Who is the best young driver in F1 today?

It feels like F1 has never before had such a deep pool of talented young drivers. But how do they compare against each other? We can use a mathematical model to compare drivers and reach a conclusion based on their careers to date.


How does the model work?

Briefly, the model compares the points (or race finishes when few points are scored) that teammates score every year. It then allows for a comparison of all drivers relative to each other. Typically it takes a few years for a drivers overall ranking to stabilise, and is why all the career reviews looked at so far have been experienced drivers. As we are looking at inexperienced drivers here, this is not a definitive ranking, and should be interpreted more as an analysis of their current level based on the information available. If, for example, Stroll performs very strongly in 2021, then not only would his overall ranking rise, but his ranking for previous years would also rise slightly. In effect the model would assume that Stroll was a stronger driver overall. This would also spill over to his teammates prior to 2021, who would be ranked higher for years where they partnered Stroll. You can learn more about the model here.

There are 2 criteria I’ve added for young drivers here. Firstly, they should be 25 years old or younger. This excludes the likes of Giovanazzi and Sainz, but still includes half of the current F1 grid. Secondly, they should have at least 2 years F1 experience so that a ranking can be established. There are 7 drivers who fulfil this criteria. If you’re desperate to know what the model thinks of less experienced drivers (Latifi, Schumacher, Mazepin and Tsunoda) there is some extremely tentative information at the end.

Having said all that, let’s look at the drivers yearly rankings of the 7 drivers as they currently stand.


Results

Fig 1: Yearly scores for the 7 young but experienced drivers

There’s a lot to analyse here, but the most obvious conclusion is that there is a big gap between the top two (Verstappen and Leclerc) and the rest of the field. Let’s unpick the data a bit more, looking at each individual driver. They are ranked by their base numbers. Effectively this is a single value that is given to a driver to represent how good they are according to the model, taking into account their inexperience in the first couple of years.

7) Lance Stroll

Whilst Stroll is considered the worst driver of the bunch, the model still thinks he is perfectly competent. People often mention how his drive is guaranteed given his father owns a team, and whilst he has only once outscored a teammate over a season (Siroktin in 2018), his results against Pérez and Massa suggest that he is good enough to race in F1, even if he is not a top driver.

6) Pierre Gasly

As noted in the 2020 season review, the model has not been particularly kind to Gasly. It agrees with the general perception that he has been better at Toro Rosso than Red Bull, and discounting his performances against Verstappen would boost his ranking significantly in a tight midfield. 2020 was, unsurprisingly, considered his best year yet, and it is quite possible that the model is more forgiving over time as 2019 becomes established as an exception rather than a representative performance.

5) Esteban Ocon

Ocon has a clear comparison with Stroll, given that they both spent two years partnering Sergio Pérez. Unlike Stroll, Ocon was able to give the Mexican some genuine headaches, putting him clearly ahead of the Canadian in the rankings. However, he was still outscored in both years. His subsequent season against Ricciardo, where he was also outraced, add further evidence of Ocon’s placing. He is clearly a good driver, but perhaps does not have the raw talent of some of his peers.

4) Lando Norris

Norris obviously gets his rating from 2 years against Sainz. He was outscored both times, but Sainz is a tough teammate for a rookie driver to go up against, and Lando seemed to improve over time. His positive start to 2021 is further evidence of this. As he has less experience than others on the list, there is more potential for his ranking to rise (or fall) over time.

3) George Russell

For someone going into their third year, Russell’s ranking is still rather uncertain. In 2020 he faced rookie Latifi, which does not help to rank him (as Latifi’s ranking is only compared to Russell himself). The bulk of the rating therefore comes from his performances versus Robert Kubica. The uncompetitive nature of the car, combined with Kubica returning from injury and nearly a decade out of the sport, make modelling this comparison difficult. Furthermore, Kubica scored Williams’ only point that year, in a result that was against the run of play. The only other comparison we have is his single race at Mercedes last year, which was hardly a typical race for either Russell or teammate Bottas. The truth is that he has yet to be properly assessed versus a known quantity, but we do know that Mercedes certainly rate him highly, and he has usurped Ocon as the natural choice when a Mercedes seat becomes available.

2) Max Verstappen

Verstappen is by far the most experienced driver on this list, having debuted in F1 at just 17. He impressed at Toro Rosso before being closely matched with Ricciardo at Red Bull. Since Ricciardo’s departure at the end of 2018, he has dominated teammates Gasly and Albon and shown a maturity and awareness in driving that was perhaps lacking in his earlier years. No one who watched the last few years of Formula 1 would be surprised to see Max rated so highly compared to his peers. If anything I suspect people would be more surprised to see he’s not considered #1.

1) Charles Leclerc

Leclerc’s meteoric rise may have been blunted slightly by Ferrari’s slide into the midfield, but his performances have still been top draw throughout. His ranking mostly comes from a comparison versus Sebastian Vettel, whom he was close to in 2019 before dominating in 2020.

Conclusions

Leclerc’s domination of Vettel in 2020 can be seen from the fig. 1 graph above, where his yearly ranking shoots upwards, above that of Verstappen’s. The other factor that puts LeClerc at #1 is that Verstappen’s average is lower than his form in the last couple of years. There are different ways to argue the data of Verstappen vs Leclerc. Was Leclerc still developing in his first couple of years (as is often the case for drivers) or was his 2020 form exaggerated due to Vettel’s poor form? Time will tell, and perhaps the answer is a bit or both. Luckily, his new teammate is Sainz, a driver who is both experienced and has a direct comparison with Verstappen (and Lando Norris) for good measure.

Below the top 2, it’s incredibly tight, but Russell has the most possibility to rise up quickly once he’s up against a known quantity. Norris would be the next most likely. It’s always hard to judge how these scores will evolve. Many drivers do not hit their peak form for several years (Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel are all good examples), whereas others (Lewis Hamilton, Jacque Villeneuve) arrive in F1 with a bang and do not have much scope for further improvement.


What about other drivers?

Albon: Albon is currently rated above Gasly by a small margin, which adds weight to the Red Bull argument that switching the two drivers during Albon’s Red Bull struggles wouldn’t have changed much. Alex can perhaps feel hard done by, given that Gasly can continue racing this year whilst he is left on the sidelines.

Latifi: As commented on in the 2021 prediction, Latifi is currently rated above Russell, which would place him in 3rd in this list overall! This is due to a combination of factors, with inexperience, a non-competitive car and bad luck all playing a role (although one could also argue that Russell did not deliver when he’s had opportunities to score points for Williams). Remember that the model only looks at race finishes, and last year Latifi finished 11th 3 times to Russell’s once. It is a good example of why the model needs time to establish a drivers true abilities. I expect his ranking to fall this year, but a comprehensive assessment or Latifi will have to wait.

Current rookies:

Obviously if a year is not enough to properly place Latifi, then 2 races is nowhere near enough, so the following information is near useless. But for anyone interested, the model has spat out a number for Tsunoda that would put him right in the mix in the Russell/Norris/Ocon camp, although he’d have to at least match Gasly points-wise over the course of the season to stay there (as he should perform better as he gains experience). Just a reminder that the rankings here are based on a predictive average value over their whole career, not their current performance level, so matching Gasly would indicate that Tsunoda is a superior driver, given that it’s his rookie year.

The 2 rookies teammates at Haas mean that no analysis can even be made, because they can only be compared with each other. However, if we assume Tsunoda and Schumacher are at a similar level, it would currently put Mazepin dead last.

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