Every season only twenty-two men are fortunate enough to secure a berth on the Formula One grid. While Lewis Hamilton’s move to Mercedes and his replacement of Sergio Perez at McLaren are the most intriguing driver changes ahead of 2013, several other alterations have taken place. F1 has said goodbye to Michael Schumacher for good, and adieu for now to Kamui Kobayashi, Heikki Kovalainen, Bruno Senna, Vitaly Petrov, Timo Glock, Pedro de La Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan. In their place come a new crop of drivers eager to show that they deserve their place on the grid and aren’t just giving their new teams the cash injections that they need.
- Age: 21
- 2012: 3rd in GP2 Series
Esteban Gutierrez has long been tipped as an F1 star and in 2013 he finally gets his shot at the big time. Some have criticised Sauber for hiring Gutierrez at the expense of Kobayashi, pointing to Sauber’s desire to retain Mexican partners following Perez’s departure. Gutierrez’s promotion may well be financially motivated, but he is a top talent and will be looking to justify his elevation to a race seat. Gutierrez claimed the inaugural GP3 crown in 2010 and stepped up to GP2 the following season. His first season with Lotus was sketchy, although he still managed to take a victory mid-season. He beat rookie team-mate James Calado in 2012 but the Brit impressed with his methodical approach to racing while Gutierrez’s reputation dipped slightly in the light of a few errors, combined with Calado’s success. Sauber trialled Gutierrez in practice for last year’s Indian Grand Prix and again during the young driver test in Abu Dhabi. There will be pressure for Gutierrez to perform, especially considering that the C32 is an evolution of a fundamentally strong C31 as well as having a team-mate of Nico Hulkenberg’s calibre. Team principal Monisha Kaltenborn has described Gutierrez as an “outstanding talent” and Sauber is a good environment for the Mexican to prove his worth. Expect a few early season errors as he grapples to deal with new circuits as well as Hulkenberg, but he should prove himself to become a competent midfield runner. What’s more, Sauber is unlikely to give up on him after just one season.
- Age: 23
- 2012: N/A
It was a bold gamble for Williams to dispense with sponsor heavy Bruno Senna in favour of rookie Valtteri Bottas, but the team probably reflected on finishing eighth with a car capable of fifth and decreed that it was a gamble worth taking. Finnish racer Bottas earns his promotion having spent several years with the team, opting to heed their advice and take a year out of racing in order to focus on his duties as Williams’s reserve driver in 2012. Bottas won the F3 Masters twice, but his inability to secure the F3 Euroseries title with powerhouse team ART was down to Volkswagen’s huge improvements rather than his own shortcomings. A step up to GP3 in 2011 was going awry, until he and the team worked together and improved the car, leaping from the fringes of the top ten to becoming the champion at the final round of the season. Bottas is undoubtedly a superb talent who should give super-quick Pastor Maldonado a run for his money, while knowledge of far-flung circuits courtesy of his 2012 runs, should give him the advantage over his fellow rookies. The only concern regards the fact that he hasn’t started a race since September 2011. Some experienced drivers will be rusty when they brake for Turn One in Melbourne, let alone a rookie who hasn’t approached a first corner surrounded by other cars since he did it at Monza eighteen months previously. Bottas’s intelligence should mean this concern is ultimately unrealised. After Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen, Bottas could become the next Flying Finn.
- Age: 27
- 2012: 6th in GP2 Series
Van der Garde is probably the best example of a team accepting a large financial boost as the Dutch racer ousts Heikki Kovalainen. At 27, van der Garde is hardly youthful but that doesn’t mean he should be written off. Van der Garde appeared on the radar back in 2006 when he became a Super Aguri test driver and then joined Spyker’s roster of testers in 2007. After a couple of seasons in the F1 doldrums and being linked to every backmarker team around, he joined Caterham as their reserve driver in 2012, taking part in six free practice sessions and steps up this season. Van der Garde is helped in his F1 promotion by his partnership with clothing giants McGregor although he has been a frontrunner in GP2 since 2009, as well as claiming the World Series by Renault crown back in 2008. 5 victories in 4 seasons of GP2 isn’t an outstanding record, especially as three of them were with front-running team. Nevertheless, circumstances frequently played their part and the Dutchman suffered a heap of misfortune. By joining Caterham, he renews his rivalry with former GP2 team-mate Charles Pic. The duo raced together for Addax in 2011, with Pic edging out Van der Garde by three points. Caterham hasn’t completely written 2013 off, but their focus is on 2014, meaning that Van der Garde could be set for a struggle at the back. Still, after several seasons of coming close, he’s finally acquired a race seat.
- Age: 23
- 2012: 2nd in Formula Renault 3.5 Series
Bianchi becomes the fourth French driver to compete in Formula One in 2013 as he joins Marussia alongside fellow rookie Max Chilton. Bianchi had an initially impressive record in junior formulae as he fared well in his rookie F3 Euroseries season in 2008 before winning the title in 2009. But a step up to GP2 failed to yield the expected results, although he still managed to finish third in the championship. He recovered from a dismal start to 2011 to repeat the feat but again didn’t manage to capture the attention. It would be unfair to draw comparisons to compatriot Romain Grosjean, but Bianchi also had a tendency in GP2 to get involved in needless scraps. He showed good pace in FR3.5 in 2012, finishing as runner-up to Robin Frijns after a controversial season finale in which the two collided. Bianchi has F1 experience, having tested for Ferrari in the previous four young driver tests, as well as taking part in nine practice sessions last year in the Force India. Bianchi should have the pace to be comfortably quicker than Chilton, although his fairly late start to the season will be a little bit of a setback. Is Ferrari’s continued support about to be justified?
- Age: 21
- 2012: 4th in GP2 Series
Chilton is another driver on the grid courtesy of his financial background, but that doesn’t mean he’s a hopeless cause. Chilton is still very young but has been racing cars since the age of sixteen in Formula Three. But it wasn’t until 2012 when he really began to publicly dispel the theory that he was only racing courtesy of his family’s money. After just seven points in his first two GP2 seasons, both Chilton and Carlin stepped up in 2012, claiming several podiums and two feature race victories later on in the year. Chilton was regularly a strong qualifier in 2012, but his racecraft and overtaking ability was almost non-existent, even when challenging a rival with seriously worn tyres on a wide circuit. Money has greatly assisted Chilton’s path to the top of the sport, but now it’s up to him to prove his worth with the elite. How he compares to Bianchi, and possibly Van der Garde and Pic, will provide a proper assessment of his ability.