Familiar big beasts still roam the Formula 1 grid, but a new herd of young, hungry talent is on a stampede in 2019
Damien Smith
16 November 2019

Five world champions in the past 12 years. That says much about how the elite dominate in Formula 1 and how hard it is to break through to the topper-most of the popper-most. Of that quintet of champions, two – Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg – are already retired and the other three will be aware, to varying degrees, just how loudly the clock is ticking. Kimi Räikkönen, champion in 2007, is the oldest, having just turned 40; Lewis Hamilton, champion for the first time in 2008, is 34; Sebastian Vettel, who won four consecutive titles between 2010 and 2013, is 32 but is increasingly looking older after a fraught couple of years at Ferrari. What is certain is that all are closer to the end than the beginning.

That’s true even of Hamilton, despite still appearing at the height of his powers. But he will recognise that a changing of the generations – as inevitable as taxes – is upon F1. How can he not, after a 2019 season in which a clutch of fresh talent has risen to challenge the status quo, with all the glorious precociousness and cocksure self-belief of youth?

F1’s new power generation are not just the future. They’re right here, right now, and ready to grab at opportunities, whenever and wherever they come.

Charles Leclerc, age 22, team Ferrari

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Monaco’s new favourite son stepped up to Ferrari this year and wasted little time in proving that the usually conservative team had made the right call in signing him. The near-miss in Bahrain, a race he would have won convincingly without an engine problem, also foreshadowed the growing problem Ferrari team-mate Vettel now has on his hands. Leclerc is increasingly proving tough to live with and at this rate could even shorten the four-time world champion’s career.

Like Max Verstappen, there are creases in Leclerc’s driving to be ironed out – but unlike Verstappen, he’s only in season two. The mistakes, especially in one who is so openly and refreshingly self-critical, will surely dwindle as experience grows.

The back-to-back victories at Spa and Monza, the latter automatically elevating him to god-like status in the eyes of the Tifosi, offer the evidence to indicate just how special this driver could be. In both races, he faced the physical and psychological challenge of a looming Hamilton in his mirrors. Like Ayrton Senna 30 years ago, Hamilton strikes fear into the heart of the best in such circumstances – Vettel, even if he wouldn’t admit it – but Leclerc refused to be rattled. Hardened perhaps by coming off second in combat with Verstappen in the closing stages in Austria, he delivered the kind of composed performances that marked out Hamilton in his rookie year at McLaren in 2007. The parallels have not escaped Hamilton, either.

Lando Norris, age 19, team McLaren

For all of Verstappen and Leclerc’s impressive form in race-winning cars this year, has Britain’s Norris actually been the best of the new generation? There’s a case to be made, considering the state McLaren was in when it first signed the teenager. Matching and beating team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr is impressive enough – the Spaniard is a fine grand prix driver – but it’s the composure, confidence and qualifying pace this young man consistently displays that has really struck F1 insiders. With this pairing, no wonder McLaren doesn’t want Fernando Alonso back.

Norris has long been anointed special from his earliest progression through the junior ranks, even if he was faintly disappointing in Formula 2 given the height of expectations. But his rookie F1 season has confirmed that he’s best placed to follow Hamilton and become Britain’s 11th F1 world champion – if he makes the right calls on his career.

Will McLaren, seemingly consigned to the status of an independent customer team, really be the destination for Norris to deliver on his obvious potential – or is it just a stop along the way? Once unthinkable, that’s the reality of McLaren’s fall from grace in the past decade, despite the impressive fourth-best-team-in-F1 resurrection this year under new boss Andreas Seidl. The progress is great set in context, and in time Norris might win the odd grand prix at McLaren – but a championship? He may well need a move to achieve that. Like Verstappen, the next big decision – whenever it comes – will prove vital.

Max Verstappen, age 22, team Red Bull Racing

The Dutchman stands out from our new generation, but only because he’s already so well established. That’ll be something to do with him making his F1 debut as a youngest-ever 17-year-old and now already being in his sixth season. What was that old motor racing cliché again? Something about ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’…

At this rate, Verstappen has the time to top a whole load of career records set first by Vettel and currently being beaten again by Hamilton. He also has what it takes to win multiple world titles, but that might rely more heavily on his choice of career path than purely his driving ability.

His contract with Red Bull runs out at the end of 2020, coincidentally at the same time as Hamilton’s does at Mercedes, so a storm of speculation about their futures is on the near horizon. Verstappen will be at the epicentre of the F1 merry-go-round. He has been linked before to Mercedes and in some respects the move makes sense for both parties. For Verstappen, he’d be joining what is fast becoming the most successful F1 team in history, while Mercedes would gain a clear and obvious top-line successor to Hamilton – although the prospect of both bulls playing in the same field for a few seasons is too delicious, for everyone perhaps bar team boss Toto Wolff, who’d have the almost impossible task of keeping them apart.

And that’s the big question mark over Verstappen: is he too strong a flavour for a team that already has Hamilton? Also, even if Hamilton does welcome the challenge that Verstappen clearly represents, does Mercedes need him with so much other talent already on its books (see Esteban Ocon and George Russell later in this article)? Then again, the temptation of Verstappen’s explosive force might be too much for Wolff to resist, especially as the signs are that strong flavour is starting to mature.

On the other hand, Verstappen could make a call that, rather than switch to a Mercedes team that might already be at its peak, he’d be better off sticking with Red Bull, which appears to be back on the path to greatness in harness with Honda.

If there is a decision to be made, it will surely be an agonising one – and potentially career defining.

Alexander Albon, age 23, team Red Bull Racing

The London-born Thai driver is one of the best stories of the season. He had been expecting to race for Nissan in Formula E this year, before the surprise call came in that he’d been handed a Toro Rosso chance in F1. Placed alongside Daniil Kvyat, the quick Russian with plenty to prove himself, Albon might have been expected to become the latest young talent to be chewed up and spat out by the ruthless Red Bull driver programme. He might still be, of course… but so far, Albon hasn’t been that guy.

Instead, when Pierre Gasly was unable to unplug himself from a mire of mediocrity, Albon became the choice on merit to replace him at the Red Bull A-team mid-season. Since then, he has scored the points the team had targeted, and while challenging Verstappen at this stage seems one step beyond, that’s hardly anything to be ashamed of.

So has he done enough to convince his boss, Christian Horner, that he deserves the seat full-time for next year? As I write, that remains to be seen. But Albon has come a long way in a short time and the best could be yet to come.

George Russell, age 21, team Williams

It’s hard to judge the reigning Formula 2 champion, who beat both Norris and Albon to claim his crown. The reason? Williams is undergoing the most depressing slump in its long history – and that includes the era when Frank Williams ran second-hand customer cars on a shoestring back in the 1970s.

Even a comparison with team-mate Robert Kubica means little given the Pole’s unique situation of returning to F1 against all odds after almost losing an arm in a rally crash. Even in the worst car on the grid, there’s no hiding that Kubica isn’t – and couldn’t be – the driver he was.

So how has Russell performed in his rookie season? In such circumstances, he’s done everything that has been asked of him. Like Ocon, he’s on Mercedes’ books, but at this stage, he wasn’t even considered for Valtteri Bottas’s drive for 2020.

Long term, a seat at the Silver Arrows team has to be his aim. He’s lower in the pecking order than Ocon right now, and there’s the Verstappen factor to consider, too – but all he can hope for is some semblance of team revival during his second season at Williams, in 2020. At 21, he’s got time – but in an era when racing drivers are like policemen and seem to be getting younger, Russell won’t have long. He will be impatient for his next move.

Esteban Ocon, age 23, team Renault

Currently consigned to reserve driver status at Mercedes, the Frenchman returns to the F1 grid next year with the team that agreed to take him for 2019 but then changed its mind when Daniel Ricciardo made himself available. Ocon has it all to prove at Renault.

A seat at a proper manufacturer team is a big deal, but how hard will it be for Ocon to push the thought to the back of his mind that he might have been in a Mercedes? Wolff, Ocon’s manager as well as Merc’s team boss, made it clear he had a simple choice over the summer: sign Ocon to join Hamilton for 2020 or retain Bottas. He retained Bottas, despite a less than impressive string of performances following his strong start to the season.

Nevertheless, Bottas doesn’t look like a potential world champion, which is surely what the best team in F1 should be signing. So what does that say about Ocon? Wolff said he was concerned about damaging his driver’s career by putting him up against Hamilton too soon. But if this new generation proves anything, it’s that opportunities can’t come soon enough. That old cliché springs to mind again: if you’re good enough…

Ocon first needs Renault to give him a competitive car next season and then he needs to use it to outpace Ricciardo to earn a Merc call-up. That has to be his (admittedly tall) target.

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Comments
5

16 November 2019
Five champions in twelve years suggests anything but the tedious domination that is reality.

Does anyone know anyone who actually watches F1 these days?

16 November 2019
I do as do several of my work mates.
There are a lot of boring taxes admittedly, but there are also some gems. And it is great to see the new talented drivers out there, infact watching them perform has rekindled my interest in the sport. The mid field battles are where the interest lies.

16 November 2019

  This is the same process as ever, of course there new blood coming through, there has to be, otherwise F1 would stagnate and eventually cease to be a top sport, the top drivers of this last decade are nearing there sell by date, the likes of Hamilton, Vettel, and Kimi have given there best, ok, Hamilton might have another title in the next two years, but, these guys have to move over and let the next generation take there places, that's how it works, should work.

17 November 2019

the sport in which 26 drivers race around a track trying to come out on top, and in the end the German team wins... to use Gary Lineker's image.

17 November 2019
In the end the German team wins, that is based in the UK, cars and engines and engineering all built and carried out in the UK and with a British driver. But yeah it is a German brand.

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