Updated: Feb 9, 2022
Written by Morgan Holiday, Edited by Tanishka Vashee
As the pinnacle of motorsport, Formula 1 boasts the claim (whether accurate or not) to have the twenty best racing drivers in the world. It’s a fairly contested claim to be sure. But whatever your beef, none of these drivers are slouches, and all of them have accomplished a lot to get to the place they are now. All the same, some have been more impressive than others, and with the gap in team performance in Formula 1 currently, what better way to rate the drivers than by how well they performed before they made it to the top?
20. Nikita Mazepin: it had to be somebody
Mazepin’s highest accolade in karting came in 2014, when he finished second to Lando Norris in the Karting World Championship. In 2015 he made the switch to single seaters and competed in Formula Renault 2.0 NEC and Toyota Racing Series, not making an impression in either. In 2016 he made his Formula 3 debut with Hitech, finishing 20th and notably behind teammate George Russell in third, and Carlin’s Jake Hughes, who only competed in one round of the entire season. Not a great look.
He would, however, take his first win in single seaters that season, in the one round of BRDC British Formula 3 that he competed in. In his second year in Formula 3 Mazepin finished tenth, this time taking three podiums. In 2018 he switched to ART Grand Prix and raced in GP3, taking three wins and finishing the series in second, not far behind teammate Anthoine Hubert (you might not want to hear this, but yes, he outscored teammate Callum Ilott by 31 that year).
Moving up to Formula 2 with ART, Mazepin finished his rookie season 18th with 11 points to his name, and the championship was won by Nyck de Vries, his teammate. Admittedly this is not a good look, but in fairness to Mazepin, de Vries was in his third season of the series and ART has a history of neglecting their second driver. All the same, Mazepin switched to Hitech for 2020, and finished fifth behind fellow Formula 1 graduates Mick Schumacher and Yuki Tsunoda.
As one of the two drivers on this list to never win a championship in single seaters, and having a slightly more depressing junior career than the other one, Nikita Mazepin is awarded last place.
19. Nicholas Latifi: everyone’s favorite Canadian
In 2012 Latifi competed in Italian Formula 3, taking one win and finishing seventh in the series. The following year he signed with Carlin and competed in the Formula 3 European Championship and British Formula 3, finishing 15th and fifth in those categories respectively. He stayed in Formula 3 for the 2014 season, switched to Prema Powerteam, and this time managed tenth in the standings.
He scored one podium in the first round, and ended up 350 points behind rookie teammate and champion Esteban Ocon. Not an ideal situation by any means. He also made his GP2 debut that season, competing in two races as a replacement driver. He raced in the series full time for two full years, never finishing higher than 16th. He then moved to Formula 2 with DAMS, where he stayed for a total of three seasons. He finished fifth in 2017, ninth in 2018, and finally second in 2019, behind ART’s Nyck de Vries. The 2019 season he also acted as a junior driver for Williams, before they signed him for the 2020 season.
As he is the other only driver on this list to not win a championship in single seater racing, and because he never managed to impress without competing in a series for more than two seasons, Nicholas Latifi is awarded 19th place.
18. Antonio Giovinazzi: also known as Italian Jesus
Giovinazzi debuted in single seaters in 2012, winning the Formula Pilota China series with six wins to his name. In 2013 he competed in both Formula 3 European Championship and British Formula 3 with Double R Racing. In Formula 3 he finished 17th behind Nicholas Latifi and William Buller, and in British Formula 3 he finished second, ahead of Nicholas Latifi and William Buller.
He stayed in Formula 3 for two more seasons, coming sixth and second respectively. In 2016 he made his GP2 debut with Prema Racing, finishing second behind teammate Pierre Gasly with two wins and one pole position. He signed as a test driver for Ferrari in 2016, but was sidelined for a full time Formula 1 seat until 2019, when he replaced Charles Leclerc at Alfa Romeo.
He won his debut season in single seaters, but never stood out too much after that. For that reason, Antonio Giovinazzi is awarded 18th place.
17. Sergio Pérez: my mom’s favourite driver
Pérez began karting at age six, and quickly rose through the ranks as both a young and fast driver. His second year of karting he became the youngest driver to win the karting Youth Class championship, and while he wouldn’t win another championship in karting it established him as a champion winning driver.
After bouncing around in the lower categories of single seaters, Pérez competed in the National Class of the 2007 British Formula 3 International Series, which he won by a comfortable margin. From there he spent three years in GP2 and GP2 Asia, coming second in the GP2 series in 2010, albeit behind the one and only Pastor Maldonado. Throughout that season he took one pole position and five wins.
He won British Formula 3 but was beaten in GP2 by Pastor Maldonado, so Sergio Pérez has been awarded 17th place.
16. Yuki Tsunoda: five feet and two inches tall
After four years in karting, Tsunoda made the switch to single-seaters in Japanese Formula 4 with Honda backing, coming 16th his first year, third his second year, and winning it in his third full season. From there he graduated to Formula 3 as a new Red Bull junior driver with Jenzer Motorsport, finishing ninth in his rookie year with three podiums and a win in Monza.
After a relatively quiet season, Tsunoda made his Formula 2 debut with Carlin in 2020. This is where he really shone, taking the rookie of the year award with a third place finish in the championship standings, a mere one point off vice champion Callum Ilott. Throughout the season he took four pole positions, three wins, and three fastest laps.
Despite his Honda backing playing a part in Tsunoda’s move to Scuderia AlphaTauri the following season, his performance as a rookie in the 2020 season of Formula 2 is nonetheless impressive.
It took him three years to win Japanese Formula 4, and he never made it back to the top after that, so despite his impressive rookie season in Formula 2, Yuki Tsunoda has been awarded 16th place.
15. Fernando Alonso: 2021 Rookie of the Year
Compared to most of the drivers on this list, Alonso has a shorter single seater junior career. After eleven years of karting, he had amassed ten championship wins. In his debut season of car racing, he won the 1999 Euro Open by Nissan series, despite retiring or not starting seven of the 16 races that season. In 2000 he competed in the International Formula 3000 Championship and came fourth, four points behind Mark Webber.
It’s impressive, for sure, to get the call up to Formula 1 after only two years racing actual cars, but not impressive enough to rank him higher than 15th.
14. Kimi Räikkönen: the Iceman
Räikkönen is another driver to only participate in two seasons of single seater racing before making the step up to Formula 1. Also like Alonso, he switched from karting in 1999, winning the Formula Renault UK Winter Championship. The following season he won seven out of ten races in the Formula Renault UK series, taking six pole positions and seven fastest laps on his way to the title. After these results, and impressing in several Formula 1 tests with Sauber, he was signed for the 2001 season.
His junior career was, in three words, short and sweet, and so Kimi Räikkönen is awarded only 14th place.
13. Valtteri Bottas: Mercedes second driver
The Finnish driver notched up a total of three championship wins over his junior career, winning both the Formula Renault Eurocup and Formula Renault Northern European Cup in 2008, and then GP3 in 2011.
By far his most dominant of these was the Formula Renault Northern European Cup, when he took pole in 13 out of the 14 races he competed in, and won 12 races. He signed on as a test driver for Williams Formula 1 team in 2010, and by 2013 he was given a full time seat.
A dominant win in Formula Renault NEC is the best thing he has going for him, so Valtteri Bottas is awarded 13th place.
12. Lance Stroll: everyone’s second favourite Canadian
Stroll had a great start to his karting career, taking a number of championship wins that saw him recognized and signed by the Ferrari Driver Academy in 2010. He didn’t make his single seater debut until 2014, when he raced in Italian Formula 4 with Prema Racing.
Now, winning a feeder series championship with Prema isn’t always the most impressive accomplishment as it’s almost a given, but there’s something still to be said for Stroll, who won the series by nearly 100 points even after missing the final round due to an injury. He took five pole positions, ten wins, and ten fastest laps throughout, coming out well on top of his teammate Takashi Kasai, as well as several highly acclaimed young drivers such as Mahaveer Raghunathan.
He made his Formula 3 debut the following season, still with Prema, and finished fifth in the championship with six podiums and one win. After leaving the Ferrari Driver Academy to join Williams as a reserve driver, Stroll competed in, and won, his second season of Formula 3.
If you’re still interested in making the argument that it’s less impressive to win in a Prema, it’s worth pointing out that he beat his second placed teammate Maximilian Günther to the title by 187 points, winning nearly 50% of the races that season. (Also George Russell came in third that season). From there, yes, with the help of his father’s money, Stroll got a seat for 2017 with Williams’ Formula 1 team.
Call him a pay driver all you want, the man had a decent amount of success as a young driver, and so Lance Stroll is awarded 12th place.
11. Daniel Ricciardo: the honey badger
Ricciardo made his single seater debut at age 16 in 2005, competing in the Western Australian Formula Ford series where he finished eighth in the standings. He wouldn’t take his first championship win until 2008, when he won the Formula Renault 2.0 WEC title. That season he was signed to the Red Bull junior academy.
From there he signed with Carlin and raced in British Formula 3, winning by almost a hundred points with six poles and wins to his name. In 2010 he came second in Formula Renault 3.5, and made his Formula 1 debut the following year with HRT.
An impressive junior career like his still isn’t quite enough to get him into the top ten, which says a lot about the caliber of these drivers; Daniel Ricciardo is awarded 11th place.
10. Mick Schumacher: Sebastian Vettel’s adopted child
After a somewhat impressive but mostly nondescript karting career, Schumacher competed in his first season in ADAC Formula 4 with Van Amersfoort in 2015. He finished tenth, taking two podiums and one win. For his second season he switched to Prema Powerteam and finished second, comfortably outscoring rookie teammates Jüri Vips and Juan Manuel Correa.
He took four pole positions and five wins, and only finished outside of the points for three of the 24 races. He also outscored them, took five wins, and finished second, in Italian Formula 4 that same year. Still with Prema, he went on to compete in two consecutive seasons of Formula 3, Schumacher continued his tradition of being a nonentity his first season, and coming on much more strongly his second year competing in a series.
While he finished 12th his rookie year of Formula 3 behind all three of his more experienced teammates, his second season he went on to win the 2018 Formula 3 title by 57 points over a miffed Dan Ticktum. After a season where he took eight wins (five of them consecutive), Schumacher joined the Ferrari Driver Academy for 2019.
His pattern of form would continue into Formula 2, where he again finished 12th his rookie season and first his second. After becoming the 2020 Formula 2 champion, he joined Formula 1 with the Haas F1 team.
Despite never winning a championship his rookie year, he performed quite well when given time to get used to the machinery. It may be controversial, but nevertheless Mick Schumacher is awarded tenth place.
9. Sebastian Vettel: four time world champion
Starting on the younger side, Vettel began karting at the ripe age of three, and joined the Red Bull junior academy at eight years old. In 2004 he took his first title in single seaters, winning his second season in the Formula BMW ADAC championship by well over 100 points.
He then moved up to Formula 3 Euro Series, finishing fifth his first season (Lewis Hamilton won that year) and second the next time around (right behind everybody’s favorite Scot, Paul Di Resta). He made his Formula 1 debut with BMW Sauber in 2006, before signing with Toro Rosso in 2007.
As with most of the older drivers, there’s not a lot to go on, but with his high performance from a young age Sebastian Vettel is awarded ninth place.
8. Max Verstappen: Max Max Max Super Max Max Max
As the youngest driver to ever compete full time in Formula 1, you’d expect the Dutch driver to have an impressive resume. But it’s also obvious that his junior career was much shorter than most other Formula 1 drivers, with only one year of single seater championships to his name before getting called up by Red Bull with Toro Rosso.
After winning a slew of karting championships from age four to age 15, he made the switch to single seaters. Along with the Florida Winter Series, Verstappen also competed in Formula 3 in 2014, coming third in both series. In Formula 3 he was beaten by fellow future Formula 1 driver Esteban Ocon, as well as Tom Blomqvist. Two years later at age 17, he became the youngest ever Formula 1 driver.
While no one can deny that he’s had a brilliant Formula 1 career since then, his incredibly short time in the junior categories renders his junior career much less impressive, and Max Verstappen is awarded eighth place.
7. Carlos Sainz Jr.: the self proclaimed smooth operator
Sainz started racing in single seaters in 2010, after winning the Junior Monaco Kart Cup, in the Formula BMW Europe championship. That season he was also signed to the Red Bull junior team, who supported him throughout his junior career.He ended the season fourth in points.
The following year, while competing in several different junior series, he won the Formula Renault 2.0 Northern European Cup ahead of Daniil Kyvat and Stoffel Vandoorne. In that series he won ten out of the twenty races and took seven pole positions. In 2012 Sainz competed full time in three different kinds of Formula 3, FIA Formula 3, British Formula 3, and Formula 3 Euro Series, finishing fifth, sixth, and ninth respectively in the standings.
The following year he switched to GP3, also competing in Formula Renault 3.5. After a second year in Formula Renault 3.5, he won the championship with DAMS Racing in 2014, and was signed to Toro Rosso’s Formula 1 team for the following season.
He competed in so many different series in so little time, it feels only fair to award Carlos Sainz seventh place.
6. Pierre Gasly: who doesn’t love him?
Gasly made his single-seater debut in French Formula 4 in 2011, coming third in the series. After coming tenth in Formula Renault Eurocup behind future Formula 1 drivers Stoffel Vandoorne, Daniil Kyvat, and Formula E champion Nyck de Vries, Gasly moved on to Formula Renault 3.5 for 2014, freshly signed by the Red Bull junior academy.
Despite not taking any wins that season, he clinched second in the standings behind fellow Red Bull junior Carlos Sainz. He also made his GP2 debut that season, participating in six races with Caterham Racing.
His first full season in GP2 he raced with DAMS, and finished eighth in the standings, with three poles and four podiums. After switching to the Prema team for 2016, Gasly took a narrow victory over Antonio Giovinazzi. He competed on and off in Formula 1 and Super Formula for 2017, before being signed by Toro Rosso full time for 2018.
Well done, pretty much all done, by the French driver, Pierre Gasly is awarded sixth place.
5. Lando Norris: he’s scared of wasps
Norris started karting at age seven, before becoming the youngest driver to win the CIK-FIA Karting World Championship at age 14. The following year he won his first championship in single seaters, taking the MSA Formula title in the same season that saw Dan Ticktum receive a two year ban from motorsport (that might not be relevant information but it’s going to get mentioned anyway).
In 2016 Norris won three more championships, The Toyota Racing Series, as well as the Formula Renault Eurocup 2.0 and NEC series. Norris made his Formula 3 debut with Carlin that season, taking part in the final round at Hockenheim. He also competed in that year’s Macau Grand Prix, and finished the main race in 11th.
After signing with the McLaren Drive Academy in early 2017, Norris competed in Formula 3 full time with Carlin, eventually winning the title by 53 points over Joel Eriksson with nine wins and eight poles throughout the season. After his second run in the Macau Grand Prix, he came second behind Dan Ticktum.
In 2018 he moved up to Formula 2 with Carlin, and while he only won one race the entire season (the very first race), still managed to come second in the standings behind George Russell. He only finished outside the points twice, better than anyone else that season, and was signed by McLaren as a full time Formula 1 driver for 2019.
His ability to perform pretty much constantly throughout his entire junior career gives him a well earned spot in the top five, Lando Norris is awarded fifth place.
4. Esteban Ocon: signed by Alpine till 2024
Ocon finished his first season in single seaters, racing in Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 in 2012, in a mediocre 14th place. His second season in that series he joined the ART junior team, and finished a close third behind Pierre Gasly and Oliver Rowland. He was then signed by Prema Powerteam for his first season of Formula 3, which he won by 58 points over Tom Blomqvist and Max Verstappen himself.
He outscored his closest teammate, Antonio Fuoco, by over 200 points, and was signed to the Mercedes junior academy. He then went back to ART to race in GP3 for 2015… which he also won in his rookie year.
While he only took one win throughout the series, Ocon managed to come second nine consecutive times, and took the title by eight points over Luca Ghiotto. After making his Formula 1 debut with Manor in 2016, Ocon was signed by Force India full time for the 2017 season.
He took both the Formula 3 and Formula 2 titles in his rookie season, must more be said? Esteban Ocon is awarded fourth place.
3. George Russell: Mr. Saturday
After six karting titles, Russell switched to single seaters in 2014, racing in Formula Renault 2.0 Alps. He finished fourth in the series, behind Nyck de Vries and Charles Leclerc. That season he also competed in, and won, the BRDC Formula 4 Championship, by just three points. He then competed in two seasons of the Formula 3 European Championship, finishing sixth his first season (second in the rookie standings behind Leclerc) and third his second season.
In 2017 he signed as a Mercedes junior driver, and moved on to compete in GP3 with ART Grand Prix. After four pole positions and four wins, he was crowned the champion with one round to spare over teammate Jack Aitken. After an impressive debut season in GP3, ART promoted him to Formula 2, which he also won in his rookie season.
Russell took a whopping seven wins that season in addition to five pole positions, and took the title by 68 points over Lando Norris and Alex Albon. Unsurprisingly he was given a Formula 1 seat with Williams for 2019.
He really is fantastic, isn’t he? George Russell is awarded third place.
2. Lewis Hamilton: arguably the GOAT
Hamilton’s career started out strong in his karting days, taking the title of youngest driver to win the British cadet karting championship at age ten in 1995. After six more years, five more karting titles, and a contract with the McLaren driver development programme, he graduated to single seaters in the Formula Renault UK Winter Series.
He finished seventh his debut season, and moved on to Formula Renault UK. His first season he placed third overall, before winning it in 2003, taking ten of the available fifteen race wins. From here, Hamilton moved to the Formula 3 Euro series, finishing the championship two points behind his future Formula 1 teammate Nico Rosberg in fifth place.
The following season he won the title by a wide margin over second placed Adrian Sutil, again taking a vast majority of the race wins. For 2006 he made his GP2 debut with ART Grand Prix, and took five wins to claim the championship by twelve points over Nelson Piquet Jr. In 2007 Hamilton signed with McLaren’s Formula 1 team, and the rest is history.
Touted from a young age as a Formula 1 championship winner, somehow he still managed to exceed all expectations, and so Lewis Hamilton is awarded second place.
1. Charles Leclerc: it had to be somebody
Naming all of the karting titles the Monegasque driver took during his karting years of 2005 to 2013 would take up too much space, so suffice it to say he was successful as a young driver. After competing in the 2014 season of Formula Renault 2.0 Alps and coming second, he graduated to Formula 3 with Van Amersfoort Racing.
Despite coming fourth in the standings behind notable names like Felix Rosenqvist and Antonio Giovinazzi, Leclerc was the fastest rookie by far, and took a number of wins and poles throughout the season. He won the rookie championship over George Russell by over 100 points, before switching to the GP3 series for the following season. This time, Leclerc would beat Alex Albon to the title comfortably, scoring points in all but two of the races he finished.
It was also the season that he signed with the Ferrari Driver Academy. Moving swiftly on, Leclerc made the step up to Formula 2 in 2017, this time joining the formidable Prema Racing Team. Yet another dominant season saw Leclerc take the Formula 2 title by 72 points from Artem Markelov. After winning his second championship as a rookie in a row, he was signed by Sauber’s Formula 1 team for the 2018 season.
Never not at the top of his game, winning two consecutive championships in his rookie year is a real accomplishment, and although Ocon did much the same thing, Leclerc’s proven ability to constantly perform, especially under high stress situations, puts him at the top of the list. And so, Charles Leclerc is awarded first place.