyck De Vries, ART Grand Prix celebrates in Parc Ferme after winning the championship

Nyck De Vries, ART Grand Prix celebrates in Parc Ferme after winning the championship

De Vries' Formula 2 career is akin to his Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 days at the beginning of his career - he ultimately got the job done in convincing fashion, but only after too many years of missed opportunities.

Straight after Charles Leclerc and George Russell won the title in F2 as rookies, de Vries finally taking championship honours in his third year doesn't quite feel as significant.

In terms of raw talent, the Dutchman is as good as anyone; that’s been apparent since the day he started racing cars. But de Vries ends his junior career unable to fully live up to the hype. F1 may be out of reach at this point, but he'll still enjoy a successful career wherever he ends up long-term. DG

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1. Russian Federation Robert Shwartzman, age 20

FIA Formula 3 champion (3 wins, 10 podiums, 2 pole positions)

2018 ranking: 12

Champion Robert Shwartzman, PREMA Racing, celebrates on the podium with team boss Rene Rosin

Champion Robert Shwartzman, PREMA Racing, celebrates on the podium with team boss Rene Rosin

Photo by: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images

There have certainly been better crops of junior single-seater racers than the current one, and a relative dearth of F1 ready mega-talent feels like a hangover after the ‘boom’ era of your Verstappens, Leclercs and Norrises. But that general overview should not tarnish Shwartzman, who in 2019 looked like the only truly ‘elite’ prospect on the block.

Driving for Prema helped, but Shwartzman’s F3 title was not built on machinery alone. It owes much too to reliably immense racecraft and the fact setbacks seemed not to faze him at all.

Despite a record of not inconsiderable success in F4 and Formula Renault 2.0, his SMP backing and the Ferrari academy spot have previously suggested an overly privileged position, while past interviews hinted at a cocky attitude that was perhaps not entirely justified by results.

But the 2018 breakthrough and this year’s imperious showing can only elicit a mea culpa from this particular writer. Shwartzman can be as cocky as he likes now because chances are he’s going straight to the top. VK

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Look back at our previous countdowns:

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