Five racing drivers we can’t believe never got to drive in Formula 1

Thomas Maher
Dario Franchitti tests for McLaren, and Valentino Rossi tests for Ferrari.

Dario Franchitti and Valentino Rossi were both extreme talents who tested in F1, but never landed a race seat...

While F1 drivers are widely regarded as being the best in the business, some bright lights from other championships never quite got the chance.

Usually, top driving talent in motorsport is spotted by someone, somewhere, who will take the chance on granting some sort of test to see just how good that talent can shine in an F1 car.

But, whether by circumstances or timing, sometimes that talent just slips through the net – only to shine brightly elsewhere. Here are our picks for the top five drivers who never got their proper chance in F1.

Valentino Rossi

Rossi was widely linked with a possible move to Ferrari over the years, with the MotoGP legend enjoying an association with the Scuderia that never quite materialised into something substantial.

In 2004, Rossi was given a test with the F2004 , while a later proper test at Fiorano in 2006 ended with the Italian being made an offer that he actually could refuse.

Michael Schumacher is known to have been impressed by Rossi’s speed, reportedly only half a second off the pace of the German, and had no doubt the Italian could make the switch to F1.

“It was true in the sense that, in 2004 when I won with Yamaha, Stefano Domenicali called me and he said ‘I have to let you test the car,’” said Rossi on Gianluca Gazzoli’s podcast.

“We went to Fiorano to test the car. I was pretty fast and I lapped under the minute – 59’1.

“I remember that the mechanics were betting on whether I would lap above or below one minute and, in the end, I won. Then after those tests I went to Mugello. I also did a real test in Valencia.

“And there I had to choose. If I had said yes I would have raced with Minardi, the B team. If I had gone fast enough the goal and the path would have been to race with Ferrari.

“I was still 27 years old and I didn’t feel like making this leap because I knew I could win a few more titles and get satisfaction from motorcycling.

“For me, the motorbike has always been the best. In the end, I did very well, even if the curiosity remained, I don’t know what I could have done…”

With Rossi rejecting the leap into Formula 1, he nevertheless carried out some further testing – his sixth and final test with the team came in Barcelona in early 2010.

But as Rossi wasn’t prepared to do the time in a lower position, and Ferrari were unwilling to take such a massive gamble, the partnership never quite came together. In 2017, he took the wheel of a Mercedes F1 car as he and Lewis Hamilton swapped machinery for a test/fun run in Valencia – but the times were never made public.

Rossi now does car racing, and finished second in last year’s Gulf 12 Hours with his BMW Team WRT teammates.

Colin McRae/Carlos Sainz

1995 World Rally Champion Colin McRae had the chance to drive a Jordan Formula 1 car at Silverstone in 1996 as he and Martin Brundle did a car swap – McRae in the Jordan 195, and Brundle taking the wheel of the Subaru Impreza WRX for a stage run.

While the track run was merely for the benefit of sponsor Benson & Hedges, McRae managed to lap ‘within a few seconds’ of Brundle’s times and apparently set a time which would have been good enough to qualify for the 1996 British Grand Prix.

McRae was never seriously linked with an F1 move as he continued his rallying exploits, his name was linked to a possible move to Jaguar in the early 2000s as McRae was a factory Ford driver in WRC.

Ford made it clear they wanted to give him a test drive in an F1 car again, but McRae dispelled any chance of ever making the switch into F1 as he said: “I’ll stick with what I know.

“I wasn’t thinking of going to Formula One, it was just really a bit of PR for Ford, to make a bit of a story about a rally driver driving in Formula 1.”

Ousted Haas F1 team boss Guenther Steiner worked closely with both Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz Snr at M-Sport and was effusive in praise as to just how good McRae could have been.

“Colin was the man at the time and I think there will never be anybody, I mean there is always somebody, but I haven’t seen anyone with the sheer talent Colin had at the time,” he said in 2022.

“For him, everything was natural he didn’t need to put any effort in to drive a car quick, it was just there. Some people can talk a lot like me but he can drive fast. I think he was the most gifted driver I ever met.”

As for McRae’s occasional WRC teammate Carlos Sainz, father of current Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Junior, the two-time World Rally Champion has also thrived in his post-WRC career and, only recently, added a fourth Dakar victory to his name – the oldest driver to have ever won the gruelling endurance event.

However, despite being a contender for being one of, if not outright, the best rally drivers ever, Sainz Senior never quite managed to find an association with F1 that allowed him to eye up a move into the sport.

Sebastien Loeb

What might have been for the nine-time World Rally Champion, as he took part in several F1 tests in the late 2000s.

In 2007, Loeb was given Heikki Kovalainen’s Renault R27 for a test at Paul Ricard. A few months later, with Red Bull having become a sponsor of Loeb’s Citroen rallying team, the French star was given a test of the Red Bull RB4 at Silverstone and even took part in an official post-season test in Barcelona.

He finished eighth-fastest of 17 that day and, through some GP2 testing in 2009, was considered as a possibility to race in the season finale in Abu Dhabi ahead of a full campaign in 2010.

But the plan never worked out – Loeb didn’t meet the basic requirements for a superlicence and lacked the results in junior categories of single-seaters and, even with the more relaxed standards of the time, wasn’t able to sway the FIA to give him the appropriate licence.

Speaking about Loeb’s Barcelona test, Red Bull performance engineer Daniele Casanova told Autosport: “I expected to be pleasantly surprised and that was the case.

“Sebastien has been really impressive. He has stepped into the car and not put a foot wrong from the beginning.

“It’s hard to tell the exact pace. We [were] the correct weight, so at a guess I would say Sebastien is running somewhere in the midfield, which is mighty impressive.”

But, even at the time, Loeb felt his chance to make the switch to F1 had passed him by.

“Red Bull had given me the test back then for my World Rally Championship title. It was fantastic and went better than expected. But at the end of the day, I guess I’m more talented for rallies than for circuit racing.

“Maybe I am too old. If I was going to do that, it’s something that I should have thought about doing a few years ago. This only came about because it was an opportunity offered to me by Red Bull.

“You can’t compare F1 to rallying, they are so different. It’s not true that rallying is more of a comfort zone, because when I am flat-out on the stages I am concentrating just as hard as I was today.”

Tom Kristensen

Kristensen never quite had the pieces fall into place for him for an F1 drive, despite coming close to racing for Prost in the late 1990s.

Having also tested with Williams, Minardi, and Tyrrell, Kristensen’s junior pedigree stood tall – as an F3 Champion in Japan and Germany, as well as winning races in DTM, BTCC, JTCC, Formula Nippon (now Super Formula) and Formula 3000.

On top of that, Kristensen won the Le Mans 24 Hours as part of Team Joest at the very first time of asking in 1997 – he’d add another eight wins before his retirement in 2014.

He also won the Sebring 12 Hours on six occasions and won the 2013 World Endurance Championship.

But, alas, F1 remained out of reach – Kristensen’s tests for Tyrrell came at a time when British American Tobacco were taking over the squad, with incoming drivers preferred if they could bring big sponsor money with them.

While Kristensen also tested for Williams, the chance of a race seat never materialised as Alex Zanardi, Jenson Button, and Juan Pablo Montoya each got the nod between 1999 and 2001.

“I did drive Formula 1 cars, and I have no doubt I would have gone well in grand prix racing,” Kristensen said of his career to Motorsport Magazine.

“But I have always been very satisfied with the challenges, the cars, the teams I raced for, in my sports car career. Long-distance racing is very challenging, the circuits we go to, driving hard and fast for many hours, heading into the dark, sharing all of this with my teammates.

“So, no regrets. I would not have wanted to miss the career I’ve had, and I never had the backing for a proper F1 chance. Also, I was always fighting to go forward in my career and the setbacks only make you mentally stronger.”

Dario Franchitti

We debated long and hard about whether it should be Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti for this one, but we’ve given the nod to the Scot as he had multiple opportunities that just never seemed to quite work out.

Winning the McLaren Autosport Young Driver Award in the mid-1990s, Franchitti was given a test drive of the 1995 McLaren-Mercedes MP4/10 which resulted in him being given an offer to join Woking as a third driver.

But, with David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen well embedded in the team, Franchitti opted to stick with Champcar in the United States.

A few years later, Franchitti was also a prospect for BAR but, again, he didn’t take the risk of giving up his strong prospects in the States for a less than stellar offer in F1.

Franchitti then tested for Jaguar in 2000, with the R1, and the Scot was pretty forward about how he felt the test had gone.

“In the middle of 2000, I tested the Jaguar R1 at Silverstone… Sir Jackie Stewart was kind enough to arrange it and there was a contract in place for the future if it went well,” he said.

“The test went so badly that they didn’t want me and I didn’t want any part of being there.

“The fast corner grip, change of direction, and braking was impressive, the slow corner grip on the grooved tyres was minimal compared to my Indycar and the hardest thing to get used to.

“The test was a farce though, I was still recovering from the injuries sustained at the start of the year and there were certain people in the team that didn’t want me driving there the following year so things weren’t set up to show me in the best light.

“Not sure if these pics are from the first day’s car which was decent but it was swapped the second day for a proper shit box… it was possibly a show car!!

“The only good part was the 4 flights on Concorde to and from the test and seat fit. That was really the end of any chance I had in F1.”

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