Formula 1’s Forgotten Junior Prodigies pt. 2
Written by Sean McKean, Edited by Debargha Banerjee
As previously discussed, many drivers in the Formula 1 junior ladder have never made it to the big stage, no matter how much talent is at their disposal. Though we discussed drivers from the 2000s/2010s previously, we are going to delve further back into the history books. F3000 in the late-80s/early-90s saw young potential but many never made it big time.
The most notable example belongs to Kiwi Mike Thackwell. Thackwell burst onto the scene in 1978, when he finished P3 in the standings in the Dunlop Star of Tomorrow Championship. He continued his prosperity in the following years, finishing P3 in British F3 in 1979 and winning the Formula 2 title in 1984.
The Kiwi would have a slight taste of Formula 1 in 1984, taking part in one race for the dying Tyrell team. Given the machinery at his disposal, he couldn’t make the most of it, retiring in his maiden race.
In the years following, Thackwell tried everything he could to impress a team boss enough to secure an F1 ride. He took part in the F3000 in 1985, where he finished P2 overall. On top of this, he took two podiums in the Macau Grand Prix in 1984 and 1985. This, unfortunately, would not be enough.
What did Thackwell do in his later years? Well, he lost the drive he originally had for motorsports. After a few one-off races in F3000 and sports cars, he would retire in 1988. After retirement, Thackwell did a fair amount of jobs, ranging from a helicopter pilot to a gold miner to an English teacher. Undeniably, though, a talent of Mike Thackwell’s level should not have been subjected to occupations such as these. Had he not been at “the wrong place at the wrong time,” he would’ve prospered in Formula 1.
From racing driver to entrepreneur, Italian Emanuele Naspetti surely has a fruitful resume. Naspetti first appeared on everyone’s radar in 1989 when he debuted in the International F3000 Championship. He impressed many with a P5 in his second race at Vallelunga. Despite the rest of 1989 and 1990 not looking great on paper, he would show his worth in 1991, joining the Forti Corse team. An incredibly successful season, the Italian would finish third in the standings, including a string of four race wins in a row in the middle of the season.
The closest Naspetti would get to Formula 1, though, was Formula 1. In 1992, he would debut at the Belgian Grand Prix for the March F1 Team. Although finishing P12, a strong result for a debutant, it was overshadowed by Michael Schumacher winning his first race.
Ironically, making it to Formula 1 curtailed Naspetti’s goals of Formula 1 stardom. By making the move to F1 mid-season in 1992, he had to abandon his International F3000 title run, leading the title at the time he made the switch. Due to never winning the F3000 title and the lack of results in F1 afterward, no team wanted his services.
What did Naspetti get up to after his short-lived F1 stint? Well, he would find his footing in touring cars. In the six seasons he partook in, he won the Italian Touring Car Championship in 1997, as well as finishing runner-up three times in 1998, 1999, and 2006.
He didn’t keep his talents to his native Italy, however, as he would race in one season in the European Touring Car Championship in 2000, in which he finished fifth overall. During that same year, Naspetti would debut in the 24 Hours of Le Mans; however, he would DNF. By 2006, despite making a few starts in the World Touring Car Championship, it would ultimately mark the end of Naspetti’s racing career.
After retirement, he stayed on the entrepreneur side. This didn’t come without troubles, as he was charged with fraudulent bankruptcy in Italy in 2015, and has kept a relatively low profile since.
Out of everyone on this list, Italian Vincenzo Sospiri may be the most recognizable driver here to the common racing fan.
Sospiri would first appear in the spotlight in 1991 in F3000, where he took a spectacular second-place finish at the Hockenheim, driving a rather uncompetitive car. This would be the only champagne the Italian would taste that year though. Knowing this, he took a year off to hone his craft in Italian F3 in 1992, where he performed very well.
From 1993 to 1995, Sospiri spent his time in F3000, amassing a number of podiums and race wins. His year would come in 1995, however, as he would finally win the International F3000 title convincingly.
Despite winning the F3000 title, Sospiri would not get a shot at Formula 1 until 1997, when he was driving for the infamous Mastercard Lola team. Given how poorly the team was ran plus the poor car, he would not make any more starts in F1 after this time.
What did Sospiri get up to after his Formula 1 stint? Well, he kept busy. In 1997, he would race in IndyCar, including a start in the Indianapolis 500. The only highlight coming from his time in American open-wheel cars was a second-place finish in the second New Hampshire race.
For 1998 and 1999, Sospiri would get the opportunity to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the JB Racing and Toyota teams respectively. Both of these starts, however, would end in DNFs. He would race in a few more sports car races until 2002 when he announced his retirement.
Outside of the cockpit, Sospiri founded his own team called Vincenzo Sospiri Racing. He continues his successes on the management side too, fielding competitive cars in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo, Italian GT, and the GT World Challenge.
Perhaps a name not immediately recognizable to the average fan, German Jörg Müller certainly had no shortage of talent.
Müller’s talent first became known in 1993, when he won the prestigious Macau Grand Prix in his first attempt. In 1994, he followed it up with the German Formula Three title, in which he won 11 races. The German’s most impressive championship run, however, came in 1996, when he won the International F3000 title. During the very same year, he also won the 24 Hours of Spa Francorchamps.
Though Müller got signed for test roles for Arrows and Sauber, he would never make it to Formula 1, becoming the first International F3000 champion to never make a Formula 1 start.
What did Müller get up to following the F3000? Well, he had quite a fruitful career. Within sports cars, the German would win the 24 Hours of Daytona as well as leading for over 18 hours in the 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans. Across the pond, Müller would continue his prowess there too, winning the American Le Mans Series title in 2001.
From 2002 to 2005, he raced in the European Touring Car Championship, finishing runner-up in the championship in 2002 and 2003. From 2006 to 2009, Müller made the step up to the World Touring Car Championship. Performing very well on the world stage too, he picked up many victories with a best finish of second in the standings in 2006.
Since leaving touring cars in 2010, Müller has spent it in GT racing. He has won a multitude of races, including the 6 Hours of Zhuhai and the 24 Hours of Nurburgring.
One of the most heartbreaking stories belongs to Dane Jason Watt.
Watt began to show himself as a talent in 1997, when he made his debut in the F3000 championship. Finishing third overall in a very stacked field, you couldn’t ask anything more from a rookie. He followed this up with two more F3000 campaigns in 1998 and 1999, finishing second overall in 1999.
Despite the promise he showed, Watt’s chances at Formula 1 came to an end in a heartbreaking manner. Late in the off-season in 1999, he suffered a motorcycle crash that left him paralyzed from the waist down. These injuries meant he would no longer be able to race single-seaters.
After his injuries, Watt didn’t stop racing though. From 2001 to 2010, he raced in the Danish Touring Car Championship, winning many races as well as the championship in 2002. He also made select starts in the World Touring Car and Scandinavian Touring Car Championships.
What is Watt up to now? Since retirement in 2011, he has acted as a team manager for the Team Wounded Racing organization, a team that recruits drivers with spinal chord injuries or amputations to race in endurance.