10 Unusual And Unexpected Series Drivers Competed In Before F1

10 Unusual And Unexpected Series Drivers Competed In Before F1

Although most drivers who reach F1 have somewhat similar career paths, there are some who have rather unexpected and unusual competitive experiences on their way up the ladder

The path drivers use to get to Formula 1 isn’t easy, but it’s a pretty straightforward route. You start in karting as a kid, then move up to low-level single-seaters before progressing up the ladder, hopefully demonstrating enough talent along they way to be picked up by an F1 team. Some do this rather quickly - Max Verstappen only had one season in cars before he joined Toro Rosso - but others, such as Nicholas Latifi, spent a few more years in the lower ranks before making it to the top.

Some drivers have rather more diverse and unusual backgrounds, however. Sometimes drivers made brief appearances in events you wouldn’t expect them to; others competed in lesser-known championships - sometimes even those outside of motorsport.

Lewis Hamilton - Remote Controlled Cars

Before he properly started karting, Hamilton’s first foray into motorsport actually began with R/C cars when he was just six years old after his Dad bought him one as a present. Before long, Hamilton was winning local events, beating grown adults in the process. He even finished as runner-up in a national championship.

In fact, it was Hamilton’s skill with R/C cars that prompted father Anthony to wonder whether or not his talents would transfer to karting. You could say that worked out pretty well…

Gilles Villeneuve - Snowmobile Racing

Once you learn this, it suddenly makes sense that a driver who was so good at sliding a car around and absolutely unbelievable in the wet honed his skills racing in the snow. Gilles even credited his snowmobile experience with being responsible for his incredible car control skills, as well as teaching him how to drive on feel in low-visibility conditions.

Villeneuve took to snowmobile racing in the early 1970s, even winning the World Championship in 1974, and was able to use the winnings from his snowmobile career to fund his car racing career. He was more than just a racer, though - he also designed and built his own racing snowmobiles which helped to revolutionise the sport.

Lando Norris - Ginetta Juniors

10 Unusual And Unexpected Series Drivers Competed In Before F1 - Formula 1

Jumping into a tin-top for your first season racing in cars isn’t the usual move for a driver with F1 aspirations - but then again, Ginetta Juniors isn’t your usual championship.

Aimed exclusively at 14-17-year-olds, the low-powered, lightweight cars are a great proving ground for drivers to learn how to transfer their karting skills into something a bit bigger. A part of the support package for the BTCC, it’s also become a fan-favourite thanks to its unbelievably close and exciting racing.

In 2014, 14-year-old Norris had his first car racing season in Ginettas - and was extremely successful. Racing against much older and more experienced drivers (there’s a hilarious photo which shows just how much of an age and size difference there was), he won four races, finished third in the championship and was top rookie in a field that also included the likes of Billy Monger and inaugural W Series champion Jamie Chadwick.

At the end of the year, Lando became the youngest ever World Karting Champion before going on to race in all sorts of single-seater championships on his way to becoming a McLaren driver. To date, he’s the only Ginetta Junior racer who’s made it all the way to F1.

Jenson Button - Spa 24 Hours

Button had a fairly rapid rise to F1, with just two years of single-seaters under his belt before he got a seat with Williams in 2000. But in among that short junior career, there’s one event which sticks out a bit - an entry in the 1999 Spa 24 Hours.

These days its one of the biggest GT races of the year; 50 years ago it was perhaps the biggest touring car race in the world. It had lost its edge a bit in the 1990s, however, as the grid was filled with what amounted to little more than production-spec and Group N touring cars. And there, on the entry list, driving a BMW 320i, is Jenson Button, sharing a car with David Saelens and future Prost F1 driver Tomas Enge. The trio qualified 12th on the 53-car grid but didn’t get close to finishing, retiring early on with a fuel leak.

Once he was done with his F1 career, Button was back doing endurance events, competing in Super GT and the WEC. In 2019 he even had his own team competing in the Spa 24 Hours - 20 years after he’d made a low key entry as a driver. Funny how some things go full circle, isn’t it?

Damon Hill - Motorcycle Racing

Initially, Damon Hill had little interest in following in his father’s footsteps and instead opted to try racing on two wheels. He started in 1981, competing in minor events on the weekends (mainly at Brands Hatch) alongside his job as a motorbike courier, and even managed to win some races.

In 1983, Hill started to dip his toe into the water of single-seater racing (apparently at the request of his mother, who thought it would be safer), and by 1985 was giving that his full focus, having dropped his bike racing ambitions. It turned out to be an inspired decision as he went on to become the first son of a former F1 champion to win the title himself.

Known for his unusual F1 career which was spread out over 10 years and included three very unexpected podiums - the first two of which came as a substitute driver, eight years apart- Wurz also started his racing career on two wheels. Unlike Hill, he didn’t even have an engine.

That’s because Wurz’s racing career began on BMXs, and he was very handy at it too. In 1986 he finished runner-up in the European Championships, before going on to become world champion in that same year. From there, he went into karting and progressed through the ranks to F1. He even credited the fitness levels he gained from BMX racing in helping him get his first testing contract with Benetton.

Wurz also did the slightly unusual thing of winning Le Mans before he was an F1 driver (as well as afterwards) when he became the youngest-ever winner of the 24-hour race (a record he still holds) - back in 1996.

Vitaly Petrov - Lada racing

Vitaly Petrov. Russia’s first Formula 1 driver, and the first Russian to stand on the podium. When you see how he started out, the fact he managed to achieve that seems absolutely nuts.

This is a clip from 2001 which includes brief shots of a 16-year-old Petrov racing in the Lada Cup at the Tolyatti Ring - easily the most obscure and unusual starting point for any driver in this list, and possibly even for any F1 driver in the last few decades.

There he is!
There he is!

There was virtually no motorsport scene in Russia when Petrov was growing up and certainly no karting, so this was his only real option. He won the title in 2002 before going off to race in Europe, but he wasn’t done with Ladas yet. Oh no.

In the mid-2000s, Lada built a load of unusual-looking sports prototypes and ran a one-make cup in Russia. Petrov finished runner-up in 2004 and then won the title in 2005.

Could anyone have imagined that a car like this was a big part of the junior career of a future F1 driver!? (c) Creative Commons
Could anyone have imagined that a car like this was a big part of the junior career of a future F1 driver!? (c) Creative Commons

Petrov somehow went from that to GP2 the following year, where he ended up on a more normal path to the pinnacle of motorsport. After finishing second to Nico Hulkenberg in the 2009 GP2 season, Petrov was signed by Renault for the following season.

Romain Grosjean - GT1

(c) XPB Images
(c) XPB Images

A bit of a cheat this one, since Grosjean’s career was fairly straightforward (and incredibly promising) when he was picked by Renault to replace Nelson Piquet Jr in 2009. But when he failed to retain his seat for the following season, it could have spelt the end of his motorsport career - he ran off to Paris and decided to train to become a chef.

When that fell through, he figured that maybe he’d have another go at the whole ‘being a racing driver’ thing. The problem was that by that time, the top seats in GP2 had gone, so he kickstarted his racing career by competing in the reborn FIA GT1 World Championship, driving a Ford GT for the Matech squad. He and co-driver Thomas Mutsch dominated the opening round in Abu Dhabi, finishing second in the qualifying race and then winning the main event.

Grosjean at Le Mans? Yep, that's already happened! (c) XPB Images
Grosjean at Le Mans? Yep, that's already happened! (c) XPB Images

Grosjean won again in Brno, and even drove for the team at Le Mans, where they failed to finish. He also raced a Mosler in the Spa 24 hours.

(c) XPB Images
(c) XPB Images

However, by this point, Grosjean was back on the radar of single-seater teams. He left GT1 to join DAMS in Auto GP and easily won the championship (despite missing four of the 12 races) and also did much of the second half of the GP2 season for the same team. Still with DAMS, he dominated the 2011 GP2 championship, enough to ensure his F1 return with Lotus in 2012.

Grosjean has gone on to have a long F1 career with plenty of ups and downs, and it’s easy to forget that a brief time racing a big, powerful GT car played a significant part in it.

Michael Schumacher - DTM

Before he was an F1 driver, Schumacher famously cut his teeth at an international level as part of Mercedes’ young driver programme, racing fearsome Group C Sauber-Mercedes endurance machinery in the World Sportscar Championship. Less well known is the fact that Mercedes threw him into a DTM car on a couple of occasions.

Sure, racing in DTM before F1 isn’t the most unheard-of thing for young drivers, but it’s an often overlooked part of Schumi’s early career. His first race came at Hockenheim in the last round of 1990, where he was involved in a controversial collision which wiped BMW’s Johnny Cecotto out of championship contention.

Schumacher returned to the series for four races in 1991 but made little impact, only achieving a best result of 14th, making it the least successful series in the career of the seven-time champion.

That same year, Schumacher also made an obscure one-off appearance in the Japanese F3000 championship. Despite being a rookie in a tough championship in an unfamiliar car on a track he’d never raced (Sugo), he finished an impressive second.

He may well have ended up doing a bit more of DTM and F3000, but he found his weekends suddenly taken up by having to drive Jordans and Benettons in the finals months of 1991.

Jackie Stewart - Shooting

(c) XPB Images
(c) XPB Images

Many drivers of the 1950s and 60s had sporting pursuits outside of motor racing, but its strange to think that an F1 driver as incredibly skilled as three-time champion Jackie Stewart was initially known for his prowess at clay pigeon shooting.

As a teenager, he won multiple national shooting competitions and two European titles, as well as narrowly missing out on a chance to represent Great Britain at the 1960 Olympic Games. It was around this time that he started to make his first forays into motorsport, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Jimmy. By 1962 he was racing full-time, making his way through the ranks until he made his F1 debut with BRM in 1965.

He never abandoned his clay shooting past, though - in 1985, he established a shooting school in Scotland, and even ran a number of celebrity charity shooting events.