Here we go again – another crop of rookie drivers. Every year we see a few new faces turn up, listen to how they’re future world champions and then sigh as they inevitably fail to live up to the hype. It’s the same story every time.
Well, most of the time. Once in a while a genuine diamond arrives on the scene. It never takes long to notice those types – the Sennas and Schumachers of this world never waste time in announcing to the paddock that they intended to make a big success of this Formula One game. The same goes for the guys at the top today – at the end of their respective rookie seasons, no one was in any doubt about the long-term potential of Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton. Today they have four world titles between them, a number that could easily be doubled over the next few seasons.
And here we are again with another bunch of F1 newbies. Will any of them go on to achieve great things in the sport? If the answer is yes we won’t have to wait long to know – you can’t hide that kind of talent. But what have they done to get them this far? We’re doing a bit of a background reading on the four men for whom March 27th 2011 will be the culmination of a lifetime’s graft.
Arguably the rookie with the toughest job this season, Pastor Maldonado joined Williams under a bit of a cloud late last year, replacing as he did the ever-improving Nico Hulkenberg by dint of his huge financial backing from Venezuela.
Not that Pastor didn’t earn a shot at F1. Last year he dominated feeder series GP2, winning a record five successive feature races on his way to sewing up the title with a round to spare at Monza. However the fact that he took four complete seasons to win the title – more than any previous GP2 champ – left a few feeling that experience rather than out and out talent earned him that crown.
Prior to GP2 he raced in the World Series by Renault, finishing third in 2006 with three races wins. In fact he would have been champion had he not been stripped of his victory at Misano following the discovery of a technical infringement. That wasn’t his first brush with controversy: the previous season he failed to slow for yellow flags and subsequently injured a track marshal, earning himself a four race ban.
On the positive side it’s also worth mentioning Pastor’s magic ability to tame the streets of Monte Carlo. He won the Formula Renault 3.5 event there in 2006, then his maiden GP2 race at the Principality from pole in 2007. He was second (again from pole) in 2008 before winning in 2009 and finishing runner-up to Sergio Perez there in 2010. No junior formula driver has shown more promise there in recent years.
- Pros: Bags of single-seater experience on most F1 tracks, the most experienced driver in F1 history to learn from, huge financial backing and a solid midfield team.
- Cons: Can be erratic at times especially when racing in the pack and under pressure to perform having replaced the impressive Nico Hulkenberg.
- Bonus! Probably the first bald racer to make his F1 debut in a few decades.
The youngest of this year’s crop of rookies is 21-year-old Mexican Sergio Perez joins Kamui Kobayashi at Sauber to form the second youngest driver pairing of the 2011 season. Backed by Carlos ‘The Richest Man in the World’ Slim, he becomes the first Mexican to race in F1 since Hector Rebaque in 1981.
Starting out in America, Perez moved to Europe aged 15 to race in Formula BMW before switching to Formula Three. In 2007 he comfortably won the British series’ National Class before stepping up to the main category for 2008. He was one of four drivers in with a shout of the title at the season-closing round but ultimately finished bottom of the pile, Jaime Alguersuari taking the crown.
After that he took in two years of GP2, which should be plenty of preparation for an F1 seat. In 2009 he raced with the Christian Horner-founded Arden team, struggling early on but enjoying a breakthrough double-podium weekend at Valencia to set himself up nicely for 2010. This saw him switch to regular front-runners Addax, and Sergio wasted little time in making his mark with victory at Monaco. This was a superb drive, with Perez overcoming several safety car periods to beat Monte Carlo specialist Maldonado to victory. There were four more wins after that as he unsuccessfully tried to chase down the Venezuelan in the standings. It will be interesting to watch if this battle is rekindled in Formula One.
- Pros: Young, well-funded and at a team who know how to nurture emerging talent.
- Cons: Lacks an experienced team-mate and risks being labelled a pay-driver if he can’t keep pace with Kobayashi.
- Bonus! Shares a birthday with Portuguese football coaching legend Jose Mourinho.
Paul di Resta
Paul di Resta enjoys a luxury that none of his fellow rookies can boast: he’s not actually new to the team for whom he’ll make his F1 debut in Australia. As is well know, Paul was the team’s tester last season, running several practice sessions during grand prix weekends for Vijay Mallya’s squad. This could prove vital.
He dovetailed his F1 responsibilities with a title-winning DTM campaign, a series he’d been impressing onlookers in since 2007. Having finished second in 2008 and third in 2009 that title was the hard-earned reward for his work and has endeared him further to Mercedes, the team he drove for in the DTM and who supply Force India’s powerplants. A solid rookie year would put him high on the list of replacements for Michael Schumacher should the seven-time champ call it a day after the 2011 season.
Pre-touring cars di Resta was F3 Euro Series in 2006, beating team-mate Sebastian Vettel to the crown – that fact tends to be quickly deployed when discussing di Resta’s abilities. In closing we’ll mention that Paul comes from a successful motorsport family, with cousin Dario Franchitti a triple Indycar champion and double Indianapolis 500 winner.
- Pros: A proven race and title winner; already knows his new team well; a solid team-mate to learn from in Sutil; plenty of support from Force India’s engine suppliers Mercedes.
- Cons: Hasn’t raced a single-seater in four seasons, question marks over Force India’s progress, Nico Hulkenberg waiting in the wings to nick his job, w
- Bonus! His name is an anagram of ‘Ritual Spade’.
It’s probably fair to say that, of all the rookies entering F1 this year, Jerome d’Ambrosio comes with the least spectacular C.V. His greatest achievement to date was winning the 2007 International Formula Master title, a now-defunct series that doesn’t carry much clout with F1 team bosses, since which he’s completed three so-so seasons in GP2. His manager and Renault F1 boss Eric Boullier clearly sees something in him, having supported his push for the Virgin drive, but he never lit up the F1 support category in the way champs like Hamilton, Rosberg, Glock and Hulkenberg did; in fact the likes of Nelson Piquet Jr and his predecessor Lucas di Grassi were significantly more impressive at that level.
That said his team-mate for the first two of those years never looked anything special in the main GP2 championship but has proved one of the revelations of the past year: his name is Kamui Kobayashi. Jerome tended to have the legs on his Japanese stablemate, and if he takes to F1 half as well as him he’ll have a decent year. You just fear it’ll be very tough given Virgin’s likely place at the back of the grid and the top-notch team-mate he has in Timo Glock.
- Pros: Unlikely to feel much pressure as the team remain towards the back, good GP2 experience, backed by Renault’s Eric Boullier.
- Cons: Not totally convincing in GP2, could struggle badly against Glock, no state-funded pot of gold to fund him should times get hard.
- Bonus! He has arguably the best name on the grid. Not that this is enough to guarantee a place in F1 (just ask Scott Speed).