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Top 10: The F1 feeder series kings who were overlooked the following year

The past three champions of Formula 2 have now missed out on graduating to Formula 1 in the year after their coronation. But the trend is nothing new, with numerous title-winners of F1's principal training category finding themselves overlooked in the last 40 years. But who were the pick of the bunch?

Justin Wilson, Nordic Racing, leads at the start of the race

Lorenzo Bellanca / Motorsport Images

Theo Pourchaire has become the third driver in succession miss out on a graduation to Formula 1 in the year after winning the Formula 2 title. As with Oscar Piastri (2021) and Felipe Drugovich (2022) before him, the Sauber junior will watch from the sidelines this year, though he will keep himself race sharp in Japan’s Super Formula championship as he seeks to further his case for a promotion to the team that will become Audi from 2026.

PLUS: Why F1's junior logjam isn't entirely a product of current issues

Numerous champions of European F2, Formula 3000 and GP2 have suffered the same fate as the aforementioned trio in failing to reach F1 the season after their coronation. While some had to wait their turn before getting onto the grid either later in the year or the following season, an unlucky few never got the chance to drive a grand prix car in anger. But who were the best of those overlooked champions of F1’s feeder series, and therefore most hard done by?

Drivers who have already raced in F1 are not excluded from the list. The only stipulation is that drivers cannot have contested a grand prix in the year after winning the major junior series title, even if they were absent from the start of the season. That explains the omission from this list of runaway 2015 GP2 champion Stoffel Vandoorne, called up to replace McLaren’s Fernando Alonso in the 2016 Bahrain GP, and his successor Pierre Gasly, who contested five GPs for Toro Rosso in 2017 after making an identical trip east to Super Formula.

Several champions of the Formula Renault 3.5 series that briefly vied with GP2 for the honour of being F1’s top support category also missed out on the direct graduations afforded to Robert Kubica, Kevin Magnussen and Carlos Sainz. However, the fact that more of its champions headed to GP2 the following year than F1 makes their cases difficult to include – even if its field was arguably stronger than GP2 when Robin Frijns triumphed in 2012.

The ranking is based on four key criteria; the strength of performance across their time in the premier sub-F1 category, how convincingly they won the title, the level of opposition and time spent in the category. Drivers that took four seasons to claim the title naturally are ranked lower than those overlooked despite collecting the crown at the first time of asking. What they did afterwards has no impression on the ranking.

The introduction of multiple races per weekend means win conversion stats aren’t directly comparable between drivers from the GP2 and modern F2 era to the original European F2 series and F3000. But for the purposes of this list, wins are valued above consistency. And with just one win on his way to last year’s F2 title, by comparison with drivers who reached the honour faster and more emphatically, Pourchaire just misses out on this top 10.

10. Bjorn Wirdheim

Wirdheim cruised to the penultimate F3000 title, but grid sizes had begun to wane

Wirdheim cruised to the penultimate F3000 title, but grid sizes had begun to wane

Photo by: James Moy

Championship/Year: F3000, 2003
Attempts to win title: 2
Wins in title year: 3
Points margin: 35
Wins/Starts: 4/22
Poles: 6

Slowing slightly too early before crossing the line to collect an assured victory at Monaco, which instead went to Nicolas Kiesa, is for many people the defining memory of Bjorn Wirdheim’s 2003 F3000 title success. But the Swede was simply a cut above the rest in the penultimate season for GP2’s predecessor, beginning his second year with Arden as he’d ended his first.

Having won the 2002 finale at Monza, Wirdheim entered the year as an expected favourite and didn’t disappoint. His victory in the Imola curtain-raiser set the tone for a year in which he was only off the podium once, after an opening-lap clash at the Nurburgring, and he added further dominant victories at Silverstone and Monza.

Following F1 tests for BAR and Jordan before the season was out, he ultimately landed a test driver role at Ford-owned Jaguar that should have yielded a race drive for 2005. But the decision of the Dearborn money men to pull out and the team’s subsequent sale to Red Bull – whose advisor Helmut Marko had unsuccessfully tried to lure Wirdheim to his F3000 team – spelt the end of his F1 dream.

What could have been: The F3000 champion whose Champ Car move turned sour

The only reason Wirdheim isn’t higher on this list is because his opposition in 2003 was weaker than it had been in previous years, as F3000 began its decline. Third-year drivers Ricardo Sperafico (Coloni) and one of the drivers he beat to make this list, Giorgio Pantano (at the Durango team which hadn't previously been considered a top outfit), were the only others to put up anything resembling a consistent challenge.

However, Wirdheim proved dominant in a shorter timeframe than the likes of Pantano (the 2008 GP2 champion after a brief F1 stint with Jordan in 2004) and 2019 F2 champion Nyck de Vries, and won far more convincingly than Pourchaire, to cement his place in this list.

9. Bruno Junqueira

Junqueira took three attempts to win the title but claimed four wins from 10 starts in 2000

Junqueira took three attempts to win the title but claimed four wins from 10 starts in 2000

Photo by: Sutton Images

Championship/Year: F3000, 2000
Attempts to win title: 3
Wins in title year: 4
Points margin: 3
Wins/Starts: 5/31
Poles: 3

Despite winning four times, Bruno Junqueira only narrowly edged fellow third-year driver Nicolas Minassian to win the F3000 title in 2000. Talks with F1 teams came to nought, and the Brazilian instead began a successful career in US open-wheel racing that peaked with three championship runner-up finishes and a pole in the Indianapolis 500.

Junqueira had already shown his mettle with a swashbuckling drive to victory at Hockenheim in 1999, passing Petrobras team-mate Max Wilson via the grass into the stadium. And after Minassian had beaten him off the line to win at Imola, Junqueira emerged as the title favourite with a hat-trick across the Barcelona, Nurburgring and Monaco rounds – skilfully navigating changeable conditions and doggedly battling illness across the latter two.

Friday favourite: Bruno Junqueira picks his favourite track

Two wins for Minassian, whose Super Nova team was, like Petrobras, owned and run out of David Sears’ workshop in Norfolk, got him back into contention as Junqueira faltered with a run of three-non scores. But a controlled victory over impressive rookie Fernando Alonso in Hungary meant Junqueira had a big enough advantage that third for Minassian at Spa wasn’t enough to deprive him of the crown.

8. Felipe Drugovich

Drugovich smashed the F2 field with MP Motorsport in 2022 and took a remarkable double in Barcelona

Drugovich smashed the F2 field with MP Motorsport in 2022 and took a remarkable double in Barcelona

Photo by: Bryn Lennon - Formula 1

Championship/Year: F2, 2022
Attempts to win title: 3
Wins in title year: 5
Points margin: 101
Wins/Starts: 8/73
Poles: 4

After a disappointing sophomore season in F2 with Virtuosi, the return to MP Motorsport for 2022 brought the best out of Felipe Drugovich. A year many were expecting to boil down to a fight between highly fancied second-year men Pourchaire and Liam Lawson turned into a walkover for Drugovich. The Brazilian’s advantage over Pourchaire after a season that tallied five wins was the largest since Stoffel Vandoorne stuffed the GP2 pack in 2015 by 160 points.

His tally of four poles surpassed the rest (rapid rookie Jack Doohan was closest with three), while nobody could rival Drugovich’s consistency or final haul of five victories – including the season’s only double at Barcelona. He was confirmed as champion despite retiring on the opening lap of the Monza sprint with suspension damage.

Announced before the end of the season as Aston Martin’s reserve and development driver in F1, Drugovich conducted 2023 pre-season test duties for the team in Bahrain following Lance Stroll’s cycling accident, but has yet to get a shot at a race seat. That seems unlikely to change soon after being retained in the role for a second year.

7. Justin Wilson

Wilson struck up a strong bond with his Nordic team over two years with the team that culminated in the 2001 F3000 title

Wilson struck up a strong bond with his Nordic team over two years with the team that culminated in the 2001 F3000 title

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Championship/Year: F3000, 2001
Attempts to win title: 3
Wins in title year: 3
Points margin: 32
Wins/Starts: 3/32
Poles: 2

Justin Wilson did reach F1 after winning the F3000 title, but had to spend a year treading water in the Dallara Nissan championship before squeezing his tall frame into a Minardi for 2003. The Yorkshireman delivered Derek Mower’s Nordic team the crown in 2001 with almost double the tally of his nearest pursuers, Super Nova’s Mark Webber and his own team-mate Tomas Enge, and only finished off the podium twice in 11 races. A brake problem at the Nurburgring caused his only non-score.

Top 10: Ranking the greatest Minardi F1 drivers

There was an element of fortune to his victory in Brazil, when several drivers ahead of him were penalised for overtaking under yellow flags. But it was telling that Wilson, who had emerged as a regular podium finisher for Nordic in 2000, never lost the lead of the standings thereafter and he responded well to being beaten by Enge in Barcelona with an expertly judged defensive drive to win at the A1-Ring.

Webber swept Monaco and Magny-Cours, where Wilson pounced on Enge to take second on the final lap, but the Australian never visited the podium again. Webber’s spin in Hungary, the scene of Wilson’s third win, conceded match point.

After tests for Jordan in 2001 went nowhere, Wilson’s F1 opportunity when it came was brief. A mid-season move to Jaguar wasn’t the hoped-for promotion to a stable midfield operation, but Wilson switched successfully to US open-wheel racing before his tragic death at Pocono in 2015.

6. Sebastien Bourdais

His path to the F3000 title in 2002 wasn't straightforward, but despite sometimes struggling in races Bourdais was the year's standout qualifier

His path to the F3000 title in 2002 wasn't straightforward, but despite sometimes struggling in races Bourdais was the year's standout qualifier

Photo by: Lorenzo Bellanca / Motorsport Images

Championship/Year: F3000, 2002
Attempts to win title: 3
Wins in title year: 3
Points margin: 2
Wins/Starts: 4/34
Poles: 8

The 2002 F3000 pole king departed the Monza finale thinking he’d lost the championship to Enge, after being sidelined by a costly engine failure. But when Enge was docked the 10 points he’d earned for winning at Hungaroring due to a positive drugs test, Sebastien Bourdais was handed the first title of F3000’s B02/50 era.

After losing likely wins at Monaco in 2000 and the A1-Ring in 2001 to first corner tangles, a superb breakthrough victory in mixed conditions at Silverstone was rewarded with a Super Nova seat for 2002. But as subsequent years proved, it didn’t have quite the same handle on the car as with the previous two iterations of Lola.

Still, Bourdais hustled to five poles from the first six races and converted three into wins, losing out in Interlagos to a puncture and in Barcelona when he made a final-lap mistake on tyres were well past their best. Victory at the Nurburgring would be his last of the season as Enge’s Arden team found another gear, but Bourdais hung on in the points race and could still be regarded as a worthy champion.

Although his car carried a Renault livery, Bourdais crucially lacked the support of Flavio Briatore after the youngster had turned down his management contract, which left him to look elsewhere for an F1 berth. Bourdais believes he had an agreement in place to race for Arrows in 2003 had the team not gone bust, but he showed F1 what it was missing with pole at his first two Champ Car races in 2003. After four titles on the spin, he finally joined the F1 grid with Toro Rosso in 2008, but their brief union isn’t one the Frenchman remembers positively.

5. Jorg Muller

Victory at Pau in 1996 for Muller, flanked by Brack and Zonta, completed a hattrick of grandee single-seater wins

Victory at Pau in 1996 for Muller, flanked by Brack and Zonta, completed a hattrick of grandee single-seater wins

Photo by: Sutton Images

Championship/Year: F3000, 1996
Attempts to win title: 1
Wins in title year: 2
Points margin: 3
Wins/Starts: 2/10
Poles: 2

Arguably the most controversial moment in F3000’s history occurred at Hockenheim in 1996, when championship protagonists Jorg Muller and Kenny Brack clashed fighting for the lead. Muller retired while Brack continued, but when the Swede was disqualified for his part in the incident, the first title of F3000’s single-make era went the way of a driver in his first season at that level.

Lack of funds had prevented Muller, the 1991 Monaco F3 winner and 1993 Macau GP conqueror, from graduating sooner. He’d spent 1995 racing touring cars for BMW before getting his F3000 break for 1996 with Helmut Marko’s RSM team, which could fairly be described as a David to the Goliath of Brack’s Super Nova squad.

Muller rode his luck at times against third-year driver Brack, only taking victory at Spa on countback after red flags brought out due to rain when he was running third on the road. But in addition to a victory at Pau that completed his street track triple crown, he collected five runner-up finishes and never finished lower than third, crucially beating Brack at Estoril and Mugello when Ricardo Zonta emerged as a winner.

PLUS: The Monaco win that started another triple crown

Muller replaced Brack as a test driver for Arrows in 1997, but got little by way of mileage, and a similar berth at Sauber in 1998 never opened the door to a race drive. He was evaluated by Williams when it united with BMW for 2000 but, after three years without racing a single-seater, was once more overlooked.

He can’t move higher on this list because of his narrow margin of victory over Brack, who won more races and took more pole positions (in both cases 3-2). But the quick adaption to the category as a first-time champion cements Muller’s place in the top half.

4. Ricardo Zonta

Despite a high-speed 360, Zonta won comfortably at Hockenheim as he completed a fightback from a tricky start to the year

Despite a high-speed 360, Zonta won comfortably at Hockenheim as he completed a fightback from a tricky start to the year

Photo by: Sutton Images

Championship/Year: F3000, 1997
Attempts to win title: 2
Wins in title year: 3
Points margin: 1.5
Wins/Starts: 5/20
Poles: 5

A winner in his first season of F3000 for the Draco team in 1996, Ricardo Zonta got the job done at the second time of asking upon joining Super Nova in 1997. But he had to spend a year racing sportscars for Mercedes, winning the FIA GT championship alongside Klaus Ludwig, and testing for Jordan before an F1 race seat became available with BAR in 1999.

PLUS: How a 128-day Mercedes miracle crushed its opposition

Against stiff opposition from the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya, Tom Kristensen and Jamie Davies, Zonta didn’t make life easy for himself. After a victory at the Silverstone season-opener was cruelly snatched away from him for a contentious gearbox infringement – and only after the FIA had effectively appealed the stewards of the meeting – he shunted in Pau and Helsinki to arrive at round four without any points on the board.

But as inconsistency plagued Montoya, and Kristensen encountered all kinds of misfortune, Zonta notched three wins and two seconds from the next six races. He had the championship wrapped up with a race to spare at Mugello, where Kristensen (non-compliant washers) and Davies (missed drivers briefing) were both excluded.

So dominant was Zonta at Hockenheim that he won despite a 360-degree spin that resulted in a trip through the gravel, and his final round gaffe at Jerez – throwing the car into the gravel while under no pressure – went unpunished. That he earned more pole positions than anybody, qualifying ace Montoya included, was no mean feat.

3. Mike Thackwell

Thackwell was unstoppable in the 1984 F2 season, three years after the campaign many had expected he'd cruise to the title before injury

Thackwell was unstoppable in the 1984 F2 season, three years after the campaign many had expected he'd cruise to the title before injury

Photo by: Sutton Images

Championship/Year: European F2, 1984
Attempts to win title: 5
Wins in title year: 7
Points margin: 28
Wins/Starts: 9/52
Poles: 9

“His biggest problem is that he is too self-effacing for his own good. He kept telling me what a quick driver would be doing. As it was, he was doing the same sort of times consistently that Piquet had done the week before in the Brabham!”

Comments from Williams technical guru Patrick Head after Mike Thackwell had conducted an 80-lap shakedown of the Williams FW09 at Snetterton in 1984 give an indication of how highly rated the Kiwi was.

The dominant winner of the final European F2 championship had reached F1 during his rookie season in 1980, with fill-in outings for Arrows and Tyrrell, and looked unstoppable in 1981 upon joining the works Ralt team until a serious accident at Thruxton left him badly injured. That Ralt boss Ron Tauranac wasn’t sufficiently convinced by Thackwell’s fitness to have him back for 1982 goes some way to explaining why it took until 1984 – after he’d spent the previous year supporting Jonathan Palmer’s title bid – before he blitzed to the crown.

He had comfortably the best package at his disposal in the form of a Ralt-Honda, but made full use of it to win seven of the 11 rounds, taking fastest lap on all but two occasions. Thackwell raced for Penske’s Indycar team at the end of 1984, but never got the big F1 break his talent deserved – although the political nature of F1 was never to his taste.

His class was apparent when F3000 arrived for 1985. Remaining with the works Ralt team, Thackwell was arguably the year’s best driver and put in stellar drives to win amid deluges at Silverstone, on a fast-deteriorating track surface at Spa and a topsy-turvy race at Enna with an overheating engine. Had it not been for a failure on his Monk rev-limiter while comfortably leading at Estoril, he would have been out of sight when BSA March racer Christian Danner began a late season surge that netted the title after Thackwell and Emanuele Pirro tangled at Donington’s first corner. He walked away from motorsport two years later.

2. Juan Pablo Montoya

Montoya took the final International F3000 win at Enna on his way to defeating Heidfeld in 1998 - but had pushed Zonta hard in 1997 too

Montoya took the final International F3000 win at Enna on his way to defeating Heidfeld in 1998 - but had pushed Zonta hard in 1997 too

Photo by: Sutton Images

Championship/Year: F3000, 1998
Attempts to win title: 2
Wins in title year: 4
Points margin: 7
Wins/Starts: 7/22
Poles: 10

Juan Pablo Montoya took to F3000 like a duck to water with his flamboyant driving style, and could have won the title in his 1997 rookie year without some self-inflicted mistakes. But he put it right the following season after going toe-to-toe with McLaren junior Nick Heidfeld.

The RSM Marko driver spun out while leading on his debut at Silverstone and also crashed in Helsinki after he’d claimed pole by almost a full second, but took stylish victories at Pau, the A1-Ring and Jerez to end 1997 second in the points behind Zonta.

Taking Zonta’s place at Super Nova for 1998 and with his money troubles eased by the patronage of Frank Williams, who hired Montoya as a test driver, he waltzed to pole in five of the first six races. The exception came in Monaco, where he was docked his three fastest times for impeding. There he finished sixth, on three wheels and without a front wing, evoking Gilles Villeneuve.

There were more dramas along the way. He lost a wheel at Oschersleben after a pitstop, crashed with Heidfeld at Imola and made contact with him again at Enna, the scene of his fourth win after triumphs at Barcelona, Silverstone and Pau. But when Heidfeld was thrown out of qualifying for the Nurbugring finale due to illegal fuel, Montoya’s path to the title was secured.

PLUS: Montoya’s magic motorsport moments

Williams had no room for him in 1999 when it signed Alex Zanardi, with Montoya sent to take his place at the Ganassi CART Indycar team. One title and an Indy 500 win later, Montoya at last got his F1 opportunity in 2001, and quickly acquainted himself with Michael Schumacher…

1. Oscar Piastri

Piastri was kept on the bench by Alpine after claiming the F2 title at the first attempt in 2021

Piastri was kept on the bench by Alpine after claiming the F2 title at the first attempt in 2021

Photo by: Formula Motorsport Ltd

Championship/Year: F2, 2021
Attempts to win title: 1
Wins in title year: 6
Points margin: 60.5
Wins/Starts: 6/23
Poles: 5

That Oscar Piastri was kept warming the bench by Alpine in 2022 was baffling to all who had observed his storming run to the F2 title as a category rookie. The fateful decision ultimately led to the team losing his services to McLaren, who offered Piastri a deserved F1 opportunity for 2023.

PLUS: How F1’s new cool customer vindicated his McLaren gamble

Piastri’s meteoric rise in winning back-to-back titles in F3 and F2 drew immediate comparisons with Charles Leclerc and George Russell, now widely regarded as being among the top performers on the grid. And the manner of his title success was absolutely befitting of such comparisons.

Piastri’s F3 title-winning predecessor Robert Shwartzman had been expected to lead Prema’s assault, but ended up playing second fiddle, with all his wins coming in sprints. And although third-year driver Zhou Guanyu made the early running, by mid-season Piastri had reeled him in.

After hitting the front at Silverstone, the cool Australian was never headed thereafter. A winner in only his second F2 start in Bahrain, as F2 moved to a format of three races per weekend including two sprints, he closed the season with victories in each of the last four feature races. A streak of five consecutive poles at Silverstone, Monza, Sochi, Jeddah and Abu Dhabi left the opposition reeling and showed his was a truly special talent.

Alpine though stuck with Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon, and its lack of a partner team meant it couldn’t find Piastri a seat elsewhere. Its loss was McLaren’s gain.

Piastri's hot streak left the field gasping in his wake but it still wasn't enough to secure him automatic passage to an F1 seat

Piastri's hot streak left the field gasping in his wake but it still wasn't enough to secure him automatic passage to an F1 seat

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

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