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Vaulting up the Motorsport Ladder: A Look at Junior Prodigies who Leapt up the Road to Formula One

Written by Ineke Lavers, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

Antonelli is the latest driver to leap up the feeder series ladder;Image credit - Sebastiaan Rozendaal, Dutch Photo Agency

The news of Andrea Kimi Antonelli’s high jump from FRECA to the 2024 Formula 2 line-up has sent shockwaves through the motorsport world. With the ever-more rigid career ladder to Formula 1, up and coming drivers skipping key seasons of driver development is a rare occurrence these days.

Although surprising, Antonelli’s rise to single-seater standout has been nothing short of deserving. Winning the FIA European Karting championship as recently as 2020, the young Italian racer has gone from strength to strength, clinching regional titles such as the 2022 Italian F4 Championship, and most recently the highly competitive 2023 Formula Regional European Championship by Alpine (FRECA).

Not only has the 17-year old experienced success after success, but ever since he joined the Mercedes Junior Team in 2019, Antonelli revealed in an interview with Speedweek that Mercedes Team Principal and CEO Toto Wolff makes sure to send a message after every race…talk about pressure!

Having leapt from Formula Regional to Formula 2 with Prema next year, Antonelli joins a surprisingly substantial list of drivers to have made similar leaps. Here are some familiar names who have also vaulted their way up the Formula 1 career ladder.

Max Verstappen

Verstappen jumped from F3 straight into F1 in 2015; Image credits - Mark Thompson, Getty Images

Even before the codification of the Formula One career ladder to structurally include Formula Regional series, Formula 3 and then Formula 2 before a potential rise to Formula 1, drivers still roughly rose unofficially, through a series of more and more challenging racing.

The primary objective was to give drivers a suitable opportunity to gather experience, before being put to the ultimate test in the pinnacle of motorsport. However, no one put the status quo into quite as much of a tizzy as the newest triple World Champion, Max Verstappen.

Verstappen’s jump came towards the end of the proverbial ladder, jumping from the then-FIA Formula 3 European Championship, placing 3rd in 2014, straight to 2015’s Toro Rosso, at the17 years old.

Despite immediately proving himself in the 2015 Formula 1 season, regularly finishing in the points, Verstappen’s jump to F1 at such a young age raised a red flag for the FIA. who in response, raised the minimum age for acquiring a Super Licence to 18.

Lance Stroll

Lance Stroll celebrates his first podium in Azerbaijan, 2017; Image credits - Mark Thompson, Getty Images

Not without controversy, Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll experienced a similarly meteoric rise into Formula One. From a reasonably successful few years in Formula 4 and Formula 3, racing throughout Europe with Prema and achieving the odd podium, Stroll was catapulted into a Williams seat for the 2017 season.

His debut season surpassed some lowered expectations, and he went on to become the second youngest podium-sitter ever, at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, and finished 12th overall in the 2017 drivers championship, just behind seasoned teammate Felipe Massa.

His speedy rise through the ranks has been marred by controversy, however, with accusations of his father’s money, and role as a stakeholder in many of Stroll’s teams giving him a significant helping hand.

Kimi Räikkönen

Räikkönen testing the Sauber F1 car in Jerez, Spain in 2000; Image credit - Mark Thompson, ALLSPORT

Fated namesake or not, another driver to skip up the feeder series ladder into Formula One was the racing world’s ‘other’ Kimi. After a successful karting career at the age ten, the Iceman himself graduated into Formula racing in the late 1990s, winning the F4/F3 equivalent series in the Formula Renault UK Championship in 2000. This steep success curve was immediately rewarded with a test for Sauber F1 in September 2000, with a full-time seat at the team for the 2001 season.

Räikkönen stellar rise wasn’t without controversy, though, with his Super Licence coming under question, having only raced officially in 23 races until then. Nevertheless, after a performance delivery promise, the ‘inexperienced’ driver went on to complete the year with nine points to his name, laying the foundations for a highly successful career in the sport.

Valtteri Bottas

Bottas was racing in GP3 back in 2011; Image credit - Formula Motorsport Limited, Getty Images

The second Finnish driver on this list, Valtteri Bottas also finagled his way around the traditional path to F1 in the early 2010s. Following regional Formula ventures across Europe, he moved to the Formula Three Euroseries in 2009, winning the ‘Masters of Formula 3’ title twice in a row. Eyeing his prospective talent, he was swooped up by Williams back then, as a test driver, whilst competing in the GP3 series.

Instead of the more logical GP2 progression for 2013, Bottas skipped up to Formula 1, partnering Pastor Maldonado at Williams for the 2013 season. The year concluded with Bottas finishing ahead of the one-time race winner in the drivers championship.

Although not a World Champion as some of those above, Bottas has once again proven that these leaps often reap high rewards. After 10 years at the pinnacle of motorsport, he sits in the top ten drivers with podium finishes, having scored 67 rostrum appearances across his career, and still holds the record for most consecutive Q3 appearances, at 103.

Jumping through the Feeder Series

Leaps up the ladder haven’t only occurred from different positions in the feeder series into F1, but as with Antonelli’s case, also further down the ladder.

Some notable recent moves have come from young Dutch driver Laurens van Hoepen, a protégé of Formula E champion Nyck de Vries. Following a successful karting career with F1’s Nico Rosberg’s Racing Academy, and Charles Leclerc’s ‘Leclerc by Lennox’ Racing, van Hoepen took the leap into Formula machinery in the 2022 FRECA season with ART GP, most recently finishing tenth in 2023’s competitive series. It is now understood that he aims to secure a 2024 Formula 3 seat, and is taking part in post-season testing for ART GP.

Laurens van Hopen could be slotting in for F3 post-season testing this year; Image Credits - Emmanuele Ciancaglini - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited, Getty Images

Another jump into Formula 2 came earlier this year with the surprise announcement of Joshua Mason replacing Brad Benavides at PHM Racing by Charouz, ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix. Jumping into a difficult track in changeable conditions, not from F3, but from the Euroformula series, Mason’s entry was sure to raise some eyebrows.

Despite ample criticism, Mason demonstrated decent pace, and at the most recent Formula 2 round at Monza, finished ahead of teammate Roy Nissany in both the Sprint and Feature Races.

This being said, making the move up the increasingly inflexible feeder series ladder to Formula One is no easy feat. Not only is talent involved, but with million-dollar price tags and Super Licence rulings, taking part in seasons of Formula racing is an exclusive, and often elusive occurrence.

By skipping up the rungs of the ladder, drivers like Antonelli have a massive amount of pressure on their shoulders. With all eyes on him next season, let's hope the young driver makes the most of the singular opportunity he has been given.


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