Ranked: The five most underrated drivers on the F1 grid for the 2025 market

Thomas Maher
Alex Albon, Nico Hulkenberg, and Carlos Sainz, Melbourne 2024.

Who are the most underrated F1 drivers?

While everyone knows the likes of Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc are amongst the sport’s top performers, who are the underdog drivers worth backing on the driver market for 2025?

The driver market is wide open for 2025, but who are the underrated talents that could make for a good bargain for a team hunting for a star in their car?

5. Yuki Tsunoda

After seeing Tsunoda’s mental fragility on full display in Bahrain, the Japanese driver is currently in the good books as he’s starting to show some clear daylight between himself and Ricciardo – not a bad position to be in, given the spotlight, has been on the Australian to see whether he could return to Red Bull alongside Max Verstappen.

Tsunoda is in his fourth season with the Red Bull junior team, but might be left with no obvious promotion if Perez retains his seat. Would the Japanese driver be willing to commit to a fifth season at RB if this were to happen, or might he put feelers out to eye up a fresh start elsewhere?

After all, with Honda arriving back into F1 in 2026 with Aston Martin, pursuing a seat at the Silverstone-based squad – perhaps in Fernando Alonso’s seat, if the Spaniard moves elsewhere – would make sense to get embedded before the big rules change.

Tsunoda has been something of an enigma over the past three years, with flashes of incredible speed and talent unbalanced by his own temper and lack of mental fortitude. With the immature moments a little less frequent, he’s earned the admiration of Helmut Marko – but might he be a good steal for another team to pounce upon?

4. Alex Albon

Having turned his career around with Williams after losing his drive with Red Bull at the conclusion of 2020, Albon looks ready to rejoin a leading outfit if he doesn’t have the patience to wait for Williams to build themselves up.

Having put in some drives that team boss James Vowles has put forward as “champion level” in 2023, Albon is off to a tough start this year. But Williams handing him their sole intact car in place of Logan Sargeant – who hadn’t crashed it – shows the regard he’s held in by Vowles, and the willingness to make such a tough decision to put their faith in him won’t have been lost on the other teams.

Albon has been open about the fact opportunities are available for 2025, and perhaps the British-Thai racer now has the mental strength to be able to handle lining up alongside Verstappen again. But might someone else swoop in and steal him away?

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3. Esteban Ocon

The winner of the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix might not be enjoying life too much at Alpine at the moment, but the French driver has taken a noticeably positive attitude into 2024 at a time when it would be very easy for him to lash out at his squad.

Ocon has oozed positivity despite the travails of the team and, when the car allows him to – such as in Monaco last year, is very capable of bringing home the results.

The big missed opportunity of Ocon’s career so far has been when Mercedes opted against replacing Valtteri Bottas with him, and instead turned to George Russell. But this is perhaps more down to Mercedes showing utter faith in Russell, rather than not having any in Ocon.

With so many vacant seats for 2025, surely he is a key target for any of the teams and, while he may not be ahead of the likes of Max Verstappen or Carlos Sainz on teams’ shopping lists, Ocon shouldn’t have any problems finding a seat elsewhere if he decides he’s had enough at Alpine.

2. Nico Hulkenberg

The German driver left F1 under something of a cloud at the conclusion of the 2019 season, having failed to find a seat for the following year. Hulkenberg kept the dream alive with his ‘super-sub’ appearances for Racing Point in 2020 but, without a single appearance in 2021, looked as though his days of racing in F1 were behind him.

Two nondescript races for Aston Martin at the start of 2022 offered Hulkenberg a glimmer of hope, and that glimmer became a full-blown spotlight as he managed to get the nod from Haas’ Guenther Steiner as Mick Schumacher struggled to impress.

Since arriving back into F1, Hulkenberg has driven with a confidence that wasn’t quite as evident in the past – perhaps due to him having already come to terms with his F1 career being over, it’s easier to accept the rough patches.

Since the very first day back, Hulkenberg has usually had the edge on the experienced and talented Kevin Magnussen, and this edge has maintained its way into 2024. Hulkenberg has scored three points from the first three races and has made it clear he wants a car in which he can fight for stronger results – whether that be with Haas or elsewhere.

While his age – 37 by the time next season starts – goes against him somewhat if he is after a new long-term deal, Hulkenberg must surely be considered one of the stronger available options on the grid.

As hypothesised yesterday, perhaps if Red Bull chooses not to go with Perez again, lining up Hulkenberg for a dependable supporting role alongside Verstappen for a year or two would make sense.

1. Carlos Sainz

I’ve had a rollercoaster in terms of my levels of faith in Carlos Sainz over recent years. Comparing favourably against Max Verstappen at Toro Rosso, I felt Sainz had been somewhat left behind and overlooked over the following years – only for his strong stint at McLaren to illustrate what he was capable of.

After his very evenly-matched year at Ferrari in 2021 as he and the prodigal talent that is Charles Leclerc went head to head, I had high expectations for the Spaniard – only for him to flub his lines on multiple occasions as the heightened expectations seemed to bring out the worst in him, and play more into Leclerc’s hands as Sainz’s reputation took a battering.

But Sainz has gone away and steadied the ship since the start of 2023. The silly mistakes have been ironed out, and the turbulence of his performances evened out – in stark contrast to the ups and downs of Leclerc’s driving.

It was Sainz who was ready to step up to the plate when Red Bull made a has of things in Singapore last season, and he did the same in Australia in what was his second race of the year.

It cannot be underestimated the herculean effort that Sainz made to bounce back from his appendix surgery only two weeks ago. While still clearly a little ginger in his movements, there was no evidence that this was a man knocked out by his own body turning against him a fortnight ago.

Most of us would still be moping around feeling sorry for ourselves two weeks after appendix surgery, but Sainz gritted his teeth, and dealt with the odd feeling of trying to brace his core – with a little bit of spare room left inside – against the G-forces of the Albert Park circuit.

His comprehensive win in Australia, not allowing the pursuing Leclerc to ever get a sniff at the win, only underlines the huge step in performance Sainz has made and became initially evident when he put in his elite-level drive in Singapore last September.

However, it’s come a little too late for Sainz to have convinced Ferrari to keep going with him. The Scuderia are set to dump him in favour of seven-time F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton for 2025. Not that long ago, such a swap would have been completely understandable and justified to make.

But, speaking from the perspective of where we are now, with Sainz arguably the stronger performing Ferrari driver and Hamilton struggling for form and consistency at Mercedes, the question is whether or not Ferrari has made a big error in judgement.

The man Christian Horner has labelled as Red Bull’s “nemesis” is facing unemployment and, as a driver now coming into his own as an established frontrunner, it would be a huge shame to see Sainz drop down the field when it’s now evident he has what it takes to race for the title.

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