This article originally appeared on USA TODAY Sports+: Step aside, Lewis: Five drivers who could be Formula 1's next global icon

Step aside, Lewis: Five drivers who could be Formula 1's next global icon

Richard Morin
USA TODAY Sports+

Who will be Formula One's next global icon?

F1 has been in good hands for more than a decade with seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton leading the way as the face of the sport. Hamilton is, without question, the most recognizable name in F1 with a list of accolades longer than the sport's technical regulations.

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Hamilton's charitable efforts, human rights and environmental endeavors have made ripples all over the world — including his activism for issues such as racial equality, gender equality and abortion rights.

Hamilton saw his four-year championship streak snapped last season. This year, he has struggled to begin the 2022 slate. If Hamilton, 37, continues to scuffle or retires in the next few seasons, which driver is best-positioned to take up the mantle as the next face of F1?

Here are the five most interesting candidates:

Max Verstappen

Team: Red Bull Racing | Age: 24 | Race wins: 23

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands, winner of the Formula One Miami Grand Prix auto race, holds his trophy and a Miami Dolphins' helmet at the Miami International Autodrome, Sunday, May 8, 2022, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The reigning world champion seems like the logical choice, but he hasn't sought out the spotlight in a way a global icon might.

Verstappen has spent seven seasons in F1 and has a title under his belt. He is the favorite to usurp Hamilton's role as the driver to beat each grand-prix weekend. But will he equal Hamilton's clout on a global scale?

Verstappen was also named F1's most-popular driver in a 2021 fan survey and was named 2022 Laureus Sportsman of the Year, an award given to icons such as Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Lionel Messi and Hamilton.

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However, despite being one of the biggest names in F1, Verstappen hasn't shown much interest in the off-track responsibilities that make a global icon. In fact, he made a coy remark about Hamilton last year for attending the 2021 Met Gala.

Hamilton and Verstappen crashed into each other at the 2021 Italian Grand Prix, an incident that retired both drivers from the race. Verstappen was criticized for walking away from the incident and not checking on Hamilton. Meanwhile, Hamilton remained in his car trying to get out of the gravel trap.

"I jumped out of the car, I looked to the left and he's of course still trying to reverse, checking the wheel, trying to get away under my car," Verstappen said during a press conference following the event. "So I think he was absolutely fine because also flying on Monday or Tuesday to America to attend a gala, I think you only do that if you feel fine."

Hamilton was the only F1 driver in attendance at the 2022 Met Gala.

George Russell

Team: Mercedes | Age: 24 | Race wins: 0

Mercedes driver George Russell of Britain sits in his car in pit lane during qualifying for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, April 9, 2022. (Simon Baker, Pool via AP)

Russell spent his first three seasons with a subpar Williams team, reaching the podium just once and routinely finishing among the bottom 10 places on grand-prix weekends.

Even for the most talented drivers, all of that is unavoidable when piloting a low-quality car. Now, Russell seems poised to show his true potential following a promotion to Mercedes in 2022.

Russell now drives alongside Hamilton and has outperformed his teammate thus far. He sits fourth in the championship standings, three spots above Hamilton. Russell is also the president of the Grand Prix Drivers Association, a station that implies respect from his peers.

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As a constructor, Mercedes has struggled under the new 2022 regulations. The team hasn't challenged for wins this season. Still, Mercedes have won eight consecutive team championships and will likely turn things around at some point.

If they do, expect Russell, who has dominated each level of motorsport in which he's competed, to become a household name in short order.

Charles Leclerc

Team: Ferrari | Age: 24 | Race wins: 4

Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc of Monaco waves on the podium after winning the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, April 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)

The 2022 championship leader has a good chance to reach global-icon status. His Ferrari has performed well under the new F1 technical regulations introduced this season.

Leclerc has notched two race wins this season and is poised for an epic championship bout with Verstappen. The Monagesque driver has also shown a philanthropic thumb off the track, assisting the Italian Red Cross and Red Cross of Monaco.

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Leclerc seems to be hitting the stride of his career and has the benefit of driving for the most-recognizable brand in motorsport. Ferrari has struggled to compete for wins over the last few seasons. However, the team's competitiveness will be paramount in Leclerc elevating himself into a perennial championship contender. If he does that, he could become a potential global icon.

Lando Norris

Team: McLaren | Age: 22 | Race wins: 0

McLaren driver Lando Norris of Britain celebrates on the podium his third place at the Emilia Romagna Formula One Grand Prix, at the Enzo and Dino Ferrari racetrack, in Imola, Italy, Sunday, April 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Norris is one of the most popular F1 drivers among fans despite having no victories to his name. A big reason is due to his endearing and fun-loving personality. His commercial appearances also play a big role.

Norris is featured in McLaren's advertising partnership with Webex. Those commercials gravitate to a large audience and are televised in the United States. Off the track, Norris also frequently live streams on Twitch to engage with fans.

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Norris has stood on the podium six times and finished a career-best second at Monza last season. A young talent with a bright future and infectious disposition, Norris could easily vault into superstardom.

However, Norris will need to start challenging for race victories on a regular basis. McLaren finished fourth in the team championship last year and will likely end up in a similar position this season. Norris is signed to a long-term deal with McLaren, so the team's growth will play a key role in Norris' career trajectory.

Colton Herta

Team: Andretti Autosports (IndyCar) | Age: 22 | Race wins: 6 (IndyCar)

To cap his three-win season, Colton Herta won the 2021 IndyCar season-finale on the streets of Long Beach.

One dark horse to take up the mantle could be Herta, who despite never having competed in F1 may be positioned to take it by the horns someday.

Herta is one of IndyCar's brightest young talents and has made no secrets about his desire to race in F1. The owner of his IndyCar team, Michael Andretti, has also made numerous efforts to bring both the Andretti name and Herta to F1. Andretti's father, Mario Andretti, is the most decorated American driver in F1 history and won a world championship in 1978.

 F1 has a rich history of American talent and a swath of fans. Still, none of the 20 drivers and just one of the 10 teams (Haas) are from the United States. A big reason for this is the layers of red tape affecting American drivers who wish to switch over from the IndyCar syndicate to F1.

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For a driver to gain F1 eligibility, they must obtain an FIA Super License. To do so, a driver is required to accumulate 40 points over a three-season span to satisfy F1 parameters. Points are distributed on a scale based on championship standing and vary by racing series.

For example, a driver finishing first, second or third in Formula 2 championship earns 40 points. For those in IndyCar, a driver would need to finish first in the championship to gain 40 points but would only net 30, 20 and 10 points for finishes second, third and fourth place, respectively. IndyCar's junior syndicate, IndyLights, only offers a maximum of 15 points for a first-place finish.

Drivers can also earn points by participating in a F1 practice session during a grand-prix weekend, but there is a separate license for that which requires previous F2 participation or 25 license points. Such opportunities are difficult for American drivers to secure, as they typically favor European-based competitors.

Herta has slowly accumulated points during his three seasons in IndyCar and could break the 40-point threshold with a third-place or better finish in 2022. Still, it's unclear whether any existing team would give the American a chance.

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Enter Andretti, who desperately wants to bring Andretti Autosport to F1. He was in talks to acquire F1 team Alfa Romeo, but the deal fell through. There is a possibility Andretti could start an expansion team, but such an undertaking would mean a longer wait for a grid spot.

If the timing works out, Herta could instantly become one of F1's recognizable stars due to the sport's popularity reaching a fever pitch in the United States. The addition of the Miami Grand Prix in 2022 and the Las Vegas Grand Prix in 2023 will give the United States three annual races — also counting the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas — for the foreseeable future. No other country has more than two races per season.

Additional domestic races and the popularity of Netflix docuseries "Drive To Survive" have catapulted fan interest to an all-time high, yet American F1 fans have no hometown driver to support. Should Herta get a chance, he would gain instant clout as well as the inside line to become F1's next global icon.