As outlined in a previous bluffer’s guide, there is no promotion or relegation and the decision for teams and drivers to enter F1 is essentially a business decision. But of course drivers (and sometimes teams) do not just appear out of thin air. There are countless other categories of motor racing that drivers also compete in. There is no set route towards Formula 1, nor do all paths necessarily lead to F1. But Formula 1 is generally regarded to be ‘top of the tree’ that most drivers aspire to compete in.
However, a cursory glance at the various championships organised by the FIA alone (never mind non-FIA championships) reveals that motor racing is a hugely diverse category of sports. The skills needed to be a top F1 driver are very different to the skills required to succeed in rallying, drag racing and hill climbing!
The next two bluffer’s guides will cover those categories where you should look out for future (and sometimes past) F1 stars. I have done research on the careers of every driver that has entered a Formula 1 race in the past five seasons. This has revealed which junior formulae are the most common early destinations for future F1 stars. This post will cover the major series from GP2 to Formula 3 and everything in between.
The following diagram shows the links between categories en route to F1. Any moves made by two or more drivers are represented in the diagram. Down the centre column is by far the most common route: Formula Renault / BMW / Ford → Formula 3 → GP2 → Formula 1. Other links show more unorthodox but nevertheless common routes to and from F1. The area of the boxes denote the number of F1 drivers that have raced in that category.
Tier two (maroon boxes)
The most conventional entry point to F1 is GP2. This was designed specifically as an F1 “feeder” series in 2005. The cars are similar to, but less sophisticated than, F1 cars. GP2 is a spec series (meaning that all of the cars are the same). GP2 replaced Formula 3000, which in turn replaced Formula 2 in 1985.
Current F1 drivers Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen, Nico Rosberg, Timo Glock and Nelsinho Piquet all graduated from GP2. Every year in GP2’s short history, the GP2 Champion has been offered an F1 drive for the following year so it is the place to look for up-and-coming talent. Look out for Romain Grosjean, Bruno Senna (Ayrton’s nephew) and Sébastien Buemi who could be on their way to becoming F1 drivers in the near future.
Occasionally, but not so often, former F1 drivers compete in GP2. Timo Glock entered GP2 after a fleeting appearance in F1 and after a few years he got another drive in the top category. Giorgio Pantano is another former F1 driver currently competing in GP2, but although he is relatively successful in GP2 he is getting on now and there is little interest in him from F1 teams.
The main GP2 series is a ‘support’ race at most European F1 events, so GP2 drivers get the opportunity to learn many F1 tracks. Interestingly, Giancarlo Fisichella can be seen casting a watchful eye over proceedings when he has finished his F1 sessions — he owns a GP2 team, Fisichella Motor Sport.
GP2 also has a spin-off series called GP2 Asia which runs during winter. Two events — Malaysia and Bahrain — are also F1 support races. As the name suggests, this is focussed on Asian circuits where there is an emerging interest in motor racing, though many of the teams and drivers are the same as the main GP2 Series.
Formula Nippon is the Japanese equivalent of GP2 / Formula 3000. In the past a few drivers have graduated from Formula Nippon. These include Ralf Schumacher and Pedro de la Rosa. Michael Schumacher also drove for one race in Formula Nippon prior to racing in F1.
However, the talent available in Formula Nippon not generally up to the standards of F1. The series is more likely to supply under-performing Japanese drivers such as Yuji Ide and Sakon Yamamoto. The best Japanese drivers are more likely to prove their worth in a European category, with Formula Nippon remaining primarily a Japan-centric series.
Tier 2.5 (red boxes)
I have invented ‘tier 2.5’ for the purposes of this post. It represents categories that are not as major as GP2, but are arguably more important than Formula 3.
World Series by Renault
This is a relatively new — and rapidly growing — series of motor racing. Part of Renault’s massive motor racing programme, this is also known as Formula Renault 3.5. It is designed to slot in between Formula 3 and GP2.
The series can be traced back to its roots as the Open Fortuna by Nissan in 1998. Back then it was a particularly Spanish motor racing series. But it quickly gained a reputation as a stamping ground for hot new talent. Almost every winner of the series has gone on to make a name for himself in F1 including Fernando Alonso, Heikki Kovalainen and Robert Kubica.
Over the years the series has cultivated a more international feel with races in nine different countries. The most recent winner of the series is Álvaro Parente who is currently racing in GP2. Part of the prize drivers get by winning the World Series by Renault is a test drive with the Renault F1 team.
The self-styled “World Cup of Motorsport” likes to think of itself as a major rival to F1, though in reality it is quite a minor championship. Running in winter to avoid clashing with F1, A1GP is an unusual concept in that the focus of the championship is not on drivers or teams but on nationalities.
Like GP2, A1GP is a spec series. A1GP pulled off a major coup by persuading Ferrari to design and manufacture the A1GP chassis and engine which will be used for four seasons from 2008-2009.
In its favour, A1GP has attracted entries from a number of countries which do not have a strong tradition in motor racing. This may help bring motor racing to new audiences. However, the drivers are often treated as disposable commodities, with teams swapping drivers about all season.
A1GP has not proved to be a good feeder series, with only relatively poor drivers Scott Speed and Nelsinho Piquet having graduated from A1GP to F1. Former F1 drivers can be found racing in A1GP. Ex F1 drivers to have taken part in A1GP include Jos Verstappen, Narain Karthikeyan and Franck Montagny.
Superleague Formula is, like A1GP, a slightly eccentric idea for a racing series — but might just work. It is new, hence the uncertainty. Instead of teams as we know them, drivers will be representing football clubs on the racing circuit with the spec cars decked out in each football team’s colours.
One British club — Rangers FC — is involved, along with a number of other major football clubs from around the world. The only notable driver confirmed for Superleague Formula so far is ex-F1 driver Robert Doornbos.
Formula 3 (orange box)
Formula 3 is a very important category for F1. All but four of the 45 drivers who have raced in F1 in the past five years raced in F3 along the way. As such, F3 is a great category to keep an eye on for those interested in F1’s future talent. Six recent F1 drivers including Jenson Button, Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella all made the jump directly from F3 to F1. However, success in F3 could just as easily spell a career in another category such as touring cars.
The champions of five F3 series are each eligible for an FIA Super License for 12 months. The five series are Formula 3 Euroseries, British F3 International, Italian Formula 3, Formel 3 Cup and Japanese Formula 3.
F3 is not actually a single championship. Rather, there are several championships which are part of the F3 category.
Formula 3 Euroseries
A very new series but already arguably the most important is the F3 Euroseries. As the name suggests, circuits from all around Europe are used. F3 Euroseries was originally intended to replace the separate French and German F3 championships. The French F3 series ended, but German F3 continues in a different form to this day.
Lewis Hamilton won the F3 Euroseries championship in utterly dominant fashion in 2005, the year before he entered GP2. Other notable F3 Euroseries graduates include Robert Kubica, Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel. Those still to make it to F1 but making waves nonetheless include Romain Grosjean and Sébastien Buemi. One name to watch out for among the current F3 Euroseries drivers is Nico Hülkenberg who already has a relationship with the Williams F1 team.
Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix
The Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix is an annual event that brings together many of the top F3 drivers from the various F3 competitions around the world. The Macau street circuit is a challenging racetrack. As such, drivers who excel in Macau often do well in higher categories. 13 of this year’s 22 F1 drivers have competed in this event.
Famous winners include Ayrton Senna, David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher. Recent winners include Lucas di Grassi and Mike Conway, both currently making waves in GP2.
Masters of Formula 3
Another major international F3 event, this is Europe’s most important F3 race. Like Macau, 13 of this year’s F1 drivers have competed in this event. Recent winners include Lewis Hamilton, Christian Klien and Nico Hülkenberg.
British F3 International
The F3 championship with the longest history is British F3 (now known as British F3 International). The ‘British’ in British F3 refers only to the circuits that are used. The championship itself is open to drivers of all nationalities, but all of the races are held in Britain.
The list of British F3 champions includes many familiar names that went on to make a name for themselves in F1. Most notable in recent years is perhaps Mika Häkkinen who won the 1990 British F3 championship and went on to become a double F1 World Champion in 1998 and 1999. In 2000, Jenson Button caused a stir by leaping straight from F3 to F1, even though he only finished third in the British British F3 championship! But the British F3 roll of honour also contains a number of promising youngsters whose stars faded before they could reach the top category.
Seven of this season’s F1 drivers competed in British F3. Additionally, several test drivers honed their skills in this series. F1 takes a great deal of interest in British F3 and Kimi Räikkönen co-owns a British F3 team, Räikkönen Robertson Racing. Recent British F3 drivers to look out for in future include Mike Conway, Álvaro Parente and Marko Asmer.
Other F3 series
Other F3 series include the Formel 3 Cup (originally German F3, which Michael Schumacher won in 1990 and several other F1 drivers competed in their youth), Japanese F3 (which Adrian Sutil won in 2006) and Italian F3 (whose biggest name has been Giancarlo Fisichella). Drivers from Latin America including Rubens Barrichello and Nelsinho Piquet have competed in Formula 3 Sudamericana.
Keep an eye out for the next bluffer’s guide which will look at entry-level series and non-open wheel series.