Don't write off the rookies

By on Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Giedo van der Garde, Esteban Gutierrez, Max Chilton, Jules Bianchi and Valtteri Bottas

Five rookies have now negotiated the opening four races of 2013 with a varying degree of success. None of them have scored a point, yet those quick to brandish them as no-hopers have a short sighted view...

For the first time since 2004, the opening four races of the season have passed without a rookie scoring a point. Is this a damning indictment of the quality of the newcomers? Not so. People act hastily to dismiss rookies as unworthy of their seats and, granted, the mere facts show that none of them has made Q3 nor finished in the top 10. Are they the most talented five youngsters to be plucked from the competitive junior formulae? To be brutally honest, they probably aren’t. But there are mitigating circumstances for explaining the results of 2013’s rookies, aside from the difficult Pirelli rubber and the overall lack of running. Gone are the days of endless running that Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel enjoyed before their arrival onto the F1 scene and it’s important to remember that even F1’s current brightest prospect, Nico Hulkenberg, endured a challenging start to his career in the elite class. There are still 15 races remaining this season – including more familiar European territory - but here’s how the class of 2013 have fared in the opening flyaways.

Esteban Gutierrez | Sauber

Race results: Australia: 13th, Malaysia: 12th, China: Retired, Bahrain: 18th

Esteban Gutierrez crashed out in China. Sauber F1 Team

It was easy to forgive Gutierrez for his unconvincing practice debut in India last season, but his erratic start to 2013 will be cause for some concern at Sauber. The C32 doesn’t appear to be as strong as its predecessor but Gutierrez has undoubtedly had a difficult start to his rookie year. He crashed out of qualifying in treacherous conditions in Australia, but as Hulkenberg failed to start the race proper comparisons are tough. He was only a row behind the German in Malaysia but while Hulkenberg progressed in the race, Gutierrez was ahead of only the Marussias and Caterhams. He was a second behind Hulkenberg in Chinese qualifying but reduced that deficit to three tenths in Bahrain, albeit neither times strong enough to advance further than Q1. He made a great start in China but that was forgotten amid a scattering of debris as he torpedoed Adrian Sutil when he erred under braking. The resulting grid penalty for Bahrain left him at the back and he exacerbated matters by clumsily running into a Caterham at the start, from which he only recovered to eighteenth. A few rookie mistakes are inevitable while Hulkenberg’s lowly tally of 5 points highlights the weaknesses of the Sauber. Hulkenberg was always going to assert control during this part of the season, but few would have expected Gutierrez to struggle to this extent. He has the talent to improve, but he needs to search for those extra couple of tenths in what is a competitive field. Cutting out the mistakes is crucial, particularly now that the sport returns to traditional European locations. If he is to emulate compatriot Sergio Perez, those improvements must come soon.

Valtteri Bottas | Williams

Race results: Australia: 14th, Malaysia: 11th, China: 13th, Bahrain: 14th

Bottas has matched Maldonado. Williams F1 Team.

Bottas was arguably the rookie with the greatest expectations heading into this season so middling results hardly seem to have justified the hype. But it’s clear that while Williams continue to proclaim the potential of the FW35, such hope has yet to be unlocked, leaving Bottas with a very tricky car to drive. Add in the Finn’s race rustiness – Australia was his first race since his 2011 GP3 triumph – and you have the perfect storm for rookie struggles. However, Bottas has been quietly impressive as he skirts with the fringes of the top 10. He does have the benefit of extensive test mileage, on top of his three year association with Williams that included 15 practice sessions in 2012. But if you had to say whether Car #16 or #17 contained the rookie, then you’d have to make a wild guess. Bottas survived tricky qualifying conditions in Australia to eclipse Maldonado and while he strayed off-track in the race, his mistake, unlike the Venezuelan’s, was not terminal. Maldonado asserted control on Saturday in Malaysia and China – although Bottas impressively turned the tables in the race, particularly after a Lap 1 issue at Sepang – while in Bahrain their Q1 times were equal, before Maldonado claimed the upper hand on Sunday. In probably the ninth best car up against a third season Grand Prix victor in Maldonado, Bottas has fared comparatively well. Beginning the season out of the points after Williams's impressive 2012 seems disappointing, but staying out of the spotlight may well have a positive effect on Bottas. The pace and maturity is there; an assured start to his Formula 1 career.

Giedo van der Garde | Caterham

Race results: Australia: 18th, Malaysia: 15th, China: 18th, Bahrain: 21st

Van der Garde ran without upgrades in Bahrain. Caterham F1 Team

After a six year flirtation with the sport, Van der Garde finally made the step up to Formula 1 with the benefit of extensive single seater experience. He has so far beaten team-mate Charles Pic only in changeable conditions in Australian qualifying, although he ran the Frenchman extremely close in China. He wasn’t given the upgrades to the CT03 in Bahrain, hence his large deficit to Pic in qualifying. In the races, he hasn’t had a fantastic time. His pace comparable to Pic in the races has been disappointing, although on occasion there have been mitigating circumstances. Contact with Max Chilton in Australia ruined his strategy, while in Bahrain he was the unfortunate victim of a spinning Jean-Eric Vergne and sustained extensive damage. The return of Heikki Kovalainen will add a little pressure, but the importance of the Dutchman’s sponsors means he’ll probably see out the season. No-one is expecting him to show rapid pace and his start to the year has been competent. It’ll be easier to judge his progress once Caterham give him the upgrades.

Jules Bianchi | Marussia

Race results: Australia: 15th, Malaysia 13th, China 15th, Bahrain 19th

The Ferrari youngster has excelled at the back. Marussia F1 Team

At the start of March, Bianchi was pondering a year on the sidelines but by the end of the same month he found himself being heralded as the next Formula 1 star. Luiz Razia’s misfortune ended up being the sport’s gain as Bianchi has made an immediate impression in Formula 1. Having been close to a Force India seat – on top of extensive Ferrari testing – Bianchi has had to realign his ambitions and cope with a car lacking in downforce. The biggest surprise has been to see people so taken aback by the Frenchman’s pace; his pure speed has never been lacking, for his ART race engineer described him as being quicker than Sebastian Vettel. His 13th place in Malaysia has given Marussia an early advantage over Caterham while his qualifying pace at Sepang – just a few tenths shy of making Q2 – was sensational considering his unfamiliarity with the circuit. Bianchi has had a reputation for unnecessary skirmishes, although a glance across his junior record suggests that this was just a minor blip during a difficult period, one which is mentioned with peculiar regularity. He’s stayed out of trouble so far, although his racecraft is unlikely to be tested until he moves up to the midfield. If he continues his current trajectory, Ferrari will have a big say in whether that happens as soon as next year. Marussia and Bianchi has so far been a perfect fit for both parties.

Max Chilton | Marussia

Race results: Australia: 17th, Malaysia: 16th, China: 17th, Bahrain: 20th

Chilton is yet to match Bianchi. Marussia F1 Team

The young Brit hasn’t had an easy start to the season. Despite his extensive testing programme – courtesy of Razia’s budgetary problems – it is Bianchi who has received the plaudits during the opening stint to the season. However, it is in having Bianchi as a team-mate that has created the image of Chilton as a driver not worthy of his seat. Few would have expected Chilton to beat Timo Glock, but then the German was ousted in favour of Razia, with whom Chilton would have had a more even battle. The seat eventually went to Bianchi and it is the confusingly low expectations of the Frenchman that has reflected badly on Chilton. The Briton is a competent racing driver but isn’t going to suddenly improve on a somewhat average junior career. The qualifying deficits have been slightly too large on occasion and he has yet to provide a challenge to Bianchi - although he was closer in Bahrain - and has been overly involved with the Caterhams. He has been struck by more misfortune than Bianchi, but even so he’ll be seeking an improvement throughout the European season.

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