Even before he joined compatriot Sergio Perez on the F1 grid in 2013, Esteban was being marked out for great things as he raced his way up the single-seater ladder.
Like the majority of his generation, the Mexican cut his teeth in karts, initially winning at local and national level before going on to make occasional forays overseas.
It wasn’t long before he decided that his future lay in cars, however, and, aged just 16, he took on the challenge not only of stepping up from karting, but also racing abroad, as he debuted in the 2007 Formula BMW USA series. Despite his inexperience, he still finished second overall, taking four wins, nine poles and three fastest laps along the way. Although the title eluded him, Gutierrez was named Rookie of the Year and earned a spot at the annual World Finals in Valencia, although an unrepresentative 25th place result belied his undoubted ability.
Figuring he had little more to prove by remaining Stateside, Gutierrez opted to continue in FBMW for a second year, but move to the new – and more competitive - European series for 2008. The decision was vindicated as claimed the title by 26 points after taking seven wins, six of which came in a run that effectively broke the resistance of his rivals. The World Final continued to elude him, despite the 2008 event taking place on home soil in Mexico City. Gutierrez qualified on pole, but had to settle for third place in the final, behind future Caterham test driver Alexander Rossi, but still earned a chance to test F1 machinery as the result of European success.
Boosted by his performance, the Mexican jumped straight into F3 the following season, picking the equally combative Euroseries as his introduction to the category. He was gifted enough to have attracted the attention of the crack ART team, although his debut season pitted Gutierrez against future F1 drivers Jules Bianchi and Valtteri Bottas within the French line-up, but ninth in the final standings wasn’t a bad return, even if he failed to make it to the top step of the podium.
Although another year in F3 would have been an option for Gutierrez in 2010, the advent of GP3 attracted ART, and the Mexican followed. Once again, the decision proved to be successful one, as Gutierrez claimed the title at the first attempt, getting some measure of revenge on Rossi, who had joined him in the three-car ART line-up.
Five wins and just one DNF from 16 outings laid the foundations for his success, which was clinched by taking pole at Monza, with two races still to be run. Ironically, that one DNF came in the season finale...
With GP3 conquered, there was really only one way for Gutierrez to go for 2011, and he duly graduated to GP2 within the ART ranks. He had already tested the faster car between his F3 and GP3 campaigns, showing well against more seasoned opposition at Jerez and Paul Ricard. ART confirmed his graduation almost as soon as the GP3 crown had been placed on his head, and Gutierrez began his preparation for 2011 at the Abu Dhabi group test in November of his championship year.
By the time the 2011 season started, ART had been renamed in deference to a new partnership with Lotus and Gutierrez found himself teamed with former F3 colleague Bianchi as the squad tackled both the main and GP2 Asia series campaigns. The Mexican finished eleventh in the latter after a disappointing run of non-scores in what turned out to be a schedule truncated by unrest in Bahrain, and his luck did not appear to change as the summer series kicked off. It wasn’t until the teams reached Valencia in June that Gutierrez finally registered a point, but his season quickly turned around as, starting from the front row, he went on to claim a maiden victory in the second race of the meeting. The Mexican’s fortunes soon turned back, however, and, with just two more points finished, he eventually finished 13th in the championship.
Knowing that a second year in GP2 would be necessary before he could consider moving any further up the ladder, Gutierrez readily signed for another season with Lotus ART, where he would partner British rookie with James Calado. A sterling performance in the sprint portion of the non-championship 2011 season-ending meeting in Abu Dhabi showed what might be possible in 2012, as he came from the depths of the grid to finish fifth – including passing four cars on the final lap – but wins would still prove hard to come by.
The 2012 season started with three podiums in four races, before a tactical error in Bahrain saw him lose vital ground on pacesetter Davide Valsecchi. Although he kept the points ticking over on the series’ return to Europe, Monaco provided another poor return before Valencia – again – proved a happy hunting ground, with that elusive victory finally coming in the feature race. After retiring from the Spanish event’s sprint race, Gutierrez bounced back with another win at Silverstone, but again his delight was soured by an incident in Sunday’s sprint.
The wrong strategy cost a third win in Hungary, but Gutierrez turned things around from pole on Sunday to retain third place in the points – a position he eventually filled at the end of the year despite a nightmare at Spa and further frustration at Monza ending his title hopes prior to the finale in Singapore.
Following his maiden F1 test in late 2009, Gutierrez had been retained by the Sauber team and was eventually named as its official test driver in September the following year, taking his place in the season-ending ‘young driver’ test in Abu Dhabi, where he lapped just six-tenths off the qualifying pace set by Sauber team-mate Kamui Kobayashi the previous weekend.
Despite missing out on a possible 2011 race debut when compatriot Perez failed to recover from the effects of his Monaco shunt – Pedro de la Rosa took the seat for the Canadian GP as the Mexican was, for once, not in attendance - Gutierrez remained as test and reserve driver for the team for 2012, building up his mileage, initially, in the annual ‘young driver’ tests, before finally getting the opportunity to compare himself to future rivals in an official practice session, as he filled in for an ‘unwell’ Perez at the Indian Grand Prix.
With the ‘other’ Mexican having already announced that he would be leaving Sauber for McLaren in 2013, Gutierrez’s name was always high on the list of potential replacements – thanks largely to the team’s reliance on backing from Mexican companies - but confirmation that he would finally graduate to a full-time drive to not come until after Nico Hulkenberg had been announced as Sauber’s new number one.
It wasn't a smooth rookie season as Gutierrez was comfortably outpaced by Hulkenberg early on. His first points didn't come until the Japanese Grand Prix when he finished an impressive seventh, but they were his only six points of the year. The car was capable of more as Hulkenberg showed by scoring 51 points including a brilliant fourth in Korea, and so Gutierrez was made to sweat over his future with the team. However, with Hulkenberg leaving and Russian youngster Sergey Sirotkin far from ready, Gutierrez was retained for a second season.
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