A look back: Impressive rookie seasons

Some drivers need time to adjust to the demanding racing circus, others step up and impress from their first flying lap.
Monday, March 31, 2014

March 31st, 2014 (F1plus/Katie Grimmet).- If the initial stages of the 2014 season are anything to go by, it could be a good year for the ‘rookies’.

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Under a cloud of controversy following a change to the rules and technical regulations, the new drivers have provided a fresh atmosphere to a very different era of Formula 1. Three rookies, each joining from a separate feeder series, may prove to be a much needed distraction for those sceptical of recent changes.

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Arguably, it was Kevin Magnussen who stole the show in Australia, placing higher in his debut race than Lewis Hamilton did back in 2007 – thanks in part to Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification. It would be foolish to suggest that Magnussen’s signing is the sole reason behind a dramatic change in form at McLaren, but the statement the Dane is making to his world champion team mate is significant.

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Daniil Kvyat also deserves an honourable mention for his new record; at 19, he is the youngest driver to score a point and one of a select few to do so at their first attempt. The Russian continued his points haul in Malaysia, placing more pressure on the already weighty shoulders of Jean-Eric Vergne. Many questioned his leap from GP3 but now Kvyat must sustain the pace if Toro Rosso want to return to their best.

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Indeed, Formula 1’s history can boast some highly-successful rookies, proving that the most experienced drivers cannot afford to become complacent about their position within a team. One could highlight the emergence of Lewis Hamilton in 2007 as a prominent example of a high-quality rookie performance.

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Predicted to return to the top spot in 2014, Hamilton’s formidable reputation is as old as his Formula 1 career itself. Fernando Alonso has an aura about him, few can deny that, but Hamilton remained unfazed during his first championship battle alongside the Spaniard. Alas, one point would postpone the title dream for another year.

The Briton’s nine consecutive podium finishes in a rookie season is a Formula 1 record and one of few not belonging to Sebastian Vettel or Michael Schumacher.

The new energy brought to McLaren at the time of his signing is comparable to Kevin Magnussen’s turn at the wheel of his MP4-29 this year. Yes I concede, Hamilton had been under the guidance of McLaren since his early racing days but a rookie season still brings pressure as some cynics await driver inadequacies compared to their more experienced rivals.

The distinctions between drivers, past and present, begin before the green lights signal the start of the season. So when Jacques Villeneuve made his debut in 1996, he could not avoid the comparisons to his father, Gilles.

Jaques Villenueve won his F1 Championship in his second year. He was runner up in his debut year.

For the fans to expect talent based on his famous surname was perhaps unfair. Or was it? Villeneuve’s raw pace was obvious the moment he first took to the helm of his Williams and placed it on pole position in seemingly effortless fashion. The Canadian’s achievements, four wins in a debut season and second in a first championship attempt, boast remarkable similarities to Hamilton’s 2007 title charge.

Villeneuve’s career highlight came in 1997 when he claimed his first and only championship victory. Whilst his subsequent were criticised by many fans, his rookie season was impressive. After all, the statistics are difficult to ignore.

Arguably, Villeneuve’s famous racing surname aided his early years but for Formula 1’s latest young hopefuls, it can take just one person within a team to see potential, one person willing to risk their reputation. For Lewis Hamilton, it was Ron Dennis. For Kimi Raikkonen, it was Peter Sauber. Some drivers, however, enter Formula 1 on their own terms, when they feel ready and not swayed by corporate sponsors or racing politics.

This is one of many attributes fans admired in Ayrton Senna, an undisputed great of the sport. Those wealthier and more powerful than the Brazilian prevented him starting his career at Williams however, not deterred, Senna joined Toleman with surprising success. His first championship points came during his second Grand Prix in South Africa. In 1984, his first win eluded him but Lotus took note acknowledging that a new star had been born.

His performance in 1984 did not resemble the glory days of the MP4-4 but perhaps it proves that only truly great drivers, regardless of their circumstances, can push a slower car beyond its means? To do so in a rookie season is all the more impressive.

Michael Schumacher’s debut in 1991 and his ability to deliver when it counts was a sign of things to come.

The German’s first full season the following year saw him accumulate three podiums in his first four races and a dramatic maiden victory in the wet; the rain-master’s reputation was born. Whilst 1992 was not his rookie season, Schumacher did show raw pace and an ability to withstand intense pressure as his first realistic championship hunt got underway.

No driver has won the championship in their rookie season, but this is not always a measure of great talent. Please do not disregard the demands Formula 1 bestows on its youngsters and the uncertainties it brings to any driver’s career.

A rookie season is not always a ‘make-or-break’ affair but fans form opinions quickly and they do not forget. For 2014’s fresh-faced rookies, the battle is on to justify their position amongst the greats of the sport.

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