Update: Who is the best young driver in F1 today?

Back in April 2021, I posted an article detailing the ranking of young F1 drivers based on a mathematical model. One thing repeatedly noted there was how the drivers ratings were in flux, as they were based on limited data. This article serves as an update, to see how significantly the model varies over time and how the rankings have changed.


How have opinions varied in the last 6 months?

It feels like F1 currently has 4 young potential superstar drivers on the grid: Leclerc, Norris, Russell and Verstappen. All 4 have had some stellar performances in the 6 months period: Verstappen has easily outpaced teammate Pérez (mathematical career review for Pérez here). Norris claimed his first pole and similarly outpacing Ricciardo (career review for Ricciardo here). Leclerc claimed 2 poles and almost won at Silverstone despite engine issues, and Russell secured a Mercedes drive whilst delivering points for Williams.

Here are the results of our Twitter poll on who is the best young driver in F1.

April 2021 results on the left, Current results on the right

Obviously a Twitter poll is not the most reliable of methods, but the results are still interesting. Whilst Verstappen’s ranking is largely unchanged, Norris and Russell have grown significantly, at the expense of Leclerc. The result is a little surprising, but understandable. Out of the 4, Leclerc has possibly been the least consistent this season, and his inability to gain the upper hand on Carlos Sainz thus far is surprising given his previous comparisons with Vettel. (See here for 2021 predictions of the teammate match ups.)

(Gasly, Ocon and Stroll have also shown potential, but the Twitter poll was limited to 4 choices and we don’t think many would pick those drivers as the absolute best young driver.)


How has the model changed in the last 6 months?

Let’s look at how model has changed over time.

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

Whilst adding 2021 results has provided new information, we can see that the previous years have also been affected, particularly for Verstappen and Norris. Here is how the model currently ranks the 7 drivers, compared to previously.

The changes are effectively due to Verstappen and Norris being ranked stronger than previously, whilst Leclerc and Russell’s rankings have not significantly changed. Here’s a quick update on how each driver is viewed based on data from the 2021 season.

7) Lance Stroll

The model still finds Stroll to be competent. His results versus Vettel have so far been slightly better than expected, in part due to Sebastian taking a few races to find his form.

6) Pierre Gasly

As Gasly has a rookie teammate, his performances this year are not affecting his ranking. However, the model thinks he is a little stronger than it did 6 months ago, due to Verstappen having a strong season.

5) Esteban Ocon

Like Stroll, Ocon’s ranking has been boosted a little by better than expected performances this year versus an experienced teammate. Whilst Alonso has had the upper hand recently, it’s easy to forget how strong Ocon’s form was at the start of the year, and his maiden victory in Budapest hasn’t hurt things either. However, Ocon’s overall ranking remains largely unchanged. His slightly better than expected form versus Alonso is balanced by Pérez’s ranking falling slightly (as Ocon’s ranking was previously largely based on Pérez).

4) George Russell ⬇️

Russell is now (finally!) considered well clear of Latifi. by the model, but there hasn’t been any additional information versus the rest of the grid. It’ll be fascinating to see how he performs versus Hamilton, and this will also hopefully nail down his ranking properly. Whilst it’s reasonable to think the model might have underrated him thus far (21% of the recent twitter poll certainly think so!), the model still considers him to be a stronger choice than Bottas.

3) Lando Norris ⬆️

Back in April I suggested that Norris was improving over time, and that there was potential for his ranking to rise. Not only has his success versus Ricciardo raised his ranking significantly, but Sainz’s strong season versus LeClerc has also boosted Norris’ 2019 and 2020 campaigns too. As with all relatively inexperienced drivers his rating his still somewhat in flux (there is a reason my F1 career reviews have been limited to drivers with at least a decade in the sport), and there is an open question as to how much Ricciardo has (or had?) been underperforming at McLaren. Currently the model rates Norris and Ricciardo almost identically over their careers as a whole, but Norris’ ranking is likely to improve further (with diminishing returns) until the end of this season.

2) Charles Leclerc ⬇️

LeClerc has been fairly evenly matched with Sainz this year. In our 2021 preview I suggested that it would probably be closer than the model thought at the time. Whilst this is indeed the case, the model currently interprets it as a mix of LeClerc underperforming this season and Sainz previously being underrated as Norris (his previous teammate) did not previously have any other reference points.

1) Max Verstappen ⬆️

Verstappen inches ahead of Leclerc, agreeing with the polls. Due to the nature of the Red Bull driver program, there were previously few opportunities to assess Red Bull drivers versus the rest of the grid. Even drivers that left to other teams (Ricciardo and Sainz) have managed to both be teammates to Hülkenberg and Norris. The comparison with Pérez is therefore considered quite important, and Verstappen comes out looking extremely favourable, boosting his ranking overall. It is sometimes suggested that the 2nd driver at Red Bull is at a natural disadvantage given the teams focus on their lead driver. Such a thing is not accounted for by the model, and it is questionable whether it is even desirable to measure it (as Verstappen has surely earns his reputation within the team).

Conclusions

Hopefully this gives an idea of how the model interprets fluctuating form over time, and makes adjustments with new information. Remember that these drivers are all relatively inexperienced, meaning that the fluctuations are potentially significantly larger than for experienced drivers. (For example, Ricciardo’s overall ranking has barely changed, despite his generally disappointing season.)

There have been some significant developments in the past 6 months, but the general conclusions from last time still stand. Currently Verstappen and Leclerc are considered the top 2 young drivers. Russell and Norris are in the next group but both have potential to move up (as Norris is currently doing). Ocon, Gasly and Stroll are all considered competent, although none of them is likely to be a world champion (out of the 3 the most likely is Gasly, as his form is still significantly based on his disappointing Red Bull campaign and thus more open to improvement).


What about other drivers?

Albon: As with Gasly, Albon’s ranking has improved a touch due to Verstappen’s strong form. He’s still currently ranked roughly equal with Gasly, but obviously next year will provide some more data on his abilities.

Latifi: His ranking has generally been falling this season as Russell establishes himself as the better driver, and is likely to fall further still. However, it’s still artificially boosted a little by his better race results than Russell in 2020. He’s currently ranked between Russell and Ocon.

Tsunoda: It’s been a tough rookie season for Tsunoda so far, and he can be considered somewhat fortunate be to kept on. (Despite Red Bull’s ruthless reputation, they typically give drivers at least 2 full years to establish themselves.) The model tentatively thinks that after his ultimate potential is just below Stroll’s, although he’s not 5ere yet due to inexperience.

Schumacher/Mazepin: With no external reference, all I can say for now is that Schumacher is rated higher than Mazepin, due to his better race results this season.

See here for the original post on young F1 drivers.

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