Who is the best driver of Formula One's new guard?
F1 has a bright future, with a current batch of young drivers that are perfoming at a very high level. But the million dollar question is - who's the best?
There's no doubting that Formula One's future is very much in good hands, in terms of on track talent at least. There is a new guard of millennial drivers born in the late 90's that are set to be mainstays in the sport for the next decade or two. Most of them have been racing each other in junior formula for the past 10 years already, and they've mostly all managed to make it to the pinnacle of motorsport, all racing relatively competitive machinery. At this point, we all know about Max Verstappen as he's been in F1 for five years already, but it stands to mention that he's of a similar age to the drivers I'll be discussing.
The main factors that I'll be discussing is performance regardless of machinery, how they're conducting themselves outside of the car, and raw pace. 2019 is a changing of the guard season, with the likes of Charles Leclerc announcing himself on the winning stage last weekend in Spa-Francorchamps followed by a mesmeric win in front of the adoring Tifosi today in Monza and with Max Verstappen picking up seven wins already in his career. But with the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel still with a lot of fight left in them, it really is shaping up to be a classic era.
So let's take a look at the drivers in question.
Charles Leclerc (21 years old, 34 race starts, best finish: 1st x2)
Barring Max Verstappen, nobody has had a more meteoric rise to the top of Formula One than Charles Leclerc. In fact, you could argue that the young Monegasque driver has hit the summit of F1 in a more dramatic fashion, securing a drive at the most prestigious team in the sport in just his second season, and in the process becoming the youngest Ferrari driver in many a decade. But just last weekend at the Belgian Grand Prix, he became the Scuderia's youngest ever winner, beating Jacky Ickx's 50-year old record, as well as picking up his maiden win. He also became the first driver representing the principality of Monaco to win a Grand Prix. The stars are aligning for Leclerc, and after fending off both Mercedes cars in Monza today for a famous victory, he's most certainly giving his illustrious 4-time world champion team mate Sebastian Vettel a severe headache too.
Charles Leclerc scored his maiden victory last weekend in Spa, dedicating it to his dear friend Anthoine Hubert, who sadly passed away in a Formula 2 accident the day before.
Leclerc had a dominant run into Formula One, winning the GP3 and Formula 2 championships at the first attempt, before being snatched up by Sauber for 2018, partnering an experienced Marcus Ericsson. He would go on to outscore the Swede by 30 points, backing it up with a sensational 6th place finish in just his fourth Grand Prix at his happy hunting ground of Baku. But it was his 3 consecutive 7th place finishes at the back end of 2018 that sealed his path into Ferrari for 2019, doing a straight swap with Kimi Raikkonen. It was a win-win for the Ferrari family. He has the potential to be a Ferrari driver for many, many years, and you can fully expect that Charles Leclerc will be a household name in Formula One for a very long time to come.
Lando Norris (19 years old, 13 race starts, best finish: 6th x2)
The youngest driver of the current generation that is making considerable waves in 2019 is Bristol's own Lando Norris. The 2017 European Formula 3 champion hasn't hesitated in asserting his name amongst the Formula 1 paddock's minds in 2019, with some sensational drives in his debut year. But it's not just his on-track efforts that has him noticed, but his off-track demeanour too. His chemistry with Carlos Sainz is so impressive in fact, that Zak Brown made McLaren the first team to announce their driver line-up for 2020, retaining the pair of them.
Norris' devilish charm and child-like personality has made him an international social media phenomenon, as well as being very handy behind the wheel.
The 2018 Formula 2 runner-up has a very bright future indeed, and he is a guiding light in the resurgence of the McLaren name, along with his highly-acclaimed team-mate Carlos Sainz. His two sixth place finishes in Bahrain and Austria were almost eclipsed by a fifth place finish in Spa last weekend, until the Brit was cruelly handed a mechanical failure as he started the final lap of the Grand Prix, taking away 10 valuable points in an instant. Lando's race pace, coupled with the best McLaren car we've seen since 2014 is the exact concoction that will springboard this young driver to greater heights going forward. Expect big things from Norris for the remainder of 2019 and all through 2020.
Lance Stroll (20 years old, 54 race starts, best finish: 3rd x1)
Before we go any further with Lance Stroll, let's get something straight. He won the Italian F4 championship in 2014, and the European F3 championship in 2016, and scored his maiden podium in F1 the following year, avoiding the chaos and calamity in Baku to finish a sensational third. He also weathered the storm at Monza later that year to score a front row starting position next to none other than Lewis Hamilton. There isn't a single driver on the current grid that gets more heat for his place in the paddock than Lance Stroll, and quite frankly, it's undeserved. The kid can drive.
Lance Stroll has more than held his own against his much more experienced team mate Checo Perez, and has shown glimpses of massive speed that people should take note of.
As for 2019, the Canadian has had a solid, if unspectacular season. He's managed to keep relative race pace with his much more experienced and highly regarded team-mate Sergio Perez. But it was Stroll's 4th place finish in Hockenheim that really stands out. He kept the car on the track and made the correct call for slicks at the right time that enabled him to fight at the front during the closing laps of the frantic German Grand Prix. Yes, there's no doubting that he brings a lot of money to Racing Point through his father, but don't doubt the ability that has enabled him to reach Formula One in the first place. He's earned his place amongst the new breed of great Grand Prix racers, and you can expect him to grow with experience in future seasons. Lance Stroll isn't going anywhere just yet.
Pierre Gasly (23 years old, 39 race starts, best finish: 4th x1)
Pierre Gasly has had somewhat of a yoyo journey in Formula One since his debut at the back end of 2017. Dubbed to be the next great driver coming out of France, he appeared in a Toro Rosso as a fresh faced rookie in the tropical heat of Malaysia for the final Grand Prix to be held at the Sepang circuit. He had a strong end to the season from that point on, thus confirming his place at Faenza alongside Kiwi Brendon Hartley for 2018. He would go on to outperform his much more experienced team mate, and land himself a seat alongside Max Verstappen at Red Bull for 2019. But it was soon apparent as early as Melbourne for round one that he was off the pace, fighting on the fringes of the points, whereas Max was challenging for the podium. He would struggle for the first half of the season before Helmut Marko dropped him back to the Toro Rosso team in favour of Alex Albon shortly after the Hungarian Grand Prix.
The affable Frenchman has had a tough 2019, but being back at Toro Rosso could prove to be his gain, as he seeks to find his speed once again.
But the 23-year old has a very strong pedigree, winning the GP2 championship in 2016, followed by strong results in Super Formula in Japan. He also had one singular outing in Formula E during a double header weekend in New York City, claiming a 4th and 7th place finish, which is no mean feat. There's no doubting that there's some talent there, but perhaps it just needs harnessing in a different environment. Let's hope he can bounce back much like Daniil Kvyat has in his comeback season this year, because Pierre has untapped race winning potential that must be unleashed.
Alexander Albon (23 years old, 13 race starts, best finish: 5th x1)
Not many drivers have had a 12-month period quite like Alexander Albon. After finishing 3rd in the Formula 2 championship last season, his options in Formula One looked bleak at best, but when Nissan came to the rescue and signed the promising young British-born Thai driver to partner Sebastien Buemi for season five of Formula E, Albon seemed to have found a home. But when Toro Rosso were forced to have an all new driver lineup for 2019, the door opened for Albon, and he would partner Daniil Kvyat for his debut season. And after just 12 races, he got the call to the senior Red Bull team, much to the shock of Albon.
Alex Albon has had a great start to life at Red Bull, with a 5th and 6th place finish in his first two races at Spa and Monza.
So with a sensational comeback drive in his first Grand Prix for the Milton Keynes team coming back from 17th to 5th, he proved the naysayers wrong. Finishing 2nd the GP3 Series and 3rd in the Formula 2 championship before his F1 odyssey, Albon has the ability to win a race in any machine, and rightfully deserves his crack at the big time. Wether he can hold pace with team mate Max Verstappen, who is arguably the fastest driver in F1 right now is a total different story, but you can bet that Alexander Albon has the ability to leave an indelible mark on the the current era of Formula One.
Max Verstappen (21 years old, 94 race starts, best finish: 1st x7)
Not much else can be said about Max Verstappen at this point. If there ever was a modern day phenom in Formula One, then the 21-year old Dutch hot shoe fits the bill absolutely perfectly. He's not even 22, and he's already embarking on his 5th season in Formula One, approaching 100 race starts in the process. With seven wins in his short career already, he's definitely proving to be a handy racer, especially compared to having just a solitary pole position to his name. And apart from the Italian Tifosi, there isn't really a stronger fanbase than the thousands of Dutch fans dressed in Orange that travel to practically every race on the F1 calendar. It really is a sight to behold.
21-years old. Almost 100 starts. 7 wins. 1 pole position. Countless breathless on-track battles. That's Max Verstappen.
He just so happens to be having the most consistent season of his career to date. After the Monaco Grand Prix in 2018, something appeared to change with Verstappen's mindset, and since then he's had a solid run of top-5 finishes that have earned the attention and praise of the watching paddock. If it wasn't for the Red Bull's inferior early season pace disadvantage to the Mercedes at the start of 2019, there's no doubting that Max would've been firmly in the title hunt at this point of the season. Christian Horner even went as far as saying he is "the best driver in the world at the moment.", and to be honest, can we really argue with him?
George Russell (21 years old, 13 race starts, best finish: 11th x1)
Talking of meteoric rises, George Russell won the GP3 and Formula 2 championships at the first time of asking. Sadly though, his Mercedes link has landed him a spot at the worst performing team for 2019, so he hasn't been able to show up this nature talent that he so clearly has. That hasn't stopped the young 21-year old from Norfolk from putting in some spirited drives so far in his debut season. He's had Robert Kubica in his pocket all year, which is nothing to be scoffed at, even if the Pole may not be the same driver he once was pre-accident in 2011. It's no surprise that he is in Toto Wolff's long term plans for Mercedes going forward. If either Lewis Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas leave the Silver Arrows, then you can be sure that George Russell will be at the very top of the list to fill that void.
George Russell has a junior formula record akin to Charles Leclerc, and given the machinery, could easily challenge him infuture seasons.
As for 2019, Russell has out qualified Kubica at all 14 races so far, and out-raced him in 13, except the rain soaked German Grand Prix in Hockenheim last month. There aren't many faster rookies in F1 than George Russell, and If he's given the tools to win a race, you can be sure that he will deliver at a canter. Watch out for this kid in future years, because he'll be there to give Leclerc, Verstappen, Ocon and company the challenge of their lives.
Esteban Ocon (22 years old, 50 race starts, best finish: 5th x2)
It's happening. Esteban Ocon is returning to Formula One in 2020 to partner Daniel Ricciardo at Renault. The young frenchman has been waiting in the wings throughout 2019 after losing his seat at Racing Point after 2018, and has been rewarded with a full-time seat back on the F1 grid. Everyone knows how fast Esteban is. He beat Max Verstappen to the European Formula 3 championship in 2014, and was quickly snapped up to replace Rio Haryanto at the struggling Manor Racing team half way through the 2016 season. But it wasn't until he partnered an experienced driver in Sergio Perez for 2017 and 2018 that we began to see the excellence and raw speed of Ocon.
The return of Esteban Ocon will be a welcome scene for all the nice guys that deserve a second chance, especially when they're as fast as him.
He went toe-to-toe with Checo throughout both seasons at Force India/Racing Point and often came out on top, cementing his place in the paddock as one to watch for the future. He's spent 2019 as a test and reserve driver at Mercedes, hoping to maybe get the race seat alongside Lewis Hamilton for 2020, but the re-signing of Valtteri Bottas left Ocon out in the cold, again. But with Renault's decision to drop Nico Hulkenberg come season's end, Esteban stepped in and the deal was done.
With the lineup of upcoming drivers now complete for 2020, it truly is going to be a golden era coming up in the next decade or so.
Watch this space.